Roleplays and Simulations: Engaging Tools for the Business English Classroom

in Professional Development

When I joined ELTABB sometime last year, one of my incentives was the chance to improve my skills as an English teacher. Therefore, when Evan Frendo formed an FTBE (First Certificate for Teachers of Business English) study group, I eagerly polished off my post-it notes and ring-binder and got ready to swot up.

At the last meeting, it was my turn to give a presentation on ‘Roleplays and Simulations’. Read on to get an overview of what exactly roleplays and simulations are (sadly without the aid of my trusty Zoom laser pointer).

Wait, they’re different things?

As the title suggests, simulations and roleplays are related, but not identical, tools in the arsenal of the business English teacher. Indeed, a roleplay may stand alone or it may form part of a larger simulation. As almost all of our readers here are English teachers (bar one or two exceptions…hi Dad!), I’m sure I can skim quickly over the broader points of a roleplay:

When you get students to make-believe that they are somebody else, they are performing a roleplay. Perhaps one is a hotel receptionist and the other is planning a holiday, or one is a flatmate at home and the other is on the phone, doing the weekly shop.

Roleplays: focusing on needs and linguistic expression

Roleplays are “Problem-solving activities in which the participants take a role to resolve a conflict” (Waylink, 2020). In business English of course, these must be targeted towards the client’s needs. You don’t want clients to feel alienated by the lack of relevance in the setting!

It is up to a business English teacher to try and find a suitable activity (from a lexical point of view) and a suitable conflict and roles, from a business-relevance point of view.

Roleplays tend to be adversarial by nature – they are ‘information-gap activities’. Thus, each participant is lacking information that the other needs (what the flatmates needs vs what is available at the shops, to continue the example).

This doesn’t mean that there is a winner or loser. Rather, each participant poses some difficulty that the other must overcome through the medium of the English language.

This challenge will also be chosen in order to elicit a particular piece of language. For instance, a business English roleplay might have two students debating a purchasing decision. This will centre on persuasive language in a ‘focussed situation’; an isolated decision with no further consequences.

There is no need for agreement and the exercise monitors language, not business results.

Simulations: focusing on roles and context

In contrast to roleplays, simulations are a broader, more diverse tool. They might engage multiple students representing multiple departments within a business, working together to achieve positive results such as a successful product launch or make a profit.

Here, the focus isn’t on language in isolation, but rather in context – such as how it is used for inter-departmental communication. This breadth of context also applies to the period of time a simulation can encompass.

Rather than a short encounter such as a phone call, a product launch example could last from first concept to release or even after-sale support.

Designing simulations, blending in roleplays

A roleplay might be part of a simulation, such as interaction between researcher and focus group. But that will only be one activity of multiple; a simulation is “a set of activities that will gradually lead the learner to perform a business operation” (Orlando, 2020).

Each activity has a fixed role but no fixed outcome – the result is up to the students, not the teacher.  For example, the supermarket roleplay phone-call might be part of a larger, longer household-management simulation. The shopper successfully buying milk isn’t guaranteed and the outcome will affect the results of the simulation as a whole.

While in a roleplay students play a role other than their own, in a simulation students explore their own reactions to a given situation (Allison, 2017, cited in Frendo, 2020, personal communication, 6 November).

Setting goals and adapting on the go

In designing simulations, you must establish not just linguistic, but also learning and social goals. You must then find a possible and relevant problem-solving scenario. Finally, create a setting to illustrate and develop this scenario.

A string of activities that guide students to the result must then be incorporated and, once the students have been let loose on your simulation, a follow-up and assessment completed. The students will want to know what they have accomplished, and how they can improve.

For best results, flexibility is key.

Keep in mind that, like any simulation, once tested in use it may well ‘break’. Evan told us of a simulation he had made in which engineers had to install machinery on a remote hilltop. The students decided they would rent a helicopter and completed the week-long simulation within a day! 

This illustrates that you must be prepared to adapt and alter your simulation as it progresses. Rather than artificial restrictions, offer plausible adaptations to avoid breaking suspension of disbelief (“No helicopters! That’s cheating!”). Evan, thinking quickly, announced that a helicopter crash had cancelled all flights for a week.

And if all goes to plan…

Used correctly, a simulation (and within it, roleplays) can provide realistic and engaging opportunities for your students. They will not only practice and improve their English, but also get a feel for it in a real-world situation. This will then further demonstrate how you are improving their outcomes at work.

In applying their English skills to a relevant and interesting scenario, your students should also feel that they are conquering an enjoyable challenge rather than simply studying a language because their boss told them to.

A successful simulation is also an opportunity to demonstrate to your client (for example the aforementioned boss) how your work has practical results that will ultimately benefit their bottom line…

And what is good for the business is good for the business English teacher!


Orlando, M (ND). The role of business simulations in the business English syllabus: some considerations. International House Journal of Education and Development. Available at The Role of Business Simulations in the Business English Syllabus: Some Considerations « IH Journal (accessed on 06.11.20).

Waylink English (ND). Simulation games with business English. Waylink English. Available at (accessed on 06.11.20).

Kit Flemons

Following the traditional path of discovering Rammstein, Kraftwerk and Run Lola Run as a teenager, Kit has dreamed of living in Germany ever since. Finally making the move in January 2019, he now works here as a freelance English teacher by day and by night enjoys reading, writing and weeping into books of German grammar.

Following the traditional path of discovering Rammstein, Kraftwerk and Run Lola Run as a teenager, Kit has dreamed of living in Germany ever since. Finally making the move in January 2019, he now works here as a freelance English teacher by day and by night enjoys reading, writing and weeping into books of German grammar.

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