The Internet TESL Journal

Bones of Contention: "Listed" Role Plays for Students of Oral English

Stewart Wachs
wachs [at]
Associate Professor
Kyoto University of Foreign Studies
6 Kasame-cho, Saiin, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto 615, Japan

The role plays I frequently use in my university oral English classes are called "listed" because, in addition to a concise paragraph or two which sets up characters and a situation, each student's cue card also contains a brief list of phrases which are essentially bones of contention.

These may be A's complaints (countered by B's rationales), A's beliefs (countered by B's doubts), or A's optimistic assertions (countered by B's worries or fears). They may, indeed, be anything that will set into motion a verbal conflict between the players. For as in drama, conflict is the soul of a well-wrought role play.

Consider, for example, a role play that pits a young parent against his/her own mother or father in a protracted quarrel over how best to raise the six-year-old girl with whom both presently live (see figure 1). The young parent worries that the grandparent is spoiling the little girl. But the grandparent, meaning well, has simply come with age to a more lenient view of child-rearing. The two players find themselves poles apart.

This gap in perspective seems to be the key that unlocks students' drive. For it can be fun to quarrel in a foreign language, provided one has enough firepower. Hence the bulleted lists.

The role plays I write provide each student with the firm skeleton of a character that he or she must then flesh out and bring to life with imagination, mood, gestures, and tone of voice. Some students, for example, will play the young parent as ill-tempered, even berating. Others will act more like supplicants, earnestly beseeching the grandparent to change for the sake of the child. To encourage each student to uniquely interpret their character, before the role play begins the teacher should make it clear that choices such as these can be made. Student initiative must be clearly welcomed.

Usually, a short opening line of verbatim dialogue is given to one of the players, but never its reply. And once that line has been spoken, the players are free to paraphrase their lists or invent as they see fit. Strolling around a classroom full of pairs engaged in this role play task is a bit like channel surfing, for each of the unfolding plays is different enough to follow its own unique course. In one, the characters peacefully compromise, while in another the quarrel heightens till one chooses to move out. Some plays will be serious, others comic. Some will end early, others not at all, and when the teacher at last calls a halt (preferably, after a one-minute warning), it may be wise to spend a few minutes inquiring, with the whole class tuned in, about what has happened with individual pairs.

This "debriefing", as it might be called, may begin with a basic check of the players' listening and retention --e.g., "What did your partner complain about?" Or instead, the teacher might ask for synopsis: "Did either of you agree to change your behavior? Just how did your argument go?" The rest of the class will usually be attentive, for students tend to want to know what has happened with other pairs.

Debriefing is followed (or sometimes replaced) by a whole-class discussion aimed at the role play's theme. In the case above, for example, the teacher might ask for a show of hands of students who have lived, at some point in their lives, with a grandparent. These students are asked to explain (through concrete examples or anecdotes) who was the stricter: their grandparent or parent(s). This moves the talk from the realm of fantasy to real life, which can provide a bridge to another, linked activity such as a small group discussion of child-rearing.

In my oral English classes listed role plays are integral parts of theme-based units that also include discussions, oral presentations, video-viewing, and other activities. The role play in figure 1, for example, is taken from a unit based on the theme of parenthood. But listed role plays also serve well as stand-alone tasks. Either way, they get students talking to one another in an animated way.

Although the conversations that result are fictive, there seems to occur, in my experience, quite a high degree of suspension of disbelief. The students are drawn well into the fictional situation, and unselfconsciously assume their roles with vigor and emotion. In part this depends on how well the role play is conceived, but it is also affected by how carefully the activity is launched. The teacher, first and foremost, must show enthusiasm for the task. A brief spoken introduction can convey this well. It is also wise to instruct the partners to face one another and begin to envision each other no longer as classmates, but as whomever their roles dictate --e.g., "Student A, this is your mother (or father). Student B, this is your son (or daughter). How are you feeling toward him/her right now in this situation?" Prior to this, while students are reading their A or B cards, the teacher should circulate throughout the room and troubleshoot for vocabulary, quietly helping those students who need it. If a word comes up repeatedly, it should be written, with its definition, on the blackboard for all to see.

All of the pairs begin their acting on a single, teacher-led cue, and it's a good idea to make this a bit dramatic. I often cry out, "Lights, camera, action!" and bring my hands together like a movie clapboard. This helps to rev up the students. Once the role play is underway, the teacher can do more than just observe. I've often found it helpful to play an extra character and plunge right into the fray myself. In the role play discussed above this is easily done. The teacher can simply jump right in as the second parent or grandparent. In the role play shown in figure 2, in which two sober people at a party are trying to prevent a third drunken friend from driving home late at night, I pop in momentarily as the latter's drunken pal, slurring my speech and encouraging him/her to "hit the road" with me on the double. "C'mon!" I say, "I've got a bottle of whisky out in the car!" This works to intensify the resistance of his/her friends (and to break down some acting inhibitions). It is fun to do, and helps to melt down the teacher-student barrier.

When the total number of students attending happens to be an odd number, the extra student can likewise be placed with one of the pairs in the manner described above. It is prudent to give some thought to this when writing a role play in the first place. (Note, too, by the way, that the figure 2 "drinking" role play is not designed for pairs, but for groups of three. Pairs are the rule, but there are exceptions.)

Listed role plays provide an extra measure of security as students try out their linguistic skills in an environment of unpredictable language. Since they must never look at their partner's card, they cannot be certain of where they are headed, even more so when a partner seizes the initiative to steer them off towards "unlisted" ground. And students do this, in part, because their list provides the models they need to start them thinking on their own.

Too often, role plays found in textbooks simply sketch out a situation. When students have trouble with these it is often because it is hard for them to imagine in any detail the mind of the character they must play. A listed role play, by contrast, offers a sampling of the characters' thoughts; this is suggestive, not merely prescriptive.

When writing a listed role play, a teacher should keep in mind the students' level of English skill as well as their familiarity with this type of task. At first, it's a good idea to have the A & B lists run in matching order --e.g., an "A" complaint and its "B" rationale will both be at the top of the lists, and so on. But for intermediate students with some experience with listed role plays, it's more challenging to scramble the order, forcing the students to listen with a keen ear and think a bit more before they reply. I have successfully used listed role plays with students of nearly every level, from false beginner on up to advanced.

Like all good role plays, listed ones help develop fluency and bolster confidence. Students find they can cope, and even enjoy themselves, by using the language they already know as well as that printed onto their cards. They soon discover that many mistakes in speaking pose no problem, while others do. Accuracy, after all, consists not merely in using structures or words correctly, but also in saying the right thing at the right time. Moreover, the greater detail provided by listed role plays makes them ideal "awareness" devices. In the example shown in figure 2, students must try to think of a way to protect the drunken partygoer. And sure enough, in debriefing, a wide range of plans emerges, ideas which for many students represent an advance in their thinking, potential actions now validated by the group's consensus and readily applied to future real-life situations. In the role play shown in figure 3, students gain a budding awareness of the potential strengths and weaknesses of international marriages, something they may not have given much thought to before. Conceiving original listed role plays is not such an arduous task. Indeed, it is fun to write them and then find out how well they will "fly" in the classroom. When they take off, the students soar as well.

See the 3 Sets of "Listed" Roll Playing Cards mentioned in this article.

The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. III, No. 9, September 1997