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Using Roleplay To Help Students Learn English

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 5457 words Published: 1st May 2017

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“The more students talk, the better they learn”; Speaking skill is not given special significance in the teaching of English in Vietnamese universities. Traditional English education in Vietnam focuses heavily on reading skill. Also, many Vietnamese students and even teachers have “examination-orientation”. In the first semester, students start the elementary level with the textbooks Lifeline set (Hutchinson, 2001). The textbook cover four skills: speaking, listening, reading and writing. The assessment at the end of each semester is based on a written test involving reading and writing skills only. As a result, pre intermediate students spend more time improving reading and writing skills and mostly ignoring listening and speaking skills. This fact happens at not a single university in Vietnam but across the country.

In the first semester, pre intermediate students do not have many chances to communicate in English; therefore, their speaking skill is restricted with lack of naturalness, reaction and pronunciation. Many are shy to speak out in English as they are afraid that listeners can’t understand well what they say.

Role play is considered one teaching method which motivates pre intermediate students to get involved in speaking lessons. In opinion of James G. Clawson (1997, p.2), role play is a superb vehicle for bringing the distiction between concept and reality to the fore.

During role play, students are motivated to perform and act and speak in English class. They are challenged to use their English words in mind to apply into simple conversation in daily life. This indeed enables them to get familiar with normal conversation in their real life. Also, motivation influences how and why people learn as well as how they perform (Chin Chun Shih, 2001).

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While role play contributes to affect student’s attitudes positively and improve their English speaking skills, there is little research examining its effectiveness towards pre intermediate students in universities. In Vietnam, much of the research focuses on role play aiming at junior high schools students in foreign countries like Hong Kong, Japan and Korea. There is little research that indicates how role-play could influence students’ learning attitudes directly. Scarcella & Oxford (1992, p.54) also pointed out that most researchers talk about using cooperative learning activities or student-centered learning in order not to put too much pressure on an individual student in front of the class. Therefore, this particular research is intended to focus on the effectiveness of role play in teaching speaking skills for pre intermediate students.

Based on the above rationale, this research tends to seek answers to two below research questions:

What are pre-intermediate students’ attitudes toward the role-play activity?

In what way does role play improve pre-intermediate students’ speaking skills?

Generally, this research aims at making clear two important aspects of role play: affecting attitudes positively and improving speaking skills properly. Firstly, this research shows how role -play has a direct effect on learners’ attitudes. Secondly, this research intends to point out how role play help improve their speaking skills in particular.

The structure of this research includes the context and methodology as the qualitative method. Data will be collected via oral test, interview and observation, which will then described and analyzed in item data analysis. Next, the content of reflection shows what is gained and which possibly further research questions are.


Definitions of terms

Role-play can be divided into “role” and “play”. Gillian (2002, p.7) refers role as to “play a part (either their own or somebody else’s) in a specific situation. He also indicates that “Play” represents “the role is taken on in a safe environment in which students are as inventive and playful as possible” (p.5). This teaching method enables students to enjoy the experience of having conversations with people in real life so as to develop their social communication.

The function of role-play in language learning

Teaching English in Vietnam mostly concentrates on grammar translation methods and is examination oriented. Adian Doff and Maxwell (2002, 1997) pointed out the problems of those English teaching methods, and argued that there is a need to develop more diverse English teaching methods or activities. Vietnamese students have common weakness reportedly as their speaking ability. They have little chance to practice conversation, even in the second language classrooms. In order to encourage students to speak in public, role -play is often used by teachers as one of the teaching methods.

Maxwell (1997) holds the opinion that the purpose of role-play is “to improve students’ verbal and nonverbal communication skills and to link and use previously built schemas, in both structured and improvised situations ” (p.1). This viewpoint shows that role -play could improve students in verbal or nonverbal communication while they are performing the roles in the dialogue. James G. Clawson (1997, p. 4) pointed that “A common theme in the benefits of using role play is that the techninque can bring abstract discussions alive, make them live, and in so doing, open up student’s willingness to learn” When taking part in the dialogues created by teachers or extracted from the text books, students will be required to act as the characters in the dialogues, therefore, they will find it easier to use the conversation in daily lives. Daily conversation will create lots of unpredictable situations that make students confused how to deal with. As noted by Salies (1995, p.6), role-play helps learners to deal with unpredictability, motivating them by adding emotion and increase the awareness of the listeners. Accordingly, role-play helps create a safe environment for students to practice their language skills.

