4 Steps to Make ESL Role Play Work in Your Classroom

One of the most flexible, effective ESL tools we’ve got is role play.

Role play is food for the imagination and an amazing exercise in complete English immersion—yet it too often goes overlooked!

When was the last time you let your students step outside themselves?

Have you let them spread their wings and become shoppers, police officers, office workers, bosses and more?

I ask this question around, and I’ve noticed that it’s almost as if this handy tool is unknown to many teachers, or as if this once well-used device has somehow drifted to the bottom of a cluttered toolbox, waiting patiently to be called back into service.

Role play is a trusty helper that can flexibly serve as an ice breaker, an entertaining end of class fun-time or as a longer, more dedicated production.

Furthermore, role play can greatly enhance many other types of lessons and be readily incorporated into them. For example, you can take lessons that involve movies, listening exercises and reading comprehension, and extend them with relevant role play activities.

Even better, the role play device is always ready at a moment’s notice, as long as you keep it oiled, polished and handy in your back pocket!

So, what makes a role play activity shine?

For role play to be an effective learning device, the roles and scenarios must be those with which the students feel at least somewhat comfortable.

The casting and decisions about format must be done with care, and likewise, decisions about the audience and final production should be considered beforehand.

Even if you want your students to spontaneously jump into it, you’ll need to spend some time planning on your own.

The 4 Major Stages of Directing Any ESL Role Play Activity

1. Casting

Gender and Age

Kids can often run the gambit of roles with little to no problem: age, gender, profession—you name it, they can do it.

Adults might feel a bit more awkward about stepping outside their own identity, whether that means acting an elderly or infant role or being someone of the gender opposite their own.

For these reasons, ages and genders can factor into who plays who, depending on your class.

Switching ages and genders could have one or all of several effects.

In some countries, cultures and classes, you’ll want to keep things comfortable and in line with the students’ actual identities. Perhaps you can drop them in a unique situation or have them doing an imaginary activity in their usual lives, and they can project just so far as to imagine what they might say in English given the circumstances. This kind of role play may feel more tangible and meaningful to them.

Students may be so uncomfortable and unfamiliar with “playing” as another person that they will simply freeze, or they’ll feel like it’s a joke and turn it into an uncontrolled giggle fest of a charade. Both could happen, with some students frozen with uncertainty and others carrying on like impromptu comedians, with each causing the other to be even more entrenched in their unproductive behaviors. If this happens, very little learning will be accomplished!

If your class is split like this, some excited and some awkward, break students into groups and let them role play as they’d like to. The more timid students can opt for simple situations like being themselves at an amusement park, while the crazier bunch can really let it rip with whatever they imagine.

Ultimately, let your students be your guides! Listen to the unique needs, desires and comfort levels of each student, and allow them to be whoever they wish to be! If they’re enjoying their role play identity, then let them have it. If they’d like to be someone as different from them in real life as possible, let them do it!


You may not think of the audience as part of “setting the stage,” but it really is.

Whether there will or will not be an audience for the role play (aside from the other participants on stage at the moment) is a big decision that will have significant consequences for this educational production.

As discussed in more detail below, public speaking is the number one fear of humans—above fear of death and fear of losing a loved one. For purposes of this blog post, presume that this isn’t a public speaking learning exercise—public speaking is a universe of ESL lessons unto itself that can be saved for another day and blog post!

For role play to serve as an effective tool, the decision whether the rest of the class will or will not be watching will have an enormous effect on learning results. In general, it’s most often optimal to not have a role play being observed by a large number of people.

Rather, a manageable size is often preferable—say an audience of a maximum of ten for a role play with two to five participants. The role play should not have an audience so large that it turns into a public speaking event. Rather, the role play should be watched by a small, familiar group. If a class is larger than twenty, small group formats should be used.

2. Planning the Theatrical Event

Scripted or Spontaneous?

There’s a place in ESL role play for both scripted and improv (impromptu, or unscripted) formats. The advantages of scripted role plays (whether by the students or otherwise) is that the students are able to practice the grammar and pronunciation of the parts they’re being asked to perform.

One of the negatives of scripted role play is that it gives students more time to become nervous. Improv leaves much less time for anxiety to build. Another negative that scripted role play has that improv does not is that scripted role play more closely resembles the ultimate goal of ESL fluency: the ability to command the language correctly unaided, in various settings and with various prompts.

Picking Topics

Determining the “plot” of the role plays is generally not a difficult matter—provided the role play technique isn’t implemented too soon, before you have a chance to get to know your students.

Quite simply, the subject, or scenario, of the role play should be a topic with which the participating students are familiar. Do you have a group of students who are science majors in their classes outside of ESL? Scenarios could be based around laboratories or a new discovery. Are they humanities enthusiasts? The role play could be about experiences writing their first short story or firing their first piece of pottery in the kiln. In short, topic selection should be tailored according to students’ interests and knowledge.

