Role-playing in classes
Verbal skills on the test

Role-playing is an excellent way to improve one's skills of verbal expression.
Role-playing is an excellent way to improve one's skills of verbal expression. | Photo: mabe123 © iStockphoto

An all-around winner in the classroom – when done properly, role-playing in foreign-language classes is not only fun but can also be a great way to put your verbal skills to the test.

Let's be honest. We all know a foreign language can only be learned by speaking it. We also know that the theory of “maximizing speaking time for students” has been an established element of language classes for years. Still, much of the latter part of a course is typically spent making up for uncovered material by introducing speaking exercises and games. As part of this phase, role-playing is presenting itself as an excellent way to improve one's skills of verbal expression in a range of simulated situations.

“What would you like to drink?”

Laughter, giggling, a bit of friendly banter. Pablo from Venezuela has tossed the chalkboard rag over his arm and is pretending to be a waiter taking an order. At the teacher's lectern is Line from Denmark, who is looking at the fictitious menu. The textbook and pencils have become plate and cutlery. The teacher? Observing the animated events while sitting among the students. Occasionally he writes something down, but mostly he's as quiet as a church mouse, not asking questions or correcting anyone's mistakes. Once a week in his A1 GFL course he does role-playing, and for good reason. As one subgroup of theater-inspired educational games, role-playing is turning out to be a universally effective tool in the classroom. According to Christa Dauvillier and Dorothea Lévy-Hillerich, co-authors of Spiele im Deutschunterricht (lit. Games in German Class), role-playing increases the fun in learning a foreign language, reduces inhibitions when speaking and inspires intercultural competence by forcing students to slip into another persona, think differently and discover new feelings.

“Role-playing enables students to deal with situations he/she already knows how to deal with, just in a new language,” explains Paul Rusch, an author at Langenscheidt for 20 years now and an active teacher trainer. In order to support students throughout these foreign-language situations and integrate the newly discovered knowledge into their repertoire over the long term, modern learning tools like “Netzwerk” are now including useful phrase boxes and dialog examples for role-playing exercises in A1 courses.

The all-important preparation phase

Is spontaneous role playing ideal for the classroom? Not exactly. Even if the teacher remains silently in the background, a good amount of planning is required here, including assigning roles, introducing useful phrases and tools, explaining the rules and integrating an appropriate feedback phase at the end. A successful learning experience demands detailed preparation and closing. The amount of time the students actually have to prepare themselves for the task depends on the complexity of the roles. Students will work their way into roles and even be able to express themselves pretty well in situations and even conflicts if the groups are well mixed and always being newly formed.

According to Rusch, it is especially important here that the students are provided with the language tools in the classroom: projections on the wall or written tips on the chalkboard. “We can't just put them in a situation without giving them some of the relevant phrases and tools.” It is also helpful to provide the students with additional vocabulary in order to inject a bit of variety.

Role-playing and feedback

As Christa Dauvillier and Dorothea Lévy-Hillerich write in their book, speech is not the only important element of role-playing. Methods of dealing with situations are vital since the emotional involvement tends to increase. Pulling a face because the food doesn't taste right is not just permitted but encouraged – and typically happens automatically, anyway. “Even in these trivial scenarios, the actors automatically pick up the pencils and play with the book,” says Rusch based on his many years of experience in the classroom. In order to make the situations even more authentic, Dauvillier and Lévy-Hillerich like to provide props – an emergency object that speakers can grasp in moments of insecurity. Name tags with the roles and names (e.g. Ms. Smith, waitress) also help the students orientate themselves in their roles.

Before beginning, a time limit should also be set. This prevents the discussions from lasting too long. Role-playing can be done in front of the class, of course, but Rusch warns of “putting everything under the spotlight.” He also mentions that interruptions can be very disconcerting, particularly in beginner classes where students are already unsure of their abilities. Christa Dauvillier and Dorothea Lévy-Hillerich, on the other hand, recommend first discussing the features of the role (Was the waiter friendly?), then taking a look at how the scenario played out (Where was the conflict? How was it resolved? What alternatives are there?) and then at the end providing corrections from a linguistic perspective.

Incidentally, textbook author Rusch doesn't believe that role playing is the only applicable method, as long as the students are speaking in class. “Free conversation is the driving force for progress here.” But role-playing is of course a highly creative and motivating option as well as an important component that should be integrated into GFL classrooms.

Christa Dauvillier and Dorothea Lévy-Hillerich:
Spiele im Deutschunterricht (lit. Games in German Class) (Langenscheidt, 2004)