Seminar activity Ideas 8: Contemporary Readers – A Contextual Role Play

Seminar teaching


This role-play activity highlights in a very practical way the impact of the contexts of reading, the different ways in which a text is read over time and, perhaps most importantly, the role of the reader in creating meaning. It is an activity that helps underline the fact that no reading is neutral. Through this activity students also get to grips with contextual information which may be important to their reading as they develop their own interpretation of the text.

What to do

The example outlined here in detail uses Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads to illustrate the approach. You can download the resources (role-cards, contemporary responses and contextual information) as pdf files: just click on the links in the next paragraph.

Students take part in an imaginary debate between five contemporary readers of the text and the writer (in this case Wordsworth or Coleridge), using role cards, ‘soundbites’ from contemporary responses to the Lyrical Ballads and short pieces of contextual information.

  1. Allocate a role-card from the downloadable pdf file of roles to each student and ask them to get into groups with other students working on the same role. (Roles include Wordsworth and Coleridge as well as imaginary nineteenth-century readers.)
  2. In their group, students begin by reading and talking about:
    • Students playing the part of a reader share their thoughts about how this reader might have responded to the Lyrical Ballads. They make a note of three or four points they could make in role as this reader, with reference to the ideas discussed in the text and any contextual information they think is relevant.
    • The group playing the part of the author prepare to explain (and perhaps defend) their own reading of the text, the techniques they used, what they think they have achieved and so on, with reference to both the text and any contextual information they think is relevant.
  3. Students re-form into new discussion groups, so that a range of readers (and writers) is represented in each. In their groups, they discuss the text in the role they have prepared.
  4. As a whole group, students ‘de-brief’ the activity, drawing attention to what has been learned about the impact of the contexts of reading in creating meaning.

A second example

Here is another example, based on Wuthering Heights:

  1. Students imagine the following readers (and Emily Brontë herself) gathered together to discuss their response to Wuthering Heights, a novel first published anonymously and assumed by many of its early readers to have been written by a man.
    A. A clergyman concerned about the influence of novels on people’s lives, especially women.
    B. A newspaper reviewer interested in the form of the novel and the process of storytelling.
    C. A reader who has previously enjoyed Gothic romances and sentimental romances.
    D. A campaigner who believes that all men are equal.
    E. A local MP for the area of Yorkshire in which the novel is set.
    F. Emily Brontë
  2. Allocate a different reader to each pair. Pairs begin by sharing their thoughts about how this reader might have responded to the novel. They may need to do a bit of research into the period to help them do this.
  3. In pairs, students write an opening statement in role as this reader, along with three or four points they might make about the novel.
  4. Students get into new groups with each reader represented, taking it in turns to deliver their opening statements.
  5. Students continue the discussion in role, questioning, challenging and developing the points made by the readers in the opening statements.

Further activities

Other activities in this web area also support students in getting to grips with critical and contextual material: