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  • Games to Teach English Learners

    By International Teacher Training Organization

    Why should we use games to teach English learners in the classroom?

    "Playing is a child's natural way of learning." - Genevieve Roth

    Perhaps as busy, responsible, mature adults, we have somehow sadly forgotten what it was like to have fun. If we consider the above quote it is not difficult to realize that playing was once our own "natural way of learning" as well. So we should not look at games as just child's play, but rather as a tool that can (and should) be used for teaching English learners at all ages. The ELT Grammar Book describes games as a way "to have fun dealing with grammar as a change of pace." (Firstien, 526) However we would suggest that there is more to it than that. Games can be a safe opportunity to practice without fear of ridicule. Due to the competitive nature of many games, they can provide a great sense of accomplishment for many students and their teammates as they watch their progression.

    While games to teach English learners are indeed a "change of pace" as stated above, they are also very useful tools for fluency, as "Children tend to forget they are learning and so use the language spontaneously." (Roth) In our own teaching experience, it seems the same can be true for adults. Basically, if you are having fun doing something, you don't have time to be bored or frustrated with it and will get more out of the activity.

    Please keep in mind when teaching English as a second language and teaching English as a foreign language, that the classroom may be the students' only exposure to the language. Games to teach English learners can help to make language learning a positive and exciting experience, which will be important and motivating to the students. If we keep students motivated and engaged in the lesson, the results can be incredible!

    How do we use games to teach English learners in the classroom? Now that we realize the importance of games to teach English learners, the next step is to apply them within the classroom. When researching games to use as classroom activities, it is easy to see a correlation between popular children's games and the adapted classroom version. A creative teacher will find that almost any game can be adjusted to suit the needs of a lesson. As we are dealing with the TESL TEFL TESOL setting, it is important to be sure that any games we might use are linguistically relevant, simple to explain, easy to set up, and fun to play. (Roth) Games can be used as an ice-breaker or warm-up at the beginning of class, as an introduction activity for new vocabulary or grammar, or as a review exercise at the end of a lesson, chapter, or before an exam. While the preparation of materials may be time-consuming, " the time and effort it might require to create the materials for each game will be well worth the while, and from then on, you'll always have the materials available to you" (Firstien, 526).

    Tips on games to teach English learners: We know it may be discouraging to read about having to do more preparation - especially when the phrase "time-consuming" is used. Never fear. Games to teach English learners are supposed to be fun, remember? "The ELT Grammar Book" suggests having students help you in preparing materials for the games. "Not only will that cut down on your work, but it will also give your students practice on the language points your game is focusing on." (Firstien, 527) You will find that many students enjoy being part of the creative process and will be more than willing to help - this is especially true with younger students. Another suggestion is to limit groups to four or five students so that the students won't "get restless waiting for their turn to come up again." Depending on the size of the class, this may mean that you will have to walk around the room to monitor various groups and assist them during the game as needed. (Firstein, 528)

    Genevieve Roth makes the following suggestion for presenting the game: "Play the game with one or two pupils in front of the class as a demonstration." This will allow the others to see a model of what is to be done and how the game is to be played. She also suggests that the students sit in a circle around you as you explain. You may decide to act out the game by playing first one part and then the other for them to see. And finally, she suggests that you give the game a chance and not be discouraged, as it sometimes takes time for students to understand the game enough to really enjoy playing it. (Roth) Roth's work is geared mostly toward teaching English to children; however her advice may still be helpful when working with adults.

    Examples on games to teach English learners: If you are still uncertain of what kind of game to teach English learners you may want to use or how to go about making them work for your classroom, perhaps the following examples may help.

    • Tic-Tac-Toe (British Naughts and Crosses) is altered slightly to accommodate for team play, but the traditional objective of three-in-a-row remains the same. Students must work together to correctly answer questions in order to gain a chance to place an X or O (based on their team) and each person on the team gets a chance to answer for their group. Questions can be in the form of pictures which match vocabulary, to creating a sentence using grammar points, or whatever you choose to review with the students. (Firstien, 526)
    • Concentration is a game to teach English learners that uses cards to match vocabulary or grammar points and is best played in circle-groups so that everyone can see the cards. The students can help you by making pairs of cards so that they get extra practice. Once you've shuffled each set of cards, they should be laid face-down in the middle of the circle. Each student takes a turn by flipping two cards face-up. If they match, the student wins those cards. If they do not match, the student must flip them face-down again and continue to pay attention so that they can make a match on their next turn. Students will help each other decide when a match is made, but you will want to monitor as well and perhaps have each student share their pairs at the end of the game for extra review. (Firstien, 527)
    • The Clothesline is a game to teach English learners of building sentences using different words each time. Have many different options for each part of speech, including punctuation, in piles. Students take turns (in teams or individually) changing the words in order to create sentences. Students read the sentence they've created upon completion, and points are awarded for correct use of vocabulary, grammar and punctuation. The student or team with the most points at the end of the round wins. (Firstien, 529)
    • Oral Matching can be a fun way for English learners to mingle and practice conversation. Each student is given a slip of paper with either a question or an answer on it (for more variety, they can have one of each, so long as they don't match!) and they are to read their questions and answers to their fellow students in order to decide which ones go together. For more fun, use a dialogue or story to create your question and answer slips. Once each student has found his or her matching pair(s), you can have the students put it back together in the original order and read it together. (Firstien, 531)
    • Scrambler is more of a puzzle type of activity that can be fun for English learners as a break from traditional worksheets. Create a target word that you wish the students to discover (this can be an answer to a key question as well, if you wish). Use various vocabulary words that contain letters to be used in the target word. Then, scramble the vocabulary words so that the students must discover from each scrambled word the vocabulary to go letter-by-letter in the boxes behind it. The target word can then be placed in a vertical fashion using those letters from the vocabulary. If you are using a key question, be sure to leave a blank so that the students can re-write the target word from the boxes once they've discovered the answers to all the scrambled words.

    We hope these ideas and suggestions on games to teach English learners have been helpful for you and that you can find a way to use them in your next class. Have fun!


    • Firsten, Richard, and Patricia Killian. The ELT Grammar Book. Alta Book Center Publishers, 2002. Appendix 3.
    • Roth, Genevieve. Teaching Very Young Children. Richmond Publishing, 1998. Chapter 5; Action Games.

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