Writing with role-play: get inspired by the Brontë Sisters

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The Brontës and role-play

Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Brontë by their brother Branwell (c. 1834). National Portrait Gallery, London. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

As I was reading the ‘Letters to the Editor‘ section in the Times Literary Supplement in early September, I noticed a thread of comments on the 200th anniversary special issue about Emily Brontë. The articles and letters discussed the influence that the sisters’ childhood role-playing games had on their adult fiction and poetry writing. The Brontë sisters and their brother Branwell grew up in the remote village of Haworth in West Yorkshire with their vicar father and their aunt, after the death of their mother and two older sisters in the early 1800s. One day they received a gift from their father: 12 small toy soldiers. The children started making up and acting out pretend scenarios with the soldiers. Naturally, they also wrote their ‘plays’ down. Then, once they had a taste for writing, they went on to craft stories about the imaginary worlds of Angria and Gondal. Emily was twelve, and Anne ten, at the time. Emily would go back to this fantasy world when she wrote her Gondal poems between 1844 and 1848. Her only novel, Wuthering Heights was published in 1847. Although, as biographer Jacqueline Banerjee claims, the Gondal stories do not ‘provide the only useful entry to the novel’, they are often seen as a source of inspiration for much of Emily’s writing.

Whether these childhood role-plays directly influenced the sisters’ adult writing or not, we can confidently say that they set the children off on their writing career with their love of reading further fuelling their imagination.

Role-play as a resource in the classroom

Role-playing games are essential to the language teacher’s toolkit. We use them to initiate oral practice of everyday situations. We also rely on the basic principles of role-plays when we ask students to write letters and e-mails. In their own lives, our students often use role-playing skills in online interactive games or classic board games. And as the Brontës remind us, role-plays are excellent resources for story writing.

How many different skills do role-plays tap into? When we act out a scene or write in role, we focus on characterization, which demands excellent observation and interpersonal skills as well as the ability to predict and also think about why characters act in a certain way. We also actively manipulate the style of our speaking, both in terms of pronunciation and intonation, and we make conscious lexical, syntactic and stylistic choices appropriate for the cultural context and social situation.

Some students find story writing or simply writing a letter of complaint challenging because they have not had much life experience. However, they do have imagination and narrative experience through film and fiction. What’s more, there are students who feel intimidated by having to write about their own experiences. Role-plays can bring an extra benefit for them.

Using role-plays to write stories

Collaboration

Role-plays are mostly collaborative games and you can take advantage of this in the classroom. Your students can work on a narrative over a series of lessons. You can either dedicate 15 minutes to this activity or use a whole lesson, depending on the language proficiency and age of your students. We recommend working with groups of 3-4 so that every student has enough time to talk. If you have students who cannot take part in the role-play, give them the task of taking notes or doing research for other students in their team. Follow our notes, modify them, and let us know how the projects developed.

Lesson 1

An example: reading for inspiration

Read page 37 in our reader edition of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Tell your students to watch out for word use and sentence patterns that characterize a person in the novel. Also, ask them to take notes on their body language. The narrator of the story uses adjectives which tell us a lot about the characters. These features all contribute to the creation of a fully rounded character.

Extract from the Helbling Reader edition of Wuthering Heights, adapted by Jennifer Gascoigne and illustrated by Valentina Russello. © Helbling Languages

In this example, Catherine changes from being a wild young girl into a lady. The change is made explicit through her hairstyle [smooth curls], accessories [feathers] and clothes [cloak, silk dress] and the tone of her voice changes [she demanded]. Hindley uses expressions like [You look lovely!] which are polite and friendly. Catherine also uses expressions which are kind and polite [How strange and serious! Well…] On the other hand, Heathcliff uses short sentences which suggest annoyance and anger [No! I won’t!; I’ll be as dirty as I want.]

When students observe how characters behave, dress, move and speak, they can build a profile for them. When they are writing, they have to work with their own profile. This way they can start building their own stories step by step.

Lesson 2

Characterization

When you write in role, it’s important to create a detailed character map. Ask your student to answer the following questions and write character cards to create their own character. Your students might find it easier to talk about their characters in the first person. If you feel that it might be too personal, ask them to think in the third person about their characters. It might be helpful to choose a narrative genre (e.g. detective, romantic, historical, science-fiction) and the setting, to boost the imagination of your students.

  • How old are you?
  • Where are you from?
  • What do you look like?
  • What happened to you before the time of this story?
  • What kind of personality do you have?
  • How do you feel most of the time?
  • How did your life events influence your behaviour and emotions?
  • What are you afraid of?
  • What are you good at?
  • What do you usually wear?

Of course, you can go on building a detailed map with more specific questions.

Lesson 3

Group introductions and story writing

Once the students have created their characters, ask them to introduce themselves to their groups. After this, they can establish their characters’ relationship together. Then the students can start working on their stories together. You can help your students by guiding them in this. Here are some tips:

  1. Establish the genre. Is it a detective story? A historical tale? A love story?
  2. Give the initial situation to start the story. It can also be the opening of a famous novel.
  3. You can also give your students different scenarios and ask them how their characters would react in these situations.
  4. Describe the setting – When and where did the story take place? Check out this lesson plan for ideas on building a setting.

Ask the students to take notes, make a story map or sketch a storyboard if they are good at drawing.

Lesson 4

Writing at home or in groups

Depending on the time you can dedicate to this, you can ask the students to write the stories at home or in the lesson. When they have prepared the first draft, they can show it to you. Give them some feedback and ask them to finalise the story. Some students might want to illustrate and print their story.

Lesson 5

Share the stories

Dedicate a lesson to listening to each other’s stories in class. The Brontës also loved reading out their stories to each other to give and receive feedback. Each group can choose a reader or they can ask you to read the story out loud to the others. If the stories are really enjoyable and you have a school newspaper, you could publish the stories in the newspaper.

For more ideas on other aspects of using role-play, please check out these posts and resources on our Blog:

Do you have any role-play ideas that worked in your classroom? Please share them with us!

Read our lesson ideas on reading and teaching the Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë in the English class:

Read, watch and listen to more

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