Learn English Role Play: Choices and Reasons

Learn English: Role Play Dilemma

  • Focus: an inquiry based writing activity that also helps students learn English speaking, listening and critical thinking
  • Time: 20-30 minutes, longer with a writing section
  • Level: intermediate and up

Main Idea

This English writing activity with a layer of small group discussion requires ESL students to make difficult choices. Given the constraints of the role play game, decisions must be explained with reasons that justify the choices.

This English lesson follows the basic model of an inquiry based activity: it begins with an essential question and requires students to consider the evidence, establish rules for decisions (warrants) and make decisions (conclusions) which address the essential question.

The addition of a pair work/small group discussion component is optional though useful because it helps students clarify their own thinking.


Present the Role Play Situation (download the pdf)

You were on a ship sailing from London to New York. The ship started to sink in the middle of ocean, just like the Titanic. You and 12 other people were lucky. You escaped and are now on a lifeboat.

The ship sank quickly, so nobody had time to prepare. Many people in the lifeboat do not have warm clothes and there is not much to eat or drink. The water temperature is about 2 degrees Celsius, the winds are strong, the waves are high and it is hard to see because of the fog. Everybody is cold, hungry and afraid.

The lifeboat has no motor, so you and the others have to row. Luckily, the ship’s Captain was able to send an emergency message. Help is coming, but that might take one or two days.


Your lifeboat is overloaded. It has too much weight. Slowly, it is sinking. In order to keep everybody safe, it is necessary to throw 60 kilograms of stuff out of the lifeboat. You and the other people have to decide quickly which items to throw away. You cannot remove any people. These are the items from which you must choose:

Items and Total Weight (kg)

  1. 5 raincoats with hoods – each 2 kg. (10 kg)
  2. 30 cans of tuna – each 1 kg. (30 kg)
  3. a 10-liter bottle of water – 10 kg. (10 kg)
  4. a battery operated signal light – 8 kg. (8 kg)
  5. 3 diving suits – each 5 kg. (15 kg)
  6. 2 buckets for bailing water – each 3 kg. (6 kg)
  7. 4 wool blankets – each 3 kg. (12 kg)
  8. a large S.O.S. flag – 3 kg. (3 kg)
  9. a first aid kit – 10 kg. (10 kg)
  10. 8 oars – each 5 kg. (40 kg)
  11. Total (144 kg)

In small groups, decide which items to throw away. Remember, the objective is to decide which combination of things – totaling 60 kgs – you will as a group throw away. You must provide reasons for each decision.

Teacher’s Input

Some students might be inclined to rush through the exercise without dedicating a good amount of mental energy to the effort. In these situations, the teacher might consider asking probing questions. For example, some students might want to:

  • Throw away the drinking water because it will be possible to distill water. Point out that distilling water requires a significant amount of equipment.
  • Throw away canned tuna because people can survive a month without food. Point out that in cold temperatures the human body burns much more energy to create heat. Without food, people on a boat on a cold ocean could die quickly, perhaps before the rescue boat arrives.
  • Throw away the oars. Point of that while the rescue boat travels to the GPS location which the captain sent before the ship went down, the life boat will float far away with the tide. Without oars, the boat will move away from the rescue location and it might take much longer for the rescue boat to find them.

Another useful tip (especially if you are going to run the writing exercise) is to ask students to divide the 10 items into categories. Students may struggle with this task for a while, so slowly guide them to the idea that these items can be divided into two groups: survival and rescue. As students strive to find the right mix of things to throw away, they might want to consider their priorities: survival or rescue.

Looking for other language teaching ideas?



This activity is an adaptation of an exercise by Larry Johannessen in a paper called, “Teaching Writing in the Information Age.”


The image in this post comes from Theen Moy and its use complies with the owner’s creative commons licensing terms.


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