Podcast: Taking Role Plays from Nerdiness to Awesomeness (with Fifi Pyatt)

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We talk with self confessed role play and ESL nerd Fifi Pyatt to look at how to take role plays from nerdiness to awesomeness and discuss how to help students get as much as possible from role plays and also go off on tangents about burning witches and dungeons and dragons…

Taking Role Plays from Nerdiness to Awesomeness Transcript

Ross Thorburn:  Hi, everyone.

Tracy:  Hi, everyone.

Fifi Pyatt:  Hi.

Ross:  That's the voice of our special guest today, who is...

Fifi:  Fifi Pyatt! It's me, Felicity.

Ross:  [laughs] Welcome, awesome to have you on.

Fifi:  Thanks for having me.

Tracy:  Fifi, do you want to introduce yourself to our audience?

Fifi:  Sure. I am a teacher trainer in Guangzhou. I'm also a really big nerd, which will come up later.

Ross:  [laughs] Let's bring it up now. Good thing you wanted to talk about which I think is an awesome topic is role plays.

Fifi:  Yeah. I want to talk about how we can use role plays in the classroom, and how we can learn from role playing games.

Ross:  Today we've got three questions, as always.

Tracy:  The first one is why role plays are awesome.

Ross:  The second one is how can we set role plays up to be successful, and the third one...

Fifi:  How can we wrap up a role play?

Why Are Role Plays Awesome?

Ross:  Guys, why are role plays awesome?

Fifi:  We often use role plays as the final task or the freer practice of the class, and it's sometimes the closest that we can get the students to real world situations.

If we can make it as realistic as possible, then hopefully when they do find themselves in that situation, it will just spring back into their heads.

Ross:  Jason Anderson and his awesome book that has tons and tons of role plays, and it talks about four reasons why it's really important for teachers to include role plays in their lessons.

His main reasons are, one, that they provide lots of spoken language practice for students. Second is, they give students a test run of the language in a real‑world scenario. Thirdly, it allows students to leave their regular personas behind and gives them a chance to literally take on a role. Finally, they involve some element of play.

One other reason that I thought role plays can be really motivating for students is that, if you pick an interesting topic and interesting roles, the students end up getting really emotionally involved.

Fifi:  The emotions that it does bring up, although they can be negative emotions in that situation, they're not negative emotions about the learning. For example, if they're negotiating a salary bonus or something, one of them who's on the losing end will feel upset with their so‑called boss.

Once the role play finishes, hopefully, that's not going to spill over into their perceptions of their lesson so much.

Ross:  When I thought about is the emotional involvement, I thought about your story about when you were playing, was it, Burn the Witch? That's the name of your role playing game, right?

Fifi:  Yeah.

Ross:  Would you want to tell the story, briefly?

Fifi:  Sure. I and my partner really enjoyed playing role playing games. We had a group of friends over and we played this game called "The Witch: Road to Lindisfarne," and in this game, one player is the witch.

All the other people play a selection of knights and monks who have to take the witch to Lindisfarne, which is a place in England, and decide if they're going to burn her or not.


Fifi:  In this game, I was the witch, and at the very end, the whole party decided to burn me. It was quite emotional, actually, because after three hours of being these characters, we felt a real attachment to where they were coming from and what the story was.

As my partner was reciting his lines to burn me, he looked into my eyes and we both started crying. It was crazy.

Tracy:  Wow.

Fifi:  We finished the game and we were ecstatic. It was such a good feeling. You get that rush afterwards.

Tracy:  You two just mentioned about when the students being in a role, they probably have some sort of emotion. I was thinking maybe they are in a role, which normally they are not in that role in real life, and then had a chance to be in that role, and they can think from the other person's perspective.

For example, negotiation, so maybe they got upset with their managers, "Why didn't you give me a pay raise?" However, there might be some reasons the manager considered, whether they're going to give a pay raise or not.

This person had a chance to think about the whole thing from the manager's perspective, so understand the whole thing. Why it didn't work, why it worked, you know what I mean because usually...?

