Role plays Paraphrasing_16_9

How to Develop Your Students’ Communicative Skills Through Role Plays: Paraphrasing by Carolin Zehne

Previously on this blog, I shared a lesson plan which helped students understand unfamiliar (non-native speaker) accents of English, which they are likely to encounter outside the classroom in our globalized world. Apart from this, it’s also important to practice communication strategies in order to prepare students for the use of English as a lingua franca (ELF).

Research in the field of ELF has investigated a number of such strategies which are used for meaning making in ELF encounters. Even though these strategies are not a characteristic feature of ELF per se, they make up a considerable part of the processes of accommodation and negotiating meaning in these communicative encounters. Thus, students should also be given the chance to adapt their language use for ELF communicative settings in which adherence to native speaker norms/ the traditional standard model of language will not always lead to successful communication.

Some of the most frequently used communication strategies are paraphrasing and along with making use of one’s linguistic repertoire for meaning making. Apart from implementing rather simple games (see e.g. the taboo game) to practice such strategies, more complex communicative tasks can also be adapted to implement communication strategies in your classroom, even if it is still heavily depending on more traditional notions of EFL teaching.

Some of the broader aims of implementing paraphrasing/using the students’ full linguistic and cultural repertoire in complex communicative tasks include:

  • Giving students the chance to activate their full linguistic repertoire for meaning making
  • Making them more aware of this reality of using the language
  • Making them less anxious about not knowing words
  • Increase student awareness of criteria for successful communication
  • Letting students reflect on their strategy use

Role-plays are such communicative tasks which can usually be found also in more traditional EFL classrooms. With a few modifications, you can turn them into activities to practice communication strategies and thus shift the focus more towards meaning making instead of strict adherence to native speaker norms.

While planning a role-play activity and designing typical role-playing cards for any characters involved, you can simply state words which the students are not allowed to use. These words can be typical or core words you teach in the unit. The level of details provided on the cards can vary from grade to grade. 

Below you can find examples of two role playing cards with relatively open communicative tasks, along with the words students are not supposed to use.

Card 1

Card one is an example of a tourist who would like to buy certain things at a weekly market which is set in a typical ELF situation rather than taking place in an Anglophone country. 

In this task, which could also be suitable for younger students, the class is divided into buying (tourists) and selling (dealers) groups. Each card can then has different tasks and words which the students should not use while working on their dialogue.

Download Your Role Play Cards for FREE

To help you save time and implement this idea right away, I put together a pdf for you with both role play cards.

It’s ready made for you, so you can print it and cut your planning time. To download it in pdf, click on the button below.

The second card gives an example of a more complex role in a discussion. 

In this case, the use of social media and digital technology is discussed in class. Some instructions for the particular role are listed on the card along with words which students should avoid during their conversation. 

Students who might not be involved in the actual discussion could be attentive observers. Those students could know which words the discussants are not allowed to use and thus check whether their peers stick to the rules and which strategies they use to avoid the words on their card.

In terms of differentiation, there are numerous ways to vary and adapt roles. You can take care of your students’ needs by varying the details you provide for their role and what they have to do in their role or providing support cards with useful phrases.

After the actual activity (which can be performed in front of class, if students feel comfortable enough), there should be some time reserved for careful reflection in class to make students aware of their strategy use and give them the chance to become more confident in using their own linguistic resources.

You can ask students about


  • How they felt during the activity
  • How the avoided using the words
  • What they did instead
  • Whether they have also done this outside of class and how it worked out

Through adapting your role-playing activities and including words which students are not allowed to use while talking, you can easily train your students when it comes to making use of their linguistic repertoire. Through careful reflection after the activities, you can raise their awareness when it comes to this more flexible, less native-speaker dependent use of the language. As role-playing cards are flexible and easily adaptable, they can also cover a wide range of student needs and abilities.

Download Your Role Play Cards for FREE

About the Author

Carolin Zehne completed her Master of Education in English and Biology at the University of Bielefeld in 2016. She now works as a lecturer in the field of teaching English as a foreign language and is mainly responsible for the Praxissemester for primary schools (in English) at Bielefeld University. Her research interests include English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), inclusion and inclusive English teaching, language ideologies, as well as professionalization processes of student teachers. She started her PhD project in 2016 and investigates chances and pitfalls of integrating ELF inspired practices into English language teaching (in Germany). 

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