The Effects of Role Playing on Written Persuasion: An Age and Channel Comparison of 4th and 8th Graders

Wagner, B.J. (1986). The Effects of Role Playing on Written Persuasion: An Age and Channel Comparison of 4th and 8th Graders. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation) University of Illinois at Chicago.


This study examines the effect of role playing on persuasive letters written by forth and eighth grade students. Students from a middle-class school district were randomly assigned to one of three pre-writing conditions (partnered role-play, lecture with analysis of a written model, or no pre-writing) for three different persuasive letter prompts. The researcher collected and scored students’ letters and recorded role plays, as well as conducted a case study with a small sample of forth graders. The researcher found that role-play was associated with more persuasive letters, especially for forth grade students, for three of four scoring factors when length of the letter was held constant. Additionally, case study analysis found forth graders remembered and used their partners’ role play arguments in letters twice as often as they used their own.

Key Findings:

  • Students who participated in role play produced more effective persuasive letters than students in the other two pre-writing conditions for three of four scoring factors when length of the letter was held constant.
  • The effect of role playing on persuasive writing was more evident among forth graders than eighth graders.
  • In their writing, forth grade students remembered and used the persuasive points their partners brought up during role play twice as much as the points they themselves discussed during role play.

Significance of the Findings:

This study’s findings show a promising method teachers can use for improving students’ ability to write persuasive texts. Through oral role play of being both the persuader and object of persuasion, students can more effectively develop their persuasive arguments and approaches.


The author conducted the study in a middle-class urban district with 84 fourth-grade and 70 eight-grade students. Both grade levels of students were evenly split by gender. This was important for the research design given prior research indicating gender effects for oral and written language. Students were randomly assigned to groups that experienced one of three pre-writing conditions (same-sex partner role-play, lecture with analysis of a persuasive letter model, or no pre-writing) for three different persuasive letter prompts. Every group participated in one practice session of role play before the study began. All students saw the same three prompts, but they engaged in different conditions for each prompt (e.g., Class A role played for the first prompt, but then had no instruction for the second prompt).

The primary source of data for the study was students’ persuasive letters for all three prompts. The researcher also collected audio-taped transcripts of role play for a random sample of students as part of a case study. The researcher analyzed the transcripts in relationship to students’ persuasive letters to compare oral and written persuasive effectiveness and, for forth graders, how being the persuader during role play shaped a student’s subsequent letter.

Four variables were examined to assess a student’s ability to create an effective persuasive argument: highest target orientation level, variety of levels of target orientation, number of persuasive assertions, and number of ineffective repetitions. Target orientation level refers to a student’s ability to recognize and adapt to the perspective of the target he or she is trying to persuade. Variety of levels consisted of the number of different target orientation levels present. Persuasive assertions were elements that supported a students’ stance and ineffective repetitions were repetitions of earlier assertions.

The researcher modified a scale by Delia, Kline, and Burleson (1979) to rate the target orientation levels and variety of levels of students’ oral and written persuasive assertions. The researcher trained two scorers to score students’ work using the scale and to count persuasive assertions and non-effective repetitive arguments. They achieved an inter-rater reliability correlation level at p<.001. Analyses of variance (ANOVAs), t-tests, and Newman-Keuls test were used to analyze the data.

Limitations of the Research:

Students in the no-instruction condition did not receive the writing prompt in advance like students in the other two conditions. Having additional time to reflect on the prompt may have helped the other students create more persuasive arguments. Additionally, the author expressed concern about the instruments. She had not piloted the modified version of the scale and wondered if counting persuasive assertions and ineffective repetitions was the best way to measure study attributes of interest.

Questions to Guide New Research:

How do oral and written persuasive arguments vary when students role play then write versus writing then role playing? How do levels of persuasive argument vary by channel (oral versus written) and age? Can role play positively affect students’ writing of opinion pieces?