Role-Playing the Present Perfect: A Speaking Activity

In a recent post, I described having my students “eavesdrop” on how the present perfect tense is actually used in the world they live in: at work, on TV, on the Internet, and by their children as they speak English with their friends.  As promised, here is one of the activities I have used successfully in intermediate-level classes to put what my students discovered into practice.

Background

As ESL instructors know well, the present perfect is (among other things) the tense that is commonly used to describe one’s own experience. It comes in handy in job interviews and is used by both the employer (“Have you ever…?”) and the job-seeker.  In my classes, I capitalize on this commonality by dividing the class into “parents” and prospective “babysitters” and have the students in each category work with their counterparts to brainstorm a series of realistic questions to ask as they role play a job interview.

First, a word about the choice of job for this activity.  In many of my classes, a sizeable percentage of students are involved in providing child care—as nannies, housekeepers, or foreign au pairs.  And even students who aren’t taking care of other people’s children have children of their own, have friends who provide child care, or have been looked after at some point in their childhood by someone other than their parents.  Everyone seems to have strong opinions on what to look for—and what to avoid—in hiring a babysitter or in choosing a family to work for.

Needless to say, in your own classes, you could choose a different job or let the students choose their own jobs for this role-play.  The advantage of choosing one common job for the whole class is that it allows for a lot of practice as students move around the room and have the opportunity to ask and answer the same questions with different sets of partners.

Set-up

Two-thirds of the students are assigned to play the role of parents and work in pairs as a “couple.”  I usually try to assign a male and female student to work together as “mother” and “father,” although in other classes, where I know the students would be comfortable with the idea, we have also had same-sex couples.  Their assignment is to work with another set of “parents”  in the class to come up with a list of at least 10 questions they would want to ask the prospective babysitters to determine their suitability for the job.

The remaining students are assigned the role of prospective babysitter or nanny.  I have them work together in small groups to brainstorm a list of questions to ask the prospective employers to determine if this would be a good family to work for or whether they should steer clear of that family.

Role Plays

Once students have had a chance to brainstorm the questions they want to ask each other at the interview, I give each set of “parents” the opportunity to interview at least two different “babysitters” and vice versa.  This makes for lots of speaking activity and gales of laughter as students settle into their roles and begin to invent an entire back story for themselves and their families.

The questions the students ask (and have to answer) vary widely from class to class but have invariably been creative and on point.  For instance, this year, one set of “parents” announced to the nonplussed job candidates that they had six children and were expecting a seventh. They wanted to know “Have you ever driven a bus?” since they anticipated needing a babysitter who could handle something larger than an S.U.V.  Other “parents” asked hard-hitting questions like:

  • Have you ever used illegal drugs?
  • Have you ever cared for a child with asthma?
  • Have you had CPR training?
  • Have you ever overslept?
  • Have you ever hit a child?
  • Have you ever stolen jewelry from an employer?
  • Have you ever brought your boyfriend into the house where you’re working?

“Babysitters” wanted to know:

  • Have you ever fought in front of the children?
  • Have you ever sexually harassed one of your babysitters?
  • Have you ever given  your au pairs time off over the holidays?
  • Have you ever paid a Christmas bonus to your au pair?

Even when the students overuse the present perfect (“Have you ever prayed with your children?” as opposed to “Do you pray with your children?”), the activity provides an opportunity to help students differentiate usage among the various possible verb tenses.

As students move around the room to interview and be interviewed by different classmates, they grow visibly more comfortable giving expanded answers and ad-libbing additional factual scenarios, questions, and responses.  All told—between the brainstorming and multiple rounds of interviews—this communicative activity keeps students deeply engaged in speaking and listening for up to 90 minutes.

Do you have other present-perfect activities to share? Or fun ways to modify this one?

About Alexandra Lowe

Alexandra Lowe
Alexandra is an ESL instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College, where she has taught Speaking & Listening in the Intensive English Program, English for Academic Purposes, Business English, Accent on Fluency and a wide range of ESL levels. A graduate of Harvard Law School, she brings to the classroom the experience gained from years of creating workshops for judges, lawyers, physicians, social workers and journalists. Her primary interests are bringing authentic materials into the ESL classroom and self-directed learning strategies that students can use outside of the classroom to accelerate their learning and enhance their speaking skills.
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