Role Plays and Simulations – Part II

In my previous post, I discussed some ideas about how to incorporate role plays and simulations in the foreign language classroom. I will now present a few strategies to use this teaching tool effectively.

In your role play activity, you may want to follow these three steps:

1) Preparation or Briefing. The preparatory phase will include modeling activities, such as reading a sample dialogue or other supporting documents. This will equip your student with the language they need—the building blocks for their production—, while also clarifying expectations of the work to be done. The briefing is also a good time to assign roles. This may be done in different ways: for instance, instead of dividing students according to different roles they need to play, you may divide their work by task. In the latter option, someone will be responsible for props and set, others will do the acting, others will act as designated observers, etc. You may also want to give some thought to methods for forming groups and assigning roles (will students self-select, or will you assign tasks to each individual?), as well as methods for rewarding active engagement and making each student accountable for their work. Finally, before the role-play can happen, you will also set the stage with necessary props, if needed. The preparatory phase is very important for the success of the activity. Do not cut it short, or the actual performance will be constantly interrupted by questions.

2) Play. Your students are now ready to perform the role-play activity. During the play, the instructor should act mainly as a facilitator, providing short introductions or conclusions and supporting the students’ work, but not actively meddling with their performance. Think of yourself as a referee, not as a player: you may want to ensure that expectations are met, groups stick to their allotted time, and that the students not directly performing are actively listening.

3) Debriefing. This is the moment for reflection, which can take place in a group or individual setting (for instance, by writing a short reflection paper). Depending on your goals, you may want to orient students’ reflection by asking specific questions (e.g., “What were your emotions when playing the X role?”) or you may choose to leave it open-ended. In a foreign language class, the reflective moment can be used to focus on sociolinguistic and pragmatic aspects of communication: how did student adapt their style of communication to the different parts played? Did they find themselves adopting certain markers of style, inflections, mannerisms? (As always, be very careful to avoid stereotypes! However, the debriefing is a good moment to deconstruct critically assumptions in this respect). The debriefing is a very important moment, because it prompts students to reflect on what they have learned through the experience. This will help student retain what they have learned and make vital connections between this activity and the learning goals for the class or unit.

Here are some tips that I find useful for incorporating role-play activities in my teaching practice.

• Use authentic materials. In addition to exposing students to more realistic language, authentic materials have a positive impact on motivation, because they emphasize the ties between a classroom activity and a similar communicative task that can be performed in real life.
It’s possible that authentic materials are too advanced for your students. In this case, don’t be afraid to cut and adapt! I personally find that unedited materials tend to be too long and redundant: abbreviated versions are more than adequate to reach our learning goals. It’s also good to review and proofread authentic materials for grammar and spelling errors, especially if found online in websites not aimed at language instruction.

Think big. Role-play activities don’t have to be the rudimentary skits based on service interactions that we all remember with dread from our own high school days. While it’s perfectly acceptable to pretend to buy a train ticket for Madrid or order a panino al prosciutto (singular!) at an Italian café, role-plays lend themselves to more advanced functions of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Think of role-plays based on case studies, in which authentic details are provided; or scenarios based on composites of real events, with slightly amended details but still grounded in reality; or advanced role plays based on fictional characters of a play, movie, or novel. These more elaborate activities can help enhance intellectual exploration, while also allowing students to experience empathy by literally seeing the world from someone else’s perspective.

Use props. Physical props can help the students immerse themselves in the simulation. There is no need to bring elaborate costumes or settings (although you can certainly do so if you wish); an iconic object or piece of clothing (such as a hat or an apron) will suffice. You may also do this when teaching online: in fact, this is a great way to bring engagement and stimulation to your Zoom session!

Keep it simple. Make sure the preparation materials are not too long or overwhelming for your students. Keep only information relevant to assignment, and don’t be afraid to trim the fat! If your students need an hour just to decipher the preparatory materials, maybe the level is too advanced, or perhaps your chosen material could be more suitable for a different activity, maybe one focusing on reading comprehension.

Here are some examples of role-plays that I have used in the past.

The new recycling plant (Foreign-Language, High-Intermediate Level – B2).
This role-play came at the end of a language unit focusing on the environment. Students had learned the vocabulary to talk about forest conservation, recycling, composting, and environmentally conscious consumer trends. I then asked students to perform as local residents debating the virtue of a new recycling system recently introduced in their neighbors. Role included local councilors (for and against the bill), local residents (for and against the bill), and local news reporters. The final assignment of the module required writing a short advocacy letter to be sent to a local gazette on the topic, in a direct build-up from the role-play activity.

Rehabilitation through the arts (Foreign language, Advanced Level – C1)
In this unit, we watched a news segment on a program of social rehabilitation through the art, and read a few news article on the prison system in Italy. At the very end of the unit, I had students perform a role-play activity in which they simulated a debate about the impact of such programs in a local neighborhood. Some of the roles included local residents, a social worker, a director involved in a program of this kind, and a journalist. The role-play helped students further develop their argumentative abilities in a foreign language, while incorpoating grammar and lexical elements studying throughout the unit.

As you can see, role-plays can be adapted to a number of contexts. While we typically associate this type of activity to face-to-face teaching, it can be also incorporated in online teaching, for instance by asking students to record their skit and produce a short video. All you need is a good idea, good materials, and a good Zoom background!

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