Stress Out! A Roleplay About Relationships


Today we have a guest post by our friend and colleague Alice Llanos

Stress and intonation can play a huge role in creating meaning. We all know that the phrase “excuse me” can sound polite, sassy or even downright rude depending on the stress and intonation given to the words. However, many English learners struggle to get their intentions across when saying this and many other expressions.

Although students can often hear word and sentence stress when native speakers use it, they often don’t feel comfortable using it. As a result, they can benefit from practicing these pronunciation skills in class; however, many teachers do not find time to focus on pronunciation, while others do not want to hinder a student’s desire to speak by correcting them on their pronunciation (Nair et al., 2017). No matter the reason, there are ways to introduce and practice using stress and intonation in class without spending too much planning or teaching time.

This is where role playing comes in. Giving students short dialogues that they can play with can help them explore natural language with a focus on pronunciation and the implicit meaning that comes from stress and intonation. The following examples can be used as a warm up for any class to get students thinking about not only what they want to say, but how they want to say it. Since the dialogues are written in simple “everyday” language, they could be used for any level of English student.


Begin the warm up by distributing one of the following short dialogues. As the students read through it, ask them to make guesses about the speakers: Who are they? Where are they? What’s their relationship to each other? Ask students to consider how the tone of the dialogue might change depending on the relationship between the speakers. In pairs, assign the students a role (see possible roles below). Give each pair time to practice the dialogue with their assigned role in mind. Encourage them to use stress, intonation and body language to embody their specific role.

As they practice in pairs, it’s a great time to circulate and offer pronunciation assistance. If they’re comfortable, they might choose to put down their scripts. They might even find that they begin to add to or change the language in the dialogue as they continue to become their characters. To take it a step further, partners may perform their dialogue in character while their classmates attempt to guess the roles they are portraying.


I used variations of this activity as a warm up in an advanced listening and speaking class three days in a row. On the first day, I distributed Conversation A and asked students to read and in pairs, brainstorm who the speakers were. I wrote their guesses on the board and assigned each pair a role from the ones they had come up with. They practiced and used their scripts to perform for the class. I encouraged the classmates to guess the roles of the performers and explain their guesses. I was pleased to hear that they supported their guess by citing how the speakers said the lines. “A person would NEVER talk to an authority figure that way, so she must be talking to her sister,” explained Lara.

On the second day, I distributed Conversation B and urged them to put down their scripts after practicing and perform without them. This small request heightened the drama of their performances. Their hands were free and most students used more hand gestures and body language. Their stress and intonation became more exaggerated, and they seemed to have more fun with the roles. This time, I assigned roles to each pair, but to make the guessing easier, I wrote the possible roles on the board.

On the third day, we worked with Conversation C. This time, I requested that they not only put down their scripts after practicing but that they also take liberties with the dialogue. I gave permission for them to add to or modify the script to suit the roles they were playing. Being day three and feeling more comfortable with the exercise, the students began to interact more with their partners. Many incorporated blocking and make-shift costumes. This time, I did not write the role options on the board and had them guess freely, supporting their guesses by explaining what they heard or saw in the performance.

The 30 minutes that we spent on this warm up each day were lively, interactive and fun. Not having to come up with their own words, the students were free to consider how stress and intonation can be used to play with meaning and tone, and the fact that the roles and relationships that were portrayed were familiar, added to the applicable nature of the activity.

Possible Roles:

Parent and child

Grandparent and grandchild

Boss and assistant



2 people on a first date

2 strangers on a bus


Conversation A:

A: Hi

B: Hi

A: Do you have a minute?

B: Sure, what’s up?

A: I need a favor.

B: What kind of a favor?

A: A small one.

B: Small?

A: Yes, very small.

B:  What is it?

A: Well, I need to tell you something, and I want you to promise not to get mad.

B: Uh oh. What did you do?

A: Do you promise?

B: Fine, I promise.


Conversation B

A: Can you help me for a minute, please?

B: Sure.

A: Hold this end. No, this end.

B: Oh, sorry. Here?

A: Yeah. Ok, now let’s put it down over here.

B: Uh, it’s pretty heavy.

A: Are you ok?

B: Yeah, I’m fine.

A: Thanks for your help.

B: No problem.


Conversation C

A: Hey

B: What?

A: You’ve got something on your shirt.

B: Where?

A: Right there.  On your shoulder.

B: Oh no. How did that happen? I just left the house!

A: I don’t think you want to go in there like that. Here, I’ll get it.

B: Thanks.

A: Don’t mention it.

(Alice Llanos is an online course developer and professor of ESOL at Rice University in Houston, Texas)


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