Drills, Dialogues, and Roleplays

Materials and content allowing students to engage in ‘real’ communication, or simulations of what conversations may sound like, should be a goal for many language curriculums.  Drills that develop into dialogues, that in turn pave the way for roleplays, provide a rich repertoire of practice activities to nudge students toward more meaningful, and consequently, less mechanical communication.  In fact, such activities can hold relevance for students at any level of their studies whether they’re beginners, intermediate, or advanced language learners.


Although controlled by the teacher, meaningful drills allow students to provide information in addition to the correct language form, give reason for speaking, and as a result, are more engaging and motivating than mechanical drills.


Let’s differentiate three types of exercises often used in the classroom: drills, dialogues, and roleplays, with each having their own subset of forms.



Drills, Dialogues, and Roleplays  Kinney Brothers Publishing


Drills are a vital part of language study.  Simply put, a drill is a type of highly controlled or mechanical written or oral exercise in which students respond to a given cue.  Drills often have no context and exist for the sole purpose of practicing targeted skills.  They can be practiced in any order without losing the logic of the exercise.  Drills are the easiest for teachers to set up and implement and the exercises students are most likely to forget.  Why?  Because they’re often mechanical and lack meaningfulness.  In other words, students are on autopilot.  When working with drills, you’ll likely be using one of three types: repetition, substitution, or transformation exercises.


Repetition drills focus on a specific target where the teacher’s language or target text is repeated with no change; think flashcards and pronunciation drills.


Substitution drills give students practice in changing a target word or employ a grammar structure in response to a prompt or cue.


Teacher:  Blue.

Student: I like blue.


Transformation drills involve changing the structure of a sentence.


Teacher:  I like to eat cake.

Student:  I like eating cake.


As necessary as they may be, drills don’t have to be boring or lack meaningfulness!  There are a variety of creative and fun ways to liven up your flash card drill work, making the activities more engaging and memorable for your students.  Check out my 50+ Flash Card Activities for lots of ideas to shake up your usual drill routines.


If you think of drills as a pathway to dialogues, it will significantly influence how you prepare and implement both types of exercises.



Drills, Dialogues, and Roleplays  Kinney Brothers Publishing


While they can rely on the components found in drills, dialogues provide context and, if unordered, lose their sense of logic. Dialogues usually present spoken language in a natural or conversational tone and are typically longer than drills.  They’re beneficial for developing speaking and listening skills. Like drills, dialogues are usually exercises for guided, rather than free language practice.


Dialogues can fall into two categories: standard dialogues and open dialogues.


Standard dialogues present students with an A B exchange.  They are useful for reading, listening, pronunciation, intonation, and other phonological features.


In open dialogues, the teacher provides only one half of the dialogue with students creating the other half.  Surveys are a perfect and extremely useful example of an open dialogue format and give students practice in asking and answering questions.


If you choose to write your own dialogues, keep these ideas in mind:


Use “natural” language as much as possible with idiomatic and sociolinguistic phrases relevant to the students’ age and experiences. “Wassup!” may work well with teens but not so much for retirees.


Keep the dialogue exchanges short enough so that students can easily remember, but long enough to provide context.  Three to five exchanges with salutations works well.


A simple dialogue can happen anywhere. Allow an extenuating or teacher-directed circumstance like an emergency or other conflict to provide urgency.  Delivering the line, “Where’s my phone?” will be quite different in a supermarket as opposed to coming upon an accident.


Depict situations or reasons for a dialogue that are relevant and useful to the learner.  Think of how differently young teens and adults may think and talk about a math test, making a reservation, or a fist fight in the cafeteria.


Allow for more meaningful practice with options for substitution within the dialogue.


Here are some ideas when presenting dialogues:


Before presenting the dialogue, introduce the topic of the dialogue by fielding students’ interest or knowledge of the subject.  Providing students with pictures that may accompany or are similar to the dialogue, can warm students up with relevant vocabulary or grammatical structures.


Have students listen to the dialogue and explore specifics about what they heard.  If you have no recordings, set up two students to read while the rest of the class listens.


Give students only one side of the dialogue and have students participate in reading and listening.


Have students reorder a dialogue that’s been cut up into its individual lines.


Try out your acting skills and use the dialogue as a telephone conversation where students only hear one side of the exchange.  Who was on the other end of the conversation?  Mother, teacher, or friend?  What questions did they ask?


Perform the dialogue in fictional circumstances.  How does the same dialogue change in a library as opposed to a crowded cafeteria, or on a cold day in the park as opposed to a sunny beach?


You may be pleasantly surprised at the willingness of students to play and the creativity they will exhibit if you mine dialogues for expressive and more meaningful practice.



Drills, Dialogues, and Roleplays  Kinney Brothers Publishing


As students become more flexible and rely on fewer cues to initiate or carry them through a given dialogue, they are ready to move into roleplaying.


Roleplay is a way of bringing situations from real life into the classroom.  Dramatic scripts are simply extended dialogues grouped into scenes!  Semi-improvisational exercises where scenarios are presented with specific outcomes but nonspecific language, are excellent roleplay activities.  If your students are ready, full improvisation is an especially enjoyable way of getting students to explore a topic, take on specific roles, and employ learned language in a meaningful and expressive way.





Download these sample business roleplays from Trends, a compilation of readings and exercises for intermediate and advanced learners.  Try them out in class or use them as a guide in developing your own roleplays!


Trends Kinney Brothers Publishing Donald's English Classroom



Dialogues For Young Speakers provides guided dialogues and surveys that were created with easy and natural language for beginning students.  Check out these sample pages and they may spark ideas for your own original dialogues!


Dialogues For Young Speakers Kinney Brothers Publishing Donald's English Classroom



If you need basic drills for young students, download these sample drill worksheets from Q&A, a compendium of question and answer drills with simple present through simple past tense worksheets.


QA Kinney Brothers Publishing Donald's English Classroom


As always, best of luck in your classes!


Donald Kinney


Kinney Brothers Publishing

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