“Can I get a slice of pizza, please?”
“I’ve been a professional tiger tooth cleaner for 10 years.”
Have you ever heard phrases like these come out of your students’ mouths?
You can spark interesting conversations by introducing role play into your lesson plans, a cool way to bring the real world to your students—with some added twists for fun, of course.
The English speaking practice they will receive is paramount to their overall success both in and outside of the classroom.
So to get you started, we’ve put together four practical role play ESL activities that will build your students’ confidence and communication skills.
What Makes Role Play Activities So Remarkable for ESL Students?
What many native English speakers may see as daily, routine activities could be challenging for ESL students. However, with role play activities, students can practice communicating in the same way they would in real-life situations.
Often, modeling real-life situations and English conversation can be a great starting place for a role play class. Be sure to check out the massive library of FluentU with a free trial to discover some great ideas.
The benefits and skills offered up to your students during these activities include communication, collaboration, reading, writing, general speaking, quick decision making, questions and answers, giving and following directions, and physical response. Your students will get the much needed and deserved stepping stones that will help them navigate real world situations outside of class.
The following four role play activities will cover a wide variety of routine situations. Often times, when students get involved in practical situations, low confidence can hinder speech and general English communication. Implementing the following activities will build confidence and take your students to the next level of communication in a fun, informative way.
4 Practical ESL Role Play Activities for Your Eager Students
1. A Slice of American Style
In this activity, you will turn your ordinary classroom into a bustling city pizza shop. What do most travelers and business people do when they go to places like Chicago, New York or even Los Angeles? They get a slice of American pizza.
Many pizza shops across the United States boast the culture of that region and embody the American lifestyle. Conversations can be had, and assimilation into a culture is directly linked to food.
Here’s a hearty slice of this food culture role play activity:
- Find out what your students know. Ask your class what they have seen or experienced when it comes to a pizza shop. They may have already seen one on television or in a movie, or have visited one themselves. This is a great warm-up exercise to get all the good stuff out before you get the role play activity cooking.
- Create the pizza shop. Next, have your students stand up and begin moving desks and chairs around in order to turn the classroom into a pizza shop. Depending on class time, you can also do this before class. Bring in some empty pizza boxes and aprons if you can find them in your town. You may even have some luck and get a pizza shop to sponsor your activity, which means free pizza after the exercise!
- Give out the scripts. Some students will be workers, others will be diners at a table or two, and some will enter the shop for a quick slice and soda. You can give each student a script to serve as a rough guideline during the role play. You can also have students change roles and practice different communication throughout. For example, the worker would ask questions and the customer will explain what they want. Definitely allow a lot of improvisation during the activity.
- Teach specific vocab. As the activity unfolds, you can chime in and give more real-life examples of situations. For example, the unique vocabulary you would hear in a pizza place. Words including slice, pie, red sauce, pepper flakes and fountain soda are all great to touch on.
This activity will work on skills such as communication, collaboration, ordering, taking an order, writing, giving direction and building much needed confidence.
2. A Night out on the Town
One day, your students will find themselves in a new town or city where English is the primary language. One aspect of seeing new places, whether it is for travel or business, is going out at night to socialize.
This can be a daunting experience for your students, since this means sparking up conversation in an informal way with new people in English. Give your students the confidence and know how before this moment arrives.
Here is a footloose example of this night out role play activity:
- Get the stereotypes and past experiences out on the dance floor. Some of your students may have already had a night out in an English-speaking country, and their anecdote may be helpful for their classmates moving forward. You could even share a story of your own. Some students may have “Saturday Night Fever” as their reference for a night out, so it’s important to make sure they know what they can really expect.
- Assign roles. Before dimming the lights and turning up the music, give your students the roles they will be playing in this role play. Some will be bartenders, servers and patrons, and you could even make one student the DJ. Again, it is important to have a lot of room for improvisation so your students can get creative. For example, Student A will be a person in town on business, and they need to strike up a conversation with Student B.
- Interact with your students. You will also be a patron during this activity, floating and sparking up conversation with your students’ characters. Roles will be switched and everyone in the class will get an opportunity to be someone new. You could even add a theme to your role play activity, such as New Year’s Eve, St. Patrick’s Day or another English-speaking holiday or big event like the World Series or the Superbowl.
The skills involved in this role play activity include communication, striking up conversation, building confidence, explaining one’s self, and asking/answering improvised questions. Much of the conversation in this role play activity will also require quick-witted English thought and response, an essential aspect for a night out on the town.
