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English Language Teaching Global Blog


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.


The Fun in GLEE – Gamified Language Educational E-tivities

Mother and son using digital tabletNo, we’re not talking about the show choir from the hit US TV series; we’re talking about educational digital games. Karenne Sylvester, who used to write the popular ELT blog Kalinago English, shares her insights into why GLEEs bring more to the classroom than just fun.

Gamified language educational e-tivites (GLEEs) refer to modified language activities that appear to learners as if they are digital “games”. This includes e-tivities like Stress Monsters where learners shoot at parts of a word to indicate where the stress in that particular word lies. GLEEs do not, however, refer to the practice of playing non-educational digital games in educational settings. Although these are perfectly valid experiences, due to the incidental learning opportunities which may arise during game-play, this blog post focuses specifically on the educational benefits of using gamified e-tivities with language learners (rather than discussing general video games).

GLEEs as fun

The time flies!”

(Hamad, Qatari student)

This is probably the most obvious benefit: GLEEs add fun to the language classroom experience. But what exactly do we mean by this word, fun? As simple as it sounds, what one person defines as fun is not always fun for another. According to Nicole Lazzaro, the fun in digital game play tends to break down into four different types of engagement experience:

  • Easy fun – creative and relaxing activities that stimulate curiosity
  • Hard fun – activities that make you think and meet challenges
  • People fun – competitive and cooperative activities done in teams
  • Serious fun – meaningful activities that can have real word consequences

GLEEs as motivational tools

On the other hand, for Rigby (an interactive game researcher) and Ryan (an educational psychologist), games and game-like experiences actually offer quite a bit more than just adding a sprinkle of fun. For them, the motivational forces involved include how these environments naturally allow players opportunities to develop feelings of autonomy, competence and relatedness. Their findings were backed up during my recent research into adult ESL students’ perceptions of GLEEs, with my participant-students writing:

As you know, the examples in the book are not enough for us to remind and check the grammar that we’ve learned. But using this game, we have a lot of examples and practices. It’s quite helpful for revision.  I could check and know how much I know and how much I don’t know. And it’s not all my own work. It’s a teamwork so we have to talk and discuss [with] each other. By discussing, we can help each other.”

(Mijin, Korean student)

GLEEs as tools for repetition and feedback

Other related benefits arising out of digital game-play in and outside of the classroom include opportunities for repetition and feedback. Well-designed GLEEs include possibilities for students to replay them as often as they like. The resulting points, the clapping or groaning of their avatars when the answers chosen are correct or incorrect, inform students of how they are doing. The pop-up messages of Congratulations and Try Again at the end are often acted upon; some students are willing to redo e-tivities over and over again until they manage to get all of the answers correct.

GLEEs as tools that enable noticing

Finally, one of the most important aspects of GLEEs lies in how they encourage language students to pay attention to language structure and form. This is especially so in competitive game-play scenarios where language learners have to carefully select the right answers from three or four different options. This element of “noticing” (Schmidt, 1990) is considered very important when developing language learning experiences, because this raised consciousness helps enable greater conversion of language input to language intake.

Each team had to answer five different questions about conditional (we had to choose the correct structure of the sentence among three different possibilities), and then, if the team got right the answer, a member of the team had to score a basket. Finally, the team which had more points won the game. During the game I was a little bit excited and frustrated too, because I don’t like to lose and my classmate couldn’t score a basket. However, it wasn’t important after a few minutes because I realized we were understanding the grammar and were having a good time.”

(Jose, Spanish student)

Have you ever played any gamified language educational e-tivities with your students? What did your students think of them?


Schmidt, R. (1990) The Role of Consciousness in Second Language Learning.  Applied Linguistics, 11, 129-158.
Rigby, S. and Ryan, R.M (2011). Glued to games: how video games draw us in and hold us spellbound. CA, USA:  Praeger.

Karenne Sylvester used to write the popular ELT blog, Kalinago English, before she set off to the University of Manchester to do a Masters in Educational Technology. The focus of her dissertation studies is on gamification and game-like language learning environments. Some of the “games” referred to by her students in this article can be accessed via this link. Additionally, for beginners and low-level learners she has also set up this convenient site of Games for Beginner ESL students, collating fun GLEEs from around the internet, which you are welcome to peruse and use with your own learners.