The influence of role play on attitudes

Attitude plays an important role in learning English speaking skill. Without adequate and appropriate attitudes, pre-intermediate students are usually unwilling to learn what their teachers try to teach them.

To make a change about students’ learning attitudes, teachers can use role play to increase their confidence because role-play proves to be a good choice for them to understand and handle the learning content. James G. Clawson (1997, p4) indicated that role play helps improve learner’s abilities to communicate their thoughts and feelings in effective and productive ways among peers. They will find themselves better motivated to learn if they are recognized as a part of the class. Motivation is important because it helps create good start. Role-play can also help reinforce students’ knowledge gained through constant practice and acting. Also, students learn to how to cooperate well with each other through working and discussing English together, which will lead to mutual affection. He pointed that emotional climate is a good motivation during learning process (Ray, 1992, p.9). Students can gain more confidence in a safe environment brought by role play method. The learning environment has become particularly important for students. Ray (1992) also agreed that students prefer a consistent learning environment with good order at which they feel safe. (p.5). In other words, students can learn better in a little pressure environment.

Furthermore, role-play helps create peer relationships which have become very important in improving attitudes. Ray said that the main motivational factor for pre intermediate students is the social incentives reflected in peer relationships (1992, p.13). The speaking and practicing subjects would be their classmates, who are familiar to the students and cause them less pressure and nervousness. Students work in small or big groups and there is a competitiveness among these groups. By this kind of stimulus, students are able to increase their learning attitudes, and to learn the second language further.

Therefore, in the context of this research study, the findings above show that role-play could affect students’ attitudes positively in four aspects: improving student’s confidence, motivating their participation, creating interest in speaking lessons, and improving peer relationships through moderate competition.

In conclusion, the literature above may lead to the fact that the main function of role-play is to help students improve speaking skills.

Below context will indicate that there is a need to examine how role-play can facilitate students’ speaking ability in Vietnam’s education environment.


In Vietnam, the teaching of English has been criticized with lack of practice and heavy focus on written examination. In most universities in Vietnam, students are tested in written form, meanwhile, oral tests are ignored since they are time consuming and too difficult for students.

Many pre- intermediate students are reported with lack of English communicative ability due to their emphasis on the written exam in previous grades. Adian Doff (2002) stated that teachers would look at prior tests to assure that they covered the subject matter of the test or test objectives (p.2).

The Entrance Exam is the main examination for high school students to enter university. There are two parts of questions. The first part include multiple – choice grammar questions for each of which students must choose the best answer. The second part is a reading comprehension assessment that includes cloze tests (Ministry of Education and Training, 1999). Thus, students focus on writing and reading rather than speaking skills. Also, starting their learning in universities, pre-intermediate students are lack of chance to improve their speaking skills. They feel shy and can hardly speak and listen to English in their daily lives. Although they are taught the curriculum Lifeline set (Hutchinson, 2001) with four skills, the speaking skills are often ignored due to limited time in one period. Grammar or reading exercises are taken greater priority.

Besides, teaching speaking seems to put a lot of effort into and not every teacher will be successful in a speaking lesson. As a matter of fact, so many teachers of English in Vietnam universities are trained with grammar translation method. That is the reason why they will face a big challenge to create an environment in which students are given more opportunities to use English as a means of communication. It has become more and more difficult for Vietnamese teachers when they have to work with large classes which are more suitable to give lectures instead of asking students to work in small groups. Teachers of English make it impossible to control such large classes if they have intention of teaching English in communicative way. A serious problem teachers in Vietnam have to tackle is that although there is a number of a method of teaching speaking skill, it is not easy at all to find out appropriate methods which help Vietnamese students, especially those at pre-intermediate level make some improvements in speaking skill.

Researchers argue that role-play can help learners improve it. Firstly, role-play helps improve students’ listening ability. In viewpoint of Salies (1995, p.8), role-play makes students aware of the listener. Therefore, listening ability is as important as speaking ability and role-play might help to improve this skill. Secondly, role -play contributes to improve speaking ability. In order to speak well in a daily conversation, one should take consideration about the pronunciation as well because clear pronunciation helps speaking become two-way communication. In this case, while students are performing in speaking lessons, teachers will be able to listen to each student’s pronunciation and correct him/her individually during speaking sessions.

In conclusion, the context above is critical because it indicates that there is a need to examine how role-play can facilitate pre intermediate students’ speaking ability in Vietnam’s universities.


According to C. Pope and N. Mays (1995), the goal of qualitative research is the development of concepts which help us to understand social phenomena in natural (rather than experimental) settings, giving due emphasis to the meanings, experiences, and views of all the participants. In the researcher’s viewpoint, qualitative method is proper to discover pre-student’s attitudes towards role play and how role play motivates them in speaking lessons.

