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Why Role-Plays Fail


After conducting several workshops entitled, "Successfully Conducting Role-Plays in the English Language Classroom," the most common concern I get is about a teacher trying but unsuccessfully implementing role-plays in her classroom. To paraphrase her, "Why can't I get my students to do a role-play?"

My first response was that she needs to prepare her students for the role-play. Some teachers who are inspired by my workshop rush to their classes and implement this new activity without warning. I believe the students first reaction is shock and then resistance.

Students resist because they don't know the teacher's reason for a sudden change in the curriculum. If the change comes in the middle or at the end of a course, there's little chance that the students will be willing to try something new. They have already planned their own learning strategies for the course, and a new activity such as a role-play threatens their well-established learning strategies. "Why change a good thing?"

Role-plays should not fail when the students know ahead of time that they will be performing them and they know how it works into their language development and assessment.

In my classes, I make it clear to them that active participation, cooperation, and interaction lead to a higher grade. And if my course focuses on listening and speaking, I engage them in interactive speaking activities every day. If they know the evaluation standards and they are used to frequent cooperative speaking activities, a role-play should not be a surprising activity if added later into the course.

However, a role-play will be surprising if the role-play does not seem necessary in terms of assessment. For example, if a writing test is all they need to pass or fail the course, then it will be difficult to convince students that a role-play is helpful.

Secondly, if the teacher does not engage students in frequent cooperative speaking activities, the students will resist because the role-play is a new type of activity. They are comfortable with the activities that have already been established in the course.

This is just the initial stage--for students who are new to the role-play. But what about students who are familiar with role-plays? Why do these students have problems with role-plays?

The answer goes back to preparing students for the role-play. To check my students' comprehension of the role-play instructions, I go over the 6 WH questions before they begin:
  • What - Do the students know what is happening in the role-play?
  • Where - Do the students know where the role-play is taking place? Do they know in what type of situation they are in?
  • Who - Do the students what roles they are playing? Do they know what roles their group members are playing? Who is who?
  • When - Do the students know if they are talking about the past, present, or future? (especially important if grammar is the focus)
  • How - Do they know how their roles feel? Do they know how to begin the role-play? Do they know how to end the role-play?
  • Why - Do they know why they are speaking? (shows necessity for an information gap)
Although this list is a bit tedious, most students can demonstrate their comprehension in a matter of minutes. If students know the answers to these WH questions, then the chance for failure is reduced.

However, even the best designed role-play can fail with the brightest and most linguistically proficient students. Teachers and students should be reminded of this. The goal of a role-play is usually to practice using the language, not for final evaluation. I sometimes tell my students that quantity is more important than quality in the role-play because the more mistakes made equals the more opportunities to learn.

These are just some of the many reasons that role-plays might fail. This blog post is mainly directed towards secondary school teachers, university teachers, and teachers of adults. Advice is much different for teachers of young learners. I hope this gives you more confidence in implementing role-plays in your classroom.

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