G is for Games

Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty

“Why are they playing games and not learning something?”

Games are among the most misunderstood pedagogical strategies in the teachers’ toolbox. Parents, other teachers, and administrators can misinterpret students’ enjoyment of games as having fun at the expense of more serious and productive learning. But the opposite is often the case; the casual competitive nature of games suppresses students’ self-consciousness and helps them focus and learn more than during other classroom activities.

However, to be fair, sometimes teachers play games in the classroom without a perfect understanding of the benefits that games carry and the ways in which they can be tailored to better address student needs. In such cases, teachers may only use games as filler activities, as a way of keeping more able students busy while others catch up. Alternatively, games might only be used at the end of a class when there is extra time left.


Because games are inherently motivating, they are useful as a reward or a break from other classroom activities. Some games add excitement, such as kinesthetic ones that require students to stand up and participate as a group. An example is Simon Says, in which students have to listen carefully and follow a leader’s directions as long as they are prefaced with the words, “Simon says (touch your nose).” If the words Simon says aren’t said by the leader, students have to remain stationary or find themselves out of the game.

The pedagogical purposes of Simon Saystype games are usually to encourage discrete listening and also to reinforce language students have already learned around actions related to identifying body parts (touch your knees), types of motion (shake your head; close your eyes), and actions (sit down; stand up). As with most games, there are opportunities to tailor the game to the target vocabulary students have recently covered. Reinforcement through a game is important because it stores the information in another part of the brain. Beyond reading, writing, listening, or speaking, the kinesthetic aspect helps make the vocabulary more memorable.

A language game should keep all students interested and involved for its duration. One problem with Simon Says and similar games is what to do with those who have been eliminated from competition. In some cases, these students will be interested to follow the fortunes of the rest of their classmates, but boredom might ensue if the game goes on for too long. Four options the teacher can use for those who find themselves “out” are to engage them as:

  • judges identifying who else should be out, e.g., “Kim’s out.”;
  • commentators, as well as the judging role, explaining errors, e.g., “Kim touched his nose.”;
  • scorekeepers, keeping points for individuals or teams;
  • time keepers, practicing their number skills by counting slowly backwards from 100 until zero signifies that the game is over.

One advantage of employing students in different roles once they are out is to improve class dynamics, showing that all students have something to contribute, even some who aren’t the best at a particular activity. The same objective is reached when students are put in teams; the failure of a team is never as personal as the failure of an individual and, win or lose, a team effort produces camaraderie.

Individual games can have the same pedagogical purpose of reinforcing cognitive skills, but they can also provide quiet reflective time in which task completion is less competitive. A crossword puzzle is an example of an individual task and is similarly focused on reinforcing previously taught vocabulary. Like Simon Says, in a crossword puzzle, there is an expectation that the student has already encountered the words. But the success of a crossword puzzle activity lies in the teachers’ ability to adjust the level of difficulty through manipulation of the clues.

Imagine the vocabulary target word in a crossword or other word puzzle is rain. At the simplest level, a picture of rain can be used as a clue. More difficult clues could include synonyms, rhymes (e.g., “It rhymes with main.”), definitions, and cloze phrases in which the key word is missing, e.g., “I brought an umbrella because I thought it might _____.” At a more difficult level, riddles can be used as clues, e.g., “What comes down but never comes up?”

Simon Says is a type of game that focuses on students’ listening skills. Crossword games focus on students’ reading and writing skills. Both these types of games are controlled because the teacher’s input and students’ output is limited to actions in the former and writing specific words in the latter. But students should be encouraged to freely improvise with the language at their disposal, such as in unscripted role-play games.

In role-play games in which there is an information gap and students undertake tasks such as interviewing each other, they test their pronunciation, based on whether other students understand them. These kinds of tasks also allow learners to tailor conversations to their personal experiences and interests. When playing language games in small groups, personalized peer feedback is often more extensive and non-threatening than in teacher-fronted activities working with the whole class.

Barbara Snell, a former MA-TESOL student, now specializes in the teaching of aviation English, frequently working with air traffic controllers and pilots around the world. She wrote recently for advice on teaching extensive difficult and often low-frequency technical vocabulary to a group of military trainees working in English as a second language. The confidential work is done in what she calls a “high consequence environment,” which is likely a euphemism for a situation such as a plane crash where one or more people are likely to die if poor communication leads to bad decisions. Beyond sharing various vocabulary acquisition techniques, I suggested a game that might be suitable for pilots learning vocabulary and structures related to readying a plane for flight that tests vocabulary, pronunciation, and kinesthetic awareness:

  1.  Have two students sit facing each other, knees touching.
  2. Both are blindfolded or at least have their eyes firmly closed.
  3. Student A is the pilot or air traffic controller.
  4. Student B is the instrument panel.
  5. Student A talks through each step she takes and reaches out to where the control should be on the panel. If she says, “I’m looking at the altitude dial,” then she has to point, and Student B has to put out his hand to indicate where the panel.
  6. The game is successful if their hands connect after each step in the procedure.

Just because games are fun doesn’t mean they can’t be serious as well.

One other game that deserves special mention is Hangman, in which a failure to guess the letters in a word leads to body parts successively being added to form a corpse in a hangman’s noose.

When I was a young teacher, Hangman was among many games that I used in a classroom of young immigrant students in Toronto, Canada. During one game, a district specialist visited my classroom. She watched politely but afterward took me aside and asked where my students were from. I explained that they came from 11 countries and listed them. She said I might consider the feelings of refugee students who had fled from countries in which friends and relatives might have been hanged for so-called political crimes.

At that time, the class included students from Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq and yes, all three countries used hanging at that time.

It’s important to know language-learning games and their pedagogical values, but it’s more important to know your students.

Tasks for Teachers

  1. If you already use language games with your students, do an inventory of them to determine what skills and content students are learning when they play. Review your list, and ensure that you have games for all four skills as well as discrete skills, such as grammar awareness and pronunciation. If you see an area missing, find or create a new game.
  2. Repurpose an existing game, finding new ways for it to address language needs. For example, if you have more than 16 students in your class, try playing a live game of chess where each piece on the board is represented by a student who has to describe what he or she is doing, e.g., “I’m the White Queen, and I’m moving two squares diagonally to put the Black King in check.” Two teams of those not on the board can decide on the moves, and the teacher or another student can keep the rest of the players engaged by asking them questions such as “Where are you now?” and “What do you think should happen next?” Limit the amount of time each team can take to make each move to ensure the game proceeds at an engaging pace.

Tasks for Students

  1. The next time you have a vocabulary quiz, try studying by creating a crossword puzzle. For clues, use definitions of the words you need to learn. Exchange crosswords with other students.
  2. Play language games outside of class. Some games, like Scrabble and Boggle, are specifically oriented toward language learning, but others, such as Monopoly, require a lot of discussion. Afterward, discuss what language you used and what sorts of terms would be helpful to do better.

Dr. Ken Beatty, TESOL Professor at Anaheim University in California, has also taught in Asia, Canada, and the Middle East, and lectures widely on language teaching and learning from the elementary through university levels. He has given 200+ teacher-training sessions in 25 countries and is author of 130+ textbooks, including books in the Pearson series Learning English for Academic Purposes (LEAP).