This part presents subjects, data collection instruments consisting of oral tests, interview and observation via two role play activities.

4.1. Subjects


Six students are randomly chosen. All are between the age of 19 and 20 and study English at pre-intermediate level. Students at pre-intermediate level but not other levels are chosen as they have more chance to take part in communication activities.

In order to get an exact result, the participants’ English speaking ability is different. The backgrounds of participants are stated below.




English Level



He is quite good at English. He performs enthusiastically and confidently in English class.




Her English is at medium. However, she is willing to learn and perform in class.




He is a person who is enthusiastic in English lesson even though his English is not as good as others.




Her English level is medium. She is very shy. She likes English, especially English speaking skill. But she is too shy to perform in class.




He likes taking part in all games in class. Although his English is not good, he is not afraid to speak English.

Not good



She likes to talk loud in class, but not in English. Due to her weakness at English she seems to be very quiet in English lessons.

Not good

Teaching materials

The main pilot teaching material is The New Headway – Pre-intermediate textbook compiled by Liz & John Soars. There are two dialogues used in this research. The researcher asked the informants to play the roles of the dialogues. Students are voluntarily encouraged to contribute their own ideas to make the play role activities more creative and interesting.

4.2. Instruments of data collection

4.2.1. Oral tests and Interviews

Two oral tests and interviews were conducted for this study with the participation of six students. The first oral test was done before the two-week experiment, and the second oral test was held after the experiment of the two-week experiment. Moreover, during the interview the researcher asked them related questions to clarify the purpose of the study.

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Yes-no questions and WH- questions that students have to answer are included in oral test questions. Yes-no questions are for students who can not have long answers, and WH- questions are for students who are at better learners. The questions are displayed in Appendix A. After finishing the pre-oral test, the study proceeded to the main part, which was role-play. During role-play, I interviewed every student individually. The interview questions were based on some basic questions but might be changed to adapt the situations and students’ reactions (see Appendix C). Moreover, students were interviewed in their mother tongue so that they felt at ease to express their feelings. When the pre-oral test, two role play activities and interview were finished, it was time to examine how students improve their speaking ability. And the post-oral test was done to compare the students’ performances from the beginning to the end (see Appendix A).

4.2.2. Observation

The researcher observed six pre-intermediate student’s participation during two role play activities. The observation in this study was done via my note-taking or keeping diary, and tape-recording through the pilot teaching. The purpose of this part is to see what pre-intermediate student’s behaviors are when role play is employed as a speaking activity. Furthermore, during the pilot teaching, tape recording was also carried out to get the data for the research. The students’ utterances were recorded and analyzed later to find out how the role play was used and how it motivated students.


Descriptive data are analyzed by qualitative method.

5.1. Descriptive data of oral tests

The oral tests were arranged and conducted at the participants’ convenience. The oral tests (see Appendix A) were given before and after the two-week experiment.

In order to give descriptive data of oral tests, interviews and observation, I have based on seven criteria to review pre-intermediate students’ English speaking ability including: 1) the influency of speaking, 2) the frequency of using words that have been taught, 3) the accuracy of grammar application, 4) the listening skills absorption, 5) the anxiety of students, 6) the accuracy of pronunciation, 7) the pause while interviewing.

The oral tests showed that students’ speaking ability did improve after the use of role-play. Specifically, three fourth of the participants spoke more fluently. While doing the oral test, I also felt that students would try hard to answer in English. They might not give complete sentences, but they would manage to use the words they had learned. They also tried to use correct grammar when giving answers. However, some students who were not good at English such as Sy and Phuong sometimes produced wrong grammar sentences. Moreover, students not only understood what I asked during the oral tests, but also tried hard to listen to whole sentences and digested them. I, myself, had a strong feeling that students tried very hard to pay attention to the post-oral test, because most students had enthusiastic responses with me. Moreover, students’ anxiety had been decreased during the second oral test. One of the reasons that the researcher postulated was that students were familiar with the researcher, and might not be afraid to speak English. They also learned how to pay due attention to their pronunciation while performing in front of their classmates. This also made them have better pronunciation during the oral tests. Some of them even tried to improve their pronunciation by making repetition of what they spoke. The pause frequency of interviewees was really high during the first oral tests, but it seemed lower during the second. Some students said “I don’t know” or “I have no idea” when they could not find the answers to the questions.

