How many times have you done that same old restaurant role play?
How about the one where people are waiting in line? The post office one?
Role plays help your students overcome the stage fright they experience when using English. The themes can sometimes seem mundane, though.
You can shake up your role play activities by putting your students in bizarre situations, offering them weird personalities to portray and planting seeds of peculiar themes of conversation.
These weird role plays not only break up the routine, they also help distract your students from timidity when practicing. Just remind them, weird people have conversations too!
7 Weirdly Fun ESL Role Play Ideas That Students Love
Location: Participants are visiting or working on the International Space Station.
Personalities: Astronauts, of course, but add other types of people who might end up on the space station, such as:
- A school teacher invited to give science lessons from space
- A wealthy space tourist
- A common man who has won the visit in a lottery
Situations: Being enclosed on a vehicle that travels at thousands of miles an hour at zero gravity can lead to some pretty odd situations:
- Someone brought sunflower seeds to munch on and they’re floating everywhere
- A piece of disgusting space garbage is floating outside the window
- Someone sees an ET out the window
- Cabin pressure drops and everyone has to find ways to fix the problem
- Someone has lost something really big or small (not many places it could be!)
Preparation: Pick some odd things from your bag of props and encourage your students to pretend they are items appropriate to the locale and situation:
- An old TV remote (Communication device)
- A pocket watch (Calibration device)
- A textbook (Handbook for fixing something on the station)
Language Used: Depending on the situation you present, your students may be able to use:
- Critical language (Who brings a bag of seeds into space anyway?)
- Descriptive language (It’s long and green, it’s got three eyes, it looks like…)
- Instructional language (Try turning it to the left, you need to open the lid like this…)
- Questions (Did you look under the control panel? When was the last time you saw it?)
Location: Your students have strayed from the guided tour of the Catacombs of Paris into uncharted tunnels, full of humidity, bones, rats and spiderwebs.
Personalities: Besides the usual tourist guides and tourists, you could find a variety of other types of people wandering through the catacombs:
- Ghost hunters
- Runaway criminals
- Sanitation workers
- Police (Chasing those criminals, or searching for someone who’s lost)
Situations: Catacombs are cold, dark, humid places, and those of Paris are known for being a labyrinth. Some of the situations your students experience could include:
- The lights suddenly go out
- Water begins rising rapidly
- Strange, out-of-place noises are heard
- There are lots of crawly things
Preparation: Again, the prop bag can provide you with items that can serve you. You’ll probably want at least one flashlight, maybe with really weak batteries, so you can turn out the lights and create an eerie atmosphere.
- Directional language (Turn left here! We should retrace our steps…)
- Hypothetical language (It could be rats. That might be sewer water. We might find a way out…)
- Emotional language (I’m really scared! Don’t worry, we’ll be fine. Be brave!)
Location: A fast food restaurant that happens to serve truly unusual and somewhat disgusting food.
Personalities: Because the place and the food is so weird, the people can actually be pretty normal:
- A couple of friends on vacation to an exotic country
- A native presenting a foreign guest to local cuisine
- Owners of a competing freaky fast food restaurant checking out the fare
Situations: The situation is reacting to food that isn’t familiar. This shouldn’t be hard, as many students may find a foreign country’s food to be somewhat weird. Role play situations can be:
- Reading the menu together and reacting, trying to decide
- Asking the waiter to describe dishes that have ambiguous names
- Sending plates back to the kitchen
Preparation: Set up a table as in a restaurant, or maybe an order counter as in a burger place. Your students can create odd menus, based upon bizarre foods you’ve introduced earlier, or they can use their imaginations and create entirely made-up food options.
Language Used: Besides usual restaurant language (ordering, paying, complaining), you could have students practice:
- Descriptive language (Describing foods that are disgusting in an attractive manner)
- Persuasive language (Convincing clients to try something that might seem unappealing at first)
- Expression of surprise/disgust language (Oh my gosh, that’s really nasty! What on earth is that supposed to be? You don’t expect me to eat that, do you?)
Location: A small, claustrophobia-inducing room with a table and two or three chairs.
Personalities: As in any crime drama, there will be cops and suspects. Some of the suspects may be guilty, some may be innocent:
- Good cop
- Bad cop
- Guilty person
- Innocent witnesses
Situations: Nearly any crime will suit for this role play, though you’ll want to be sensitive to your students and keep the details within cultural expectations.
- A very elderly and wealthy man has been murdered and the suspects are his young wife, his stepson and, of course, the butler.
- The city’s largest bank has been heisted. You’ve got three suspects, a bank clerk, an elderly sweet grandma type and a sketchy, unemployed guy.
- The border police have stopped a person trying to enter the country with an unusual story.
Preparation: This role play will take a bit of teacher and student preparation. Begin by finding short videos of interrogations from crime films. Point out the different parts of the interrogation, as described in the informative link above.
- You’ll need a number of personality cards.
- One red card or token that you give to the guilty person (The cops only suspect, they don’t know who’s guilty!)
- Evidence that the cops can slap down on the table
- Leading questions (Why did you do it? Where were you at the time of the crime?)
- Answering questions / avoiding answering
- Denial language (I didn’t do it! I wasn’t there! I don’t know what you’re talking about!)
- Past tense (I was in another place. I was doing something else at the time.)
