Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Playing Games, Part 1

By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Eugene, Oregon
Email: zemach at comcast dot net

The Place of Games in the Language Classroom

In my last post, I argued that the practical goal of learning English ought to come before (if a choice must be made between the two) the goal of having fun. In this post, I’m writing about games. A contradiction? Not at all—I hold that games are enormously practical.

This post will give my reasons for including games in the language classroom, and then in my next three posts, I will describe some games that anyone can make and adapt to a variety of different classes.

What makes an activity a “game”? Often it’s just how we dress it up. A game may be nothing more than extended pairwork asking and answering questions, but if it’s done sitting around a game board, rolling dice and moving markers, it’s a game. A time limit can make something a game: “How many vocabulary words from Unit 3 do you remember?” is just a question; “Work in groups of three. How many vocabulary words from Unit 3 can you list in two minutes before the bell rings?” feels like a game.

When selecting or designing a game, I look for these factors:

• It is useful. That is, it is clearly practicing a language point or a communication skill. Not only must I be able to articulate that to myself, but I need to be able to explain it to my students as well.

• It lasts longer than the instructions. Some games might take a while to explain or learn or set up; in that case, the amount of practice students get needs to justify that.

• It gives all students an equal amount of practice. Games purely of skill can result in the stronger students getting more practice, and that of course is not fair. Be especially wary of games that have unsuccessful students sit down or stop play early, or that reward success with extra turns.

• It does not cause hurt feelings. Many games involve “winning” and “losing”—and losing is not usually such a great feeling for anyone. Therefore, the playing of the game itself must hold the appeal, and not the winning. When I have students of mixed abilities playing together, I don’t mind at all altering the rules or outright “cheating” to level the playing field. A student cannot cheat without angering his/her classmates—but the teacher, now, she can do whatever she pleases! I’ll give a specific example of this in the context of a game in a future post.

I feel strongly that your language goal should be what drives you to select your game, and not the other way around. That is, if your language goal is “I want students to get to know each other better, feel comfortable in class, get some experience working in groups, and have some time for free conversation practice that isn’t graded,” then the conversation game I’ll describe in my next post would be a good fit for that class. However, it doesn’t work nearly so well to say, “I have this great conversation board game, so… I guess ‘conversation practice’ will be my goal for my next class.”

The games that I will describe in my next posts I made myself, with cardboard and paint and markers and cards and scissors. If you are making something that can be used more than once, I’d advise making the effort to do it well the first time, so it will last for years. If possible, laminate worksheets and flashcards. At the same time, keep your eye open for store sales and yard sales where you can pick up inexpensive game boards, dice, markers (I find little novelty erasers and coins from different countries work well), timers, and so on, so you can have them on hand when you suddenly have an inspiration for creating a game.


Comment from Ogusan
June 2, 2010 at 5:44 pm

As Dorothy says, it is true that all students have an equal amount of practice when they play games.However, we have large classes, each of forty students in small classrooms in Japan.We have a physically difficult situation where teachers circulate among students and check if they are doing the right thing.In junior high schools teachers often use games not just for fun but for attaining language goal.On the other hand,in senior high schools they don’t use games because students do not always show interest in games and they have lots of things to learn in a period such as lots of new words, phrases, sentences, grammar, etc.There is little time for games. Here, I have a question: Do you think it’s acceptable that teachers use the students’ mother tongue when they exaplain how to play games?

Comment from Dorothy Zemach
June 3, 2010 at 10:09 pm

Hi Ogusan,

You are correct, some games take more space to move around in than others. But there are plenty that can be played without moving at all, or just by turning and working with a partner.

I would say, though, to your point that in senior high school that students have to learn words, phrases, sentences, and grammar–well, that is just the sort of thing that games should be drilling! So games are not incompatible with serious language learning goals at all (and if they are, then I don’t recommend those games!).

As for using students’ native language, I think it depends on the level of the class. I think it can be distracting a bit, so I would stay in English as much as possible; and often showing is more effective than telling anyway. However, if giving a line or two of instructions in the native language saves you seven minutes of talking and showing, I don’t have a problem with that. You want to do whatever will help your class work on their English most effectively–and sometimes saving time will do that.

Comment from Fukuyama Eikaiwa
June 5, 2010 at 10:16 pm

For me games are a huge part of my younger classes, and are a part of my older classes as well, but just not to the same degree.I think it all depends on the personality of the class.

Comment from lolly
June 12, 2010 at 10:02 am

i want to study all part.

Comment from Richard
December 1, 2012 at 1:01 pm

Hi Dorothy. I agree with you about avoiding hurt feelings, but I do think competitiveness can be a driver. Some of my students loved to win and hated to be seen to lose, so they’d try harder.

Similarly, they were all really, really driven to know their scores from tests compared with those of their peers. They seemed to respond well to knowing how they ranked, and wanted everyone’s results up on the wall!

In fact, I’ve just made an online grammar test for learners working on their own that reflects this. Learners can see their scores compared to other people and it is meant to drive them onward. (Hope you like it)

The trick, of course, is to make sure that they don’t always lose. In the classroom, I would always try to vary the team members as much as possible. I found that cheating and helping poor performing teams helps – but only up to a point! Soon winning teams see that you aren’t being fair and they tend to lose their motivation!

It’s a very tricky problem…


Pingback from Teacher Talk » Playing Games, Part 2
November 1, 2013 at 11:49 am

[…] previous post, Playing Games, Part 1, offered my reasons for playing games in the language classroom and a description of what I feel […]

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