Like many people around the world, I recently took time off at the end of December and the New Year to relax at home. A common feature of any holiday season, alongside eating large meals and seeing family and old friends, is playing games. For example, my son was playing with a new video game console and within a short time I was addicted and striving to reach the ‘next level’. Then, after finishing off yet another large meal, someone suggested playing a board game that hadn’t been opened since last year. Initially, there was typical resistance to starting a game that had a long set of rules and which could take up the whole evening. And yet, 15 minutes later, everyone was thoroughly engrossed and participating fully.
This was a demonstration of just how engaging games can be! And it doesn’t stop at board games, there are action or guessing games, treasure hunts, trivia or memory games, games with props, online games, or even game shows on TV (which we invest our time in with no hope of winning an actual prize). Games incorporate fun, incite collaboration and competition, which in combination is incredibly motivating.
How can using games motivate language learners?
One theory for the motivational power of games (both physical and online) is that players reach a mental state where they are completely focused on the task. This is sometimes referred to as ‘flow’ (1); in other words, the difficulty of the game is not too hard or too easy, equally matched to the player’s skill level.
It is at this level that games have the most potential as valuable classroom tools. As teachers, we are always looking for classroom activities that take students to that place in their language learning when they feel fully engaged and motivated to continue to the end. Of course, we normally think of games as involving winning and losing, but when we use games in the classroom I prefer to think of them as achieving a win-win outcome.
Yes, you can try to win the game, but you also win by taking advantage of playing a well-designed language practice game. Because when games work well, students often forget that they are doing an exercise, as they start to use English in their state of flow.
As for the type of language that games can practise, I have yet to find a language point that a game isn’t good for! Take, for example, the board game format where everyone starts on one square, rolls a dice and moves around the board landing on different squares. For vocabulary, you can write different words on squares and students have to say a sentence with the word or ask another player a question using the word. For functional language, write speaking tasks on the squares such as ‘Ask the player on your right out for dinner this evening.’ Or even have students make their own board game and write the rules for other teams to play.
Using games to teach English
When choosing or creating a game to use in the classroom with your students, try to make sure that it contains these five components which all begin with the letter ‘C’:
- Games benefit from having an element of chance which can be created by the throwing of dice or picking up a card at random. Chance adds tension to a game and, for language practice, it encourages students to use language in response to changing situations.
- Challenge. Players like to feel a sense of achievement in a game and this is only reached by including the right level of difficulty and including factors where students must succeed against adversity in some way.
- Competition. Although you don’t want a classroom entirely based on winning and losing, a little bit of competition is often an effective way to change the pace of a lesson.
- Collaboration. Games that involve students working together in teams or pairs are the perfect way to create a collaborative environment in which students support each other’s learning.
- Communication. This is probably the most important C. Games provide students with an authentic reason to communicate, allowing them to start using the targeted language.
To test these five C’s out, here is a game taken from my course book Business Result Second Edition. See if you can find the element of chance, challenge, competition, collaboration and communication within the game:
Watch John’s webinar for more ways you can incorporate simple games into your lessons, and demonstrate how you can use games to target the specific interests and needs of your students.
John Hughes is a trainer and course book author. In his webinars on the 13th and 15th February, he’ll be showing your more ways you can incorporate simple games into your lessons, and demonstrate how you can use games to target the specific interests and needs of your students. He’ll also provide a board game template for you to download and use with your students.
(1) Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: the psychology of happiness. Rider: London.
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16 February 2018 at
I’m already a big fan of this strategy of engaging students of all ages and find it to be highly successful. I appreciate some of the tips discussed on the webinar. Thanks again.
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