25 Roleplay ideas for the ESL Classroom

What is one of the best ways to help language students? How can classroom games help teachers? One of the best ways to help ESL and other language students to transition from the classroom into real-life situations is through role-playing games. It’s a very effective way teachers can help their students to use English outside of the classroom in a natural way. Role-playing should be part of every ESL teacher’s arsenal; it can also be used by regular teachers to reinforce certain ideas and to help students practice certain situations.

Why is role-playing such a good method?

Why is role-playing such a good teaching method? First students can use natural language; they can learn the grammar and vocabulary by actually practicing it with friends in situations that are real. They are not bound by the classroom. They can start thinking beyond the classroom and how to actually use the language in situations; it prepares them for the world outside. I’ve seen students – who are able to use the language in the classroom – freeze when required to speak English out on a field trip. Suddenly they can’t use it.

Roleplay helps students move to the outside of the classroom in a safe, controlled environment by actually practicing what they’re learning as if it’s the real world. Another great thing is that the teacher can move around and correct mistakes while the students are doing the roleplay, or give them some tips. That way they feel more confident once they go outside, because they’ve already practiced it inside the classroom.

Typically, students remember these roleplay activities more than they would normally. In essence, because they’re actually acting it out and they’re using it with friends. It can be funny and exciting, but that’s also one of the negatives: Sometimes students play around too much and they don’t practice what you want them to learn; you also get students that are too shy and other students that are not interested in doing the activity, so you have to properly motivate them to do that.

Another reason why role-playing activities are so enjoyable is that it gives students a chance to be creative; they can put themselves into the language, with that being said let’s jump into how to teach students roleplay.

How to prepare students for roleplay activity

Especially elementary students should be thoroughly prepared before they start doing the roleplay. They should have the necessary vocabulary or expressions and they should also know exactly what is expected of them. At higher levels, students don’t need that much support, but it can take them some time to get into the role. You should also be walking around and giving them some pointers helping them with the targeted language. Imagine sitting at your desk for hours and hours just studying something. With roleplays, students are able to stand up talk to their friends and by physically acting roles, they learn to express themselves better.

Make sure to have rules though, because things can get out of hand. We know how students are when they’re free to do what they want. Many students might mess around, so make sure they know what their boundaries are.

Decide on the teaching material. You can use scripts, storybooks, or a movie – anything from real life. Select the situations and talk about the necessary dialogue. Students should create dialogue with some of the vocabulary you’ve given them, but they should also feel free to use their own creativity. Nothing makes them feel better than to show off what they’ve already learned. I mean, what is the use of language if you’ve got all this knowledge, but you’re not allowed to use it? So, give them creative control, but within reason.  

Students then practice the given dialogue with a partner or in small groups so that everybody can get a chance. Once they’ve gotten used to a certain rule, make them switch so that they can practice different roles. Walk around and evaluate the students; check them for their understanding and use of target dialogue and ask them some questions in between.

To have all the students do their roleplays may take too long, so let them work in pairs or in small groups. I let them play rock, scissors, paper and then the losing group has to do their roleplay for the other students. Students love this and are motivated to practice, because they might get chosen, but they don’t have to sit around and watch ten other roleplays at the end of the class. Make sure students know why you’re doing the roleplay; what its purpose is, because if there’s no reason for them to do roleplays, it might get out of hand and you might lose the class. So, make sure they know the value and also that they stay within the boundaries of your classroom rules.

25 examples on how to improve roleplay

Keep the roleplays relevant to the language, make it true to real life so that students don’t act too crazy and lose the reason for doing it in the first place. When students struggle, they can be at a loss for words or phrases, so have some go-to words on the board that they can turn to in case they get stuck.

So, let’s look at 25 roleplay examples you can use in your ESL classroom:

One: Roleplay bad behavior  

If there’s some behavior in class that is unwanted; that you don’t want to see, ask students to roleplay the bad behavior and then also the consequences. Every moment is a teachable moment, so use it to teach the students what is acceptable in class and what is unacceptable.

Two: Ordering food

Talk about ordering food, asking a waiter for certain changes with food. You can also do a cooking show so that the students talk about the ingredients and how to cook.

Three: Accommodation

Making a reservation, going to the hotel, asking for some things that they might need.