Location: You’ve been there before. You’re walking down the street, someone comes at you with a clipboard and a smile and asks you if you have a few minutes to take a “quick” survey.
Personalities: The principle character will be the person taking the survey. The other participant will be any personality walking down the street, who should answer according to the character they’ve been assigned.
Situations: Surveys abound. Some of the most common surveys include:
- Survey meant to attract people to join an organization (A community group, a religious sect, a pyramid scheme)
- Survey meant to canvass for a particular product (Try our new chocolate bar and give your opinion; answer a few questions about your car insurance)
- Political survey meant to first find out who the participant is going to vote for and then convince them to vote for the other guy/gal
Preparation: This role play can be prepared by the students. Giving them different survey topics, have them develop five to ten questions for a street survey. Generate as many different kinds of survey as students, shifting the topics to stimulate their imaginations. Go over these surveys with the entire class so they become familiar with the questions.
You’ll also want:
- Personality cards
- Reaction cards (You’re in a hurry; You hate surveys; You’re very argumentative)
- A clipboard
- Questions / Answers (More information questions than simple yes/no questions)
- Avoidance language (I’m sorry, I’m in a hurry. I don’t have time right now. I’ve got to pick up my daughter at her dance class.)
- Cold presentation (Cold greeting, quick presentation, participant capture)
Location: An elevator, obviously. You can suggest that the elevator be in any number of buildings:
- A hospital
- A 200-story office building
- An apartment building
- A multiplex cinema
- A zipper elevator (as in the St. Louis Arch)
Personalities: Because the people are going to be trapped in a very small space, the most fun can be had if there’s some previous conflict between the participants:
- A nasty boss stuck with a timid employee
- Two people who’ve just gotten divorced
- Two people with claustrophobia
Situations: Besides the conflict, how the elevator gets stuck will add to improvisation possibilities:
- One of the riders has pressed the Stop button
- There is a power outage
- There has been an earthquake
- There has been an extraterrestrial invasion
Preparation: Start by chalking or taping a small rectangle on the floor to outline the dimensions of the elevator. This is the space the participants can’t move out of. Other props can be chosen from the prop bag if appropriate to the personalities.
- Argument language (It’s your fault! What have you done now? Isn’t this a fine mess you’ve gotten us into? If it wasn’t for you…)
- Anxiety language (Oh dear, are they ever going to rescue us? I’ve got to get out of here!)
- Suggestion language (Push the intercom button again. Try pushing “Open Doors.”)
7. Blind Date
Location: Participants are being filmed for a reality show while being on a blind date in a nice restaurant—a date which was arranged by a computer matchmaking service that purports to hook up perfect couples for eternal love and relationships. What your students won’t know (but will begin to suspect!) is that the computer program couples people with opposing personalities.
Personalities: These can be normal personalities, but you’ll want to couple them according to how incompatible they can actually turn out to be:
- A religious zealot with a Goth
- A loud, obnoxious person with a timid person
- An elderly person with a teenager
- Two strong-willed people who never agree with anyone else
Situations: The situations in this role play will emerge from the conflict of two opposing personalities assuming they’ve been perfectly matched and finding out that that’s not the case. As they “get to know each other,” they should gradually discover that the computer has made a huge mistake.
Preparation: Set up your restaurant scene, table and two chairs, cutlery and glasses. While you can use your standard personality cards, you may want to prepare additional cards that add a conflict aspect:
- You are very bossy
- You are always right and everyone else is always wrong
- You are very religious
- You are really loud and obnoxious
- You are a calm, timid person
- You are 102 / 17 years old
- Polite greetings
- “Getting to know you” questions/answers (Where are you from? What do you like to do in your free time? What do your think of current event / famous person ? Who’s your favorite singer?)
- Making excuses (Well, it’s been nice, but…; I’ve really had a good time, but I’ve got to go now; It’s getting late, I should be on my way…)
These aren’t your standard role plays, and you may have to put more effort into preparing for them. Most can take advantage of general language that your students have practiced in the past.
What makes these situations different is that, while using the same language, students concentrate more on the wacky situation than how they’re speaking. That should bring some healthy laughter into the classroom and add to the creative use of those structures and vocabulary that might have been getting a little too routine.
And One More Thing…
Searching for fun, authentic videos to introduce your students to English conversation? Check out FluentU!
It’s got a huge collection of authentic English videos that people in the English-speaking world actually watch on the regular. There are tons of great choices there when you’re looking for songs for in-class activities. You’ll find music videos, musical numbers from cinema and theater, kids’ singalongs, commercial jingles and much, much more.
On FluentU, all the videos are sorted by skill level and are carefully annotated for students. Words come with example sentences and definitions. Students will be able to add them to their own vocabulary lists, and even see how the words are used in other videos.
For example, if a student taps on the word “brought,” they’ll see this:
Plus, these great videos are all accompanied by interactive features and active learning tools for students, like multimedia flashcards and fun games like “fill in the blank.”
It’s perfect for in-class activities, group projects and solo homework assignments. Not to mention, it’s guaranteed to get your students excited about English!
Revel Arroway taught ESL for 30 years before retiring into Teacher Training. His blog, Interpretive ESL, offers insights into language teaching, simplifying the classroom, language class activities and general thoughts on ESL teaching.
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