Role Play for ESL/EFL Children

As Larsen-Freeman pointed out in her book "Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching", "Role-plays are very important in the Communicative Approach because they give students an opportunity to practice communicating in different social contexts and in different social roles." (p. 137, Larsen-Freeman) In order to help students improve their listening, speaking and overall communicative skills, I have designed and conducted several role play activities for my students to practice and use English in a more meaningful way as a practical language, and the results of my students' learning are quite positive.

In the past few years, I have tried to let students act out several short plays adapted from children's favorite story books. Students love acting and playing, but the scripts can look overwhelming and intimidating since they have just begun to learn English as a foreign language, and the amounts of English words they know are limited. The lines normally take a lot of time and efforts for students to learn, practice and memorize. So, instead of asking students to perform an entire story, I tried to extract some situations and dialogs from teaching materials and have students act out some dramatic situations. Students played characters and said their lines out loud. It's much easier to teach vocabulary, lines, and the dramatic elements needed for a role play situation than to teach the elements of an entire play. And by letting students practice in pairs or small groups, every student can be involved in the role play exercises and enjoy the benefits of role play.
There are many benefits of using role play. Furness (1976) stated that a child can enjoy and profit from a role play experience "in terms of improved communication skills, creativity, increased social awareness, independent thinking, verbalization of opinions, development of values and appreciation of the art of drama." He provided seventeen advantages of role-play.

Ladousse (2004) indicated that "role play is one of a whole gamut of communicative techniques which develops fluency in language students, which promotes interaction in the classroom, and which increases motivation."  In addition, he pointed out that role play encourages peer learning and sharing the responsibility for learning between teacher and student. He suggested role play to be "perhaps the most flexible technique in the range" of communicative techniques, and with suitable and effective role-play exercises, teachers can meet an infinite variety of needs.

Stern (1983) suggested "role playing helps the individual to become more flexible" and "develop a sense of mastery in many situations". She suggested "through role play, L2 learners can experience many kinds of situations in which they will use the language; and as they develop a sense of mastery in them, they should be able to apply the language more easily to new situations."
Definitions of Role Play
According to Brown (2001), "role-play minimally involves (a) giving a role to one or more members of a group and (b) assigning an objective or purpose that participants must accomplish." Brown suggested role-play can be conducted with a single person, in pairs or in groups, with each person assigned a role to accomplish an objective. (p. 183)

