Week 3, Fall 2009: The Role-play Fiasco x 2

Tuesday, 9am-10:50am, Intermediate Level, 20 students, freshmen, mostly natural science and nursing students – My first class of the week

I always feel a bit sorry for my first class of the week because like it or not, they are my lesson plan experimental group.  With them I learn what activities work or don’t work. I learn the lesson’s flow, or lack thereof. During my first lesson (week 2) with the nursing students my timing was off because I added too many activities to my plan. As a result, I cut out some activities from my plan for the next day’s intermediate group.  This means that so far my lesson plans for the nursing students are about 30 minutes behind my two other intermediate groups.  My goal is for all my classes to follow the same plan, more or less.  This just makes my life easier when it comes time to plan for the semester.

No Hong CHul

In my last class with the nursing students the plan was for students to practice, in pairs, the role-play that was in the book and then create their own role-play using the language they had learned in class. I told them that they could take on the role of different characters in order to make the role-play funny or interesting.  For example, one person could be No Hong Chul (outlandish comedian) and another Lee Hyo Ri (sexy singer). As I looked at the clock, 15 minutes left, I felt like I might be asking too much in too little time, but I went ahead and requested the task anyway.  Within 5 minutes some pairs were almost done and were practicing enthusiastically. However, to my surprise, many hadn’t even started.  Some students were even writing their dialogue in Korean. When I talked to these students I noticed that they had a hard time understanding me. At this point I realized that there wasn’t time for students to complete the role-play and they would need to continue during next week’s lesson, pushing back my lesson plan with them once again. I told them they would need to finish the role-play outside of class and be ready to perform the role-play next Tuesday.

Lee Hyo ri

With the pairs that hadn’t started, I realize they needed more time. They needed the space to ask clarifying questions and also the space to create something they wanted to create.  Since this was the first time for some of the students to work together, it may have been helpful to give them time to get to know each other a bit before they started creating a funny role-play.  Then with the students that were writing in Korean and had a hard time understanding me, they may have wanted more guidance and facilitation from me.  This of course requires time, since there are 20 students in the class.

The next time I ask students to create their own role-play I will make sure they have plenty of time: at least 15 minutes to create and practice the role-play, and then another 15 minutes to perform the role-play. This would give me the chance to visit the pairs that need my help and also give students time to create something they want.  Also, instead of performing the role-play in front of the whole class, I would ask them to perform it in smaller groups.  I think this would be less intimidating for the pairs that aren’t as confident and it would also save on time.

Friday, 11am-12:50pm, Beginner Level, 18 students, freshmen, mostly natural science majors – My last class of the week

Asked students to pair up and practice the role-play in the book. Then I asked them to close their book and practice the role-play without looking. I noticed that some were trying to remember the dialogue. At this point I realized I wasn’t clear with my goals. Did I want them to regurgitate the dialogue, or did I want to create a fluency activity where they had a similar dialogue pertaining to their lives?  In the moment, I decided that on the fluency bit. Luckily, one student was brave enough and raised his hand, “Teacher this is difficult.” He couldn’t compute how he could change the dialogue; make it relate to his life, while not reading anything. So I decided to practice with him thinking I could pull it off and help him understand how it works. Not so simple.  To my embarrassment, I even had to look at the dialogue! How could I expect them to create a conversation without looking? When I left that pair, they let out a big sigh, and laughed in what seemed to be confusion. Can’t blame them, since inside I was laughing at my lack of foresight. I also kicked myself for not being considerate to their learning needs.

I went to the next confused pair.  He asked me how he could change the dialogue in a way that it reflected his life. He couldn’t do it on his own. When I showed him what I would do, he seemed to have clarity. He started writing answers on the page that matched what he wanted to say.

Yes, these students have been studying English since they were in grade 3, but they spent most of this time learning reading and writing skills. The concept of teaching the 4 skills hasn’t really caught on in Korea, though policies pertaining to English education are changing. Also, for most of these students this is their first experience with a “foreigner” in general. This experience can be daunting enough, without the added pressure of being taught by a foreigner who has such a different style compared to their Korean teachers. My classroom has a communicative atmosphere, while they are used to lecturing.  Also, since most Korean students aren’t used to speaking in English, and are, for the most part, unfamiliar with a communicative style classroom, I realize they need time to get used to a very different context when relating to my lessons.

When I plan a role-play activity, it’s so important for me to remember what it feels like to learn a new language. I need to scaffold a lot more, and give them the tools they need to feel successful.  In this fiasco, it was too much to ask them to create a dialogue that related to their life without having anything to look at.  I slowly need to wean them away from the reading and writing learning style they are used to, to the language-generating style that my class aims to enable. It may be too much to ask this group at this time to use role-play as a fluency activity.

For this activity I think there was also confusion in relation to how the dialogue could be modified for their lives.  They had a hard time altering the questions and answers to match their lifestyle.  They wanted to stick to the dialogue, but also make it reflect their stories. This means that they needed clarification as to how to do this. An example before the role-play activity would help bring about clarity. I failed to do this.

Next time I will use the role-play as a practice activity instead of a fluency activity.  I will ask ss to create a dialogue, but give them the chance to read it while they practice. From here I could ask them not to look at their paper and perform the role-play. My fear here is that they would be performing from memory, not creating an authentic language situation. Although it wouldn’t check fluency, it would check for accuracy.

My Question – Can roles be used at beginner level to practice fluency?  What do role-plays measure in terms of language acquisition?

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