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Using games for win-win learning | Q&A

Over a thousand teachers attended the webinars on Using games for win-win learning and there was plenty of discussion in the chatbox with teachers sharing their ideas and opinions on using games. Here are some of the comments and questions that were raised.

With reference to Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of Flow, how do we take students from A1 to A4?

Early on this webinar we looked at the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his theory of Flow. In his book of the same name, the author presents the idea that when we are truly engaged in an activity we enter a state of ‘flow’ or the ‘flow channel’, as shown in the diagram below. In pages 72-77, Csikszentmihalyi makes particular reference to the use of games as a form of activity which encourages flow. For example, when we present new language to students and they start using it, they are probably engaged at A1 in the diagram. If we drill that language repeatedly, then after a while student might become bored and go to A2. If we then add too much challenge to the task, students can become anxious and go to A3. If we add the right amount of challenge to the new language, students continue up the flow channel to A4. The author suggests that playing games offers an effective way to achieve this.

Diagram from Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow. Rider publishing. p74.

Are all games a form of controlled practice?

This question came out of a discussion on what type of classroom practice games are useful for. In particular, there is a view that games are a type of classroom drilling. In other words, that when we introduce a new language structure and drill it with students, games can offer another kind of drill where students practise the target language in a very controlled way. With many types of language games based on the idea of dominoes or pelmanism (also known as memory) this is probably true. However, there are also types of role-playing games which encourage fluency practice and authentic communicative situations. So the answer is that it depends on the type of game you are using as to how controlled the practice is.

Sometimes students become so interested in the game, they forget to use English and slip back into their mother tongue. How can we make sure they keep using English? 

There was a lively discussion on the topic of how to make sure students keep using English when they became so focused on winning the game itself. Participants shared various experiences and views on this. One option was to take points away from a student or a team when they didn’t speak English. On the other hand, one teacher, Helen Beesley, also pointed out that points should be given for use of English during a game for positive reinforcement. Similarly, when playing a boardgame, students could miss a go if they don’t speak English or have another go if they use English well.

What kind of authentic board games on the market are useful for language learning? Participants answered this questions with various suggestions including Monopoly and The Game of Life with Business English to practise the language of finance, or word-based games such as Taboo and Pictionary.

 Some students don’t like competitive games in the classroom, especially adults. How do we get them interested?

This question probably created the most debate with teachers agreeing and disagreeing that adult students don’t like playing games. With regard to competitive games, we looked at the idea that competition is often more useful when a student competes against him or herself. For example, if I set up a telephone role play where students practise calling to arrange to meet, I could give students this card with phrases on that I want them to use.

As they speak, they tick off phrases. At the end of the first role play I ask them to count how many phrases they used and get a score out of ten. Then I ask them to repeat the role play and try to get a higher score by using more of the phrases. In this way, a student competes against him/herself. This ‘self-competition’ approach is very similar to principle behind online games such as Quizlet where you try to beat your previous score and reach the next level. It was also noted these online games also offer rewards and badges as well as points and that teachers sometimes need to offer ‘prizes’ to winning teams as well as points.

Overall, it was a very active webinar and I’d like to thank everyone for their enthusiastic participation.

Missed the webinar? If you’re a member of the Oxford Teacher’s Club, you can catch the recording right here in the webinar library. If you’re not yet a member, registration is free and shouldn’t take long at all.

John Hughes likes using games in his own classroom and he designs games for his course books. He is a lead author on Business Result, Successful Meetings and Successful Presentations (published by Oxford University Press). He also runs teacher training courses, and is a regular ELT blogger: www.elteachertrainer.com.


Do you speak Emoji | Q&A with Shaun Wilden

Mobile learning with emojisFirst of all, 🙏 to those that attended my webinar. I hope as well as learning a few things about emoji, you had as much fun as I did! The webinar was heavily reliant on audience participation and you certainly all got stuck in with your sharing, answering and questioning. There were a few things that I didn’t quite have the time to go into more detail with, so I’ll try and address them now.

Are ambiguous emojis good to use in class?

