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Using Role-plays in Teaching English Speaking

I. Reason for choosing the topic:

Learning a language is a complex and long process as anyone who has tried will agree. One of the most difficult and frustrating things is making the transition from the classroom to the 'real' world. In the classroom, everyone knows you are a student and mistakes are allowed, and the environment is contained and safe. Speaking another language outside the classroom is completely different and often students are lost at sea as soon as they step outside the door. Lists of memorized vocabulary are suddenly useless when ordering in a restaurant.

The problem becomes more complicated when it comes to Vietnam setting. English teachers in Vietnam have just adopted communicative approach for just a few years since the using of the new textbooks. However, they have not paid enough attention to speaking skill. The speaking tasks are simple, and more importantly, impractical.

In this writing, I would like to recommend a more practical way of teaching speaking in high school classrooms; that is using role-plays and simulations. Role-plays, or simulations are one of the ways ESL instructors can ease students' transition into using English in real world situations. A simulation is where students act out a real-life situation, for example checking into at a hotel, but do not act out a different personality. Role-plays are where students take on different personalities. In a role-play, for example, one student may be asked to take on the role of "an angry neighbor" which is out of character for the student.

The purpose of role playing is to give the students an opportunity to work with others in determining how an individual or group might behave in response to a particular situation. Role playing is often used primarily to promote classroom discussion. The use of role playing as a cooperative learning model also includes class discussion as a vital step, but in this approach the entire class is involved in preparing and presenting role plays through group activity.

II. Some principles of using and managing role-plays:

  • The more engaging the better. The value of role-plays come from students immersing themselves in the material.
  • Choose a 'hot' topic and stage a debate. Assign students positions on the topic (for/against). This will get students out of their personality and into the role where they do not have the same inhibitions.
  • Preparation is very important to success. Give students 'personality cards' which sketch out their personal characteristics or scenario. Divide students into groups and give them time to sketch out various scenarios, and go over extra or special vocabulary, ask them to discuss how they will act, think about the character and plan what they will say. For example, what are possible responses/replies for the angry neighbor?
  • The teacher, as facilitator of the role-play must support students in their role, i.e. they 'are' in the backyard arguing over the fence. Don't do anything to interrupt the pretend environment. Leave grammar correction to the end. Correcting students in the middle of an argument interrupts the pretend environment. Make notes and do a debriefing after.
  • Exaggeration is good! Encourage students to exaggerate their actions, opinions and movements. Exaggeration helps students immerse themselves in the role.
  • Stage a rehearsal first. Have students practice their role in small groups with coaching from the other students.
  • While the role-play or debate is in progress, have other students suggest vocabulary first, and act as backup if they do not know.

Role-plays are unpredictable which makes them both a valuable learning tool and at the same time difficult to manage. Sketch out the various routes the role-play can take from the initial scenario. This will give you some idea what to expect and avoid any surprises.

Role-plays can range from 30 minutes to one hour.

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