While role play activities are a popular mainstay in language textbooks, I’ve always been dissatisfied with how shallow they can be. In this post, I’m going to compare the traditional role play activity found in American language textbooks to Robert Di Pietro’s (1987) Strategic Interaction scenarios. I start by defining each of these activities before discussing what happened in my French classroom the other week when I ran a Strategic Interaction activity, and drawing some conclusions about the two different activity types.
A typical language textbook role play activity
Typically, a role-play activity might bear a simple prompt:
You have been seated to order food at a Parisian café. Order something to eat and drink. Don’t forget to use our new politeness form, “je voudrais”! Your partner will take your order, using the phrase “vous désirez?” Take turns playing each role.
This type of activity would follow a full page of food and drink vocabulary, and a small cutout section on how to use “je voudrais” (“I would like…”, a conditional mood form which French textbooks sneak into the food unit) and “vous désirez?” (“What would you like?”, a stereotypical prompt from a waiter). Looking at just the role-play out of its context (juxtaposed against a huge cheat-sheet to the activity), it might seem to be a fun exercise! Students get practice ordering food in the target language, and they get to practice politeness forms. It covers all of the new material from that lesson!
But really, this type of role-play really only asks students to say one sentence each, and they don’t even have to remember any of the vocabulary or grammar themselves, because it’s plastered on the opposite page. Here’s how deep this activity might go in an elementary French class:
Student 1: Ok I’ll order first, you can be the waiter first.
Student 2: Sounds good (looks at textbook) Vous désirez, madame?
Student 1: (Looks at textbook) Je voudrais … (looks at textbook) un café et une pizza.
Student 2: Ok now you ask me.
Student 1: Um (looks at textbook) Vous désirez monsieur?
Student 2: Je voudrais un café et des frites.
And that completely fulfills the prompt. Maybe the prompt added a few more reminders to students, such as “don’t forget to greet the client with ‘bonjour'”, or “use this sample menu to calculate the price of each item and give exact change”. Those prompts can serve to eke out a little more conversation from students, and even add some realism by incorporating an actual café menu (which might solve some of the weirdness of trying to order a pizza or french fries from a Parisian café, but American French textbooks love including traditional American foods in the café/food units–especially since they’re usually cognates (e.g. un hotdog, un hamburger, des frites, un soda, une pizza).
For those who see the above as the quintessential “role play” exercise in the language classroom, it’s hard to imagine how role play games can really be much more.
As conceptualized by Robert Di Pietro in his 1987 book, Strategic Interaction: Learning Languages through Scenarios, this approach modifies how we structure role play. Whereas the traditional textbook role play hand-feeds the student vocabulary, structures, and roles, Strategic Interaction (SI) asks students to consider the goals and dispositions of the role they’re asked to enact. To this end, SI follows three main phases:
During this phase, students are split into groups according to their roles in the scenario. All students within each group are going to inhabit the same role during the performance phase. Each group brainstorms what their goals might be for the scenario, how they might achieve these goals, and what language they will need to perform. This crucial phase explicitly asks students the question we hoped was implicit in the textbook role plays: why are you taking part in this conversation, and what do you hope to achieve? This planning phase also allows each group to consider anticipating what an interlocutor might ask or say to them.
To use the Parisian café setting as an example: Group A consists of customers and Group B consists of servers. Students in Group A would take some time to look at the sample menu, consider substitutions, review the relevant grammatical forms for ordering food, and possibly even pre-tabulate their bill based on the food they might want to order. Students in Group B might come up with a list of daily specials to memorize, a formulaic phrase to say that the restaurant is out of chocolatines today, or follow-up questions based on anticipated orders (do you want the oat or soy milk?).
Students in both groups can also use this as an opportunity to pick a personality for their role; not everyone is perfectly helpful or perfectly polite all of the time. Perhaps one customer comes in demanding food, ignoring any politeness norms. Maybe one of the servers has finally had it with rude customers and decides to kick them out. These sorts of individual differences in how students approach their roles should be encouraged by the instructor (who, I should mention, should be circulating between the groups and helping out with these types of questions as they plan for their roles).
The scenarios that we use for role plays in the language classroom are infused with possibilities for nuance, and can result in much more interesting (and much more realistic) performances. The rehearsal phase requires students to think more about how things can go off-script, rather than assume that every conversation will go exactly as planned.
The performance phase is when we match students with opposing roles. After having brainstormed with others on how they might enact the role of customer or server, now they have to actually interact with someone from the other group. Everything gets put into practice here, and this is where communication breakdowns might happen–which is absolutely wonderful. Most importantly, students are not supposed to reference their textbooks or notes during this phase. This further underscores to students that they need to be able to use the language in creative ways to navigate unfamiliar situations, and we get to simulate more closely what an authentic scenario might involve.