The scenarios presented below are generally safe, common ground. These are subjects with which nearly all students will be familiar. Additionally, they’re gender- and age-neutral.

Preparing for the Show

How each role play is set up depends on the initial decision of whether to use a scripted or improv format for the role play. If the role play is to be scripted, a terrific homework activity for the students to do between one class and the next (that is, the class in which the role play is to be performed) is for students to write out both parts of the role play. They’ll need to be assigned a time period for the length of the role play, as well as be informed whether any props should be on-hand.

For example, in a role play about the first day on a new job (below) ask students to bring common workplace items such as pens and tablets, some kind of name tag (a sticker will work for this purpose), etc. For a play about finding an apartment, students could bring apartment listings from a local paper or online site such as Craigslist, as well as a map, a notepad and extra pens. Student telephones could also be used as props. In each instance, students should make a list of props, as well as a short script.

The first time students role play, the script can be as short as two or three lines for each student. Use your imagination, and encourage your students to use theirs.

Role play should be an entertaining activity! The objective is to teach students how to speak and listen in as natural an environment as possible. The scenarios below are familiar enough that teachers, alone or with their students, can devise lists of props for each scenario. In fact, assigning the students to devise props for the role play can be a fun part of the activity!

  • That’s life! Common day-to-day interactions
    Shopping for food
    Finding an apartment
    Getting directions to the subway/bus/auto routes from home to work
  • That’s why they call it work! Common workplace scenarios
    First day on a new job
    The company cafeteria
    Employee review day
  • Playtime! Common recreational pursuits
    Buying tickets to a show
    Being introduced to a new gym
    Finding/trying a new favorite restaurant

3. Showtime!

The role play performance itself presents a number of challenges that should be anticipated with plans for mitigation at the ready. Here are some that might come up:

Stage Fright

Stage fright—the fear of speaking in front of other people—particularly large audiences, is the greatest fear of most people, even topping death itself! According to Psychology Today, this is rooted in a fear of rejection.

Knowing that root cause, it’s important to establish a no-threat, encouraging environment in the classroom, informing students that negative comments and criticisms are strictly prohibited. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America has a helpful list of anxiety-reducing activities, including thinking primarily about the audience instead of yourself, visualizing your success and making sure you have a healthy lifestyle including limiting caffeine, sugar and alcohol.

There’s no single magic method for minimizing stage fright. It’s generally suggested that the more a person practices and succeeds, the less anxious they’ll be before and during a performance. If an anxiety-producing event occurs during the performance, the best course of action is to give the student(s) a small break, perhaps letting the next group perform, to allow the frightened student(s) to regain their composure.

Student Absences

Student absences are inevitable. The absence of a student expected to perform on a given date is even more predictable. As mentioned above, humans fear public speaking and that will encourage unjustified absences.

Student absences during role play activities should be discouraged by strictly enforcing policies regarding absences in general, such as notes from doctors or parents.

Contingency planning for absences can include assigning understudies—that is, students assigned to work beside the primary performer and stand in if the primary performer is absent. Another strategy that can also work is last-minute substitutions.

It’s good contingency planning to have a handful of students who have agreed to be on stand-by to fill in for an absent student. Each or both of these methods can be used to ensure that an absence does not completely shut down the production!


Interruptions during class performances are likely to occur but can be minimized by taking a few proactive steps. How disruptive a particular interruption is will depend upon the timing and length of the interruption and the ability of the interrupted performing students to regroup and restart.

First, interruptions should be minimized by using Performance in Progress—Do Not Disturb signs on the doors and notifying others in the building about the times of the performances (and letting them know not to interrupt!).

The likelihood for interruptions during the performances can also be minimized by, for example, ascertaining fire alarm testing and other building maintenance (such as scheduled power outages) schedules in advance, and scheduling the performance class(es) around those dates/times. If the room where you teach is ground-level with busy areas (such as the playground) outside your classroom windows, windows should be covered with blinds or in their absence, newspaper.

Interruptions may be short—such as a loud truck or plane passing, or long, such as a bomb scare and/or bomb drill, both frequent occurrences in some ESL regions such as Mexico, where I teach. Those kinds of drills are of varying length.

Students should be instructed to wait “on stage” for a short interruption to pass. Longer interruptions may require rescheduling the performance to another day. In either case, the performing students should be provided sufficient time to recollect their thoughts and concentration. The length of recovery time is generally proportional to the length of disruption.

4. That’s a Wrap!

Post-performance feedback of student performances is generally best done immediately after the performance if there’s only one performance per class period. Otherwise, waiting until the end of the class or even the next class is preferable.

There is nothing that will make students who are waiting to perform more nervous than hearing other students’ performances harshly criticized.

In that respect, post-performance reviews that are done in front of the audience should be positive, with any constructive criticism saved for private input.


With a little preparation, ESL role play can be an extremely useful tool for facilitating English language speaking abilities and assisting students in the universally important skill of public speaking.

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