Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Playing Games, Part 2

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

A Conversation Board Game

My previous post, Playing Games, Part 1, offered my reasons for playing games in the language classroom and a description of what I feel makes a successful and useful game. However, what most teachers really want to know is, What are some good games that I can make and use? So in this and the following two posts, I will describe how to create and play some games. These can be adapted to a variety of classroom levels, and I have used them with private students and huge classes alike (though note that in larger classes, students will be playing in groups, and  you will need one set of materials per group).

This conversation board game is easy to create, but one of the most useful ones I have in my magic bag of teacher supplies. If the ones in the photos here look a bit beaten up, it’s because I’ve been using them since 1992! The originals are made of heavy cardboard that has been painted and then shellacked; the questions are written with permanent marker. I have also made color photocopies of the boards and had the copies laminated, so that I can roll them up and travel with them when necessary.

The game is a merely a series of questions, such as What do you like to do on rainy days? What is something that makes you angry? How does your family celebrate birthdays? I have simpler versions that feature only topics: children, money, television, birthdays. Students play in groups of 4-5 (more than that means that some students will fall silent).

Each student places a marker on start, and then they take turns to role a die and move their marker around the board. I buy the 8- or 12-sided dice from hobby shops to spread students around the board more; if you don’t have access to these, I recommend using two of the traditional six-sided dice.

When a student lands on a question (or topic), she speaks about it as much as she likes. She can address any aspect of the topic; it is entirely her choice. Her group members ask her questions, but do not offer their own answers or opinions. When she feels she has finished, she passes the die to the next student, and play continues.

It’s not a game that anyone can “win”—if someone reaches the end of the path, the final square says “go back,” and play reverses. I generally have students play for 20-30 minutes, but I have never had a group where any player got all the way back to start.

This is my game for the first day of class. Students get to know one another, and while they are playing, I walk around and listen to them—this is my evaluation of their English level. It provides solid practice in speaking and listening and turn-taking. An extremely simple activity, and yet just having the questions in a “game” format makes it more interesting than the standard pair interview presented on a worksheet. I’ve frequently had classes request to play the game again during other sessions.

More complex questions can of course be designed that practice only the past tense, or conditional structures, or certain vocabulary.

I’ll close with a look at a blank game board I’ve used for grammar games—this takes more effort to create, but you can also consider having students make your game cards or at least using the game over and over again if you are lucky enough to teach the same class for several terms.

This game board, as you can see, has nothing written on the squares other than a few simple game-play instructions not related to language; however, the squares are all painted one of six colors. Each color represents a type of task, and I create a stack of cards with the tasks on them. For example, yellow might indicate “spell this word.” If a student lands on yellow, he draws a card and hands it to a fellow player without looking at it, and the other player asks him to spell the word. If he succeeds, he stays where he is; if he makes a mistake, he moves back one square. Blue squares might ask a student to put a sentence in the present tense into the past, and so on. You could assign students in groups to come up with a series of tasks or exercises as homework and then have each color represent a different group’s cards.

Really, any type of drill-based language exercise can be put onto cards, where suddenly it becomes fun instead of boring. You needn’t think up all of the exercises yourself, even—copy them out of your class textbook as a review. A student who has done Exercise 13 on page 143 doesn’t want to do page 143 again. However, if items from Exercise 13 appeared on the backs of cards in a stack—well, you would be surprised at how happily students drill themselves with those items again and again!

I cannot quite get away from the issue of usefulness, however! And I would like to stress again that the use of any game must not only be clear to you, but clear to your students. You should always let a class know why they are doing what they are doing, and when the game is concluded, point out to them what language they practiced and how they practiced it.


Comment from Claire
June 9, 2010 at 7:50 pm

Thank you for the reminder that games do have a part in the ESL classroom. And thank you for sharing your creative ideas! I look forward to incorporating them into my lessons.

Comment from Dorothy Zemach
June 10, 2010 at 9:22 pm

Thank you, Claire. For a while, especially as a young teacher, I was reluctant to try too many games with adult classes. But as long as you can (and do!) clearly explain why the activity is useful, I find that adults just love a bit of color and variety in their learning tasks.

Comment from Sam Kawakami
June 15, 2010 at 8:09 am

Hi Dorothy,

Great post! I found that games with adults was definitely much more fun than just “practicing” the grammar points and conversations.

And with current technology, it is even easier to make your own game boards. You can make them on your computer and print them out. To make them bigger, you can just expand them to A3 and print on 2 sheets of A4 which you then tape together and laminate.

Comment from Dorothy Zemach
June 16, 2010 at 11:16 am

@Sam: Yes, those ones are an awkward size, as I found when I photocopied them–I had to tape bits together. Starting with standard-sized paper is a better idea! I think the laminating is important, though, or you’ll have to make them again and again. I’m a strong supporter of not making materials unless you know you can use them more than once.

Comment from vanie
August 18, 2015 at 4:06 pm

love the games

Comment from Ouafa Elbargui
October 21, 2017 at 5:44 am

Thank you so much for sharing yr creative and inspiring ideas. i really like them.

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