Benefits of Roleplay Structures to Support ELA

AUGUST 31, 2022


These days I wish I was six again. Oh, make me a red cape. I want to be Superman.   

John Mayer, 83

Yup! My mother would fasten a bathroom towel around my neck with a safety pin so I could run (fly) up and down the street with my arms stretched out in front of me and my cape fluttering behind. I kid you not. And you mean to suggest, Mr. Mayer, that I may not have been the only one?

Play. It comes in many forms. We work to maintain or even reclaim its benefits as we get older, once we realize it's missing from our hectic, goal-driven lives. Whether we feel it as an indulgence or a necessity, play creeps back into our longing. Maybe because it’s hardwired into us. Instinctual.

In school, a student’s natural sense of play may be lost amid the growing pressures of academic development and achievement. In ELA they can struggle to find their voice. They can struggle to relate to the content we present to them. The tasks and contexts may be too unfamiliar. But that’s okay. It’s important to expose students to differences and challenges, that’s what school should do. It should be expansive.

However, meeting students halfway in order to build on what they already know, (and they know how to play), is vital for deeper learning and success. If academic contexts feel too pressure-filled and distant, then let’s remind ourselves of the potential that play and imagination have in developing our students’ academic skills in ELA.

A specific form of play that is often overlooked in school is roleplay. This is a natural part of our play repertoire as children. This is when we try on what it would be like to be grown-up, skilled, heroic, villainous, or anything more exaggerated or simply different than who we are. Roleplay acts as a proxy for lived experience and simulates perspective. Developmentally, it helps us see how we relate, where our affinities lie, and even helps us empathize. The rules of play give us permission to break the rules of our current reality. So where do we find roleplay structures better suited for school ages and for the purpose of developing skills in the ELA classroom?

On the website you will already find an invitation to consider roleplay under contexts for developing the Talk competency. To these ideas I will add two other sub-contexts. Each has special affordances and structures which have leverage potential in the ELA classroom. They are typically more in the vein of extracurricular activities. But their essence is worthy of consideration, especially if they are enticing to any of our hard-to-reach students. The first is Improv, which is short for improvisational theater. The second is tabletop roleplaying games, the most famous of which is Dungeons and Dragons.

For a handful of my teaching years I coached a student Improv group as an extracurricular activity. For support, structure, and goal-setting we participated in the Canadian Improv Games. Once I began to appreciate the knowledge and skills needed to do improvisational theater, which allows for drama as much comedy, I immediately saw connections to the ELA classroom.

Yes, roleplaying or acting is an obvious component in theater. But for the structures used in the Improv Games you don’t have just one predetermined role. You must be able to adapt to what the emerging story needs. In order to do that, you must develop an understanding of character in general. We go from specific character study to the more broadly conceptual study of character. Whatever is needed, you as the roleplayer must improvise and embody a character for the sake of the story, and its purpose and audience.

Additionally, you have to gain such familiarity with the elements of story and stylistic conventions that their application becomes instinctual. You are expected to collaboratively and spontaneously weave a very short but cohesive story. In order to do that you have to know how to establish character, setting, conflict, raise the stakes to compel a resolution, and deliver the resolution. Nothing is pre-planned or pre-scripted. You’re allowed a short huddle with your team for a few seconds before you begin.

In order to ensure nothing is pre-scripted, random elements are thrown into the story. This is, of course, what adds to the fun and challenge of Improv. Building a story around asked-for suggestions from the audience like an object, a profession, a character trait, or even a story genre is a big part of the creativity and skill on display. Performers in the competition gain points for how well they create and deliver a story, all while meaningfully integrating the elements provided by the audience.

Another roleplay structure worth considering is found in the essence of tabletop roleplaying games or RPGs. The history and refinement of game systems like Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) goes back almost fifty years. Geek culture has become quite chic in the last fifteen years with Marvel superhero movies, and shows like the Big Bang Theory and Stranger Things. Now more than ever it is easier to reference and even leverage these once very niche areas with students and parents. Like the Canadian Improv Games, RPGs involve spontaneous and collaborative story creation with character-building at its heart.

RPG systems are large and engrossing. There are tons of books published for the sole purpose of providing endless fuel for creating epic-level stories around imagined settings, characters, and conflicts. Unlike Improv, a roleplayer does some pre-planning to create one character which acts as their avatar in the world. There they embark on journeys of growth and discovery through many adventures or play sessions. When creating a character, a player does more than simply establish their heroic abilities and attributes. They must add depth and nuance to provide the roleplaying hooks which make for better stories.

RPG characters are expected to have an established physical appearance as well as a personal and cultural background. Added to this are: personality traits, a moral and societal disposition called alignment, an ideal to fight for, a bond to act as something or someone which truly matters to them, and finally, a flaw which might occasionally get them into trouble. This is character study through the act of creation and interaction with a shared world full of other beings and many challenges. Each player does this through their own character and forms a “party” or team with the other players and their characters. Managing the story is the job of one other player who acts as the narrator and referee. This player is the game master, or GM. They do the lion’s share of pre-planning to provide the narrative structure in which to improvise. Unlike Improv, all this is not typically done for an audience. It is done simply for the thrills of empowerment and co-creating an epic-level story.

We want to invite students into the world of ELA by using some of their own creative agency and sense of play. Roleplaying gives them context, permission, and immediacy. It gives them structure and goals to ground their efforts. It’s a social leveler because you can be whatever the situation needs. It doesn’t have to reflect or reveal a player’s own private insecurities or current limitations. There is objectivity and purpose driving the interactions. Some students may still be uncomfortable with these opportunities at first, but it’s worth the exploration to see what might develop.

For other students it may just provide the empowerment and engagement they need. It might be the way to find their voice. Roleplaying structures can help students make connections between the living stories and characters they create, and the ones we present to them in literature. It is a way to concretize, relate, apply concepts, and visualize themes, conflicts, and solutions.

So, start safety-pinning towels around their necks and let them fly.  


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