Week 4, Fall 2009 – Redeeming the Role-play

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

I have to say, this is a stellar group of students. They all came through with the role-play assignment. When I assigned it last week without it being my initial intention, I was concerned that they wouldn’t do it. 

 After doing a quick review of the language being addressed (adverbs of frequency), some students needed some time to edit their role-plays. This gave students a chance to practice. It also gave me the chance to help pairs who had questions, and also check out what the created. I was pleased to see that the had pairs creatively and properly used the adverbs. The scenarios ranged from a patient and doctor discussing unhealthy habits to Snow White contemplating her beauty with the Magic Mirror. I was concerned when I noticed that in some occasions one member of the pair took the responsibility to write the whole role-play. I assumed this fact because the other student had nothing in their notebook. I guess it is possible that they had met at some point during the week and one student had taken the responsibility of being the scribe.

I asked the students to perform their role-play in front of the class so everyone could listen and watch. I had thought about putting them into smaller groups, but I didn’t want to spend the time forming groups. I decided to see how this would work out. One team at a time, they came up front. Before they started, I asked them about their scenario and told the other students. Most of the students read off their sheets. They spoke loudly. The audience was attentive, and laughed when a line was funny. We all clapped when each pair was done.

This role-play activity was for practicing language.  It focused on accuracy, not fluency. I could have asked the students to remember the lines, but that isn’t authentic and still wouldn’t display fluency.  I could also have asked them to be spontaneous, but that wasn’t how I had set up the assignment.  In order to make it spontaneous, and therefore check for fluency, I could create the scene for the students and hand them lines to build on.  For example, I could hand a pair a piece of paper with the line “You never clean your room!”, and ask them to work from there without writing anything. This seems to be an activity for higher levels, and I’m still not sure if this group is at that level.  I know some could, but not all.

The way this role-play activity turned out, gave me insight into the class’ ability. Their sentence structure was better than expected. However, the fact that some students in the pairs wrote the whole role-play makes me wonder if the other students aren’t capable, or if they just did it that way out of ease.  I also learned that they aren’t shy to perform in front of their peers. This means that I could use drama for future activities.

Although, the fiasco turned out not to be so bad, I won’t assign a role-play as homework again. I want the main activity of the lesson to focus on fluency, not accuracy. I also want to get a better understanding of the ability of every student. What I will keep doing however is use role-plays for language practice. In order to spice up the role-plays found in the textbook, I will give each pair a scenario, or ask them to create their own scenario. Since I know this class is up to performing, they will perform these scenarios in small groups as a way to promote repetition and noticing of the language.


5 thoughts on “Week 4, Fall 2009 – Redeeming the Role-play

  1. Hi Josette,

    Thanks for the video tip, but I’ve actually already seen it! I was cued to it by, of all places, the TESOL drama listserve. If you do want to immerse yourself in the drama ESL world (and relatively, speaking, there’s definitely a finite amount to immerse yourself in), I recommend joining the TESOL listserve devoted to the topic (You have to be a TESOL member to join.). It’s really only active at the beginning of the year, when there is an annual 6-week online workshop. This year, it’s supposed to be on “process drama.”

    As far as using drama for warm-ups, I think I’ve only really done that in reference to vocabulary. I’ll have one student come up, select from a vocabulary list, act out the word, and then the others have to guess. More of a vocabulary review exercise.

    Did I mention drama for warm-ups? I do use drama games to warm-up the students before doing actual drama exercises. Good starting places for games are books by Viola Spolin, a Chicagoan who’s considered the mother of improv, and Michael Rohd.

    What are you teaching with your health/science students? Are you teaching general English or science/vocational English? Do you find those students to be different from general studies students?



    1. I’ve thought of joining TESOL, but I can’t justify it at the moment. I’m member of Korea TESOL and I’d have to pay an extra fee to become a TESOL member. I don’t know why those memberships aren’t joined. Thanks for the info though. Would you mind sending over activities you loved that you found out about? Don’t go out of your way though.

      I think I had misread your reply. I thought you used drama for warmers at the beginning of class. I read it again and I understand that you use it for getting them warmed up to the idea of a drama activity. I like your idea of having students act out vocabulary though.

      Actually I’m just teaching conversational English. There is a real push lately for communicative English teaching. Korea has been stuck in grammar translation for years. This has really adversly affected their ability to speak, since thet know a lot about English grammar, but can’t provide much output.

      I look forward to hearing fronm you again!

      PS. I posted a new reflection about Pat’s Faces. Have you done that activity by any chance?


  2. Hey Josette,

    So great minds think alike. Well, first, let me say that your blog looks beautiful. Really. Simple, clean, elegant. I’m jealous.