Ross:  It almost like it helps people empathize with other people.

Tracy:  Exactly. That's probably not really related to learning strategies, but related to people skills.

Ross:  It sounds like it should be a 21st century skill or something...

How can We set up Role Plays to be successful?

Ross:  In order for a role play to work, what were some of the ingredients that you need?

Tracy:  The first thing should be setting the context. For example, you're, again, having a negotiation with your manager, just settle the classroom as in the office. If you're having a role play like a job interview, and try to change the seating plan.

Just make sure the class dynamic is suitable for your role play. Very naturally, the students know what they're going to do, without much explanations and just very naturally doing it by themselves.

Ross:  Right, you can use other things as well as the seating, can't you, like have you being seen for role plays in a certain place like an airport or coffee shop, that teachers might download and play some background sounds from that place.

You might have pictures on the walls, or a projector showing an image of where you're meant to be. How do you get the class to trust you when you're doing something like a role play that they might not have done before?

Fifi:  You, as the teacher, have to be the most outgoing person in the class. If you're willing to go up and model something for them and really ham it up, then the students will catch some of your enthusiasm.

As long as you're excited about doing it and you can show it, and you can get them out of that, bums on seats, hands on the desk situation, that will help to relax them and help to put them on the road.

Ross:  Do you think it's important then to give students some demonstration then before...Because I always worry when you do something like that it might limit students' imagination.

Fifi:  It depends on the role play. For example, I once actually did a class role play in small groups, so the students were actually making a story together. One member of each group was the director.

What I did, first of all, was played it as an entire class. I played the director, I was jumping around and getting very excited and showing pictures on my phone, and getting them to shout out ideas.

Tracy:  I have a different feeling, though. I don't really feel students have really limited ideas on how to interact and produce language in a role play. I feel that the teachers really have the very strict, narrow idea what the students can only produce in a role play. You know what I mean?

Ross:  Yeah. Speaking about that production thing there, from a linguistic point of view, what do you think about the debate between the task‑based learning approach, where you shouldn't tell students to use certain language in a role play, versus saying, "All right, we're doing a role play. These are the roles. Please try and use these phrases that we've covered earlier in the class."

What do you think the balance of that should be?

Tracy:  We cannot avoid the teachers giving the specific language they expect of the students at the end of the class. For teachers, they need to make sure the parents or the customer can see the progress at the end of their package or semester that they studied.

They need to make sure it's measurable. There were some certain language that they need to be able to tick the boxes.

Fifi:  If we are using a role play as a classroom activity, then you're right, it does need to have that language practice element, and perhaps directing the students to try and use the language, but not stick to it.

One thing you could do is put the forms on the board with some blank spaces and get the students to try and freestyle a bit with it.

Ross:  I've even seen that a really simple thing is this, if you have some of those phrases on the board, then you can have some of the less confident students in the role play in the seating facing the board, and the more confident students facing away from the board, so that they have less scaffolding for them [inaudible 8:34] .

Tracy:  You are maybe talking about more releases and differentiation in role plays, which is really important. Everybody need to do some differentiation, either you give the instructions and the roles based on their English level or proficiency.

Ross:  Something I'd also seen before making a huge difference in role plays is just some really simple props.

Tracy, I remember you telling me about someone interviewing someone else, and having a rolled‑up bit of paper to be a microphone, or in a restaurant role play, just giving another bit of paper as a menu.

All those things can make it seem real. Is that something that you guys have found useful? Did you have any particularly good props that you'd seen teachers use in the past to make role plays come alive a bit more?

Tracy:  Again, is to relate this to airport, and flight, and everything. The teacher make a passport for each individual student.

Fifi:  That's lovely. That's assuming that you don't have that many students, and you know exactly who's going to be in the class.

Tracy:  That's true.

