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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.


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Children’s Day: Motivating Students through Games

Kids lying in a circle making goggle eyesLysette Taplin, an ELT Editor for Oxford University Press, Mexico and experienced English language teacher, discusses the educational value of games in the English language classroom in celebration of Children’s Day in Mexico.

Kids have amazing imaginations. This is why they have some really great ideas. And sometimes, these ideas become wonderful inventions. Did you know that kids invented the Popsicle and waterskiing? Did you know that a kid also invented earmuffs? And who invented the trampoline? A kid!

George Baez, “From Dreams to Reality”[1]

Universal Children’s Day (http://www.un.org/en/events/childrenday/) aims to promote the welfare of children everywhere and to encourage understanding between children all over the world.[2] In Mexico, this day is celebrated on April 30.

Many schools in Mexico celebrate Children’s Day by hosting special events and festivals which often entail story-telling, games and more. Children love playing and games are a great way to promote communicative skills in the English language classroom. So, why not celebrate our kids with fun-filled games which also foster language development. They are highly motivating and create an enjoyable and relaxed learning environment which encourages active learning, collaboration as well as creative and spontaneous use of language. Task-orientated games engage students and give them a meaningful context for language use. They focus their attention on the task itself rather than the production of correct speech, and the competitive nature keeps students interested and concentrated as most learners will try hard to win.

The advantage of using games is that they are student-centered and can integrate all linguistic skills: reading, writing, speaking and listening. For example, when reading a dialogue from a story or play, project it onto the board, erasing some words or phrases. Have students work in teams to write the missing words. Encourage students to think of the funniest or most interesting captions to complete the gaps. Then, have teams vote for the funniest options. This activity promotes reading and creative writing while at the same time practices speaking and listening skills as students must understand what others are saying and express their own ideas.

A running dictation game also gets students out of their seats and involves the four skills. Prepare and print a short text and place it at the front of the classroom. Have students work in pairs or small groups and decide on who will be the writer and who will be the runner. If students are working in small groups, have the non-writers take turns being runners. Tell the runners in each team to read the text and memorize as much as possible before returning to their team and dictating what they read to the writer. Tell students that the text must be as accurate as possible, including correct spelling and punctuation. With advanced groups, you can add italics, bold, parenthesis, etc. to make the text more challenging. Once teams have finished writing, hand out a copy of the text for them to check their work. This is an excellent and motivating game that can be adapted for both younger and older learners.

Games to practice new or recycled vocabulary can help students learn and retain new words more easily. Chinese Whispers is a simple but effective game that gets students to practice correct pronunciation while reinforcing vocabulary. When playing this game, I usually split the class into two teams to add a competitive element. Tell the teams to stand in a line and ask a student from each team to come to the front of the class. Whisper one vocabulary item to them, or alternatively show them a picture or flashcard without letting the rest of the class see. Have them go to the back of their team’s line and whisper the word to the student in front of them. Tell the last student in each line to say the word aloud. Students love this game and find it hilarious when words get distorted as they pass down the line.

Games encourage students to interact and communicate and to be more sympathetic towards one another, thus fostering understanding. While of great educational value, games are a fun distraction from the usual routine of language learning. They create a relaxed learning environment where real learning can take place and can also reduce students’ fear of speaking in a foreign language, which improves communicative competence. I believe games can and should be central to language teaching and can be used at any stage of the lesson. Many traditional games, such as Hangman, Pictionary, Bingo, Memory, Charades, Battleships, etc. can all be adapted for the ELT classroom. Kids love to play, and fun, exciting games will engage them in communication, making them forget about the language challenges they face.

References:

[1] Baez, George. “From Dreams to Reality.” Ed. Justyna Zakrzewska. Step Inside 3. Mexico: Oxford University Press, 2014.

[2] Unicef, Universal Children’s Day: Celebrating children and their rights, UNICEF Malaysia, 2012. Date of access: 08/04/2015. http://www.unicef.org/malaysia/childrights_universal-childrens-day.html