"We have ways of making you talk"

Vivian Cook 
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EFL Bulletin, 4, 1980 (OUP)

Teachers are increasingly told that they should use role-play or communication games, drama techniques or simulation. However, many teachers do not see the purpose of these nor how they can be adapted to their classrooms. This article describes some practical examples of these techniques so that the teacher can see how they work and can devise similar ones suitable for his own classes.

The common factor in these techniques is that they recognise that language is used for a reason: we speak because we want to say something, to have a relationship with someone, or to work something out. In addition, they assume that you only learn by doing; you never learn to use language purposefully if you never practise using it purposefully. They therefore encourage the students to use language for a purpose in the classroom; they force the students, not to repeat things that other people have said, but to say things of their own, to express their own ideas and feelings for someone else to understand.

Let's start with the communication game. One example I use is "Tourist London". This requires two maps, Map A and Map B. Map A shows the main roads in the West End with little sketches of landmarks such as Nelson's Column. Map B is identical except that the sketches are missing. The students work in pairs, one with Map A, one with Map B. The student with Map B is given a list of the missing landmarks and has to find out where they are so that he can mark them on the map. When the students have finished, they compare maps to see if they are right.

This, then, is a simple game based on the 'information gap' - one person knows something the other doesn't. One way of creating a gap is for one student to have information that the other lacks, as in "Tourist London"; maps and other visuals are useful for this but train timetables, clues in a "whodunnit" and so on can also be used; classic examples are "Twenty Questions" and "I Spy" where only one person in the group knows the information and the rest have to find it out. Another way is to provide two differing sets of information which have to be put together to get the complete picture or to find out the differences: two monsters with different numbers of tails; two accounts of the same incident by different eye-witnesses. The essential thing is that the students have to exchange information and they are able to check to see if they have done so successfully.

So in a game the students only draw on a limited range of language; the rules of the game restrict what they have to do. But rules unfortunately often mean that there is no real point to the game; the information that the students exchange is worthless and is not related to anything the student really wants to say: it is communication without personal involvement. How can we get students to say things that are more meaningful to them?

One answer used to be the conversation class but this was like throwing them in the deep end of a swimming pool. What is needed is a way of providing the students with language before they start and of controlling the discussion once it is under way. One technique is the questionnaire. Suppose the students are discussing holidays; they get a questionnaire with questions such as:


What is the most important feature of a hotel?

a   the price
b   the friendliness of the staff

c   the food

e   the entertainment available


First of all this provides some of the vocabulary the students need - 'staff, 'entertainment', 'price'. Secondly it focuses and structures the discussion around one aspect of holidays rather than allowing it to range freely. The teacher can use the questionnaire to compile what I call a class profile - how many students prefer this, how many that.

This approach to discussion can be used with intermediate students for any topic that the teacher thinks relevant for his class. At beginners' level there is a different means of getting the same effect. An example is an exercise on clothes. The students see photos of people dressed in the styles of different decades since 1920. They then have to fill in a chart:




















This introduces the vocabulary they need - 'cheap', 'comfortable', and so on - and makes the students use it immediately to record their own reactions to clothes: does each student think the 1920's clothes are comfortable? The vocabulary is linked to the students' own feelings. Similar charts can be used to introduce types of food, forms of transport, kinds of music, tourist sights, or faces of famous personalities.

However, at beginners' level this cannot readily lead straight into free discussion. One way of controlling the discussion is to use what I call a conversational exchange. For clothes, it is as follows:

Helen:   What do you think of the nineteen-twenties clothes?
I like them. I think they look pretty.

Helen:   What do you think of the nineteen-sixties clothes for men?
I don't like them. I think they look uncomfortable.

Helen:   What do you think of ...
YOU:    .......

First the students hear two characters giving their views, then the model fades out and they take over. Unlike a structure drill, the students have a choice of what to say: they have to think for themselves and use the model to express their own ideas. To me this type of exercise seems very useful; it gives the students help with the language but does not stifle their self-expression. Unlike the other techniques I have mentioned, however, it does need rather careful planning and integration with the rest of the course.

One step from this kind of exercise is role-play. In this the students act out particular situations in the classroom. Take for instance a role-play called 'Deaf Mr. Jones' which teaches the intonation patterns for checking what someone says. Mr. Jones is a senior citizen who wants to visit his wife in hospital. The students act out Mr. Jones asking the way from various strangers. But, as he is very deaf, he has to check everything he is told.

In this kind of role-play the students are practising expressing themselves in particular situations. My own preference is for giving them substantial background information on which to construct the role-play - details of the characters, fact sheets of information and anything else they need. It is not adequate to say something like 'Now imagine you're two people talking in a shop' without telling them something about the people, about the type of shop, and about the goods that are on sale and their prices. In general, role-plays either imitate real life situations the students are going to encounter (such as airports, shops, cinemas, and restaurants), or invent fictional situations. It is important to distinguish those where the student has to play himself and those where he has to adopt another character.

For, when the student plays another person, we shade in to the use of drama techniques; the student is starting to act. It has been suggested that we can learn much from the drama teacher. Mime, for instance - students can mime dialogues as a way of getting the feel of English without actually speaking. Improvisation techniques - say, getting the students to act out what a particular word means to them. These drama techniques can be rewarding provided two conditions are met. One is that the teacher is skilled at this type of teaching, an unusual skill among language teachers. The other is that it suits the personalities of the students. Imagining yourself a fried egg on a plate is not every student's idea of language teaching. Students who are able to take part in such activities may find them very useful; the majority, however, may not benefit so much because of their inhibitions or lack of acting ability.