Doing Role Plays, the fully fledged version, is one of those aspects of language teaching loved or detested by the teacher. A good Role play, well-done is highly rewarding to teacher and to student alike. A badly-done one gives a feeling of awkwardness shared by teacher and student and, if a teacher experiences this in his first efforts with Role Plays he tends to go into them with less and less confidence, a greater feeling of awkwardness and consequently less chance of bringing off a good one. A vicious circle is engaged which the teacher will have trouble getting out of. In fact some teachers abandon role plays as a technique altogether. The teacher who has done this tends to consider role plays a "waste of time". He thinks "most students don't like them", and, furthermore, that "advanced students think they are childish". He also tends to believe that, anyway, "you have to be an actor, not a teacher to do good ones." (with the thinly disguised innuendo that it would be rather infra dig for a real teacher to stoop so low.)
This, of course, is just a rationalisation of the fact that he can't do them and stems almost certainly from the trauma induced by early, unhappy experiments in this direction.
Hence it is very important to avoid this and to get your first role plays right and the most important factor in making them successful is adequate preparation. When a teacher has read a text which contains a situation suitable for adaptation to a RP it can not be supposed that the student has absorbed the background information sufficiently to improvise. If the text contains a detailed dialogue it can be used and will require little further preparation if it has been studied in some detail. Often, however, RPs are based on situations mentioned in the text but not elaborated on. For example:
"Mr.Jones called his secretary into his office and warned her about arriving late for work."
If the preparation is only as follows:
T Right, lets try this
situation. Now, we're in an office. You're Mr. Jones and I'm the
secretary. Where are we?
S We're in an office?
T Who are you?
S I'm Mr. Jones.
T and who am I?
S You're the secretary.
T Good. So now call me into your office. OK?
S Err... Mary, please come into the office.
T Yes, what is it Mr. Jones.
S Err ... You must not come late to the office.
T (trying to liven things up) But it isn't my fault that I am late.
S Why are you late?
T It's because the train is late.
S Oh .. well ...
(Here the student stops, stumped for ideas and the teacher has to resort to whispered instructions which become more and more frequent as the situation becomes more complex and ultimately destroy any semblance to reality which the RP may have had at first)
A real preparation must explore the situation in detail and aim to provide dialogue, not just an indirect account of what the characters are going to say:
T How do you think Mr. Jones
called his secretary into the office?
S On the telephone I suppose.
T And what do you think he said on the phone?
S Please would you come into my office for a moment?
T But if it was to speak to her about being late would he be so gentle and polite?
S Ah. Maybe "Would you come into the office!" not "please".
T And no "would" either. How about "I want to see you a moment, Mary." ... say it please.
S I want to see you a moment, Mary.
T Yes, Mr. Jones. Now, what do you think Mr. Jones would say when the secretary came into the office?
S Er ... You are here late every day....
T Wouldn't he ask his secretary to sit down?
S Ah, yes, Please sit down.
T Well, OK but not like that. Change your expression ... and point to the chair.
S (more sternly, pointing) Sit down Mary.
T Good, that's better. Terrify the girl! (pretends to be secretary, sits down, gnawing his knuckles) Now what are you going to say to her?
S (Enters a bit more into the spirit of the thing and thunders) You 'ave been late every morning this week!
T Ah, splendid! but now what do you think the secretary will say? Maybe she has a reason for being late.
S Maybe she is sick?
T And how does she tell Mr. Jones? - she can't just say "I am sick."
S I am not well this week.
T Ummm. How about: I haven't been too well lately.
S Yes ... I haven't been too well lately.
T And what does Mr Jones think of that?
S Haha. 'E thinks it is not true but he can not say!
T Oh dear! well, what can he say .....
This is a long way from finished and such an approach can take quite a long time but when it is finished the teacher can say to his student. "Right, now you are my boss and I am late. Pick up your telephone ..." and be sure that the student is fully equipped, not only with a basic idea but also a certain idea of the atmosphere of the situation and enough practised phrases to express himself with some confidence.
Most Role Plays I have seen done cover a situation in the way it is supposed to happen. The questions are routine. The responses are foreseeable. The exercise can be made more interesting if it involves the solving of a problem of some kind. The student or students should provide the problem and therein lies the element of the unknown which can make role plays more interesting to watch for the rest of the group, if you are working with a group, and in any case, more profitable for the participants. It is very important that in his general preparation the teacher ensures that enough "problems" are discussed to give his students a real choice even if they are not themselves very imaginative. Sometimes one can push a student towards a suggestion in such a way that he thinks it is his own, even though it is really yours. This will probably give a better result as he will be keen to make "his" idea work as well as possible.
When you are looking for plausible problems to garnish a role play of virtually any real life situation, it is usually profitable to ask yourself "Does it happen like this when I do it?". The answer for me, and I suspect for most people, is probably a very definite "No". It certainly is in my case. If I go to the Post office it is a signal for the fates to go to town on me. If I want a registered letter I will have forgotten to bring an appropriate means of satisfying the clerk as to my identity. Or my address will be different on the document I present, or it will be out of date, or the name on the letter will be a little bit different. A French post office clerk faced with a packet addressed to Mrs. John Smith and two claimants, Mrs. Mary Smith and Mr. John Smith, might decide to return the packet to the sender. If I want to send a parcel it is usually too big, too small, too heavy or destined for a country with a postal strike which gives the Post Office an excuse not to accept mail for any country in the immediate vicinity of that effected. (When there was a strike in Great Britain they refused parcels for Ireland too.)
Suggesting a few of these only too likely possibilities will probably incite your students to produce others and the end result will be a much more lively role play. At the same time you are teaching your student to deal with real life situations; After all if everything goes all right one barely needs to speak. You can get by with gestures. It's when things go wrong that you have to say something. And let's admit it - it usually does.
© Mark Yates 2000