Role Plays for ESL Students

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Role Plays ESL

Do you want a simple, interesting activity to get your lower-level or beginner students speaking in English? Then you’ll need to use some role-plays in your classes. Keep on reading for all the details you need to know.

Role Plays for ESL Students

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

Role Plays are one of my favourite ESL activities for lower-level students. They allow beginners to feel like they’re “having a conversation,” but there’s some structure so they don’t feel overwhelmed. Here’s how it works-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 . . . _____.

The best pat of this activity? The students are doing all the work, and the teacher is not! After all, you are probably really good at English. It’s your students who need the practice, right?

Tip #1: Give Students some Preparation Time

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.

I require students to memorize their lines because it makes the role-plays far more interesting to watch.

Tip #2: Maximize Student Talking Time

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. Finally, you could have students make a video of themselves and send you the link or put it up on YouTube.

Tip #3: Role Plays are Perfect for Lower-Level Students

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.

Teaching Tips for ESL Role Plays:

Partner role play ESL is 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.

Some Contexts to Use Role Play Conversations

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).

A Good Activity for Business English Classes

This activity is also ideal for students studying business English. They often have very specific situations in which they need to speak English.

For example, helping a customer on the phone about a certain problem. Or, ordering food at a restaurant when they’re with their clients. Perhaps they feel nervous about going through immigration at the airport, or checking into a hotel in a foreign country. Maybe they have to answer questions from customers about a product. These are just a few ideas to get you started.

You could create a role play based on your students’ needs. Just ask them what topics they’d like to practice and you’ll probably get lots of ideas for what you can work on in class. Adult students are quite good at letting you know what’s important to them! Or, just choose some of the most popular situations and that are present in the world of business.

ESL Role Plays: Ideal for Beginners

Role plays for English learners 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.

Make Some Role Play Cards

Do you teach from the same textbook for multiple classes, year after year? Then you may consider making some role play cards and then laminating them. Have 3-4 difference scenarios for each context.

Then, when you do this activity, hand out a different card to each group of students. At the end when students are doing presentations to the class, it can make things a little bit more interesting.

As a way to evaluate your students, you could keep all these cards that you’ve used throughout the semester and then give a random one to a random pair of students as a speaking test. Each person in the pair chooses one of the roles. I’ve done this before and had some great results.

Aim for Around Once a Month for an ESL Roleplay

That said, doing a role play 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 (every 8-10 classes). This strikes a nice balance between getting enough speaking practice through using this quite useful activity, and it not becoming boring.

I’ve seen some teachers who use it every single class, but I can’t really imagine that their students are happy about it! Test it out for yourself and see what your students think. I have a feeling it varies among cultures, ages, and levels of students.

Procedure for Role Plays for ESL Students:

  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 smaller 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.

Like this ESL Speaking Activity?

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Have your Say about Using Role-Plays in your ESL or EFL Classroom

What are your thoughts about using role-plays in your classes? Love ’em, hate ’em or think they’re just a decent activity. Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

Also be sure to give this article a share on Facebook, Pinterest, or Twitter. It’ll help other busy teachers, like yourself who are looking for an ESL role play for their classes.


ESL Role Playing Activity

Last update on 2019-07-20 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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