Tips for Using Role-Play in the EFL Classroom  

Vocabulary drills, memorization and other routine exercises have their place in the EFL classroom, but nothing replaces immersive conversation when students are learning a new language.


Screen Shot 2014-07-21 at 8.31.48 PMRole-play is a great tool for creating spontaneous conversations, but teachers are often afraid to attempt it because role-play isn’t without it risks. It’s an activity that can elicit a lot of fun, laughter and good banter, or it’s an activity that can flop and leave you looking at a roomful of blank faces.

The benefit of pursuing a master’s degree in TESOL (click here to learn about programs) is that you get more training on effective teaching techniques. Of course, some things can only be learned during the teaching process, but knowing how to prepare certain activities, like language-learning role-play, can take the anxiety out of a more open-ended lesson plan. Try some of these techniques from top EFL scholars before adding role-play to your EFL teaching repertoire.

Incorporate a Warm-Up

One of the worst things you can do to your students is to toss them into a role-play with no preparation. They’re likely to feel hesitant and shy, and you won’t get enthusiastic participation. Instead, try some of these ideas to warm them up before the role-play activity begins:

  • Talk informally about the scenario. For example, if you’re going to ask your students to try role-playing as though they’re ordering in a restaurant, ask them to identify their favorite restaurants. Ask them if any of them have ever worked in a restaurant, and invite them to share some funny workplace stories. Also, ask them about times in which they experienced good or bad service as customers, and ask them to describe the situation.
  • Creative projects. Invite your students to perform a creative project related to the scenario. For example, students could write a letter to the manager of a restaurant in which they received poor service, or they could design a restaurant menu.
  • Divide students into groups. As time allows, split the students into pairs or small groups to talk through your sample questions. You could also have them work on creative projects in groups.


Explain the Elements of the Role-Play

It’s important to frame the role-play in understandable components instead of leaving it too open-ended. Set up the role-play using these elements:

  1. The setting. Let the students know the setting for the role-play. For example, they’re dining in an expensive restaurant. Make sure to arrange classroom furniture, tables and chairs and to provide props that students can use.
  2. The roles. Place one student in the role of customer, and one student in the role of waiter. Another great suggestion from Eric Bray of Yokkaichi University, author of “Moving on With English,” is to assign a director in addition to the actors. The director can provide the students with suggestions in case they get stuck during their conversation.
  3. The plot. Tell the students which story you want them to act out. For example, the customer in the restaurant discovers a fly in a bowl of soup and wants to tell the waiter. Alternatively, instead of constructing stories, you can simply tell them how one of the people in the story is feeling. For example, the customer is irritated, or the waiter is tired at the end of a long shift.
  4. Helpful language. Write a list of words and phrases on the board that students can utilize during the role-play, or provide a handout that they can refer to while they’re acting. Encourage the director to provide them with language hints, or jump into the role-play yourself in an improvisational way to spur their creativity. Encourage the actors to be more stubborn so that the language exchange can continue. For example, the waiter could deny that he sees a fly in the customer’s soup.

Review What Happened

After the role-play activity has finished, take time to talk about how the students performed and what you noticed. You can even video record the role-plays and let the students critique themselves. Most importantly, if the activity doesn’t go well the first time, introduce another role-play at a later date. Even the most intractable bunch of students will loosen up over time if you make role-play fun and approachable.