As a brief anecdote: I once met an exemplary, veteran Spanish teacher at a local language teachers’ conference who recounted an off-script restaurant experience for which she was unprepared at an earlier part of her career. While travelling in South America, she sat down to order food, confident she could do so in Spanish after all of her years of study. The waiter came over, asked what she’d wanted to order, and she politely asked for the chicken. She assumed the interaction was done, but the waiter asked a question that she could not parse. After asking him to repeat himself, and then to speak more slowly, the waiter lost his temper and shouted in sticcato, very carefully enunciated Spanish “breast or thigh”, as he gestured to his body for each. In her talk, the Spanish teacher discussed how formative (if embarassing) this experience was for her, and how it highlighted the shallowness with which we typically teach certain topics.
The equally crucial debriefing phase of SI incorporates a full class discussion of the scenario. What went well? What went poorly? What were you prepared for? What were you unprepared for? How did you approach the scenario? The debriefing brings the hiccups from individual performances to the awareness of the group as a whole, and encourages further exploration of what a similar scenario in the real world might entail
Strategic Interaction in the second week of Elementary French
This semester, I’m teaching Elementary French I at a large, private R1 institution. The class meets three times each week, for a total of 4 hours in the classroom. Currently, due to vaccination and testing requirements at the university, the course is conducted entirely in person, with remote instruction as a contingency in the event of a confirmed case of COVID-19. Language study is not mandatory for general education requirements at this university, so the majority of my students are taking my French class out of a personal interest, or as a requirement for their specific program of study.
The course follows the textbook Saison 1, an FLE (French as a foreign language) textbook intended for non-native French speaking immigrants learning French in France. Our first full unit, Unité 1, includes the topic of personal information, as well as vocabulary for things one might have in their bag. The textbook includes an image of airport security agents. I used this image as the foundation for our SI scenario.
I ran this activity on the fifth day of class, so students had already built a basic foundation in reading and pronunciation, and we had in the previous session expanded our list of personal information to include some careers and nationalities. Brand new for this class session was the vocabulary for objects one might have in their bag.
Students were split into two roles: agent(e) de sûreté (~TSA agent) and voyageur/-euse (traveller).
During Phase 1, the agents de sûreté came up with a list of questions about personal information. In addition to the formulae in the textbook, I provided a list of question words and structures to help them form new questions (e.g. “Are you travelling for work?”, “Where are you going?”, etc.). The voyageurs prepared responses for the questions they anticipated, and brainstormed a list of logical items they might be taking with them in a bag through airport security. Students in the agent(e) group also decided whether they would be aggressively suspicious of travellers or take a more polite tone.
During Phase 2, I had students from the travellers group physically walk to the other side of the room, to simulate the environment of approaching airport security. I then walked around and watched as over half a dozen different, extended conversations unfolded. Some students leaned into the personalities they decided. Since I have an odd number of students, one traveller got paired with two agents, who had come up with a whole list of invasive questions as they enacted their assumed roles of overly-suspicious security agents.
During our Phase 3 debriefing, students discussed their individual experiences. Some travellers were caught off-guard by certain questions from the agents. Some of the agents struggled to ask follow-up questions based on travellers’ responses. Although they had each prepared for their halves of the conversation, they needed to be able to react to their interlocutor’s responses. Much like the equivalent scenario in the real world, students needed to negotiate the conversation based on their individual roles. Some travellers had perfectly pleasant conversations, while others were ruthlessly questioned by security.
Strategic Interaction scenarios, unlike the traditional textbook role play activity, act as scaffolded learning opportunities where students consider more thoroughly how they might go about interacting in a particular scenario. While the traditional role play exercise might have this result for some students, the brainstorming and reflection are not explicit parts of the activity. Additionally, there is no built-in opportunity for students to share how any deviations from the intended script influenced their intereaction.
Furthermore, the contrasting goals of each role, and the separation of students by role during the preparation phase, make for much more interesting and realistic situations. In realistic interactions, interlocutors may approach the scenario with completely different goals, which will influence the way they approach the conversation. In the case of the airport security line, some agents interpreted their role to mean they should ask as many questions and be as thorough as possible before letting the traveller through the checkpoint, putting them at odds with the traveller who really just wants to get through the line and make it to their flight on time. In the textbook café activity, both roles have the goal of taking a simple order and letting the customer go about their day.
How might the Parisian café role play exercise be converted to a more complex Strategic Interaction? Perhaps the servers need to create the café menu, and the customers won’t get to see what’s available to order until they start the scenario. Maybe the customers really just have the goal to go to the café and have a conversation with their friend, and ordering something to eat or drink is secondary to catching up with a friend. A student in the server group might decide that the café is out of whatever the customers ordered. A student in the customer group might decide that their character won’t use polite language when ordering their food. Encouraging students to consider their roles, their dispositions, and their goals can lead to much richer and more naturalistic interactions than the traditional exercise.