McCaslin (1995) introduced role play as having the following characteristics:
It (role play) refers to the assuming of a role for the particular value it may have to the participant, rather for the development of an art….Role playing is what the young child does in a dramatic play, but it is also a tool used by psychologists and play therapists….According to Richard Courtney (1974), "Play, acting and thought are interrelated. They are mechanisms by which the individual tests reality, gets rid of his anxieties, and masters his environment."
1.Children have always learned from mimicking or duplicating the actions of others, including their parents and peers. Role-playing is simply a continuation of the learning already done by students.
2.People enjoy playing, especially young people. If students are already motivated to play, learning through play would become even easier.
3.Role playing encourages the use of critical thinking because it involves analyzing and problem solving, therefore role play is a cognitive learning method
4.Role-playing teaches many lessons; some of the most important lessons it teaches are lessons that are needed in society, competition, cooperation and empathy.
5.Participation in role-play allows students to make decisions, and through the feedback he or she receives, he sees the results of his actions, and can therefore learn how to adjust his words and actions to produce more likeable results.
6.Role-play allows for the interaction between classmates, and peers. It also allows introverted students to speak out. It helps to break down ”cliques”
7.Role-play allows for the exchange of knowledge between students. The teacher is also able to see the various capabilities of students at the same time.
For the role play activities in my classes, there are six major steps in the procedure.
1.  Decide on the Teaching Materials
The teacher must decide which teaching materials will be used for role play activities. The teaching materials can be taken from text books or non-textbook teaching materials such as picture books, story books, readers, play-scripts, comic strips, movies, cartoons and pictures. The material is selected ahead of time by the teacher. The teacher can also create his or her own authentic teaching materials for role play activities. The teaching materials should be decided based on students' level and interests, teaching objectives and appropriateness for teaching
2.  Select Situations and Create Dialogs
Then a situation or situations to be role played should be selected. For every role plays situation, dialogs should be provided (by the teaching materials or by the teacher) or created by the students themselves.
3.  Teach the Dialogs for Role Plays
The teacher needs to teach the vocabulary, sentences, and dialogs necessary for the role play situations. The teacher needs to make sure the students know how to use the vocabulary, sentences and dialogs prior to doing the role play activities, otherwise,  the teacher should allow students to ask how to say the words they want to say.
4.  Have Students Practice the Role Plays
Students can practice in pairs or in small groups. After they have played their own roles a few times, have them exchange roles. That way, students can play different roles and practice all of the lines in the role play. When students are confident enough to demonstrate or perform in front of the class, the teacher can ask them to do so for their classmates.
5.  Have Students Modify the Situations and Dialogs
Once students have finished and become familiar with an original role play situation, they can modify the situations and/or dialogs to create a variation of the original role play.
6.  Evaluate and Check Students' Comprehension
Finally, the teacher shall evaluate the effectiveness of the role play activities and check if students have successfully comprehended the meanings of the vocabulary, sentences and dialogs. There are several ways to do student evaluations. Students can be given oral and listening tests relating to the role plays. Example oral tests can include the following.
  • Students are asked to answer some simple questions relating to the role plays.
  • Students are asked to reenact the role plays.
  • Students are asked to translate the role plays into their native language.
For listening tests, beginning students can do simpler tasks such as: "listen and circle", "listen and number", "listen and match" types of questions. For more advanced students, they can be asked to write the words, lines, and/or dialogs in the role plays. They can also be asked to create and write variations of the role plays. Teachers can also evaluate students' understanding and comprehension while observing students' interactions, practices, and performances of their role plays.
What are the advantages of roleplaying in training?
Some trainers have a tendency to over-estimate the value of role playing in training, but there is no question that role playing can provide powerful and significant learning opportunities. Here are some of the advantages role playing has over other instructional processes:
  • Role playing can (that is it has the capability) to develop greater involvement with the issues and knowledge that is the focus of training (but it may not create greater involvement).
  • Role playing can be used as a behavioral pre-training assessment or diagnostic to assess where a learner is in terms of skills, since the trainer can observe real behaviior.
  • Role playing also allows assessment of how well learner understands and can apply what is learned, as indicated in their behavior.
  • Provides opportunity to practice in what is presumably a safer environment where mistakes have no real world consequences as would be the case in on the job practice. (note that some learners will not find a role play environment safe).
  • Role playing practice can be segmented or divided up in ways that could not be done in real on the job settings. A person can practice a part of the actual skill to be learned until mastery, then another part of it and so on in progressively more complex steps. There can be a great deal of control over the practices.
  • Because role plays can be involving, both in emotional and cognitive ways, they can also be used to help people understand others, and the positions of others. For example, a person can role play a position with which they disagree, to better understand that position.
It should be noted however that role playing does not automatically confer these benefits. It must be implemented properly. Sadly, it's probably the case that in more than half the situations where role playing is used in business training, it's advantages end up limited by trainer inadequacy or a superficial analysis of how to use role playing properly.
Role play is really a worthwhile learning experience for both the students and the teacher. Not only can students have more opportunities to "act" and "interact" with their peers trying to use the English language, but also students' English speaking, listening, and understanding will improve. Role play lightens up the atmospheres and brings liveliness in the classes. Students learn to use the language in a more realistic, more practical way. Thus they can become more aware of the usefulness and practicality of English. Role play is indeed a useful teaching technique which should be experimented and applied by ESL/EFL teachers more often in the ESL/EFL classrooms.