Role Plays and Simulations – part I

Foreign language teachers, let’s be honest. At least once in our careers, we’ve all sat through stunted little dialogues with students muttering their order of “un panini with…. uhmmm… Proskiuttoh”, and we’ve all died inside a little.

But I also remember how exhilarating it was, as a student, to play one of such activities in one of my French language classes. I had to pretend to have an altercation over a car accident. That day I, a chronically silent student in class, could not stop talking! Indeed, this is one of the main advantages of this kind of activity: sometimes, wearing a mask can be extremely liberating for some of the shiest students (but absolutely torturous for others).

There are several advantages to this technique, both in a foreign language class and in other context. In language teaching (FLT or ESL), role-play can help students practice situations that are relevant to their future experiences as travelers or emigrants, or situations relevant to a future career (think of the now ubiquitous trend of topic-specific language classes, such as “Business Spanish” or “Spanish for the Medical Professions”). It’s also an activity that simulates the spontaneity of real-life interaction, thus preparing students to interact with unexpected reactions in a fluid way. It’s also a great way to maximize explicit speaking instruction in the classroom. Finally, some students find it fun and exciting!

Cognitive functions ranked from least to most complex, according to Bloom’s Taxonomy

In the context of content-based teaching, role play can help student develop more advanced cognitive functions, such as analyzing an issue from different points of view, or creating and elaborating new ideas. It can also help students explore the affective dimension of a problem, or give depth to an ethical debate.

Of course, there are also many ways in which a role-play activity can spectacularly backfire. Sometimes, students are asked to take roles that are too far from their lived experience, and this makes the activity feel pointless. For a 19-year old sophomore student, it can be hard to play the role of the Italian Prime Minister or a lead scientist working on a cancer treatment; it might be easier to play a role grounded in her/his personal experience, such as the noisy roommate or the dissatisfied customer. Insufficient preparation is another common problem: if students are not provided with models of the expected outcome, clear instructions and sufficient time to prepare, the results will be lackluster at best. This is why it’s very important to have a proper build-up, with adequate time for preparation, briefing, and strategizing, as well as appropriate linguistic scaffolding (this is especially key if using role-plays in a language class). Finally, motivation is key: if the teacher or the students see these activities as a waste of time or a fun diversion, the results will be poor.

There are many types of role-play techniques, serving different contexts and purposes. For instance, a role-play exercise in a Psychology seminar or a UN Model club will be very different from role-play activities modeling simple service interactions in a ESL or foreign-language class, or a simulated doctor/patient interaction in a “Language for Medical Expertise” class. While in the former examples the student engages intellectually and emotionally with a problem, in the latter examples the focus is on use of formal structures to accomplish certain communicative goals. However, this may change as the instruction level advances; while in a beginner’s class role-plays will be almost always formulaic and based on service interactions, in a more advanced setting role-plays can help accomplish more advanced cognitive goals, and explore more nuanced aspect of social and emotional learning.

Here are some other useful distinctions:

SIMULATION VS. ROLE PLAY. Simulations provide students with a situation in which they have to improvise without set roles or expectations on how to play their parts. Role-plays, instead, will provide assigned roles and often descriptive statements, or detailed strategies on how students are supposed to play their parts (i.e. “You are upset at this situation and demand a refund”). Therefore, simulation are a great way to work on spontaneous, unscripted communication, while role-play can be used to explore different facets of a problem or conflict.

REAL, REALISTIC, NON-REALISTIC. Rather than a rigid dichotomy, I think this is best understood as a continuum. Sometimes students can perform their very roles in real life (i.e. “You are organizing a graduation party for your best friend”); at times, they can practice realistic roles that are different from their real selves (such as asking students to play the roles of a doctor and a patient). On the opposite end of the spectrum, we might find exercises or activity that diverge dramatically from student’s lives, such as activities bade based on history or on fictional worlds. It’s important to notice that realistic does not necessarily mean better. For instance, asking a student to play the part of Julius Caesar without a context might be harder than asking to be a pretend passenger buying a ticket in a bus station. But what if students have had the time to prepare appropriately, for instance by reading excerpts from Caesar’s memoirs and documenting themselves on the historical context? In the latter case, a role play might be a very engaging way to further immerse learners into the content, developing critical and interpretive abilities.

In my next post, I will discuss some strategies that can help maximize their effectiveness in the class, and provide some concrete examples.

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