Special report: Claire Oldmeadow

Special report: Paris Colloquium 2005, Agir pour apprendre

Claire Oldmeadow on “Role Plays: The Key to Developing Effective Communication Skills”

By Marie-Pierre Beaulieu

Why did I decide to attend this workshop? With the exception of the languages used by ancient civilizations, who nowadays doesn’t learn a language with a view to communicating with native speakers of that language? In this context, is there a meaningful connection between role plays in the classroom and eventual effective communication? If so, what is the connection?

First, Claire Oldmeadow mentioned an interesting fact. Role plays are now part of all the diplomas offered by the Franco-British Chamber of Commerce and Industry. As a Franco- British examiner, she observes that students, French students I assume, are generally better at presenting a text than at practising a role play for basic situations. The immediate consequence of this, in her view, is that students don’t master the basics to cope with practical situations encountered in everyday life. She then moved on to defining what a role play is and why it is an important part of language learning. Essentially, a role play is playing, enacting a role in which you imagine yourself in a specific situation. In other words, you imagine you are someone else, adding an extra dimension to who you are. The reasons for practising role play are practical and almost self-evident. Role plays help learners practise functional language, including asking and answering questions, asking for and giving information or opinions, advising, complaining…

Despite the obvious practical applications of role plays in language learning, Claire Oldmeadow’s presentation evoked resistance on both the students’ side and the teachers’ side. However, after some reactions from the floor, it soon became clear that the teachers’ resistance actually reflected students’ resistance. It was said that some students are too shy and embarrassed to take part. Other students don’t like the activities in the textbook. Participants then gradually took over the discussion, spontaneously sharing their first-hand experience and asking questions – “What do we do when students refuse categorically to join in?” A few suggestions were made by a number of participants. They mostly dealt with preparing students for the role play. The main points to be remembered in preparing students for role plays are the following:
  • Make sure that the roles to be played are relevant to the learners. Do they know enough about the situation to imagine themselves in it? Have they got the technical knowledge for the matter at hand? It was incidentally noted that conflict situations shouldn’t be ruled out.
  • Clarify the identities of the players and the purpose of the conversation.What information must be exchanged?
  • Determine the amount of language input students need in order to build confidence. How/when are the students given it?
  • Allow students adequate time to prepare.
  • Create a quiet corner where students can interact directly with you, the teacher.
  • Finally, reassure the students that it’s OK if they find the activity difficult, because it is difficult, anyway.

Claire Oldmeadow’s session naturally ended with the question of feedback. How and when does the teacher give feedback? One participant suggested that feedback be given while students are doing the activity; another suggested that the students complete the activity first. These decisions actually depend on the teachers’ objectives. What kind of errors is he/she looking for? Does he/she want to correct everything that went wrong? Is he/she judging the students on the appropriateness of the language used? A feedback sheet designed by Scribener was recommended as a comprehensive and effective evaluation tool for considering criteria such as pronunciation, context (formal/informal), the abilities to interact, organise information, and cope with unpredictable answers, turn taking, and speaking strategies (holding the floor)…….

If there are some valuable evaluation tools, it was also noted that there could be more material on the market. Teachers therefore tend to make up their own. For this reason and for the sake of having students recycle and practise language functions consistently, participants acknowledged that a role play idea could be used several times.

Has this write-up answered the question raised in the first place – what makes up the connection between role plays and communication? Partially, I should say. Role plays will only develop effective communication skills insofar as the roles taken on by the learners appeal to their emotions in a way that’s close enough to real-life communication. Do the learners inhabit their characters in such a way that they are emotionally involved – feeling fear, anger, jealousy, pride, desire in the act of communicating… as is the case in real-life situations ? In a word, role plays can only work as long as they do not solely appeal to disembodied intellects.

Contributed by: Marie-Pierre Beaulieu
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