Talk to learn: can role play be used to teach English as a Second Language (ESL)?

Role play can be divided into “role” and “play”. Role refers to “playing a part” in a specific situation. Play refers to “the role that is played in a safe environment e.g. the classroom in which ESL students are encouraged to be as creative and playful as possible.” This teaching method can enable ESL students to enjoy the experience of having conversations with people in real life as well as to develop and enhance their social communication.

Generally, role play can be used as a teaching method in motivating ESL students to get involved in speaking during their English classes. During role play, students are motivated to perform, act and speak. They are required to use the grammar and vocabulary that they have learnt and apply this knowledge into simple conversations in real life.

Role play places ESL students in a situation where they are required to assume different roles in accomplishing specific tasks assigned by their teachers. Role play offers an opportunity for ESL students to practice using the target language in the right place and at the right time in real world situations created by their teachers.

Role playing for ESL students can take the following forms :

Imaginary people – ESL students can ‘become’ anyone they like for a short time e.g. a president like President Obama, a queen like Queen Elisabeth 2, a billionaire like Jack Ma, a movie star like Jackie Chan, a pop star like Beyonce etc.

Imaginary situations – ESL students can also be put in different real life situations e.g. at a restaurant, at a travel agency, at the hospital, checking into a hotel etc.

Imagine the following scenario : the lesson of the day is about Amelia Earhart, America’s first female aviator.  In this case, after the ESL students have read and understood the article about Amelia Earhart, the teacher can select a student and pretend to be Ms Earhart. She stands in front of the class to relate “her” whole life’s story for all to see and hear.  In this way, the teacher can encourage her ESL students to use all the grammar and vocabulary that they had learnt in past lessons and apply them in the role play, thereby developing and enhancing their language proficiency in the process. In addition, it can also allow the students to be as creative as they want as they fully immerse themselves in another person’s place for a while in a safe environment.

A research regarding the feasibility of using role play in teaching English to ESL students was conducted by Arham et al in 2016. According to Arham et al (2016) the pre-test and post-test results had illustrated a marked improvement in the ESL students’ speaking skills in the experimental class. However, the ESL students’ speaking skills in the control condition only improved slightly. This had clearly illustrated that role play, if it was designed properly, can definitely improve and enhance the ESL students’ speaking skills significantly. Based on the above findings, it was clearly showed that role play is an effective strategy in developing and enhancing spoken English in ESL students by requiring the ESL students to speak in the target language in order to be competent in speaking English.

ESL students must have ample opportunities to speak in the target language so that they do not feel shy when they speak in English.  Here, ESL students do not only learn English, but they also try to behave as if they are actually living in the real world. One big problem faced by many ESL students is the lack of opportunities to speak in English. During role play, ESL students get this opportunity to speak in front of the class. There are required to make the necessary improvisations according to the role play scenario, thereby encouraging them to be more creative in using the language.

Through role play, ESL students are no longer passive ESL students. They have actually become active ESL students. Through constant practice using role play, ESL students will eventually master the English language. After all, Practice makes Perfect. Don’t you agree?


References :

Arham, R., Yassi, A.H. and Arafah, B., 2016. The use of role play to improve teaching speaking. International Journal of Scientific and Research Publications6(3), pp.239-241.

Rajeswaran, C.M., 2019. Task, formulaic language, and role play for developing ESL students’ academic language. Indonesian Journal of Applied Linguistics8(3), pp.536-544.

Villafuerte, J.S., Rojas, M.A., Hormaza, S.L. and Soledispa, L.A., 2018. Learning styles and motivations for practicing English as a foreign language: A case study of role-play in two Ecuadorian Universities. Theory and Practice in Language Studies8(6), pp.555-563.

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