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In addition to introducing students to the basics of English, TEFL educators also need to help their students practice and improve their conversational skills. After all, conversational English essentially comprises the practical side of language learning, and equipping students with the tools to meaningfully participate in an English conversation is the primary objective of most TEFL programs. Learning outcomes are also more easily assessed by students' progress in oral communication compared with written exams.
There are several techniques on how conversational English can be practiced and improved. Listening, film viewing, and cultural immersions are just some of the more common. However, role-playing remains one of the most effective ways of transitioning English students from the language basics and theories that were learned inside classrooms into the real world where global English is the primary way of communicating ideas in business, science, popular culture, and even in everyday scenarios.
Certainly, helping learners become proficient in English either as a second or a foreign language takes time and effort. Given the tacit consensus that English has become the de facto language for global communication, it is not very difficult to persuade people that learning it is of critical importance, especially if they plan to migrate to countries where English is the official language or if they intend to do business with or work for a multicultural organization. The fact is, students who have enrolled in TEFL classes have more likely been persuaded well before, leaving TEFL educators with the real and practical job of preparing learners for the "real world" where nouns, verbs, and adjectives are increasingly becoming more English by the minute. Arguably, no other method comes close to the tried and tested technique of role-playing when it comes to building up student proficiency and confidence in orally communicating ideas in English.
Benefits of role-playing in and out of English classrooms
Educators agree on the benefits of role-playing in their TEFL classes. First, role-play is a good substitute for actual language encounters students may find themselves involved in the real world. By re-enacting or simulating these encounters in a learning environment (whether inside or outside traditional classrooms), TEFL educators help prepare learners by covering language issues students may expect to be confronted in a specific encounter. For example, ordering meals at a restaurant where English is the mode of communication can be challenging for basic level students. By practicing their communication skills in free, unscripted role-plays, students steadily develop both their vocabulary and their confidence in dealing with specific language scenarios that may commonly arise in a restaurant setting.
For this reason, role-play should be clearly delineated from drama or theatrical play where dialogue is scripted. While memorization as required in scripted short plays and drama is also very important in language learning, role playing should be free from scripts--at least for the role being played by learners. This is to encourage students to alertly assess language encounters on their feet, and mentally process their responses to specific scenarios. The targeted outcome of this approach is to improve students' skills in impromptu conversation and their ability to linguistically draw from their own experiences and vocabulary.
Role-plays also enliven classroom learning by adding variety and movement to the lesson engagements. Especially when the assigned roles are relevant or interesting to the language students, role plays can encourage a deeper involvement among students. Role-plays also represent lively breaks from the tedious teacher-focused lectures that inevitably comprise much of the classroom dynamic. For role-plays to truly maximize this function, however, movement should be incorporated. That is, participants in a role-play should be asked to "perform" their roles in front of the class whenever possible and to use relevant and amusing props to lend more realism to the simulated language encounter.
Building and performing role-plays
While role-playing is an effective teaching aid in general, the actual learning success it helps achieve depends on how the TEFL educator chooses, builds, and deploys specific role-playing scenarios. That is, particular role-playing scenarios are best performed in some TEFL classes and altogether ignored in others. For example, setting up a role-play between a business manager and an employee will not be relevant to pre-school language learners.
The following steps can help TEFL educators in properly aligning role-plays for each specific class.
1. Determine scenarios that are relevant or are of great interest to students. Mature classes may find business or dating scenarios more involving and building role-plays from these topics may help encourage learners to participate more during role-playing activities. On the other hand, role-plays that involve purchasing a pet from a pet shop or engaging a zookeeper about different animals can be very compelling among young language learners.
2. Build specific launch pads for each setting or scenario. Role-plays draw from teachers' and students' collective creativity and they can become very intractable when left unguided. The trick is to set a specific launch pad for the language encounter and allow participants to perform their roles within the parameters of the scenario as they see fit. For example, a launch pad for a scenario that involves professional relationships can include roles for two employees and a business manager deciding on how to share a newly purchased printer.
3. Give preliminary backgrounds on scenarios and launch pads. In addition to clearly explaining the scenario, TEFL educators should provide the necessary background (culture, vocabulary, roles, etc) in order for participants to properly internalize their roles and use the appropriate vocabulary and tone.
4. Deploy both surprise and practiced role-play performances depending on the need or mood of students. Surprise role-plays encourage students to use their own knowledge and experiential base when responding to specific language encounters. On the other hand, practiced role-plays allow the class to enjoy more refined performances. In either case, encourage students to exaggerate or caricature their roles. In addition to building confidence, this actively draws from student creativity and generates amusement and fun among the audience.
5. Unless geared to foster understanding, avoid role-plays that focus on divisive issues such as politics and religion.
6. Assess how the class learned from the role-plays. Once in a while, you may need to conduct oral or written checks after role-playing performances in order to assess how much and how deeply the students (including both the audience and the participants) learned from the experience.
TEFL educators clearly benefit from using role-playing techniques to equip their students with practical English skills. Except for actual real world immersions, perhaps no other method provides better opportunities for language learners to use their skills and build confidence when dealing with different language encounters. In addition to its value as a learning aid, role-plays also enliven the classroom simply because it encourages movement, linguistic creativity, use of experiential knowledge, and deeper involvement among students.
Finally, as role-plays constitute a pillar in student-centered teaching, TEFL educators should refrain from assuming greater roles than mere moderators or facilitators. The bottom line is that role-plays should direct the spotlight on student learners. Any teacher involvement should never be too dominant as to inhibit the students' creativity in using English in different scenarios. As such, any comment on misused words or incorrect grammar should be noted concurrently with the performance but corrected only after its conclusion.