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Reading – Use role play to deepen children’s understanding of books

Giving time over to drama lessons may feel like a risk, but it’s certain to deepen children’s understanding of fictional narratives, says Ruth Baker-Leask...

  • Reading – Use role play to deepen children’s understanding of books

Not every teacher’s encounters with drama are positive. We have all experienced that stomach-lurching moment when, during a training session, an overzealous course leader asks you to try ‘a bit of role play’.

Drama can feel daunting, and it would be easy to leave it in the hands of the talented, uninhibited few. However, many children have an often undiscovered natural talent for drama, and most pupils enjoy and engage with role play activities.

Drama is a useful method for teaching curriculum content, particularly reading and writing, and the well-worn quote from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee illustrates why we should be turning to role play as one of the essential teaching strategies we use to support children’s understanding of narrative:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Atticus Finch

During the teaching of reading, drama and role play can support children to:

  • engage with texts they might otherwise find difficult
  • understand plot and action
  • understand a story’s setting and how this influences action
  • predict and discuss future actions and their consequences
  • understand and discuss mood and atmosphere
  • understand characters’ traits and infer their feelings, motives and intentions
  • explore the language used by characters to express thoughts and feelings

Why role play?

From an early age, children explore worlds, real and imagined, through the act of role play. In Early Years they are provided with a range of opportunities to engage in imaginative play such as role-play areas, puppets and props, and through the act of small world play.

Role play becomes more structured for older children but still provides the same benefits; it strengthens their comprehension skills by supporting them to make connections between a fictional world and their own lives as well as providing them with opportunities to explore scenarios within stories, considering their importance and consequences.

In addition, role play contributes to children’s language development as well as developing confidence, creative thinking and strengthening collaborative relationships within the classroom.

Understanding book characters

Role play involves inhabiting the characters and their fictional world and, therefore, it is best to give the children time to explore these characters through book talk and discussion before leaping headfirst into a drama activity.

Role on the Wall is a great way to do this and can be revisited at any point as a story progresses.

Here is an example of a KS1 Role on the Wall of Beegu, from the popular book by Alexis Deacon.

The first photograph shows how the character feels (inside her outline) when she finds herself stranded on a strange planet; around the outside of her outline are words that illustrate how others perceive Beegu (both her character and her appearance).

The second photograph shows how a Role on the Wall can be added to and altered as a story progresses, allowing the children to notice how characters develop throughout a narrative (each coloured sticky note represents a different moment in the story).

Time and space

Role play activities can be short and easily delivered during book talk or shared reading lessons, eg quickly hot-seating a character at a crucial moment in a story or taking a moment to explore a character’s thoughts using a freeze frame.

However, sometimes you may wish to make role play the main event, in which case you have to create or find plenty of space (every teacher should have a ‘move the tables back’ plan up their sleeve), and not feel guilty for taking a couple of hours out of the week to indulge in a bit of drama that might not have any form of written outcome.

These are some of the techniques I like to use most often:

Familiar characters

There are many ideas we can use to support children in taking on the mantle of a known character.

Overheard conversations

In groups or pairs, children improvise conversations between key characters. The teacher and other class members eavesdrop and report back what they heard.

Telephone conversations

Children mock call each other in role as characters from the story using the appropriate tone and language.


Children role-play a scene from before the beginning of a story.


Children role-play what might happen next at the end of a story.


In role as a chosen character, the children gossip about each other, making reference to critical events in a story.

Imagined characters

Sometimes it is useful for the children to stand back from the action and adopt a different point of view. This is easily done by inserting new characters, who are imagined observers of the story, into a role play. For example:

  • The policeman sent to the scene of a crime within the story
  • A character’s teacher who is talking about one of the characters during parents’ evening
  • A town councillor making an announcement about events that have affected the hometown of the character
  • A character’s parent or friend discussing their concerns
  • A bystander gossiping about an event in the story
  • The local wise woman, etc

Writing in role

Writing in role is a worthwhile extension to most drama activities. It offers children a further opportunity to express a character’s thoughts and feelings and allows them to reflect on the text as a whole.

Writing in role provides children with an authentic purpose for their writing as well as enabling them to write freely, unrestrained by the expectations of more formal writing lessons. They might choose to write in role:

  • A social media post
  • A packing checklist
  • A travel blog
  • A diary
  • An email
  • A TV/radio interview
  • A resignation letter
  • An informal note to be slipped under a door
  • A thank you card or letter etc

Creating a soundscape

‘Drama can support children in understanding how settings, characters and themes are central creating the mood or atmosphere of a story.’

DFE, 2014

The above are abstract concepts for children to understand and explain. However, by using their voices, props and percussion instruments to represent the characters and actions within a passage of text, children can demonstrate their understanding of mood and atmosphere.

By altering the pitch, pace, volume and tone of the sounds they choose to make, and by selecting specific instruments to represent each character, they can compose a dramatic soundscape that mirrors what is happening in a story.

Children should always perform their soundscapes to others in the class as the text is read aloud. This can be particularly effective when the children are given sequential passages from the text, that can then be played in turn to demonstrate its changing moods.

Get involved

As you can see, drama and role play can support teachers to deepen children’s understanding of text in varied and engaging ways, thereby avoiding the temptation to only teach reading comprehension through the model of teacher questioning; and using role play as part of your teacher’s toolkit can be significantly enhanced when you get involved yourself (oh, there’s that familiar stomach lurch!).

No one likes to make a fool of themselves, but your children would appreciate it if you did. To fully immerse children in any dramatic scenario, you might need to jump in with them.

A former primary head, Ruth Baker-Leask is director of Minerva Learning and chair of the National Association of Advisers in English (NAAE).

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