There is a difference between simulations (where students act out real-life situations, for example the student checks in at “the airport”, but students do play themselves) and role plays where students take on different characters. In a role play, for example, one student may be asked to take on the role of “an angry landowner” in a role play which is concerned with discussing the possible construction of a new road. Another may be asked to play the role of the “road company representative”. Role plays will thus require more “imagination” on the part of the student to be able to get “into” the role.
Some students will find being asked to play a different person in a role play quite liberating. Some students who are normally quite shy can open up considerably in a role play lesson. The teacher, though, must attempt to maintain the “pretend” part of the simulations and role plays: i.e. the students ARE in an airport and not the classroom. Teachers can aid this process by use of realia and other props. Students who don’t enter into the ‘fantasy world’ can ruin it for everyone else.
Teacher intrusion must be kept to an absolute minimum during role plays and simulations….preferably, zero. We use role plays to allow students to test out learnt language in as realistic a situation as possible. They are, in a sense, a halfway house between a sterile classroom practice activity and the often frightening reality of the real world for students. Students can thus feel free to experiment with their language in a safe environment. Teacher intrusion is possible if the participating students, for example, are not understanding at all what they should be doing. Otherwise, teacher input should be left for the post-activity feedback session.
Feedback on what students have just done is vital. The role-play or simulation could be videotaped or recorded for example, which would allow a more detailed and thus useful analysis of their performances. Students need to see this as an important part of self evaluation. If students can learn to appreciate the weaknesses of their performance, they will only benefit. A student who says “he asked me about the ticket prices and I tripped up over the numbers again – I need to focus on that” is one who is well aware of where future performance needs to improve. The priority in the mind of the teacher, though, should remain communicative efficacy. Long feedback sessions of the mistaken use of the present perfect during the role play can be left for another time.
The more natural setting of a well set-up role play can also be used to introduce the unpredictability which makes communicating in the real world so daunting for many foreign language learners. This can be done either with the teacher playing “rogue” characters or handing out a couple of unusual role cards to other students. Teachers should seek to mix things up if you feel the simulations and role-plays are becoming too predictable for the class. As we said before, the safe environment offered by role plays means a few suprises can quite safely be thrown at students to see how they cope.