Using roleplay in language learning

teaching productive skills
Using Roleplay
Some thoughts and practical ideas for using roleplay in the language classroom.


Hello, and welcome again. I'm Jo Gakonga and this month's video from ELT, is all about using roleplay for language.

So the first question is a good one. Why use roleplay at all? Well, there are lots of reasons really. The big one, I suppose is that it helps rehearse real life situations. You can have situations in the classroom, and practice them in a safe environment that learners can then go and use in the real world. So this sort of thing in the market is an obvious example, in a cafe, work situations, interviews, there are many, many situations which are likely to come up in learners’ lives that they might want to practice first in the classroom.

Another good reason for roleplay is just that they can be engaging, and enjoyable, and memorable. It can be something that's a lot of fun to do in the classroom and learners generally like it. I also think that it is often memorable and so the language is memorable- that's really important.

It may also lower learners affective filter. Krashen’s hypothesis is that learners have an affective filter, which means that they're a bit embarrassed in the classroom about using L2- using English in this case -and this doesn't help them to speak. If you can lower that, if you can make things more comfortable, if you can make things easier, then it might help with their language development, particularly perhaps if they're a bit shy. So building confidence really, is a really important part of this, and roleplay can help.

Now, people think of roleplay as being somebody else, but you could be yourself perfectly well in a roleplay. So don't just think because it's roleplay, you have to be acting as someone else, you really don't have to be. There are many situations in which you might be playing the situation, you don't have to necessarily be playing another person.

I think one of the things which will really make a difference to roleplay in a classroom, is whether the teacher believes it's going to work or not. So if you're watching this now and thinking I just couldn't do that with my class, well, then I would advise you not to try (!) because I think that belief is really a big part of it. If you believe it, if you take the learners along with you in your belief, they'll go with it, and it'll be fine. If you go in with less than 100% belief that it will work, it probably won't. So, you know, you need to develop your own belief in it first.

What can roleplay teach? Well, clearly, you've got this idea of fluency or accuracy, mostly roleplay is going to be going towards the fluency side - is going to enable learners to have practice of the language in larger chunks in a freer kind of way. So largely fluency, although you could also be working on accuracy in roleplay type of situations, but mostly, it's going to be more about teaching fluency. It's really good particularly for functional language and by functional language, I mean language which is about a particular function, for example, apologizing, buying something complaining, these kinds of functions that language has. So not necessarily particular individual, discrete items of language, but bigger chunks of language which fulfil a particular purpose. It's also good though, for vocabulary, practice and grammar practice, you can use this for all sorts of things depending on the situation you put in, but functional language is the big one.

In her very excellent book on roleplay, Gillian Porter-Ladousse talks about three different types of situations for roleplay. She says that there are:

authentic situations in which the learner might actually find themselves. For example, in a café.

potentially authentic situations, situations that the learner might not have experienced but potentially could,for example, complaining about food in a restaurant.

and then there are also fantasy situations situations that they won't have been in it but just because they these are fantasy situations doesn't make them unreal and I think it's important to realize that these kinds of fantasy situations can be the most interesting ones. So don't dismiss them just because they're not real.

It is worth thinking about choosing your subject with care. As with a lot of things in the classroom, subjects were which are a bit more controversial, often have more interest, but clearly, you have to know your learners well, and if you're a bit careful about not upsetting them. So let's look at some practical examples.

Right from lower levels, from very low level, starting from a dialogue works very well. So here we've got a very normal situation in the shop, for example, with a shopkeeper, and a customer and the shopkeeper says,
• Hello, what can I get you?

And the customer says

• I'm not sure -which cheese is the nicest?
• Oh, they're all nice. But this one's my favourite. Would you like to try a bit?

Hopefully you're eliciting this from the learners, and also drilling with them to make sure that they've got the pronunciation of this and that they understand these structures. 

Yes, please. Oh, yes, it's really tasty. How much is it? That piece is £2.56. Shall I wrap it up? That's great. Thanks.

So you've got a little dialogue here, you can get them to practice this in pairs, you can get rid of half of it and get them practising in pairs. You can get rid of another half of it and get them to practice in pairs again. So you're essentially getting them to learn this dialogue. Then wipe the whole thing off and get them to do the same thing or something similar. ‘Okay, now go and buy some meat/ Now go and buy some vegetables/ Go and buy whatever it is that you need’. So that you've already given them a really strong structure with language that they can use but maybe you have to alter it a little bit.

At lower levels, giving them this kind of very strong structure can really help. At slightly higher levels, starting from a situation can work really well. Here's an example:

Student A (half of the class), you give them this situation: ‘You're going to a job interview next week, but you can't afford a hotel, and an old friend lives there but you haven't seen them for years, call your friend, and ask if he can stay the night’.