The hands together emoji is a good example of one of the main talking points that came up in the chat box during the sessions – the ambiguity of meaning. Is it ‘thank you’, ‘thankfulness’, ‘praying’, or ‘two hands high fiving’?

A number of you felt this ambiguity might be a disadvantage in using them in class, but actually that is one of my drivers for using them. The fact that they can be used with both an ‘official’ meaning and one given by a peer group makes many of the activities workable.  If you think about words, they have a dictionary meaning and often have a meaning given by use. Take the word ‘sick’ for example, which, as well as meaning ‘ill’, is used by teenagers to mean ‘cool’. Emojis are the same in this respect and this is why, in my opinion, they work well for the ‘agree a meaning’ type activities that we did in the session. The more ambiguous an emoji might be, the more the students have to discuss and agree.

Aren’t some emojis too hard to understand?

In answer to this question, just look at how much language generated during the webinar. Is it a name badge? A tulip? Or something on fire? The point is not what it means, but what it could mean, and how that encourages the students to put forward justification of use and negotiate with their classmates to reach consensus. Contrary to what a couple of you said there is every point in “using those which are hard for understanding”. Additionally, how do we decide what is hard for understanding? Like words, some students will know the meaning of some, and others won’t. While, roughly speaking, the 2600 Emoji are the same the world over, different nationalities and different cultures use them with different frequencies. Again, for me this is something to be embraced. Whether I am teaching a monolingual or multilingual group, there is a lot that can be gained from asking about what emoji they use. There is a personal engagement into wanting to tell the teacher something about themselves. This why activities like creating a ‘user guide’ can be successful, a chance for the students to show knowledge in areas they might be ‘wiser’ in than their teachers.

Can gifs or small videos be used for similar activities to those with emoji?

As we touched upon towards the end of the webinar, emojis are evolving thanks to new technology such as Apple’s Animoji. This led some of you to ask whether gifs or even small videos could be used for similar activities to those we did in the session. As I said then, the Emoji is the ‘hook’ on which to hang a number of activities. For example, we used pairs of them to create sentences as a way of practicing grammar. An activity like this is not dependent on the emoji themselves, but a stimulus for the sentence. As such it doesn’t really matter what the stimulus is as long as it can be used to produce language. Certainly, many gifs carry the ambiguity needed for negotiated meaning type activities and, as they are often devoid of language themselves, could be a catalyst for grammar production. I think though developments such as Animojis are in themselves more akin to using an avatar than an emoji. Since they are animated and can contain voice they are somewhat different to the two-dimensional static image of an emoji. Like emoji, there is a lot written about avatar use in language learning, not least in the psychological aspects of students being able to take on a new identity. At the end of the session we saw quick examples of how we can use Animojis – and even with augmented reality – for developing character description, clothes vocabulary, and to create ‘where am I type activities’. Hopefully in a future webinar we can address such avatar activities in more detail.

Don’t emoji erode the quality of language?

I’ll end by addressing those of you concerned about death of language. Whenever I do such a session there is always at least one person concerned that things such as emoji are eroding the quality of language. In my first blog post I mentioned the fact that it used to be text messages that got the blame.  I think it is well documented that language is always changing, and language always finds way to shorten itself or adapt to be effective in the chosen form of communication.  However, I wasn’t suggesting that we should use emojis as a replacement for language or even writing. At the end of the day we are language teachers, it is not teaching the meaning of emojis that is key but tapping into images that can help students generate and retain language.   We use pictures in our coursebook to help us teach meaning, and we use things such flashcards to help reinforce and produce. For me, emoji are simply another image that we can use. If they help students remember a word, produce a sentence or get them engaged in a piece of writing then they have done their job.

Anyway, I set the challenge for the webinar of getting you to speak emoji. I hope now that the session is over, you can happily say that you do.

Until next ⏳, 👋.

