The Games Issue – Dave Dodgson

Press ‘Start’ to Play & Learn: Game-based learning in the language classroom  – David Dodgson

Dave Dodgson
Games have many benefits for learning, encouraging us to learn new skills, develop strategies, think critically, follow instructions, and reach targets to name but a few. The great thing is all of this can be achieved with the knowledge that in the event of ‘failure’ we can simply try again and, even better, we can have fun at the same time.

The same is also true for video games. When playing them, we need to think and react to what is happening around us and interact with the game world, its characters and even other players to progress. With the recent growth in use of mobile devices, gaming is literally everywhere and has become a major part of people’s daily lives, especially amongst the younger generation (who make up most of our students!) These games are engaging and motivating and, best of all for English language learning, most of them are in English.

In fact, the learning opportunities video games (intentionally or not!) offer have given rise to the concept of game-based learning (GBL) – in short, the use of games to increase student engagement and promote learning.  However, despite the benefits, there are also issues about the use of video games in the classroom. One of the major issues is cost. Buying games and having the necessary equipment for students to have access to them can be expensive. There is also the issue of which games to use. While gaming is popular, not everyone likes the same games or has the same devices. And finally, there are a few people who might view games and gaming as not being educational or a productive use of lesson time.

So, how can we best make use of video games to motivate our learners and help them develop their language skills? And how can we do so without running into some of the issues mentioned above? Well, what I do is to introduce gaming as a topic without actually using the games themselves. This offers a way to get my students engaged by connecting lessons with something they love doing and also gives me the chance to test the water ahead of potentially doing some game-based activities in the future and I will share some of those ideas with you now.

Introduce your virtual self

Games often have ‘avatars’, characters that players make to represent themselves when playing. These can be a great source of descriptive language in the classroom. For example, you may be entering a new class but find that the students already know each other and are bored of traditional ‘get to know you’ activities. So why not get them to introduce themselves as avatars from their favourite games? Or, if you need to review language for introducing yourself or describing people in the middle of a course, get the students to use their avatars for inspiration then. This ensures such activities stay personal but avoid being repetitive.

Guess the avatar

Another way to make use of avatars in class is with an adaptation of a guessing game. Before the lesson, ask the students to email you an image of an avatar they use when playing. Once you have collected these, display them all on the class projector (or you could print them and display the pictures on the wall). The students’ first task is to try and match the avatars with their creators and also guess which game the avatar is from. Follow this up by revealing the answers and getting the students to ask each other about their characters. Wrap it up by getting the class to compare the avatars with the people who created them. This is a great way to get your students producing lots of language (speculation, descriptions, comparisons) in a highly personalised way.

Describe your favourite game

With my young learners (I mainly work with 10-13 year olds), I have found they are always keen to talk about favourite games and they know a surprising amount of vocabulary from them (for example, without any prompting they use words like swipe, tap and tilt when describing tablet and smartphone games). These gaming chats used to take place outside lesson time but nowadays I make them a focused part of the lesson. This might take the form of a simple speaking activity where the students ask each other questions like “what kind of game is it?”, “how do you play?” and “what is the aim of the game?” Alternatively, it could take the form of a guessing game in which a student describes a game and the others listen and try to guess which game it is.

Gaming discussions

My students also enjoy discussing issues about gaming. I have posed questions to them such as “How can games be useful for language learning?” and “What are the pros and cons of using games in the classroom?” Such discussions are great because the students usually have a lot to say and it also gives me a clear indication of how my students feel about games and how they might react to their use in the classroom. It’s also good to put a clear emphasis on the idea that games can be used for learning in the classroom, not just as an excuse to play. Other fruitful discussions include “what makes a good game?” and “what does the future hold for gaming?” These are all discussions that my learners, despite their young age, have been keen to participate in – a case of high interest and engagement transcending limited language.

