Why I use airport role plays

Disclaimer: this post was not written in response to @michaelegriffin ‘s excellent rant against airport role plays. It was written two weeks ago after I finished my most recent camp in response to a tweet he sent:

Screen shot 2013-07-08 at 8.28.18 PM

With the idea in my mind that I might have to defend the very existence of the staple activity of English Villagedom, I began this post (admittedly in part as a response to the post I *thought* he might write). And you can see what happened just below.

This post was originally going to be titled “In defence of airport role plays.” However, I realized while writing it that I don’t really feel all that defensive. Role plays are things I do as part of my job. There are several reasons for this and I’ve tried to articulate them below. I am aware that they are not “authentic”, but I’m also okay with that. I can’t provide very much of what people who object to the supposed inauthenticity of the classroom would call “authentic.” I use these types of activities because they are in line with the goals of my program.

The "airplane" in our "airport"

The “airplane” in our “airport”

Why I use airport (and other) role plays:

1) Parents expect it. I work at an English Village. ALL English Villages have “airports” and are expected to use them. Yep, MG totally called this one.

2) Students love it. The feedback we get from them at the end of our camps is that the role plays (particularly restaurant and airport) were their favorite activities.

3) Some students say it is very realistic. (It took me a while to get my head around this, but when I thought about it I realized that for kids, their airport and travel experience involves following their parents around and waiting around and repeating what they are told to say. Yep. Pretty authentic.)

Security checkpoint

Security checkpoint

4) It takes up lots of time. When you teach 12 hours a day and you can fill some of those hours with students making their own passports and quizzing each other on their travel plans, that’s gratitude.

5) The students do all the speaking. We assign students to be airport staff, security, flight attendants and immigration officers. Usually they are lower level students because they’re going to be repeating the same dialogue time after time after time and by the end of it, they can get the hang of which bits of language go together (as chunks) and can pronounce the more difficult words. They gain confidence in their own speaking and find it motivating to be able to help other students.

The immigration desk

The immigration desk

6) It can promote critical thinking in higher level learners. We don’t allow higher level students to use their books. Instead we promote understanding of the questions commonly asked and statements commonly heard at an airport. Then during the role play, they have to respond in their own words based on the questions and statements they’ve heard. Most of the speaking in the dialogue is done by the officials and the passengers don’t have much to say. Their main job is to listen and respond appropriately. Perhaps you don’t need to say more than three words to get through an airport and on to the airplane, but they’d better be the right three or no dialogue practice in the world will help you.

7) It can provide a safe place to practice a scenario that might be stressful in the real world. (Provided, of course, that they have experience dealing with different accents and different ways of presenting the same information/ asking the same questions….) I’m speaking here from the perspective of camps involving kids, who are easily nervous about new environments. I have never used an airport role play with university students. It has never come up, even though travel comes up a lot. The airport doesn’t seem to be a place where adults feel threatened (linguistically, at least).

Serving in-flight drinks

Serving in-flight drinks

8) There’s no explicit grammar focus. One of the best things about working at a camp is that I can design theme-based programs that feature activities (like role plays, scavenger hunts, and cooking classes) that are focused on language without highlighting grammar. Why is this good? For one thing, it removes students mentally from “school” and puts them in a different kind of learning environment (a change is as good as a rest, right?). For another, the goal of the program is to use English they already have in a low-stress setting (i.e. each student does what they can with no penalty if they can’t), not to learn much that is new. Kids have never ever told us that they want to study more grammar.

I am aware that there are also many reasons why teachers might choose not to use things like airport role plays in class. How about you? What are your thoughts on airport role plays? Would you use them? Why or why not?

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  • mindblower0011  On July 9, 2013 at 5:17 am

    Reblogged this on LONDON ENGLISH GDL.

  • Tyson Seburn (@seburnt)  On July 9, 2013 at 11:56 am

    Anne ~ You make some great points about these role plays with kids, not the least of which is that you can build a variety of activities around them, which gives kids a lot of immersion into the theme (with and without much linguistic pressure). As I mentioned on Mike’s post, I could see the most value in having impromptu dialogues, those that take certain unexpected twists and turns, that force the students not to simply regurgitate a memorised set of phrases.

  • livinglearning  On July 9, 2013 at 11:40 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Tyson. I completely agree with you. Memorising is NOT learning. And as Bryan commented on Mike’s post – memorising can actually put the learner at a disadvantage. On the other hand, time is at a premium in a week long program and I’ve been at a real loss for how to complete the (mandatory) role plays without allowing memorisation (or even reading) for students at some levels. I’m totally open to suggestions! Thanks again so much for taking the time to read and comment.


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