Roleplay in TEFL

Roleplaying from Home

I’ll never forget a class I gave about 10 years ago when I began working at the UAB (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona). It was the first class of the academic year and all the students were new to each other. Like most teachers, I usually do some type of getting-to-know-you activity in first classes, but not having a rubber ball at hand I think I just went round the group asking the students to give a bit of personal information about themselves. Everything went according to plan with the first 5 or 6 students – “My name’s Montse and I’m from Sabadell. My hobbies are sumo-wrestling and darts.” etc etc – until, that is, we reached Jordi (I only discovered this was his real name after the class). The exchange went something like this:

Me : Thank you, Montse! … And the gentleman sitting next to you, could you tell us a little about yourself?Jordi : Greetings earthling! They call me Zog, I am on a mission from the planet Epsilon Eridani. Whom am I addressing, and what position do you hold in terrestrial civilisation?

Other students : (stunned silence)

Me : My name’s Ian … Uh! … Zog! … I’m your teacher!

Zog : Teacher? … Take me to your leader, please!

Me : Iamthe leader!

Zog : Repeat, please!

Me : I’m your teacher, and the leader too!

Zog : Oh! … (lifting his right hand)
I come in peace!

Me : I’m glad to hear that, Zog. Welcome to Level 5! … (turning to the next student) And you are?

Little did he know, but Jordi (via his alter ego, Zog) had single-handedly just pulled off the first roleplay of the course. Admittedly, I’ve embellished the language a little and I can’t remember the exact name of his home planet, but the the rest of the story is absolutely true: Jordi was Zog, and he was on a mission to Earth. In fact, Jordi remained Zog for the rest of the year, and for all I know he still calls himself Zog to this very day.

Although this anecdote is a bit rambling, I feel it illustrates some of the main reasons
for doing roleplay activities with students:

  1. Roleplays involve people momentarily stepping outside themselves, they tend to provoke students’ imaginations and tap directly into their creative juices.
  2. They’re great fun! Pretending to be someone else means that you can more or less side-step responsibility for what you say. The results can be very humourous.
  3. They provide opportunities for practising functional language (apologising, thanking, persuading, alien-earthling greetings etc) and for reenacting real life situations (ordering in a
    restaurant, shopping, introducing yourself to an earthing etc) in the classroom.
  4. They give students a break from talking about themselves all the time. To be honest, I’m not sure our obsession with personalising everything goes down well with all students, all of the time. Some students may find being asked to divulge certain personal information intrusive, especially during the first class of a course. Although I wasn’t digging too deep, what Jordi may have wanted to convey when he Zogged me was this: “Hey, Mr Teacher, I’ve just met you and all these other people. Do you really expect me to denude myself in front of a group of strangers? Well, to be perfectly honest, I don’t feel like it just right now thank you very much.
    Try again in a couple of months when we know each other a bit better and you invite us all down the pub!” … and he may have a point!

Roleplaying Tools
Although most of the roleplay activities we do with our students are carried out in a classroom setting, these days there are a variety of web applications which canenable students to take on roles and play them out from the comfort of their own homes. Here are three of my favourites.

1. Fotobabble
Roleplaying need not be done in pairs or groups, it can also be an individual activity. Have a look at the example below in which “spoken” life is given to the character (East German border guard, Conrad Schumann) in the photo.


Task idea:
Ask your students to choose a photo featuring a well-known person or scene.
Tell them to imagine they are the character portrayed in the photograph and get them to make a one-minute recording of what they imagine them to be saying or thinking. It’s a good idea to talk about the photo in class first in order to elicit any vocabulary and expressions they might need.

2. Voki
Voki allows students to create a cartoon avatar by defining hair colour, clothing, sex, age etc. Once they’re happy with their avatar’s appearance, they can give them the power of speech by making a short voice recording. The application will do its best to sync their avatar’s lips with the recorded utterances. Here’s a “grumpy-old-man Voki” I made earlier.

Task idea: Talk about social stereotypes (working mother, stressed businessman, computer game-obsessed teenager etc) in class. Encourage your students to discuss their attitudes to life and what they might look like. Feed in vocabulary and then send them off home to create a speaking avatar of the stereotype which interests them the most.

3. Voicethread
The two activities above are examples of “individual” roleplaying, however you can also do pair or group roleplays with Voicethread by uploading a photo of two or more people and getting your students to act out the conversation. Here’s an example Voicethread which includes two photos taken in Madrid.


Task idea: Get your students to open and share a Voicethread account in pairs or groups. Ask them to upload a photo in which there are two or more people. Tell them to create the “identity” avatars for the characters by clicking on “My identities” in the top right corner of the screen and cropping the head and shoulders of each character. Students should now assign each other the different characters and do a little work on the 5Ws (Who? When? Why? What? Where?) before going home and getting into their roles. This activity is asynchronous, involving students contributing to the roleplay from different places at different times.
You could give them a week or so to complete the task and insist on students making a specific number of contributions.

Hope you find these ideas useful!

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3 Responses to Roleplay in TEFL

  1. Hi Ian.

    Great demos of 3 web apps: Very often people blog about an app they’ve discovered, but I can’t be bothered going to the page, creating an account, and so on. You’ve given us a nice sampler here.

    And I second you absolutely on the value of role-plays. It’s great to get learners out of themselves.

  2. Pingback: Roleplaying from home « tefltecher

  3. I teach a lot of 1-2-1 classes and I had stopped using roleplays because they felt too forced and artificial. However, after reading this blog I have been enthused to give them another go. Thanks a lot for sharing.

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