Fifi:  I saw quite a good one ordering in a restaurant. In this situation you had one or two students as customers, then one waiter, and one cook. The cook had a bunch of cut‑outs of different foods. They had to, first of all, figure out what foods they would use to cook different menu items, and then they realized they were missing some of the foods.

As the customers were ordering, the waiter would take the order, shout the order to the chef, and then the cook could have a look at the ingredients that they had and see if they could work something out, and then try and improvise.

How Can We Wrap Up a Role Play?

Ross:  Let's move on to our final question then. What's the best way to wrap up a role play? I, at least, often find that the worst thing the teacher can do is nothing at all.

You end a role play and then you just move on to the next point, and I find that can be really frustrating for students that they want some sort of a closure on whatever has just happened.

Tracy:  It's like we are running, listening, and reading post‑tasks, or activities, so have something related to what they've done before.

For example, and you may want to say, "Which waiter do you think provided the best service?" or maybe like, "OK, which job would you like to apply the most and the reason why." Give them more opportunity to share their experience.

Fifi:  Yeah, that's so important, so you can give them some objective feedback about their language use, but then asking them about their emotions. What happened in their story, which bit they're proudest of, and which bit they would like to try again, perhaps?

Ross:  I said earlier that the worst thing a teacher can do is to do nothing, but I used to feel it was also a wasted opportunity when teachers would give this non‑feedback at the end and just say, "Oh, you guys, you did such a good job. Well done. I'm so proud of you, it was so interesting."

That always felt to me like a bit of a waste. What do you think is an example of good feedback, then, that maybe teachers can give to students at the end if they want to say something meaningful?

Fifi:  When you're reviewing what the student is talking about, you could say, "Sharon, so what were you trying to do with your partner?" and Sharon will go, "Oh, I was trying to order some chicken noodles."

You'll say, "OK, so can you remember the language that you used to order your chicken noodles?" and then you can write that on the board and give praise or correct it if necessary.

Tracy:  Maybe something can be related to learning strategies or learner autonomy, like, "During the role play, which bit you felt really difficult," like "Oh, I felt difficult when he or she asked me the question. I don't know how to say it, and I don't know how to describe the food in English, because I don't know the word."

"OK, great. So maybe you can write it down in your notebook, so you can either find out for yourself, or you can ask other students, or ask the teachers." It help the learners to find out the area they need to improve.

Ross:  Something else I find quite useful is in a class maybe where you'd specified like, "Here are some phrases you can use, might be useful." Afterwards, just getting the students to go, "OK, you just did this role play. Can you look at the board and collect which of these phrases did you use more, and which did you use less?"

One time I did it, and the student said, "Oh, I didn't use this one because I think it's rude," and it was a great chance to go, "OK, why do you think that's rude? Actually this isn't very rude. A more rude way of saying it would be this, and a less rude way of saying it might be this."

Something else I like doing at the end of role plays is, so often, you hear unusual language or something great that the students say.

I always think at the end of the role play, if you don't want to correct for whatever reason, you can write one or two of those unusual words that the students came up with on the board and go, "Ah, Fifi, you said this. Can you explain to everyone what this great word is that you just said?"

I always think that's such a good value that you can get after a role play of getting the students to share great phrases with the rest of the class.

[background music]

Ross:  Fifi, to wrap up then, pretty much most teachers will have used role plays at some point or another. What do you think is the main thing maybe that teachers can take more advantage of from role playing games used outside the classroom that they can bring inside the classroom?

Fifi:  The more you can help the students with the visualization of the situation, the more space they'll have in their brain to produce the language.

If you're getting them to imagine themselves in the situation, imagine what the space looks like, and imagine the stuff that they've got in front of them, then they're spending much more brain space on that, that they could be spending on producing amazing language.

The more visual, physical, and auditory help you can give the students, the more you're doing for them, in a good way.

Ross:  Fifi, thanks very much for coming on. It was awesome to have you.

Fifi:  Thank you.

Tracy:  Bye, guys!

Ross:  Bye‑bye.

Fifi:  Bye!

[background music]

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Transcription by CastingWords