Role Plays for ESL Students


Role Plays for ESL Students

Skills: Writing/speaking
Time Required: 15-40 minutes
Level: Beginner to Advanced
Materials Required: Nothing

Give the students a conversation starter to get them going. For example, if you’re talking about feelings in class that day, you can use:

A. Hey _____, how are you doing?
B. I’m great, how are you?
A. I’m _____ (sad, embarrassed, angry, bored, etc.). ***Anything besides, “I’m fine, thank you, and you?” is good.****
B. Oh? What’s wrong?

Another context that I often use this activity with is illness or injury. For example:

A. Hey _____, you don’t look good! What’s wrong?
B. Oh yeah, I’m not good. I _____.
A. Really? _____.
B. _____.
A. _____.

One final context that I use this with is of excuses. For example:

A. Hey _____, you’re _____ minutes late!
B. I’m really sorry. I’ve been/I had to _____.
A. Hmmm . . . _____.

Give the students about ten minutes to write the conversation with their partner. You can adjust the number of lines and how detailed of a starter you give to suit the ability level of your students. For lower level students, it can be helpful to have a word bank on the board relevant to the context so that the writing portion of this activity doesn’t get ridiculously long. Then, the students memorize their conversation (no papers when speaking!), and do a role-play it in front of their classmates if you have a small class of less than ten.

Remember that you should try to maximize the amount of time students are talking. If you have a larger class, there are a few different ways to handle this. You could get pairs to come up to your desk and show you their conversation while the other students are working on something else, you could use it as a speaking test of some kind, or finally you could have students make a video of themselves and send you the link or put it up on YouTube.

I really like this activity because it’s perfect for lower level students who want to practice “conversation” but don’t quite have the skills to do this on their own and it’s also a good way to force your advanced students to use some new grammar or vocabulary that you’re studying.

Like this ESL speaking activity? Get 38 more for free in my upcoming book but only to members of my email list:

Teaching Tips:

Partner role plays for ESL students are very useful for practicing functional language and speaking sub-skills. I usually choose one or two functions to mention when I’m giving the instructions for the activity and provide a bit of coaching and language input surrounding that, depending on the level—beginners will need more help.

The functions in particular that fit well with partner conversations include agreeing, disagreeing, apologizing, and asking advice. The sub-skills that you can emphasize are things like turn-taking, initiating a conversation, speaking for an appropriate length of time, stress and intonation, responding (really?), and cohesive devices, particularly noun pronoun reference (A: I saw a movie last night. B: Which one did you see? A. I saw Ironman. It was good).

Role plays for ESL students truly is one of the most useful things you can do in your conversation classes, especially for beginner or intermediate students so make sure you try it out at least once or twice over the course of a semester. It gives your students a chance to have a real conversation which will build a lot of confidence but they won’t have the pressure of coming up with something to say on the spot. That said, it’s gets boring if you do this every class; I generally do it about once a month for a class that meets twice a week over the course of a semester.


  1. Prepare a conversation starter based on what you are studying.
  2. (Optional) Pre-teach some language that students could use, if you haven’t done that already in your lesson.
  3. Write the conversation starter on the whiteboard, PowerPoint, or on a handout.
  4. Have students complete the conversation in pairs. Then, they must prepare to speak by memorizing and adding in stress and intonation.
  5. Have students stand up and “perform” their conversation if you have a small class. In larger classes, there are a few other options (see above).
  6. Reward teams for interesting conversations, good acting (no reading), and correct grammar/vocabulary that you were studying that day.

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