A Landlord and a Tenant Walk Into a Classroom…: Role Plays to Improve Speaking Skills

A Landlord and a Tenant Walk Into a Classroom…: Role Plays to Improve Speaking Skills

It’s important to practice speaking in the appropriate context; however, the classroom is a contrived situation that doesn’t always afford the opportunity for students to practice natural speaking.

A way to bring a wide variety of social contexts to your class is through a role play, which is one of the most adaptable activities for the speaking classroom. This activity is practical, entertaining, and gets students to produce authentic English. Here are some tips for using role plays in the classroom.

How to Use Role Plays to Improve Speaking Skills

  1. 1

    Be Practical

    Students will be more motivated and eager to participate if you present them with a realistic situation that they might encounter in their daily lives. For example, asking students to role play about a tenant that has a problem with an apartment manager will be more practical than a student speaking with an alien. Using realistic situations gets students to practice essential vocabulary and phrases in such a way that they will be better able to retain what they learn.

  2. 2

    It’s All in the Details

    Role plays are an opportunity for students to produce natural, semi-spontaneous speech. When setting up a role play, you should give enough information about the situation to evoke the vocabulary you are targeting, but it should leave enough to the imagination to allow the students to construct their speech on the spot. Students will get more from the exercise if they can correctly use the appropriate vocabulary on their own. Encourage students to make notes while they are planning, but not to write a script. If you want students to read from scripts, try an activity like reader’s theatre. In a role play, students should work on building their fluency by using unplanned speech.

  3. 3

    Pre-teach Vocabulary and Conversational Phrases

    Using role play scenarios based on themes you’ve taught in class is a good way to enforce the vocabulary you’ve been teaching. Discuss the scenarios before you do the role plays, and teach the necessary phrases and vocabulary. However, it’s essential to teach realistic vocabulary.
    For example, many times we teach our students this dialogue when in a coffee shop:

    • A: Hello, welcome to Coffee Place. What can I get for you today?
    • B: I would like a tall coffee.
    • A: Would you like any cream or sugar with that?
    • B: Yes, please. I would like two sugars and a little cream.
    • A: Your total is $5.50.
    • B: Here you go.
    • A: Thank you so much. Have a nice day.
    • B: Thanks, you too.
    In reality, most coffee ordering experiences go something like this:
    • A: Hi.
    • B: A tall coffee please.
    • A: Cream or sugar?
    • B: Two sugars please.
    • A: $5.50
    • B: Thanks.

    If we teach our students that every customer service experience they have will use formal speech, they may end up confused and frustrated. It’s important to teach our students polite speech, but we must also teach them realistic encounters as well. Decide what your objectives are before doing the role playing activity: is it to teach polite, fully grammatical structures or to give them a realistic world encounter? You may need to approach the activity differently depending on which of the two objectives you have.

  4. 5

    Mix Up Activities

    One of the best parts about role plays is that they are adaptable. If you do normal role plays frequently in the classroom, students may become bored and less motivated to try their best. By changing the activity slightly, you can break the tired routine in the classroom.

    For example, a modification you could make would be to give each pair or group a ‘mystery phrase’ or sentence written on a note card, and instruct them to build a role play where this word or phrase might occur naturally. While the students are performing their role play, have the remaining students try to guess what their ‘mystery phrase’ was. Another variation is doing each role play twice, but having the students switch roles for the second time.

    For advanced students you can have students in the audience call out words or situations for the role players to use or switch to immediately, similar to an improv routine, and award points for the team that can produce the most successful dialogue.

  5. 6

    Record and Reflect

    Role plays are great in class; however, students often don’t get feedback on their speech production to determine if their accuracy or pronunciation was correct. Try to make notes while each student is speaking to give them some constructive feedback on their role play after it is completed. Try to avoid correction and feedback while students are speaking so as not to disrupt their fluency.

    An alternative to this would be to record the students while they are speaking, and then send the file to the student to have them reflect on their production. Did they use the key vocabulary correctly? Did they speak clearly? Producing the speech in a role play is one part of the learning experience, but reflection and feedback are equally essential for students to improve.

Role plays are great for getting students out of their seat, collaborating with other students to use appropriate vocabulary, and speaking impromptu English.

It is a wonderful low-prep activity to boost your students’ confidence and speaking skills.

How often do you use role plays in your classroom? What’s your favorite?

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