Monthly Archives: March 2012

To Role-Play or Not to Role-Play?


One of the broad goals of quality standards-based adult education instruction is to help students “build on their prior knowledge, deeply understand concepts, and master new skills well enough to be able to use their new learning in their real lives” – when we teachers are not around to help!  This of course begs the question:

How can we know for sure that our students are learning in this way, and what kind of teaching will make it more likely to happen?

Cognitive scientists – those experts who study the brain in order to understand how people learn and develop expertise – tell us that one way people are more likely to learn effectively is if they get immediate and multiple chances to use what they are learning for a purpose that is meaningful to them. This is one reason that the instructional strategy of Role-Playing has gotten a lot of attention recently.

Let us hear from you: Do you use role-playing regularly in your instruction?  For what purposes? With what results?

Role-playing gives students the opportunity to practice using a skill in real-life-like contexts, with other real people, to address specific situations. This contextual, “hands-on” approach is meant to deepen their learning. For the instructor, role-plays can be an excellent tool for assessing students’ grasp of concepts and ability to apply knowledge and skills. Other assessment strategies simply may not work as effectively for these same situations. Through role-plays, both students and teachers can actually see evidence of learning in action, and that makes it really hard to resist using them!

But wait,” you may say, are role-plays always an effective strategy to use in instruction?

Perhaps not. What if…

  • Your students seem to feel uncomfortable with or resistant to engaging in them?
  • Your class attendance is variable and you’re not sure enough students who are ready for them will actually be in class?
  • You need an opportunity to extensively assess each individual student’s progress in using a particular skill?

Here are some insights into when and how to use role play from Peggy McGuire, standards-based instruction expert:

The key for teachers in the process of planning a learning activity is to always start with asking ourselves, “What kind of learning do I want to see in this particular activity?”,  and then, “What can I ask students to do that will show me (and them!!) that learning?

For instance, if my goal is to see that students can “acquire through reading” the information they need to address particular situations, students do not have to demonstrate that skill by role-playing. Let’s take Elizabeth’s* small class of 5 students as an example. 

Elizabeth knew from previous experience that this class did not respond well to role plays. Her planned activity focused on ‘reading to find information’ to use in addressing a situation with a client or supervisor at work. The curriculum suggested having students role play these work situations for practice and as a check on reading skills. Instead, for each workplace scenario, Elizabeth called on students in turn, and one by one students individually demonstrated what they would say to their client or supervisor in that situation. This seemed the best way to make sure everyone had a chance to practice ‘using found information to address situations’ without the stress of a “formal” role play. It also gave Elizabeth a great alternative opportunity to assess the reading skills of each individual student.

On the other hand, role-playing can be especially effective in situations in which it is important for students to act out their learning in a specific context (for instance, in a mock job interview when students are currently seeking employment), or where interpersonal interaction is a critical component of the learning process (for instance, when instruction is focusing on skills like Cooperate with Others or Resolve Conflict and Negotiate). In cases like these it’s good to be quite explicit with students about “Why role-play in this particular activity” (instead of “Why role-playing in general”). This specificity about the “role of role-playing” might help to lower student resistance. It also might help them see that, like ALL useful strategies, role playing is one more strategy to have in their “toolbox” and to pull out when it is the BEST tool for the situation at hand.

Please share with us your thoughts about planning instructional activities that include role-playing – how you decide whether or not it is an important part of your lesson, how you help students prepare for it, how you assess what your students are learning through it.  Below are some questions that may help you stir up ideas or experiences to share:

1) How do you currently use role-playing as a part of your instruction? Are there situations in which you think role-playing is a particularly effective teaching/learning strategy? Are there situations in which you think it doesn’t work so well?

2) How do your students respond to role-playing in class? Like it? Resist it? Seem to learn something valuable from it?

3) What have you learned about your students by observing them in role-plays?

 We look forward to hearing from you in the comments!


Click to learn more about  a quality standards-based approach to teaching and learning or contact us via eff@utk.edu.


*Learn more about Elizabeth and her classes in the post:  Attendance Issues in Adult Education: How do You Adjust Instruction “On the Fly”?


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Changing Our Math Practices: Moving Toward the Common Core Standards


Do you, like many adult educators, face challenges in the classroom when it comes to preparing learners to meet the math demands of daily life and to be college and career ready?

The Adult Numeracy Network would like to help!

During an all-day pre-conference Workshop at the National COABE Conference, the Adult Numeracy Network will bring adult ed practitioners together for a full day to focus on topics concerning the improvement of numeracy/mathematics learning and teaching. This year, the intent is for participants to delve into what the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics might look like when implemented in their adult education classes – at all levels.

While the Common Core State Standards were designed for the K-12 audience, they will be an integral part of the new GED test in 2014. In case you are not familiar with them, these standards for mathematical practice are:

  • Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
  • Reason abstractly and quantitatively.
  • Construct viable arguments & critique the reasoning of others.
  • Model with mathematics.
  • Use appropriate tools strategically.
  • Attend to precision.
  • Look for and make use of structure.
  • Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.

