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Role - plays

Many a teacher faces a problem concerning the effectiveness of their teaching as regards a big group of students who represent a different level of the language competence. This is clearly seen in the first year of a language course (at any type of school) when "new" students make the group or team. Therefore, there seems to exist a question on how to make students` English more or less equalized, trying at the same time to build up their language skills.

In the classroom environment the methods chosen vary considerably, and it is up to a given teacher what to use and how to implement it. The target to be reached, however, is to activate all the students and encourage them to use their English in a more communicative way. Traditionally-oriented teachers base their work on course books and workbooks, advocating drills and grammatical exercises. Such an approach towards a foreign language usually develops language accuracy but not necessarily exercises the speaking itself. Michael Swan said at the conference in Katowice a few years ago that students who are taught in a traditional way approximately speak a foreign language in the classroom for an hour during a four-year course! No wonder why they lack self-confidence and fluency.

Role-plays and simulations can change it to a thorough degree. Students usually derive great benefit from "pretending" real-life encounter (such as family gathering, meeting friends and strangers, shopping, an interview and so on). There is an endless number of topics for a role- play, and it all depends on what we want to focus on.

Simulation and role-play develop oral fluency and give students much confidence in a foreign language as they have a chance to train specific life-roles.

According to Ken Jones if a stimulation is to work, it must have the following characteristics:

  • reality of function: the students must not think of themselves as students, but as real participants in the situation.
  • a stimulated environment: the teacher says that the classroom is an airport check-in area, for example.
  • structure: students must see how the activity is constructed and they must be given the necessary information to carry out the stimulation effectively.(1)


    In a role-play the teacher gives the students all the necessary information on who they are, what they do, what they feel, what their opinions are etc. This way a student can be told to act out the role of a teacher who is not satisfied with his pupils because most of them have failed the test. Another student can perform the role of a student who is trying to justify his or her bad result. In the conversation between the teacher and the student there can be used arguments from the both parts. Role plays can engage a bigger group of students who must, for instance, reach some compromise. We could imagine six-person family (mother, father, grandmother, three kids) who are packing their backpacks or travel-packs and have to decide what to take with them for holidays and what to leave in the house. This stimulation should get involved all the participants in a discussion, argument or even a quarrel.
    The role-play is most effective when it is open-ended, which means that all the people taking part in it have different opinions on how to reach a consensus. They are eager to achieve their aims, so they use the language as much or little as they need. It is also vital that they should move and use the gestures. Also the costumes and accessories can be helpful.
    A brilliant idea for more advanced students is to ask them to prepare their own role-plays on a given general topic. They should make groups of three, four, five and write a script for their own play. Writing and performing an episode, for example, from a soap opera gives many students an opportunity to polish their English and display their theatrical talents. Another popular idea is the Nativity Play which can be performed in a modern way with slang phrases and humour.
    In a different kind of role-play students can be shown the paintings by famous artists which present many different people. Some students play the roles of the people from the picture whereas the others ask them the questions about their life, their social positions, their opinions on different aspects of their existence. This exercise needs a lot of preparation unless we work with advanced students who are very fluent and imaginative. The best are the paintings showing scenes from life. The abstract or surrealist pictures are, therefore, not recommended. The same procedures apply to dramatic photographs.
    Another idea of role-playing suggests using discussions on controversial topics such as: exams, discrimination of women, military service, drug taking, smoking, the educational system. However, it is advisable to avoid very controversial topics on abortion or religion, for instance. In this exercise we divide the class into two teams of supporters and opponents of a given question and choose the leader of the discussion who will ask the questions and gather the arguments for and against. The teacher`s role is to listen to the students and ask those ones who have not yet expressed their opinions. More ideas on that kind of oral exercise can be found in the book by Penny Urr entitled Discussions that work.

    Stimulation and role-play is a very effective language tool as it allows all the students including the hesitant ones to use the foreign language in a communicative way. They also make students more forthright in their opinions and behaviour. The language patterns learnt in a role-play are internalised faster and remembered longer as they involve a thorough preparation and students` engagement. They also imitate the real-life situations, which may result in a better understanding of life realities in a given country and its culture, as reflected in the language. Moreover, the students have a chance to use a much wider range of language and its structures than in some task-centred activities. 1 - Jeremy Harmer, The Practice of English Language Teaching, Pearson Education ltd., 2001, p.274

    Ireneusz Błażkiewicz
    II LO w Zawierciu
    doradca metodyczny języka angielskiego

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