10 reasons to use games in language teaching

Those of you who visit my blog regularly will know that I’m quite a fan of games and use them a lot in my classes.

Indeed, I’ve written about them here on quite a few occasions, too (here I write about online games; here I give the ‘golden rules’ of using games; here’s a post about turning quizzes into games; this article is my big ‘why you should…’ argument laid out in full). While I would never suggest turning all of your classes into one long ‘gamesfest’, I will always argue that a good game can be not only justified, but should be regarded as an important part of your teaching repertoire. Here are some of the reasons why you should be using games in class:

1. Games create a context for meaningful communication

Certain games do this more obviously than others, but all games do this to a certain extent. Even when the game revolves around discrete language items, such as we would see in a spelling game, meaningful communication occurs because learners need to process how to play the game, as well communicating about the game before, during, and after.

2. This meaningful communication serves as a basis for comprehensible input

The comprehensible input is, basically, what learners understand as they listen and read, interaction to enhance comprehensibility, such as asking for repetition or giving examples. It also leads to and comprehensible output, as learners are speaking and/or writing so that their peers can understand.

3. Games add interest to what learners find boring

Learning a language involves long-term effort and, as we all know from experience, maintaining interest can mean sustaining effort. This is difficult even for the most committed learner. Shaping a learning task in the form of a game often piques the interest of learners who see it as something different to what they normally do in class.

4. Games can be used with all the language skills

Games can be tailored so that there is a focus on listening, speaking, reading, or writing. Moreover, you will often find that a combination of skills is involved in the same game. They are therefore a great tool for appealing to different types of learners at the same time.

Teachers' party game: mark the eye of the elephant. Tangalla, Sri Lanka
‘Teachers’ party game: mark the eye of the elephant. Tangalla, Sri Lanka’ by @CliveSir from ELTPics

5. Games offer a fun experience

When we play games, we get excited; it’s as simple as that. The emotions aroused when learners play games add variety to what is often a sterile, serious process of language learning.

6. Games encourage participation from all learners

The game format, due to the variety and intensity that it may offer, can do wonders in lowering anxiety and encouraging, quieter learners to participate, especially when games are played in small groups (see point nine).

7. Games are learner-centered activities

Games are truly learner-centered in that learners are not only highly active when playing games, but also in that we can organize the working of games so that our learners adopt the role of leaders, with teachers as mere facilitators.

8. Games work outside of class

We see game formats used everywhere. Therefore, it should be no surprise that many games can also be played outside of class. Therefore, they present a means for learners to use the language outside of class time.

9. Games promote cooperative learning

Most game formats work well with small groups, thereby creating a setting for learners to develop their skills in working with others. Other benefits of group games include:

  • The need for cooperation encourages the building of team spirit and can have a positive knock-on effect in classroom dynamics.
  • Many games involve a degree of competition, although this is not always the case. Furthermore, this can be a healthy thing, as long as the stakes aren’t too high.
  • Many game formats encourage everyone to take a turn, rather than letting some learners do all the talking. Games therefore encourage egalitarian participation.

10. Games fit into multiple intelligence theory

Game activities relate really well to a variety of intelligences (for more about Howard Gardner’s theory, click here). Here are a few examples:

  • Game activities which contain a hands-on element, such as cards, spinners, or pieces engage with bodily / kinesthetic intelligence
  • Group games always require discussion and therefore involve interpersonal intelligence
  • Game tasks with visual input engage with visual/spatial intelligence

Even though I’ve just laid out a lot of good reasons for using games in your classes, we still need to be careful about when and how we use games. Guess what’s coming up in my next post?

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9 thoughts on “10 reasons to use games in language teaching”

  1. Yes, I like your article, I am an english teacher , and I am a number one of use a lot of games to teach. I would like to have more activities.- games ideas on hand, to put in practice with my students.

    Thanks a lot!


  2. Games are a brilliant tool for the classroom–the right game for the right lesson, of course, and at times it’s very difficult to find the time and justification in a curriculum that is intensely target- and exam-focussed. It’s easier recently with the wealth of amazing games that have emerged in the past decade. Dixit’s been brilliant in the past for exploring metaphors and as a catalyst for creative writing. In a few months I’m hoping to trial Werewolf in an attempt to get the kids to tap into the hysteria that grabbed Salem in The Crucible.

  3. Card games are a particularly great fit in an EFL classroom. They perk students up, encourage everyone to focus on a task together, and ensure each student gets a chance as play proceeds around the table. All in a portable package.

    However, I’ve found that trying to retro-fit an existing card game like Go-fish, Crazy-eights, or UNO into a language learning game has subpar results. Students must be prodded into producing the target structures and constantly reminded to not play the game in their first language. There’s little sense of discovery as students go through the motions of a classic game with a veneer of language practice on top. And to make matters worse, the level of their English usually has no bearing on whether they win or lose, leading to short, “just enough to get by” sentence construction.

    This all takes place in a cultural context where card games are exploding in popularity. These mainstream games feature rich visuals, high production values, and deep, engaging gameplay. Students go from the excitement of Pokemon and Duel Masters to the bland, clip-art based games of the English classroom.

    These are the problems facing card games in the EFL setting. Language is bolted on, not relevant to winning or losing, all in a bland package that bores students.
    Fortunately, Question Quest, a game that took me three years to produce, is the solution to these problems.

    Question Quest wasn’t built on the rules of an existing card game. Question Quest was built on the rules of conversation! Students ask and answer practical English questions each turn. They earn points while keeping each other on their toes with special cards that teach real-world linguistic deficiency coping phrases like “I have a question!”, “What’s your answer?”, “Tell me more!”, and “I’ll answer that!”. In a Question Quest game, if a student does not speak English he or she cannot win. Conversation IS the game.

    Question Quest’s fundamental rules take about 5 minutes to learn. But beneath the basics there’s a diverse set of gameplay opportunities for students to explore. After just a few games, students begin to use the cards in creative and surprising ways to gain points and get the upper-hand. Through this process they’re learning how to participate in a conversation, interrupt if needed, and ask appropriate follow-up questions.

    Finally, the art on Question Quest’s cards is designed to meet or exceed the quality of a Pokemon-style mainstream game. It tells the story of six compelling characters and their adventures in a fantasy world. The art not only helps the students understand the English on the cards, but it also holds students’ attention and makes the game a favorite in the classroom.

    Question Quest uses English conversation as the core gameplay mechanic, rewards strong vocabulary and inventive language use, and presents it all in a thrilling package that engages students. And it works. Students speak more readily, take more risks, self-correct, and become more confident in the back and forth of a real conversation.

    Thanks for the read. I couldn’t agree with you more.

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