Role Play Success: 5 Effective Steps to Get Your Business English Students in the Act

Who doesn’t love a good role play?

They get students talking.

They use key vocabulary.

Plus, they mimic real-life situations.

Role plays have everything good to offer!

And that’s true not only for academic ESL classes, but for business English classes as well.

But there’s more to creating a successful role play experience in your classroom than simply choosing a topic to talk about. Here are five steps to make sure you’re making the most of your role playing in class.

Role Play Success: 5 Effective Steps to Get Your Business English Students in the Act

1. Select the Best Type of Role Play for Your Class


One-on-one role plays are one option. Every student has a partner, and both players must speak during the dialogue. You can have students perform their role plays in their seats all at the same time, or you can have one pair of students perform their role play up front while the rest of the class watches.

Having everyone work at the same time saves precious teaching minutes and makes more reluctant speakers more comfortable, but one pair at a time has advantages, too. You can see exactly how each student performs, and your class members may get ideas or learn a thing or two from their classmates’ performances.

Strategic interaction

Another option for role plays and a favorite of mine is strategic interaction. If you’re not familiar with the process, you divide your class into two teams (or one team for each role in the role play). Each team chooses one representative to speak for them in the role play.

The other members of the team will talk before the role play starts and plan speaking strategies for when the teacher says go. They can also talk with their representative any time during the role play and vice versa for hints or ideas on how to continue.

This type of role play is great for shyer students who will not talk in front of the class, but will talk in a large group. However, you may not get a good read on every class member’s speaking skills during this process.

Team role play

A third option for role plays is a team role play. In this case, several students work together in a group-based situation. For example, your role play may be one company negotiating with another company with several representatives from each company participating in the mock meeting.

You may have some very real-life situations that you can role play this way, but shyer students may not talk at all or more aggressive students may dominate the conversation on the part of their entire team.

2. Be Aware of Cultural Differences

Once you decide which type of role play you’ll use, take a minute to think about the cultural factors that may influence students’ performance in the role play. Some students may not perform up to your expectations not because of their language skills, but because of their cultural bias that plays into the situation they are mimicking.

Here are some cultural values that might influence how a student performs in a role play.

  • Talking directly. Some cultures find it boring and aggressive to directly state a problem. You may find your students dancing around the issue in business role play to state a problem indirectly.
  • Lying. In some cultures lying is more acceptable than losing face (or looking bad) in a situation. Think about how students could lose face in a role play and try to avoid those if they will be a problem for members of your class.
  • Eye contact. Eye contact is considered aggressive in some cultures, while others think it’s rude to avoid making eye contact. Talk about the expectations you have for your students and how much eye contact they should make prior to your role plays.
  • Time perception. Different cultures perceive time differently. This can cause offense and confusion in the business world. Give your students a chance to talk about how time is perceived in their cultures.
  • Gift giving. In some cultures, gift giving is an important part of business interactions. Talk about it with your students and whether they should include gift giving in their role play.
  • Body language. Body language can cause a lot of confusion in cross-cultural communications. It’s worth taking a class period out to discuss body language and its place in the business world.

You can find many resources about cultural in the business world, like this book. It might be a good idea to keep one or two books like this on hand in your classroom for reference.

3. Pre-teach Business Lingo

The business world, like any other specialized field, has lingo or field-specific vocabulary that your students will need to know to successfully role play in class. Pre-teach any situation specific lingo they will need to know before the role play and give students a chance to use it as they speak. You may also want to review general business jargon with your class.

Before your role play, you might try giving students the target words in context and having students guess their meaning. You could also have students match words and definitions in a game of memory or go fish, or complete a crossword puzzle using a word bank of the lingo you’re teaching.

4. Teach Grammar Using a Task-based Approach

Try the task-based approach to grammar instruction in your business role play. To use this instructional method, think about what your students will need to say in the role play. Make note of any specific grammar skills they will need to fulfill their roles.

For example, if your students will be giving a sales pitch, it’s a great time to review the conditional tense (If you buy our product then…). You might use an interview role play to reexamine the difference between the simple past and the past perfect (I had already developed my own business when I graduated from college). A scenario in which one person is training another on business practices is good for talking about the imperative form, as well as ordinal transitions between ideas (first, next, after that, lastly, etc.).

It’s okay if you have not covered that particular grammar skill in class before. Once you have identified what students will need to know, teach them the specific grammar point—but don’t spend a lot of time on this step. Finally, let students put their new knowledge into practice as they complete the role play with the new grammar structure.

5. Role Play a Common Business Scenario

By this point, you have put a lot of thought into the role plays your business English students will perform. You have chosen a style that suits their skill and your purposes. You have considered cultural factors that may come into play as well as any specific vocabulary your students will need to know.

You have also thought about and taught them the grammar points they will need to complete their tasks. Now it’s time to assign the role play and see what your students can do with it.

Here are some typical business English role plays you might want to use with your students:

  • Negotiating a contract. Have one team of students negotiate with another team to come to final terms for a contract for services or products.
  • Complaining about services rendered. Have one student or a group of students express their dissatisfaction with another “company” for how they completed a task.
  • Give a product presentation. Have one or more students present a product to a group of other students for purchase.
  • Ask for additional resources. Have one student talk to his or her supervisor and convince that person to give them more resources, either financial or people power.
  • Job interview. Have one student interview another for possible employment.
  • Delegating tasks. Have a team of students work together to list necessary tasks for a project, and have one person delegate those tasks to his or her team.
  • Recruit possible employees. Have one person play a recruiter at a job fair, or have a mock job fair in your classroom where half the class is recruiters and half of the class is potential employees.
  • Budget presentation. Have one person present a budget to his colleagues for approval.

There is more to a business role play than setting the scene. In fact, the scene is often the last thing to consider in choosing the right role play for your class.

When you think about the points I have mentioned here and choose a role play to which your students can relate and participate in with enthusiasm, you will have everything you need for a more than successful role playing experience with your class.

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