Project work

This is the final way in which gaming has had a major impact on my lessons in recent times and it is my favourite because it came about entirely from the students themselves! Last year, we had just finished studying a unit in our course book about unusual homes and we were preparing a project on the topic. One of the suggestions in the book was to design and/or make a model of a treehouse. One group of boys approached me and asked “Can we make our treehouse in Minecraft?” I was not very familiar with that game at the time so I asked them to explain what it was and how they could use it for their project. They proceeded to explain that this was a building block game in which you could create all kinds of structures and their plan was to make a treehouse in the game, take screenshots of it and use those for their project. I told them to go for it, expecting a poster of printed out images, but I got something even better. They compiled the screenshots to make a video, which can see here:

Granted, there are some basic language errors in the video but that is not what is important. Thanks to this game, these students were able to create a detailed project and, thanks to their enthusiasm for and love of the game, they got very creative and went so far as to produce a video by themselves! That set the ball rolling and for the rest of the year,  every time we did project work at least 3 or 4 groups would do something with Minecraft whether that be a story set in the game world,  a poster using images from the game or a video showing something they had created in the game world.

That for me sums up perfectly why games and gaming have a place in the classroom. They encourage creativity, increase engagement and promote language production. As the above examples hopefully show, you don’t even have to play any games in class. Just using gaming as a topic can give these results.

Do you have any experiences of using games or gaming as a topic in the classroom? Please share.

Also, if you are interested in learning more about gaming in the language classroom, please check out my GBL blog:


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The Games Issue – Vicky Loras

Let’s Play! – Vicky Loras

Vicky Loras
There has been a lot of research into the positive effects of play on learning and children’s lives in general. We can also see it for ourselves! Some adults also enjoy some types of games – with adults we need to have their consent as we do not want to have them feel uncomfortable in any way. The games I will suggest can be adapted and suited both to young children and adults as well.

One of our favourites is You are the Teacher. It can be played in many ways. It can be anything that kids can handle and they need to step into the teachers’ shoes for this one. For instance, I take flashcards and give them to a child, and then to another, then another in turn, until everyone has been the teacher. You can either spread them on the floor and the child points to one, and the other kids answer what is depicted on the flashcard. What can be seen is that the child-teacher loves the responsibility and they also expand, not only yes/no answers, but they love to explain as well (Yes, that is the right one, because a tall bird is called an ostrich / No, that is not a blue egg, it is a brown one but that is okay, you can try again). What I have also seen is how much kids encourage one another – there may be the occasional giggle or so, but most of the times they take it very seriously and do a great job.

What can also be fun in You are the Teacher is that sometimes kids want the actual teacher to take part in the game (as with other games as well). In this case, most of the times I make sure I “make” a mistake. The kids have tons of fun “correcting” me and explaining to me, and sometimes even making recommendations that I study more at home!

Another one we like is The Long Word: this game was one of my favourites when I was little. I was taught this game by my cousin’s wife, who worked for the Board of Education in Canada.

The idea behind the game is this: you choose a big word and the students create new words using the letters from that specific one. Some words that can be used are encyclopedia, establishment, metamorphosis … anything with a lot of letters in it!

The best moment is when the students are the ones choosing the words. They come up with the greatest ideas! The teacher then gives them three minutes to find as many words as possible – the winner is the person with the most words – however, there is a necessary pre-requisite: they have to be words that really exist! Of course, it is up to the teacher to make it harder: for instance no names, no plurals, only verbs in infinitive form so it can turn a bit into a grammar mini-lesson as well.

The winner then reads the words s/he has found and everyone looks at their own, crossing out the ones they have too. If they have different ones that have not been mentioned, they read them out too.

This activity helps them to:

  • Learn new items of vocabulary, as the initial long word may very often be a word they have never encountered before.
  • Practise their spelling, as the new words they create need to be correct in their spelling – so even if they make mistakes, they remember them for another time.
  • Teach each other vocabulary, as they read out their own words.
  • Use some of the new words to write a story.

Younger and older students love this activity and they can learn a great deal from it! I hope your students enjoy it as well.

A third idea is Match the picture with the word, and it is a pretty easy game to prepare as well. The teacher chooses a topic they would like students to focus on, for instance, summer holidays. Then the teacher can find photos of their own or on the internet, or even draw pictures, of objects and activities related to that topic. The pictures can be cut into either flashcard-style cards or in various fun shapes, like clouds for example. Then the words have to be written on cards and also cut up. It is great if all of these can be laminated so they can be used over and over again.