In general, the oral-tests showed that role-play had a positive influence on pre-elementary students’ speaking skill. Most students might not have the ability to answer in complete sentences, but they showed positive attitudes during the oral tests. They paid due attention to the questions, and answered the questions using the vocabulary they had learnt, which showed their willingness to attempt to learn English in general and speak English in particular. Therefore, I can conclude that role-play not only stimulated students when they learned English in speaking lessons, but also made them eager to learn more.

5.2. Descriptive data of observation

In order to assess the participation and effectiveness of using role-play in speaking lessons, I based on four levels: 1-3 (bad), 4-6 (medium), 7-9 (good), 10 (excellent). In this part, I would like to use two dialogues and asked participants to play role (see appendix B).

For the first role play activity, the researcher used the telephone conversation between the receptionist and client in book New Headway – Pre-intermediate by Liz and John Soars (p.77, unit 9). I asked the participants to work in pairs which mean three couples did the same role play. In order to make the role play more effective and to have an exact observation, I asked Nam to work with Mai, Trung with Phuong, and Sy with Hoa. Nam, Trung, Sy played the role of the receptionist whereas Mai, Phuong, Hoa played the role of the client. The researcher instructed first and three pairs presented in turn. During the role play activity, I would observe, take notes, and record. The first role play is easy and simple so that students can feel comfortable and confident to take part in. The results of observation basing on the four levels are presented as below.

For the second role play activity, the researcher used a more difficult role play activity which was extracted from the book New Headway – Pre-intermediate by Liz and John Soars (p.57, unit 7). This role play was an interview with the band Style. Participants had to play the role of an interviewer – a journalist and the role of two interviewees – Suzie and Guy. In this part, students worked in group of three. Nam, Mai, Sy were the first group. Trung, Hoa, Phuong were the second group. Nam, Hoa who are better at English were the interviewers. The rest were the interviewees in which Mai, Phuong played the role of Suzie, and Sy, Trung played the role of Guy. Similar to the first role play, the researcher instructed first, and the two groups presented in turn. The results of observation from the second role play activity basing on the four levels are stated as below.

The second role play

After experiencing the two role-play activities, the researcher found that the pre-elementary students’ English speaking ability has been improved. Specifically, four out of six participants made a clear progress in the influence of speaking ability, and the ability of expressing him/her self. Moreover, half of participants used grammar more correctly. Also, half of participants became more confident such as Mai, Trung, Sy. In addition, Nam – the best participant at English speaking improved his vocabulary. Thus, the observation’s results show that pre-students’ English speaking skill has been improved when the researcher uses the role play in speaking lessons.

5.3. Descriptive data of interview

The interview was conducted during and after role play. All the students were interviewed once. Additionally, the interviews were conducted in Vietnamese. During the interviews, the whole procedure was recorded and taken notes. The questions of interview are available in Appendix C

When being asked to compare the traditional teaching method most of the students answered that they really like the role-play teaching method. They explained that role-play gave them a joyful feeling and avoid being sleepy in class. In general, most students feel that role play is an interesting teaching activity and they really like it. In other words, their feeling of this teaching method is positive. For example, one of the interviewees, Hoa, expressed that: “Well, I extremely like this teaching activity. It helps me be more confident in speaking English. Especially, it makes me more interested in lesson instead of being sleepy. I always feel bored and sleepy in lessons which are given in a traditional way”. Another participant – Nam said that: “I think using role play in speaking lessons is good because we get more confident when playing role and speaking in front of other friends. I like this teaching method than the traditional method”.

For the second question “Do you think that your speaking skill has been improved after doing role-play in class?” all participants answer “Yes”. For example, Sy pointed out that role-play can help him improve his speaking skill: “I think… my speaking is better after doing role-play several times. My speaking ability seems to be more fluent. And….I feel more confident”. When replying this question, Trung also determined that his speaking English skill had been improved. He said “Umm….You know that now I can speak English a little bit fluently. I feel more confident to speak in front of other students. Does it mean that my English speaking skill has been improved?”

Furthermore, I asked the participants whether there are any negative sides when applying role-play in class. And most of them answered that the problem is the class order was not very good in that case. Sometimes, there was too much noise for students to act in class. Participants, however, still show a positive attitude. Mai said: “I think noise is unavoidable when we learn speaking skill. I really like this kind of teaching activity. It is fun. It makes me want to study English and want to speak English in class”. However, in order to add to the negative sides of using role play in class, Hoa stated that “Sometimes role play takes much time. In my opinion, it is a negative side of role play”.