You then give the other half of the class (and I would split this half and half physically across the class) the student B role. ‘The person who calls you is someone you haven't seen for 10 years. You haven't kept in touch because you didn't like them very much. You live in a very small flat in London, and you hate having visitors but you are a very polite person’.

So you put the student As and the student Bs in groups – a student A group and a Student B group. Give them time to prepare what they're going to say. How are they going to ask politely but insist, how are they going to refuse politely, but definitely refuse. Think about language for this. You can be going around helping them meanwhile, inputting some language. Now regroup the learners so you've got an A with a B, and get them to go and see if they can persuade their friend to let them stay.

Are role cards are useful or not with a situation like the one I've just showed you? You could give them role cards or you could just tell them situation. I think the important thing to remember that if you do give him cards, they need to be fairly simple, because otherwise, they end up being rather distracting - the learners have got the cards and they're reading the cards and they're not working so much on the language that they're having to use.

Realia and visual aids can be really helpful to make this sort of thing feel more authentic perhaps. So that's something to think about. If you're in the market selling items, take some food in, for example.

Another thing can really help is if they've got a task to complete. In the situation that I just showed you, for example, they've got to try and persuade their friend to let them stay and the friend has got to try to refuse, so you've got a task as an end point to the discussion there.

The other thing to think about is not to forget to input useful language. We are talking about a language lesson here! So during their preparation time, for example, input language, which is useful.

I'm going to show you another example. Now, I have shown you this one before another video, but it's such a nice one that I think it bears repeating. Show the learners a picture of a Ferrari, and tell them that this is your new car. It'll be amazing how many of them will believe you actually, despite the fact you're on a teacher's salary. Tell them this is your new car, you're very proud of it and your 18 year old son or daughter has just passed their driving test. They also really want to drive the car. Now you put them into groups, groups of parents and groups of teenagers, those who want to drive the car. Input some language here.

Is there any chance of me driving the car? Would you mind if I drove the car? asking polite questions. I'd be really careful, second conditional etc

And the parents, of course, saying no, I don't think that's a great idea. I'd like to but... refusing politely.

Now regroup them, you can put them in two lines like this, (this works very well for groupings) so that once they've talked to their one partner, they can then very easily swap partners and talk to another one. In this case, I usually get them to talk to three different partners, and see which one they can persuade and I ask the parents afterwards, which teenager was the most persuasive.

Afterwards, you can also put some error correction up. Rather than interrupting them while they're talking, you could listen to what they're saying, write up some of the things you hear on the board, and then get them in pairs to try to correct these errors. This is a nice way of doing error correction, because it means that, although if I've made that mistake, I'll know it's me, and I'll get the benefit of that correction, nobody else in the class needs to know it's me - it's quite anonymous.

Note, then with roleplay, as a summary:

It's important to give time for preparation. Remember, in both of the situation I've showed you, we've had time for preparation. With a dialogue, we've had time for drilling and trying to learn it, with a situation we had time for working with someone who has the same role as I do, to prepare what we're going to say. This will make it go a lot better. If you just give people roles and say get on and do it, you're likely to be met with silence.

Input language, give them language that's going to be useful for this task. Often that will be functional language, but it may be vocabulary, it may be grammar.

Make opportunities for repetition, this sort of thing works very well, if you can do the same thing two or three times. So with the Ferrari, for example, you've got the situation of having to try to persuade different parents, and for the parents to see which one was the most persuasive. You could do similar thing for the people who are trying to get a bed for the night. Going back to the market roleplay, you could get them to go and buy three different things from three different people. Opportunities for natural repetition are really important.

Give feedback afterwards. Do listen to what they're saying, so that they feel as if this is useful, and they're getting something from it and it isn't just you setting it up and sitting in the corner ignoring them. Delayed correction particularly can be really helpful. Scrivener also talks about what he calls ‘real play’ rather than roleplay and this would be particularly useful for things like business English, where people are using English in a particular situation. He says that you can ask people to make their own situation that's useful for them and relevant to their English use. He suggests giving these kinds of questions and asking them to fill in a form like this saying Who are the people talking? Where are you? What are you talking about? so that you start off the roleplay and then they roleplay or ‘real play’ the situation which is appropriate to their real life.

Other ideas are just using situations that you find in newspapers, in texts you use in the class, YouTube videos, listenings or readings from the course books. If you find particular characters in those things, you may want to explore roleplay possibilities using those characters.

Finally, my main golden rule is just have fun. It can be a lot of fun, and it should be. So enjoy it. Thank you very much for listening. I hope that was helpful.

Created with