Going Beyond John and Mary: How to Use In-Depth Role-Playing
Any ESL instructor who has been in Japan for more than a year is familiar with the short A-B conversations in which student A asks a simple question which is replied to by student B. These scripted conversations involve simple scenarios, such as visits to Tokyo Tower and plans for the weekend. They are considered to be English learning through role-playing, but in fact they are introductory exercises in dialog reading. The students read their assigned parts, often switching roles as well as reading partners. These dialogs serve a valid function, but students do not invest themselves in the roles of John and Mary. A textbook conversation is not one which students are likely to remember. Paired readings are a small part of the ESL lesson plan, one step of many, but what I propose in this article is to make role-playing the entire curriculum or, at least, the lesson plan.
What is immersion role-playing?
Immersion role-playing is simply taking the idea of paired readings, one in which students take on various roles and one with which students are familiar, and expanding it into a class-wide or course-wide structure. The student ceases to be someone learning English as a second language and instead assumes a persona which he or she constantly uses in the classroom. It is like acting--the student becomes the role. The rules of theater apply in the classroom: don't break character; take your role seriously; be convincing.
It is unlike theater in that there is no audience (unless you count the teacher). The students are acting for themselves, to help them internalize the English they are learning or have learned already. Immersion role-playing allows the students to use English in as real a setting as possible without going out into the real world and using it. It is hoped that students are using English outside of the classroom, and immersion role-playing does not assume that they are not. This simply gives students more practice with natural English.
The teacher's role in the classroom is to be a guide. He is not teaching new concepts in class; he is not interrupting the flow of role-playing to explain vocabulary or grammar points. This would destroy the atmosphere of acting. Instead, the teacher helps the students find and understand their roles. He might do so by explaining what kind of role it is, give examples, suggest a movie in which such a role is well acted, or do any other number of things that would facilitate good role-playing.
Interest in ESL
Expanding on the theme of assuming roles in short conversations, immersion role-playing in the ESL classroom invites the students to tackle roles with which they can identify and enjoy. It differs from the traditional role-play dialogs in that it is not one exercise of many in a class; it is the class. It is also unscripted, but that is not to say it is unstructured.
A key motivator in language-learning is interest, interest not only in the language itself but in the method used. Immersion role-playing provides relevance, both topical and student-specific. If employed in a university setting, for example, a student studying microbiology might be assigned the role of a geneticist. A student studying law might, naturally, take on the role of a lawyer or a judge. If used in a business setting, students might enjoy breaking away from the office and taking on roles that reflect their hobbies. A student enjoys golf? Let him relax in the classroom by allowing him to assume the role of a professional golfer, perhaps being interviewed by reporters after he has won a championship. So long as the instructor keeps the topic relevant, he need not worry about keeping the students' interest; the class will do that by itself.
Immersion role-playing is a huge undertaking, one in which the instructor is required to make extensive preparation. The dividends of student response, interest, and learning, however, will well repay the instructor's labors. The instructor's first task is to evaluate his students' interests, fields of expertise, and areas of study. This can be done in simple conversation or by filling out a questionnaire prior to the beginning of the project. Immersion role-playing is, in many respects, acting, so a student who enjoys acting may well branch out from his areas of experience.
Understanding what his students are interested in, the instructor then assigns roles based on the framework he has chosen for the project. Possible frameworks will be discussed below. Students take the given role and research it (whether in English or in their native tongues is irrelevant at this stage). This research is done between classes, and progress is checked by the instructor in the next class or in private interviews with the students or small groups of students. The research stage of the project should not take more than a couple of classes. The instructor should be prepared to guide students who are having difficulty with finding appropriate information regarding their roles. The instructor will also need to provide key vocabulary lists for the various roles assigned. Role-playing ought to be enjoyable, but without knowing the words one should use, the project can easily become an exercise in frustration.
Ideally, immersion role-playing should be unscripted, but such extemporaneous speaking might be intimidating for most students. Therefore, until the students are accustomed to the project, the instructor may be required to give more hands-on assistance during the lessons. Preferably, the instructor's presence during the role-playing should be minimal. If anything, he is a moderator and mediator, not a teacher. With their inherent interest in the roles, you will find that the students teach themselves, that they take the initiative. As a consequence, the students will remember what they have learned in this project. Furthermore, they will have a full grasp of the concept and free use of the vocabulary.
The number of scenarios that can be used in immersion role-playing is limited only by the instructor's or students' imaginations, but here are three examples that can be adapted to a variety of students.
Set up a mock trial. Assign all the necessary courtroom roles to the students: judges, prosecution team of lawyers, defense team of lawyers, jury members, eye-witnesses, expert witnesses, the defendant, and the plaintiff. This trial can either be that of a historical figure, a modern figure, or a crime in which the circumstances are entirely imaginary. The students would begin by researching their roles, be it from historical evidence, contemporary sources, or information packets provided by the instructor. In the case of an imaginary scenario, the students would research or invent the roles of their assumed personalities. The information designed by the instructor must provide all key vocabulary that students will be required to use. The mock trial should follow the format of an actual trial, from opening statements to final verdict. Because the plaintiff and defendant rarely testify, the instructor should assign these roles only if it is feasible for them to take the witness stand. It is important for the jury members to actually deliberate, because they do not speak in the trial. This example would work well for a wide variety of student interest, because the roles of witnesses can cover any number of occupations. It is not important to keep everyone talking all the time. Sometimes a student will sit for a while and say nothing--this is fine, because he is still engaged in the situation. He is still learning through acting, through listening. This trial format could easily be a course-wide project.
The second framework is a talk-show format. This is less competitive and verbally combative and might be more suitable for lower-level students. The roles would be a host, guests, and audience members. If necessary, the instructor can assume the role of host, allowing him to moderate without being intrusive. In this format, the host would introduce the guests and talk a bit about them, then have them talk about themselves and why they are on the show. The host should encourage dialog among the guests. Then the host could ask prepared questions. Finally, the host could open the floor to audience members, allowing them to take the microphone and interact with the guests. In this framework, the audience members may play themselves or assigned roles. Since this is role-playing, an assumed persona is preferable. The guests can range from imaginary celebrities to everyday characters who have an odd story to tell. Unlike the trial project, the talk show would be a two- to three-class exercise, from preparation to performance.
The third example is a mock press conference. This project requires one or more spokespersons and a group of reporters from competing magazines and newspapers. The spokesperson(s) could open with a statement about the assigned topic and then field questions. This may be the simplest format suggested here, for it is mainly question and answer. For higher-level classes, the press conference could be made more challenging by giving the spokesperson(s) specific instructions that a certain piece of information must not be revealed. They must be evasive but not reticent to answer questions. This would require them to speak around the topic, to dance around the question. Such equivocation is recommended only for high-level students.
Expand your horizon
Immersion role-playing in the ESL classroom goes far beyond John and Mary, leaves the students with memorable experiences, and equips them with English relevant to their fields of interest. It requires much more up-front work on the instructor's part, and it requires motivated students, but it is an exciting ESL experience not soon forgotten.
© Jason White 2007
An American in his 10th year in Japan, Jason teaches TOEIC preparation classes as well as mythology, religion, writing, and literature at university.