As standards, each of the above skills can be implemented at ALL levels of mathematics instruction, and with many different math topics/procedures. ANN’s focus on this topic leads us to wonder:

   >  What standards or curriculum guides do you use in designing your math instruction?
Do you currently base instruction on the Common Core Standards for Mathematics? The EFF
  Use Math to Solve Problems and Communicate Standard? Something else?

   >  What does standards-based mathematics instruction look like in your classes?
How do standards help you face challenges in preparing learners to meet the math demands of daily life and to be college and career ready?

As two of our EFFTIPS math content experts – Aaron Kohring and Donna Curry – serve in leadership roles with the Adult Numeracy Network, we plan to bring back and share ideas from ANN’s COABE pre-conference session via this blog. In the meantime, however, we’d like to hear from you about the standards you use for mathematics instruction and how you implement instruction based on those standards.

Your experiences and comments are integral to this blog – please share!


COABE VAACE logo

The Commission on Adult Basic Education (COABE) is hosting their Annual Conference in Norfolk, Virginia April 9th – 13, 2012.

The Adult Numeracy Network Annual Meeting and Institute  will be held at COABE during a pre-conference session on April 10, 2012 from 8:30am – 4pm (lunch provided).

For more information visit: http://www.coabeinvirginia2012.org/pre-conference-workshops.html

Freewriting: A Strategy for “Freeing Up” Ideas About What to Write


Have you ever stared at a blank piece of paper (or empty computer screen), knowing you had to write something about something, but having no idea where to start? 

Or (once you start composing) has your writing ever felt like a halting, laborious, almost painful task?

So now imagine what writing feels like for those adult ed students who have had limited experience doing it or believe they are no good at it. What barriers are they facing when we ask them to engage in a writing assignment? Do you wonder that they avoid or resist having to write at all?

How do your students respond when you ask them to write something for class?
Are they OK with it? Do they resist it? Are they able to accomplish what you ask them to do?

In many cases the problem is NOT that we – or our students — have “nothing to say” about a topic. Rather, we and they may need a strategy for making the act of writing a bit less difficult or threatening, and for getting our ideas out of our heads and into written words. One such strategy that we can teach to our students is Freewriting. Here is a discussion of this strategy by Writing content expert Peggy McGuire:

In Freewriting, you think about a prompt and then, for a specified length of time, you write everything you can think of in response to that prompt. No worries about spelling or punctuation or any other mechanics; no worries about order or appropriateness or “correctness”; no worry about whether anyone will think it is good or bad. You just write.

The point of this strategy is to quickly transfer all the ideas in your head to paper (or computer screen) so you can think about how to use them later. It is designed to “loosen up” all those ideas and get them out without the constraints of “normal” writing rules or conventions. So, once you start writing, you don’t stop until time is up. Even if you can’t think of something that specifically addresses the prompt, you just write whatever comes to mind – or even just draw pictures or scribble nonsense until more ideas come out. See Example

This is especially good for novice writers because it also gives them practice in literally “putting the pen on the paper”, and may make that act less difficult as it is done over and over.

Freewriting can be done at different levels of structure, depending on what kind of prompt we use. You might start novice writers with more structure, and then as they get more comfortable with the strategy, you can try less structure in your prompts.

At a high level of structure, Freewriting might be prompted by a direct question.
Example: Write an answer to this question: “What is the best thing about your neighborhood?”

At a moderate level of structure, Freewriting might ask writers to react to a statement.
Example: Respond to this statement: “My neighborhood is a wonderful place to live and raise a family.”

Freewriting with minimal structure might be prompted by just a word or phrase.
Example: Write about this: “my neighborhood”

For Freewriting to have its maximum impact in helping students get more comfortable with writing and generate more ideas to write about, it should be done regularly and often. Some teachers ask students to do it during every class; others will schedule time for it at least once a week. Sometimes the prompt will be about a topic of general or current interest, and sometimes the prompt can be related to a particular topic for a reading or writing activity that you are planning for the class.

And perhaps most important, the writing that comes out must never be  graded or evaluated. We need to be very clear about that characteristic of Freewriting with students (while we are explaining to them why they are doing it) and to be willing to stick to it ourselves!

Please share with us your thoughts on methods for supporting students to ‘get their ideas on paper‘ and/or how you can make the act of writing less difficult or threatening for adult learners.
Below, Peggy offers a couple of questions to “help you get your ideas flowing”  😉

What strategies do you currently use to help your students “find ideas” for writing?

Do you currently use Freewriting as a part of your instruction? If so, when, how often, and why do you use it? Are there situations in which you think it is a particularly effective teaching/learning strategy? Please feel free to share details such as: how you describe its purpose to your students, what kinds of prompts you use and instructions you give, how you see students’ writing changing as a result of using it, etc.

How do you think using the strategy of Freewriting regularly in class might affect your students’ comfort level with writing? Their ability to generate ideas that they can use in their writing?


Learn more about teaching writing strategies in the EFF online mini-course, Standards-Based Writing for Adult Learners: Getting Started, or via other EFF professional development materials/services!


 Research on the use of Freewriting:

Elbow, P. (1981, 1998). Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 1981, 1998.