I asked the students if it was tiring or stressful for them to plan the dialogues beforehand. As a result, most students showed a positive response to the preparation. Phuong who is not good at English expressed that “I feel difficult to have a good preparation at first. My English is not very good. I can not study it at home without teacher’s instruction. However, after preparing for the class for several times, I start to feel that preview is really important. I know the lesson prior to class and I can understand what the teacher talks about in class. Furthermore, as I have had preparation before class, I become less nervous and shy when speaking on the stage in English”. Similarly, Trung said eagerly: “Well, my teacher also asked us to prepare in advance. For the first time I felt quiet tired because I didn’t get familiar with this learning method. But for the third time, everything seemed to be better. And now I have no problem with preparation in advance.”

When observing participants doing the first role-play, the researcher recognized that some of the students were very extroverted. However when they were asked to perform the role play in class, they started to keep avoiding from this opportunity. I wanted to know what resulted in such a reaction. Some students told me that they were really shy; some of them could not find out the proper way to act. However, after doing the second role-play the participants’ responses seemed to be more positive. They participated to the activity more enthusiastically. They did not appear to be shy any more. For example, Trung said that “I am an extroverted person. However, I don’t feel confident when speaking English in class because I know that my English is not good and as a result, I don’t want to speak English in class. But now I feel better. After doing the first and the second role-play activities I recognize that there’s no reason to be shy…please take part in the activity, please speak. Well…it is really good.”

In short, most of the participants hold the positive attitudes to the role-play teaching activity in speaking lessons. For example, students showed more interest in learning speaking English with the role -play activity, students agreed that role-play helped improve their speaking skills, and they showed higher willingness to perform in public.


This study was designed to research the effectiveness of using the role-play to motivate pre-intermediate students in speaking lessons. There were six participants in the research. Also, the researcher used qualitative method to do the research in which oral tests, interviews, and observation are used to collect data.

Based on the results of the study, the findings have been drawn. These findings are: (1) participants have a positive attitude to role-play in speaking lessons. (2) Role-play motivates pre-intermediate students in learning speaking.

Moreover, the findings of this study may offer three practical implications for English teachers in Vietnam to help students develop speaking ability. The first implication for English teachers is that they should apply a communicative teaching technique in English speaking classes such as role play. However, role play should be merged with the traditional English teaching. The second implication is that teachers can affect students’ learning attitudes/motivation positively by lively activities. The last implication is to provide a safe environment with tender discipline in class because this will make student feel more comfortable and eager to learn, especially to speak English in class. In other words, English teaching in Vietnam should be added lively and interesting communicative teaching methods in class, especially in English speaking class.

I believe that the study is successful. Also, it is proper to use the qualitative method for this study. However, there is one limitation which may influence the outcome of the study. The limitation referred in this study is time limitation. Because of limited time, I can only give two role-play activities to experience and test the effectiveness of role-play on pre-intermediate students.

Suggestions for further research

In order to have a more accurate and complete result, further study can be done with the cooperation of the involved students’ English teacher. Working with the English teacher is advantageous as he/she might help me understand every student’s English level in a short time. Moreover, it would be better to have two instructors to review students during oral tests and performances.

Besides role-play, I would like to add some other activities to class and think of some interesting topics for students to act in role-play. It would be boring if the whole period of class was proceeding in the role-play teaching activity only, thus, added activities may help students concentrate in class more effectively.

The dialogues in students’ textbooks did not really attract them. Students already had those contents in their regular English classes. It would affect students’ attitudes/motivation positively if there were more interesting topics for students to discuss and act.

Last but not least, in a future research, I may have more chances to videotape the whole process of the experiment which includes the oral tests, interviews and performances. Students’ gestures, facial expressions or body languages could serve as the sources to interpret their intentions as well. Besides, some non-verbal languages could appear beyond expectation, so those expressions are also important for descriptive data.


I would like to conclude my research in two aspects.

Firstly, role play is not beneficial only for the pre intermediate students but even students of upper levels as well as lower levels. Role play proves to be a good way to motivate English learners to speak out what they want to say. In fact, students have to experience different situations in real life. The final and the most important goal of teaching English is none other than helping students use English in those situations. Role-play creates many daily situations for students to practice their English. In addition, it really creates a safe environment and productive learning environment in language class which would be interesting to absorb knowledge.

Secondly, although role play works well in speaking lessons as well as with pre-intermediate university students, it is not the only method for teachers to apply in every lesson. In other words, there are numerous different ways Vietnamese teachers are offered to apply to motivate students communicate in English naturally and effectively, to affect their attitudes positively and to increase s


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