Alice Savage

Building a Better Roleplay through Drama


Irving is an older student who has the confidence of a former car salesman. I could hear him from across the room as I gave feedback to a different group. He seemed to enjoy the role of a parent trying to get his child to eat vegetables, and his partner also seemed to like pushing back with all the body language of a recalcitrant child. Their classmates laughed in recognition of the familiar tricks that parents and children employ when doing battle at the dinner table.

When it is going well, a role play can be so much more than the substitution of words and phrases in a templated dialog. It can be dramatic, and in being dramatic, a roleplay more authentically reflects the back and forth that happens when people engage in an implicit negotiation of goals. Each person wants something, and maybe it is the same thing, but maybe it isn’t. This dynamic parallels theatre, but in the field of applied linguistics we call it pragmatics.

Pragmatics is the art of choosing the right language and delivery strategies to achieve your purpose. And this purpose is often far more interesting than a simple exchange of information. People, especially family members, may want to make you feel guilty, do something you do not want to do, influence your decisions, extract information or beg for permission. They may also want to express gratitude or praise, but even seemingly positive goals still entail responding with expressions and gestures that affect the future of the relationship.

In fact, the complexities of pragmatics may in part explain why so many people prefer texting. Texting simplifies communication whereas the pragmatics of a real-time, face-to-face conversation can be exhausting even in L1. At the very least, it takes experience, skill and cognitive energy to attend to all the layers and intentions.

The upshot is that to prepare students to converse successfully in a new language, teachers must move beyond grammar rules and vocabulary substitutions to include the hidden language of pragmatics. The benefit is that when it surfaces, as I witnessed between Irving and Idamis, the actors feel it. The language stops sounding artificial and the vocalizations, echoing (repeating back), backchannelling (uh huh, erm, yeah,) and “Yes, buts” sustain something that approximates the real world.

To prepare for a pragmatics informed role play, students simply need to get in touch with the emotions and intentions of the characters they will play. This can be achieved through watching a video, listening to an audio or reading a script that models the pragmatics intentions. Students can identify and mark stress and intonation and note strategies and language that serve conversational goals. This can take a bit of work at the front end, but once the materials are set, they can be used again and again. Also, the basic template can be adapted in different ways.

For example, in the role play above, the students listened to a scene from Her Own Worst Enemy (Alphabet press). In the scene a father is trying to convince his daughter to audition at The Julliard School (a performing arts school). The daughter is pushing back and trying to make him stop pressuring her. The father, however, does not give up. After listening to the audio (or they could read the script), the students discussed the objectives of each character and how they felt. The class decided the father was trying to be helpful, and the daughter was trying to hide her fear of failure. People talked about what it means to “wear someone down” and reflected on examples of it in their own family life. “I don’t like family meals,” said one young Vietnamese woman. “My family always wants to tell me what to do.” Clearly the scene resonated.

After the discussion, students read the parts in the script and marked intonation and stress that would reflect emotional intention. They tried saying lines out loud to see how the pragmatics felt. After working through the script, they paired up and took roles in order to read the scene all the way through and to get a feel for the expressions and strategies. Interestingly, the role of intonation emerged as a key factor in conveying the emotional connection (or lack of connection) between father and daughter.

Prepped with language and awareness, the students were now ready to transfer what they had learned to a new context. Partners were given a choice betwen two roleplays: A) A parent is trying to get a child to eat his/her vegetables; or B) A student is trying to get her roommate to go shopping with her/him. Their goal was the same: to wear the other person down so that the partner agreed or gave up.

The pairs were given ten minutes to work on their role play. Next they performed for another pair who then gave feedback on what language and strategies they thought really worked. Finally, a volunteer pair performed a roleplay for the class. This was followed by feedback and a follow up discussion that included an exploration of cultural differences, useful expressions and their effects, considerations of register (formal vs informal), social risk, implicit messages, and the power of non-verbal signals.

By the end of the class, students had experienced the moves of a negotiated conversation around competing goals in several ways: through the controlled but emotionally charged dynamics of a theatre script, the preparation and performance of a roleplay, and in observing a roleplay performed by others. The experience trigged questions and discussion that potentially led to enhanced confidence regarding delicate conversational dynamics, a useful skill set in any language.

For more material, please check out the series of short plays here: Alphabet Publishing Books The scripts work well as sources of plot driven, interesting conversations that can be used as texts for reading skills, spoken lexical chunks, and pronunciation, contexts for grammar, and even produced for a multimodal embodied learning experience.

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