    I would love to create something like this myself for the future. Is this part of your thesis? Were you doing these reflections beforehand, or is the blog kind of “forcing” you to do them?

    And I have to respond to your role play entries because, well, my whole thesis is about doing drama. I could go on about it forever, but I’ll try to tailor my comments to what you’ve been doing in your classes.

    First, I’ve definitely found that if students have a given “script” already in the book, or sometimes even just words from a story, it’s almost irresistible for them to try to remember them. I guess if I were in their shoes, I probably would too. I’ve decided that if I want the students to speak spontaneously, going from something highly scripted to something free doesn’t work. They have an idea in their head of the printed word being correct, and they will never be able to recreate those exact words, and therefore, they don’t feel successful. They’re trying to remember, instead of create.

    For spontaneous production, starting from an open place, such as just giving general roles and a situation, or giving a description of a story (without dialogue) seems to work well. Then specific language points can be highlighted later.

    My thesis has been to get students to dramatize their personal stories. So they share a story orally or in written form , and then groups of students are responsible for creating it.

    I guess the big difference between this and role plays is I really wanted to work on the dramatic aspect of the scenes, meaning body language and warm-up drama activities to promote cooperation and relaxation. Of course, this is really different from what a lot of students consider learning English, and I definitely struggled with how to put all the pieces together, and communicate to the students what my goals were. In particular, one of the biggest challenges for me was giving them clear examples of what I had in mind for the activities. Sometimes I didn’t know what I wanted, and other times, I had to break it down into baby steps (just me modeling is not enough; pairs of students have to model things too before I let them loose). Because of a lack of clarity with my directions, I found that I often had to interrupt groups to try to set them on the right track, and each interruption felt like me trying to gain back control from what was ideally supposed to be a very student-centered activity.

    But that said, I’ve also never seen students have so much fun and laugh as much as when we did role plays and drama! Actually, I think I laughed almost more than them. It’s play–they’re moving and using their imagination. What could be better?

    Well, thanks for giving me a chance to reflect. I’m actually right in the part of my thesis in which I document what I did in the classroom, and to what effect, so it’s fun to spill it all out to someone. I hope you don’t mind. :)

    Let me know if you want to bounce any ideas around. I liked your idea of allowing students to perform in front of smaller groups. I never did that, and one of my regrets is that I never really created alternatives for shyer students.

    I’ll keep reading your blog to find out what you do next.


    p.s. Role plays can definitely be used with beginner students. Come to think of it, I guess I’ve only done ones with them in which they do mimic conversations in the book. That kind of goes against what I said before, but in that case, I was trying to teach them specific forms, so I drilled them over and over, until they could produce it with a prompt.

    The other type of role play, in which they create their own language, I think could not start from the same origin, as I said before. But I think either situation is doable with beginner students.

    I guess the type of language acquisition that role plays measure depends on the type of lesson that the teacher creates.

    pps. The NY Times just published an article on Vygotsky’s influence on a current early childhood education trend, which is to use dramatic play as a way of getting students to focus on tasks; the premise is that students who can focus can do better at intellectual tasks. Okay, that’s probably pretty simplistic, but that’s what I remember at the moment.



    1. Thank you so much for your in depth reply Dana! I especially enjoyed the flow of your feedback and how it helped you in your thesis writing process. It was helpful to hear about your process re: role-plays and drama. I really resonated with what you had to say about interrupting your students and wanting to control the situation. I’ve noticed myself doing that a lot with role-plays and would like to refrain from this pattern in the future. I look forward to using more drama in the classroom and seeing students be creative with what they are learning. I also want to give them the space to be creative while also keeping the integrity of the lesson, especially when it comes to time constraints.

      I’d like to hear more about how you use drama for warm-ups. These days I’m at a loss for warmers. The warmers I use are more like activities. They last much longer than 5 or 10 minutes. Do you think warmers need to be short like all the literature says? Could you share some warmers?

      You were correct in guessing that my blog “forces” me to keep up with my reflections. When I started teaching this semester, my intention was to write weekly reflections in a journal. After week 3 I realized it wasn’t going to work. Having an audience, no matter how small, keeps me on task with reflections.

      Thanks for the article. Made me think my executive function might be malfunctioning in relation to my thesis :P Haha…luckily I can finally see some coherence. The article makes me think of an inspiring TED talk that Kevin showed me over the weekend. I think you’ll love it http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html. It’s about how creativity is essential to development, but our schools basically strip creatvity away from us.

      I’d love to keep this dialogue going. If this also inspires your own blog, that would also be fantastic.


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