Great Idea: Drama and Role Play

What are drama and role play?

Drama and role play can be fun and used successfully in any area of the curriculum. There are many ways of using drama and role play. Some of the simplest and most flexible are:

  • Hot seating
  • Freeze frame
  • The teacher, or another adult, in a role
  • Improvising in pairs
  • Working in groups to devise a scene in a familiar genre, e.g. TV news item or documentary
  • Setting a scene involving the whole class making the whole room into e.g. The Village, The Island
  • Using people to represent something, e.g. make a bar chart by getting the class to lie down on the floor of the hall and drawing round them in chalk

Examples of activities

Drama and role play can be used with any age group, in any subject and with EAL learners at any stage of English language proficiency. Here are a few examples:

1. Simple warm-up games:

  • Stand or sit in a circle and go around the group with everyone saying their name and something they like beginning with the same letter: 'My name is Parminder and I like parachuting.'  Reassure the group that drama is pretending so it does not have to be true.
  • One end of the room represents YES and the other end NO. Ask the class questions about how much they like different things and they can choose to stand in the middle, near the YES end, at the NO end, etc. ‘Do you like chocolate?’  ‘Do you like school?’
  • The Sun Shines On. Arrange the class in a circle with one chair for each person and one person standing in the middle. The person in the middle says e.g. 'The sun shines on everyone who has a sister’. Everyone who this applies to has to get up and sit down in a different chair. The last person to sit down ends up in the middle of the circle and says, 'The sun shines on everyone who watched ‘EastEnders’ last night’ and so on.

2. Teacher or adult in a role:

A teacher or adult in a role e.g. as a character in a story, or a witness to an event is very useful for history, geography or RE. The teacher does not have to be an expert or good actor, many drama techniques are very simple. Teachers often use drama without realising it, e.g. pretending not to understand something so that learners explain it to them. It is a good idea for the teacher to have a signal so that learners know that they are going in or out of a role, e.g. putting on or taking off a hat, a scarf or a pair of glasses.

3. What’s your alibi?:

Any kind of alibi game is perfect for practising past tenses (especially past simple and past continuous). Make up any plot depending on the subject, e.g. during an experiment in the Science lab, a student scientist was injured yesterday at 4pm. The school governor responsible for Health and Safety is investigating who is responsible.

4. Reinforcing a concept:

Drama can make a concept more memorable, e.g. get the class to act out how particles behave in solids, liquids and gases.

5. Freeze frame:

When a group is performing a scene they have devised it is useful to freeze frame at a decisive point in the story to involve the rest of the class in asking questions or predicting what will happen next. Romeo and Juliet storyboard is an example of a resource where a freeze frame activity works well.

6. Hot seating:

When one learner pretends to be a character and other learners ask them questions, is great for thinking in depth about fictional characters and their motivation. This technique can be used with all age groups, whether the class is considering the actions of the Hungry Caterpillar or Hamlet. It is sometimes useful to prepare the class for the character in advance so that they have time to think of questions. For an example of a resource that could be the basis for a hot seating activity see The Stone Age.

7. Create a character:

One non-threatening way into acting is to create a character using an empty chair. Arrange the class in a circle, with an empty chair in the centre. Going around the circle, each learner supplies one piece of information about the character. E.g. ‘She’s 12 years old.'  'She has two sisters.'  They have to listen to each other so that they are not contradicting anything that someone else has said before. When everyone has contributed an idea, a volunteer sits on the chair and becomes that character. This can be used to create a character who witnessed a particular event in history for example, in Symptoms of the Black Death learners could role play describing a relative’s symptoms to a doctor.

How drama and role play work

  • When using drama and role play across the curriculum it is usually the process that is more important than the actual performance
  • EAL learners can benefit from doing the activities with fluent English speakers and everyone can participate at their own level
  • EAL learners who are New to English can be included in a group, for example in a non-speaking role, or speaking in their first language. Encourage the other group members to think of creative ways to ensure the New to English learner is involved.

Top tip:  Some people find the idea of drama very alarming, so use a non-threatening warm-up exercise to relax everyone.

Why are drama and role play a Great Idea for EAL learners?

Drama is a very valuable tool for exploring issues, making learning memorable, encouraging cooperation and empathy. Drama is also great for creating an opportunity for New to English EAL learners to communicate with others.

The use of drama and role play can create an opportunity for the learner to hear and use language in a meaningful context, as recommended by Swain and Lapkin 1995. This links to Michael Halliday’s theories on the importance of interaction and the negotiation of meaning to language development.

Role play demonstrates how to use language in real life with a focus on communication. Socio-cultural researchers like Neil Mercer and Gordon Wells emphasise the importance of learners being given activities that involve them working together using exploratory talk, as defined by Douglas Barnes.

Drama and role play activities in groups are inclusive and involve all learners in active participation and social interaction, the benefits of which have been highlighted by Cordon (2000), Kotler et al (2001) and Wong Fillmore and Snow (2005).


Cordon, R., 2000, Literacy and learning through talk: strategies for the primary classroom, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Kotler, A., Wegerif, R. and Le Voi, M. 2001, Oracy and the educational achievement of pupils with English as an additional language: the impact of bringing ‘Talking Partners’ into Bradford schools, International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism 4 (6), 403-419.

Wong Fillmore, L. and Snow, C., 2005, What teachers need to know about language, Washington DC: Centre for Applied Linguistics.

Swain, M. and Lapkin, S., 1995, Problems in output and the cognitive processes they generate: a step towards second language learning, Applied Linguistics 16 (3), 371-391.

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