Shaun Wilden is the Academic Head of training and development for the International House World Organisation and a freelance teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer.  He currently specialises in technology and language teaching, especially in the area of mobile learning. His latest book “Mobile Learning” was published in 2017 by OUP.  He is a trustee of IATEFL and also on the committee of the Learning technologies special interest group.  He makes the TEFL commute podcast for teachers.



Using games for win-win learning

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 which 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.

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 which 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 round 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.

Finally, 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 a dice or picking up of 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 which 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 for 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:


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.


Developing Reading and Writing Skills | Q&A

Thinking back on the Developing Reading and Writing Skills webinars, it was wonderful to see so many teachers participating from all around the world. Thank you all for your participation, sharing your own ideas, and all your wonderful questions. While we managed to discuss a number of your questions during the sessions, this blog post is here to answer some of those that we did not manage to get through.

Webinar Activities

Could the activities we looked at be used with other age groups?

The content of the webinar was focused on young learners, however all the activities we looked at work just as well with teens and even adults. The ‘Who? What? Why?’ activity where students analyse the writer’s purpose, for example, can be used in exactly the same way with all age groups, the only thing that would change is the text you use in class.

Similarly, the activity below, designed to encourage students to respond to the text by sharing facts, ideas and questions that have occurred to them, can be used with very little variation. If you are working with older students you may wish to take out the visual prompts of the book, light bulb and question mark and replace them with question prompts, such as ‘What have you learned?’, ‘What ideas does the text give you?’, ‘What questions do you have?’ However, this is in no way necessary, and many adult learners will find the images just as useful for prompting their ideas as the young learners do.

reading and writing activities

How frequently we should use these activities in class?

My answer to that is as often as you can! Getting into the habit of looking at reading texts as pieces of writing is important, and these activities are designed to help your students to do just that. I recommend repeating these tasks at least once every couple of weeks. By doing this, the students will quickly learn what is expected of them, and because the texts we are using in class are different every time, the students don’t get bored. If you are worried about repeating the same activities with your class you can always vary the way the students are working (pairs, groups, individual, or whole class discussion), or the way they present their answers: Oral presentations, mind maps, graphic organisers, or written paragraphs would all be good alternatives.

Error Correction

There were quite a few questions regarding correcting mistakes in our students’ writing, so I shall attempt to answer them all together. When and how we correct our students’ writing will depend on the objective of the writing task that you set. A free writing task, for example, would typically not be corrected at all, as these tasks are usually a tool for thinking. However, if we are practicing specific skills or writing task types then we will need to factor in some level of error correction.

One of the biggest benefits of written English is that students can go back over their work, and think about and correct what they have written. Like many teachers, in my classroom I use error correction codes to enable students to self-correct their writing. Allowing students to correct themselves gives them the opportunity to think about their writing, and put all that they have learned in class into practice. Of course, before you start using a correction code you need to let your students know that this is what you will be doing. Make sure that the correction code you use is on the wall of the classroom and that your students have their own copies for working at home, that way they will become familiar with it.

Of course, what we correct is a more complicated question. Younger learners, and those who are just starting to learn English are likely to make many mistakes in their writing, and when our students get their work back from the teacher it can seem very disheartening to find that there are many errors to correct. One way to avoid this is limit the type of errors you are correcting. If you are using a course book, or a writing skills book with your students then it can also work as a guide for your error correction.

Let’s say you are working through Oxford Skills World with your students, unit by unit they will be learning new writing skills, and these are the areas that we should focus on in our marking. So, if they are learning how to use full stops and capital letters in unit one, then when we take their writing homework in we would correct only the mistakes connected to this skill. When the student has corrected these errors, you can choose to move onto another type of mistake for the second draft, or save other error types for a later piece of writing. You can change the number of error types you look at per draft depending on the needs of your students and the class objectives.

Recommended Reading

Finally, several of you asked for some recommended reading and books for further information. If you are looking for guidance for teachers, then the OUP ELT blog is a great place to start! You will find plenty of interesting and useful articles right here, like Gareth Davies article Making the ‘Impossible’ Possible – How to get your students writing  or Philip Haines’ 25 Alternatives to Reading Aloud Around the Class.

