Tuesday, June 1, 2010
By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
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.