Four: Taking a taxi

Getting into the taxi, giving directions and also paying.

Five: Telephone conversations

Nothing can be as nerve-racking as having a conversation in another language on the telephone. Practice telephone conversations or during making requests or talking to someone.

Six: Arguments with neighbors

Arguments between friends or neighbors. This is great because they can actually learn some interpersonal problem-solving skills.

Seven: See a doctor

Talk about going to see the doctor at the medical clinic or hospital. What are the basic aches, pains, body parts, or some ailments. They can also be the doctor or the nurse giving advice.

Eight: Be a teacher

Students can take the role of teacher and teach a certain part of the lesson. They can also practice asking questions to the teacher so that they feel more comfortable asking questions to you later. For example, if they don’t understand something, or asking about a test. Many students are so nervous to ask the teacher anything, so this is a great opportunity for them to practice it and in the future, they can use it perhaps. Students can practice making excuses and coming up with better excuses for having late work.  Even something like: “Teacher I forgot my homework; my dog ate my homework.”

Nine: Use props

If possible, add realia and props to the roleplay. It’ll make it more fun; students enjoy using things that help them act ‘in character’. See the following video on how to use props and the importance thereof.

Ten: Sales talk

Students must sell a product; they can ask questions about the product they’re buying. This is a great skill that everybody needs to have.

Eleven: Shopping

Practice going to the shop and buying some items. For example, you can have a shopping list; ask your mom about what you should get, and then going to the store and getting it.

Twelve: Interviews

Job and university interviews are nerve-wracking. Students can practice and get comfortable in those situations.

Thirteen: Speed dating

These quick conversations are fun for senior students. It is a great way for students to meet many people in a very short period of time and they practice their social skills with one another.

Fourteen: Town hall

If there are problems in town, citizens meet in the town hall where they discuss it and look for some solutions. This encourages students to have a problem-solving mindset.

Fifteen: Emergencies

All students should practice how to react when an emergency happens; how to call for help and how to react when something bad happens like a car accident; calling the ambulance, calling the police, discuss other types of accidents or emergencies.

Sixteen: Business meetings

Practice how to have a business meeting; how to conduct a meeting following its agenda.

Seventeen: Consumer complaints

How to raise complaints: You’ve got a problem with your meal, call the waiter; you’ve got a problem with your hotel; there’s something wrong with an item you’ve bought, you return it for a refund. Students should practice this so that they can do it in real life.

Eighteen: Husband and wife requests

This is a great personal skill to learn; sometimes there is conflict between a husband and wife and a relationship. This teaches students to ask for something; a wife can ask a husband: “Honey I want you to mow the lawn;” or the husband can say: “I want us to have a proper dinner once a week.” This way you can practice personal problem-solving skills.

Nineteen: At a party

Going to a birthday, a baby shower, or a wedding. How to give compliments, how to have small talk, how to say congratulations.

Twenty: Movies

Going to the movies, talking about movies and actors that you like; explaining the plot of a movie. Students learn to share ideas on movies.

Twenty-one: Giving your opinion

You have thoughts and feelings and it’s important to practice giving your opinion in a structured manner.

Twenty-two: Debate

Students should also be able to understand both sides of an argument and that is why debating is very important. Students should look at both sides of the debate and be able to give a logically structured reason for their beliefs.

Twenty-three: Giving advice

Everybody needs advice sometime in their life. This is a great roleplay for students to practice, giving advice and also receiving advice from friends. It’ll make them better friends and also better people.

Twenty-four: Relationship advice

Perhaps the students are in elementary school, but even then, they can learn and appreciate what relationships are. So many students don’t get the chance to talk about relationships. All understand how relationships work, this is a safe way for them to practice and also learn some English.

Twenty-five: Foreign culture

When living in a foreign country one must adapt to the local culture; students must give advice about cultural norms. This is a fantastic role play for students to understand how someone else might feel when they visit their country.

In conclusion:

Roleplay is a worthwhile experience for teachers and learners; not only do students get the opportunity to act and interact with their peers, but they also get to practice English. Students learn how to use the language in a more realistic, practical way. Thus, they become more aware of the usefulness and practicality of the English language. I hope you use roleplay in your classroom to help students connect the language to their real lives.  

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