There are also plenty of great professional development books available with ideas for improving your students reading and writing. I really like the Into the Classroom series from OUP, as it has plenty of practical activities which are easy to use in class.

Thank you again to those of you who attended the webinars, and good luck with your reading and writing!

Charlotte Rance is a freelance teacher trainer and consultant based in Brighton. She has worked in the English Language Teaching industry for over a decade, and has worked in China and Turkey, as well as her native UK, where she completed her Diploma in TESOL at the University of Brighton. Charlotte’s key areas of interest are young learners and the use of reading as a tool for language learning.


Do you speak emoji?

Teach english with emojiLove them or hate them, emojis are now a part of everyday life, in 2017 there was even a movie about them. Unlike that movie, which failed to wow the critics 😴, I think embracing emojis in the classroom could get you a 👍 from students.

Only two years ago Oxford Dictionaries (1) chose 😂 as its word of the year. Since then the number of emojis has grown to over two and half thousand (once you factor in skin tones and gender). There is everything from passport control 🛂 through to a pretzel emoji 🥨, which was one of the 60 or so added in the last update (2).

The popularity of emojis has naturally led to headlines from the media such as ‘emoji will cause the death of English’, ‘Are emojis killing language?’ and the rather wonderful ‘emojis are ruining civilisation’. Such headlines by the way are a journalist’s version of a substitution table; a quick
search will reveal that they said the same about text messages, and social media.

As one journalist put it: “A picture speaks a thousand words, yes. But an emoji cannot express the myriad of meanings that language allows for” (3).   As a teacher then, we can choose to go one of two ways; for or against the headlines. I suggest we can take a more positive approach, similar to the one taken recently by this professor of communication: ‘’Emojis enhance human interactions. It’s trying to put emotional, non-verbal information back in” (4). In other words, emojis are now an important part of communication. As a language teacher, it is this aspect that first got me hooked on emojis and how they can be used as part of our language lessons.  I use them now for everything from vocabulary practice to judging how well a student has understood key parts of my lesson.

What’s your favourite emoji? Do you have one? Why that one? At the moment I quite like 🤯. It’s one of the new ones used to mean anything from shock to awe.

This simple question is a speaking activity in itself. ‘OK class take out your phones, tell your partner what your favourite emoji is and why.’

At the very least, emojis provide us with thousands of symbols that we can use in teaching.  Think how often we use flashcards or pictures, emojis at a very basic level can act in the same way. See the funny thing about emoji is that they have a universal meaning.  They cross linguistic borders like no other form of communication. That is not to say that some don’t alter meaning in different cultural and group contexts, but on one level the meaning of many is the same. Show a picture of an emoji to your students and there is a good chance that they will know what it is, a very useful scaffold on which we can exercise vocabulary. And when they don’t know what it is, we immediately enter a speaking and thinking exercise as students try to work it out.

Now some of you might be thinking ‘yeah but I don’t know what half of them mean myself’ 😤. Keep calm! There are many tools at our disposal – from an emoji dictionary, through to an emoji encyclopedia.  You can even get real time usage stats of the world wide use of emoji (NB: I might have become a bit emoji obsessed).

Join me for my webinar in January, and I’ll show you how you can make use of emoji as a teaching resource to enhance all aspects of language teaching.  Hopefully by the end of yet when I ask ‘Do you speak emoji?’ you’ll be able to respond with a 👍! Click here to register.

Shaun Wilden is the Academic Head of training and development for the International House World Organisation and a freelance teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer.  He currently specialises in technology and language teaching, especially in the area of mobile learning. His latest book “Mobile Learning” was published in 2017 by OUP.  He is a trustee of IATEFL and also on the committee of the Learning technologies special interest group.  He makes the TEFL commute podcast for teachers.


  1. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2015
  2. https://blog.emojipedia.org/final-2017-emoji-list/
  3. https://theboar.org/2017/02/emojis-killing-language/
  4. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/aug/25/emojis-enhance-human-interactions-royal-institution-christmas-lecturer-sophie-scott