literacy through role-play

Use Role-Play to Improve Literacy in the ESL Classroom

By Debra Andersen, Rubicon International

A few years ago, I taught in an international school in South America. One of my classes, Oral Skills (essentially ESL), consisted of vocabulary games and singing that correlated to the grammar and vocabulary topics being taught in the English classroom. It was teacher-centered with little student creativity- think playing fly swatter or singing songs with a guitar for two hours. Originally, it was meant to give students an opportunity to express themselves in English in a fun way. However, after an accreditation visit, we received feedback that our students were not producing English at a high enough proficiency level for the school to be considered bilingual and therefore accreditation was at risk.

As an English Department, we knew we needed to make a drastic change. I decided to write and pilot a new, student-centered approach to the third grade Oral Skills course that incorporated literacy through role-play, and eventually, theater in the classroom. Here are a few tips from my journey to reinvent the curriculum.

Tip 1: Incorporate and model nonverbal communication in the curriculum and instruction.

Our first book was Ladybug Girl at the Beach. If you have not read the story, Lulu has to face her fear of the ocean when she loses her pale to the waves. During read alouds, students used facial expression in response to what was happening to Lulu in the story. We eventually moved from facial expressions to whole-body expression – tensing and holding our breath when the wave tried to knock Lulu over, and expanding our physical presence by filling our bodies with air as Lulu confronts her fears!

Incorporating non-verbal communication with read-alouds supports early language acquisition – before producing language we first spend the majority of our time with language input through listening and reading. Moreover, non-verbal communication a part of culture and language and can express more than our verbal communication. Adding these improvised and planned facial expressions with physical movements helped me and our students become more comfortable in this new format, being creative, and communicating more effectively. Additionally, this type of role-play is low risk and engages all students.

Tip 2: Let your advanced or native language speakers become leaders in the classroom

In our next unit, we incorporated props to build a shopping center. First, our native English speakers modeled a shopping interaction. Then, in groups, they switched roles to give other students a chance to hear and practice the phrases. After that, our high-level English speakers stepped out of role-play to provide feedback on vocabulary or verb tense in the moment. They used a checklist to ensure feedback was swift and immediate. This allowed me to move through the room with my own checklist to observe and record in the moment data on my students’ language production to use in individual sessions.

Tip 3: Gradually release responsibility with role-plays.

By our third unit, we were ready for a more involved and independent role-play. We chose the fable, The Ant and the Grasshopper, as the text to build towards the end of the unit performance demonstration: a role-play creating an alternate ending where the ant colony conducts a community hearing on the fate of the grasshopper. The story is simple so it allowed us use the story’s world in our classroom activities and make vocabulary and grammatical connections with the English unit on Jobs & Communities.

Each student was placed in a group: the ant teachers, the ant police officers, the ant shop owners, etc. We started the unit with nonverbal responses as their character during read-alouds (low responsibility level), and moved to verbal re-tellings in pairs or groups (mid-responsibility).

Pro-tip: To further build this imaginative world and develop our characters, we used one piece of costume or prop (a hat, a scarf, a broom, etc.) to signify anytime we were in character.

During the summative performance demonstration role-play (high-level responsibility), each group was given a “kit”. This kit included a recording of the grasshopper’s plea for help, a box of resources that could be used (clothes, supplies, food – all vocabulary they’ve learned this year) and guiding questions and/or sentence starters. I used a rubric and checklist based on our WIDA level 1 &2 expectations, during the role-play. Each group conducted a thoughtful and difficult discussion with an eventual vote: turn the grasshopper away, give him a few items then turn him away, or let him live with them.

Pro-tip: I pre-recorded the voice of the grasshopper which saved time and allowed each group to replay his request when needed. This also helped set the “play” element.

Here is the first lesson I used to introduce theatrical movement exercises with literacy:
literacy through role-play

Final Thoughts

We eventually received approval for re-accreditation, using the new curriculum in our report. Most importantly, literacy through role-play transformed our classroom into a safe space for students to communicate with their body and voice. From this experience, I recommend incorporating role-play into your second language classrooms. Here are a few other items to keep in mind:

  • Spend time making faces! Your students and you need to feel comfortable expressing with your voice and body. Communication is not solely based on the words we choose; our gestures can express just as much if not than our words! Here are a few theater exercises you can adapt: Mirroring, Sun Salutations, Fill and Exploring the Space, Machine, or other activities found here!
  • Record the role-plays when possible. This way you can focus on classroom management during the task and provide more comprehensive feedback later on.
    Acknowledge your available resources. It’s okay if you cannot find the perfect book or perfect play–use what you have and be creative!
  • Use a projector to display free books from online or fit several pages from a book onto one page to save paper and your printing allowance!
  • Role-play can become very presentational and performance-like–make sure to elevate the process by providing time for feedback, as this provides the real opportunity to learn.

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