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Resources: Raise your game


Teacher Declan Carey explains why classroom games can be an effective method of language teaching, but avoid the pitfalls that can lead to a pedagogical flop.

As a teacher, I want my lessons to be as interesting, entertaining and useful as possible, and games are a great way of achieving this.

Games play a leading role in my lessons as they can be used at all stages to achieve a range of goals, as well as injecting a dose of enjoyment into the challenge of learning a foreign language. They are excellent tools for practising grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and everything else in between.

My students are accustomed to playing games on a daily basis, often as a warm-up activity to set the tone for the rest of the lesson, or other times as a way of fine-tuning the target language or wrapping up at the end of the day.

Whether you are teaching serious business people at international companies or teenagers in high school, if done right, games can transform a difficult grammar task into a fun afternoon of learning.

But while fun, games come with their own challenges and pitfalls, and it’s important to consider these before getting stuck in. Consider the following question:

How much learning actually takes place when using games in a lesson – how much value are they actually getting out of it?

My first tip is to really make clear the benefit and purpose of any game used in the classroom.

This could be a linguistic purpose, such as to practise and improve the use of the third conditional (‘If I had bought the bike, I could have cycled to Rome’) or a practical purpose, like being able to order in a restaurant.

Either way, ensure that this purpose is clearly communicated and elicited from the students in the lesson to keep the focus on language learning rather than the game itself.

Try the following:

  • Before starting the game, ask the students what vocabulary, phrases and grammar they need to complete it and how they can improve or practice this during the activity.
  • Make sure you monitor and correct during the game to maintain focus (I often write mistakes or errors down to avoid interrupting play).
  • Afterwards, analyse what worked and what didn’t work. This is a good indication of what your students know or need to work on.

My next tip is to set clear and consistent rules for all players.

When I was a trainee teacher, I found my games flopping too frequently because the rules weren’t clearly defined at the start and students became confused and made it up as they went along, leading to the purpose being missed.

Games usually come with simple pre-defined rules, like one move per player per turn, and if someone uses the language incorrectly, they can’t move forward. Easy enough. But what happens when someone leaves the room to take a business call? Does this person forfeit their turn? Settling these issues at the start ensures a smoother process for all participants.

Think about:

  • Involving the students in the rule deciding process – that way, decisions are made collectively rather than just by the teacher.
  • Having a neutral ‘judge’ or ‘decider’ role during contentious moments. To avoid unsettling the group dynamic, you could do it yourself.
  • Bringing a written copy of the rules to consult before and during play. This can help to settle disagreements.

My final pointer is to set clear time limits for all games, something I believe is a highly underestimated yet simple thing to do. When working with groups, it’s inevitable that some will finish faster than others and this can lead to some students having very little to be getting on with while the others finish. Set time limits so students have an idea of what pace they should be working at. For instance, for a phrasal verb board game, 10 minutes could be assigned for playing and five minutes for errors and reviewing what happened. Lack of clear time limits can lead to confusion or wasting time.

Try the following to keep your game on track:

  • If there’s an interactive board, use a timer and put it on the screen. I like to use https://tinyurl.com/y77chffu. If one group finishes early, ask them to help the others so they’re still involved in the process.

  • Use your judgement when time runs out. It’s okay to extend the time limit sometimes, but not every time. Show that limits are limits and the students should adjust to working within them.

All of these tips will help you on your way to maximising the use of games in class and keeping the students focused on learning.

Games to try:

Taboo: Suitable for all levels. This classic game involves giving students cards with ‘taboo’ words (i.e. words they can’t say). Students have to describe the word or phrase using other words they know. I often use it at the beginning or end of a lesson as a review or revision task. Good practice for drawing out passive vocabulary or checking understanding. Individual or groups.

Kahoot: Suitable for all levels. The music is annoying and teenagers will ask you to play it every lesson, but undeniably it is a useful learning tool for all ages. Kahoot is an application that links smartphones to a computer. It’s really easy to use and comes with many pre-made games and activities for teachers, but you can also design your own. Works best with groups. https://kahoot.com/

Gamblers and horses: Suitable for all levels. One group of students are the horses and there are two or more groups of gamblers. Horses see a list of sentences with errors and have a few minutes to find as many as possible. Gamblers have the results and must bet fictional money on how many mistakes the horses find. Great fun and revision practice, but be clear with rules and demonstrate before starting.

Murder mystery: For intermediate and above. Many students love a good murder mystery and the competition element involved, and this game is one of my favourites for practising past tenses and crime vocabulary. Students play a different character and ask each other questions to discover who committed the crime. Warning: this has the potential to get very chaotic, so follow my guidance regarding rules, time limits and purpose. Also, set up a penalty for first language use as it’s easy for students to switch during the questioning stage. Great for groups and many good versions available online. I like the one from One Stop English.