3. Bizarre Job Interviews
This one is a fun and exciting exercise your students will love. There is an informal mix up to this otherwise formal role play activity. In many cases, job interview role play activities are discussed in class or in ESL textbooks, but this activity puts an exciting spin on the more traditional activity.
The jobs your students interview for will be those of a more bizarre nature. This will evoke more English thought, and force your students to go off script from the usual interview questions and answers.
Let’s take a closer look at the bizarre employment opportunities this activity involves:
- Cover background knowledge about strange jobs. Ask your students as a class about a few jobs they may have had, or possibly some bizarre jobs they may have heard about. This promotes imagination, creativity and will serve as a great warm-up activity. You can even share a bizarre job of your own, or of a friend. Maybe you or someone you know spent a summer as a kiwi picker in New Zealand, or cleaned cages at the zoo.
- Give out the roles. You will need to have made a few worksheets for each job interviewer ahead of time. A fun twist is to let the interviewer know which job the interviewee will be interviewing for, but to keep the interviewee in the dark until the activity begins. For example, let’s say Student A has a list of questions to ask Student B, the interviewee. Student A might read, “How did you hear about the position for tiger tooth cleaner?” Student B will need to spontaneously come up with an answer. It is fun!
- Have students write answers. You can also have Student A write down Student B’s answers. The last question should give Student B an opportunity to ask the interviewer any questions he or she may have about the job. For example, “How many tigers are there?” This will evoke quick, spontaneous response from Student A.
- Take turns. Your students should switch roles among the different interview tables and bizarre jobs. As the exercise continues, you could even be an interviewer or interviewee to add to the excitement and fun of the role play activity.
Communication, asking and answering questions, improvisation, writing, reading and confidence building are the vital ESL skills involved in this activity.
4. Driving Directions Improvisation
There are many aspects involved in soliciting driving directions which will come in handy for many practical situations. In this role play activity, you will employ a few antagonists to throw a wrench in the otherwise traditional ESL lesson for directions. There are also a few different scenarios that will be used in this activity.
Here’s the main twist: Let’s say a group of three students are sitting in chairs placed together to simulate being in a car. The passenger should ask a student on the sidewalk for directions. Once received, the backseat passenger will try to mix up the driving directions by disagreeing with the student in the passenger seat. This creates confusion in a fun way, and will later lead to a game based on points.
Here’s a quick look at this confidence-boosting ESL role play activity:
- Assign roles. Divide your students into a few roles for the first round of this activity. There will be several rounds of role play, and each student will get the chance to play a different part. For example, you might want to create small slips explaining roles: driver, passenger, person on sidewalk and backseat antagonist.
- Give directions to pedestrian. Only the student on the sidewalk will have the correct directions written down to refer to—a quick sheet or slip of paper that you should prepare ahead of time. The rest of the actors will have to listen closely to what the pedestrian says.
- Give voice commands. Once the first set of students have taken their positions, start to give vocal commands to each student. For example, tell the passenger to ask the person on the sidewalk for directions to the university. The student playing the pedestrian role will give the directions (from the sheet) and could also ask a few random questions, like “Where are you from?”
- Have the passenger tell the driver the directions. After the passenger does so, command the backseat passenger to become the antagonist and start saying random (incorrect) directions, while the front seat passenger tries to defend the original directions.
- Test the driver. The driver will try to keep things straight among this confusion. After a few minutes go by, the driver must show you how they would navigate to the destination in the correct way (according to the pedestrian’s directions). If the driver gets the directions correct, he or she gets a point.
- Switch roles/activities. You can use walking, driving, bus driver, runners or any other practical activity that could happen in real life. The points will tally up as drivers explain directions to you at the end of each exercise. Whoever has the most points wins.
This role play activity involves communication, collaboration, memory, quick English response, speech conflict, debate, asking and answering, and following commands quickly. It is a fun activity that will get your students moving, laughing and learning while building the vital confidence they will need later in their English lives.
Role play activities are crucial for building practical skills, and your students will enjoy learning if you implement a bit of excitement and creativity. Traditional role plays are great, but they have often been rehearsed and reused so many times that your students already have scripted answers.
Adding a little more practical flavor to role play activities will keep your class eager to learn more and build confidence in areas they may have neglected before. Any English exercises that put real-world English into practice are more than useful, they promote learning in the most realistic ways. Give your students the fun and informative activities they need and will love!
Stephen Seifert is a writer, editor, professor of English and adventurer. With over 7 years of teaching experience to students worldwide, he enjoys the many aspects of culture and traditions different from his own. Stephen continues his search for writing inspiration, boldly enjoying life to the fullest.
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