Role plays made this happen: A giant voice roared out of the young woman many never even noticed was in the classroom. She gestured as if she were teaching a class on how to gesture. She moved with the definition of stage presence. Was this the same shy, quiet student who literally couldn’t bring herself to say, “Boo!” when we did a Halloween activity?
It would have gone viral on TikTok.
I probably should have scraped my jaw off the floor, but the floor was covered—we were all amazed and enthralled. Even her partner stared almost bug-eyed at her as Mariam theatrically exited the room and then re-entered, now half her size with her eyes to the floor, and perched precariously at her desk. WHO WAS THAT?!
You know how there are some moments you just never forget? This was one of them. But this wasn’t a reminder to me about never underestimating my students—nope…
This was about the power of role plays.
Considering that most Americans fear public speaking more than they fear death, I think we can empathize with international students who freeze to their seats and barely mumble when they have to speak in a foreign language with all eyes on them.
I sometimes felt like getting my shy ones to speak was akin to pulling teeth from a squirming earthworm—not an easy task indeed!
But role plays? Role-plays have almost always been different. Once students understand that the audience is watching characters and not them, they loosen up a bit.
Sure, you’ll still have some who remain stiff and closemouthed. The secret is to assign them a character who is supposed to be stiff and awkward—they’ll play the part perfectly naturally and honestly earn the applause. Once they survive that (and for them, it FEELS LIKE surviving), the next role play will be a bit easier. Eventually, they might even feel comfortable to playing someone other than themselves.
Role plays improve English proficiency!
They give students a chance to practice authentic English within a themed framework. Give them a topic that pertains to their life and watch how engrossed they become with getting the right vocabulary word, saying it with not just the correct pronunciation, but in the most appropriate manner.
Students who don’t bother with vocabulary lists will suddenly be memorizing and using relevant words. Students who memorize those lists but never use any of the words will find or make situations in which they can use them.
Role plays improve vocabulary retention.
Best of all? Using words in authentic context helps imprint the words on our students’ minds! That safe environment in our classroom allows our students to manipulate the English they know and the English they are learning in real-world scenarios—making it easier to tackle similar situations when they outside the classroom. The rehearsing and then the performance is just the practice they need to remember key vocabulary words for communicating in their real lives.
While those who teach in Intensive English Programs must focus heavily on test prep, we are still teaching students who need survival English. So, because we can’t just ignore test prep, create vocabulary lists that could go well with a theme and challenge students to create role plays using them. This will help them remember the words because they are actively using them in context. Later, when they encounter those same words on a test, in a text, or in a conversation, they’ll recall hearing or using the words in the role plays and remember what they mean.
English is not just a test. It’s life.
Role plays give our adult ESL students the tools they need to stand on their own feet and not rely so heavily on the translation provided by friends or spouses. I invite you to try out a free roleplay resource about neighbors—a topic sure to apply to every single adult student. Just click on the image below to subscribe, and it’s yours!
Oh, and Mariam? I found out later that her brother was an actor in Saudi Arabia. Despite being from a very conservative part of a very conservative country, acting was in her blood. When she had the chance to throw off her culture’s mantle and be someone else, she did so with gusto!
Read more about using role plays in adult ESL!
- Role Plays for Adult ESL: 4 Impressive Reasons to Use Them
- Everyday Role Plays Perfectly Tailored for Adult ESL: 3 Easy Steps