What I do is I also stick a little bit of blue-tack on the back of each picture and vocabulary card, so the students can stick and move them on a whiteboard, wall or even door! The students need to put them in pairs, like the photo of a beach and next to it or underneath it, the word beach. You can adapt the difficulty of the words depending on the level and age if the students. This is great for them, as it is a very visual representation of the words and they connect the vocabulary in their heads, much more effectively than if they saw the words in a list.

Younger and older students love these activities – and they can learn a great deal from them! I hope you and your students find them beneficial as well. 


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The Games Issue – Adam Simpson

Games in the language classroom: the When & the How
 – Adam Simpson

Adam Simpson
I love playing games in my classes; as far as I’m concerned, games can play a range of roles in the language curriculum. Nevertheless, you’ll find that, traditionally, games have been used in the language class merely as warm-up activities at the beginning, fill-in activities when there’s that extra ten minutes towards the end of class, or often as not as a bit of fun lobbed randomly into the curriculum to spice things up and motivate or energize a tired class.

While I don’t have a problem with any of these approaches, I increasingly feel that games can and should constitute a more substantial part of any language curricula. Indeed, games are a tremendously flexible way of achieving all kinds of objectives: games can be used either for practicing particular language items or skills, or in practicing communicative language production. Likewise, games can also be used as a means of revising and recycling recently taught language.

Younger learners are especially enthusiastic about games, but older students quickly find that they enjoy classroom games too. Having said that, it is particularly important that we as teachers explain the aims and objectives of the game: games can be viewed as a frivolous activity and be resented if the reasons for playing aren’t made clear. Nonetheless, older students can take a great deal from games, more even than young learners, especially when they take a role in deciding how it should proceed.

As with any other learning activity though, we need to pay careful attention to the level of difficulty in our games. A major part of the appeal in participating in a game lies in the way that it challenges us; if the challenge is too great or too straightforward, many students may become discouraged and lose interest. Perhaps one of the most important things for us to remember is that this ‘challenge’ comes in two forms: 1) understanding how to play the game, and 2) understanding the language content. With this in mind, I’ve compiled a list of ideas for making sure that we address both types of understanding. When planning a game for your classes, bear these things in mind:

1. Don’t underestimate the value of demonstrating the game

A quick demonstration of how the game is played can prove invaluable. You can do this in two ways; a) you as the teacher can demonstrate with a group of students, or; b) a group can demonstrate for the class.

2. Always give clear directions

Directions often make a natural accompaniment to demonstrations, but it can be boring to start off with a big list of instructions before you even begin the game. Alternatively, think about what you absolutely have to explain first off, and then consider giving further directions as and when needed. An important point to think about is that – no matter how well you plan a game – there is always room to make it more fun. Therefore, be flexible: some student-initiated modifications to ‘the plan’ can and often should be accepted.

3. Script out the metalanguage

Consider the language learners will use to play the game. You can either prepare a list of key vocabulary or a list of useful phrases that they might need to use, or perhaps a sample script of the typical ways in which questions are phrased to obtain information.

4. Where possible, use game formats to review already known content

I tend to stick to common, popular game show formats from television. That way, a large number of students will have at least a vague idea of how to play. This helps a lot in cutting down the amount of time needed to do the things I’ve mentioned in points 1, 2 and 3. This in turn enables you to get on with playing the game, which is only ever a good thing.

5. Use games to revise and recycle previously studied content, rather than involving new content

Experience has taught me that games are no place to be bringing in new vocabulary or grammar, unless you do so in a very friendly test-teach-test manner. If you do bring in new stuff, do so in a team game and in a way that activates schemata or allows the class to share and display their collective knowledge on a subject that’s coming up in the course book. Sticking to things you’ve recently done in class is good, as it creates a situation in which the students have to recall and use language in the game, which is itself a reasonable facsimile of a real life situation with all the pressures to recall and use grammar and vocab in the ‘there and then’.

6. Mix up those groups… with care

Group games are good as they (obviously) contain groups which are heterogeneous in terms of current language proficiency. Carefully selecting who is in which team means that we create a situation in which the more proficient members can help others.


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The Games Issue

What role do and should games play in the language classroom? In The Games Issue, David Dodgson, Adam Simpson, and Vicky Loras provide three points of view, lots of games and activities for you to try, and even more good reasons for getting some gaming going on in your own classes.

Dave Dodgson
Vicky Loras
Vicky Loras
Adam Simpson
Adam Simpson

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