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Teaching Tips - Using Games in the English Second or Foreign Language classroom

Using Games in the English Second or Foreign Language classroom

Anne-Louise de Wit
May 2012

Using games

Games have a great educational value and it can be used in the classroom to make learners use the language instead of just thinking about learning the correct forms. Games encourage learners to interact, cooperate, to be creative and spontaneous in using the language in a meaningful way. Learners want to take part in activities; to play games and are generally quite competitive. In order for them to take part they must be able to understand and communicate in the target language. Games also encourage learners to keep interested in the work and a teacher can use them to create contexts in which the language is useful.

Why should I use games in the classroom?

Games are used as methods or techniques to involve students in learning. Well-chosen and designed games are invaluable as they give students a break and at the same time allow learners to practise language skills. The benefits of games range from cognitive aspect of language learning to more co-operative group dynamics and as a result games are highly motivating since they are amusing and at the same time challenging. Ersoz (2000) states that games can be used to give practice in all language skills and they can be used to practice many types of communication.

Huyen (2003) identifies the advantages of using games to learn vocabulary in the classroom: a) Games add relaxation and fun, so the learners retain words more easily. b)  Games involve friendly competition, so it keeps learners interested and motivated. c) Vocabulary games bring real world context to the classroom. Mei (2000) emphasizes similar points by saying that it encourages active learning, as well as collaboration and interactivity. Interactive learning techniques also hold memory, performance and social benefits. According to I-Jung (2005) the benefits of using games in language-learning include that games are learner centered, encourages creative and spontaneous use of language and foster participatory attitudes of the learners.

Kim (1995) states more general advantages of using games in the classroom and they include:

  1. Games are a welcome break from the usual routine of the language class.
  2. They are motivating and challenging.
  3. Learning a language requires a great deal of effort. Games help students to make and sustain the effort of learning.
  4. Games provide language practice in the various skills- speaking, writing, listening and reading.
  5. They encourage students to interact and communicate.
  6. They create a meaningful context for language use.

Students learn through experimenting, discovering and interacting with their environment. Students need variation to increase their motivation. By using games students already have a context in which the use of the target language is immediately useful. This learning situation is similar to how mother tongue speakers would learn without being aware they are studying.

When to use games?

  • A game must be more than just fun.
  • A game should involve "friendly" competition.
  • A game should keep all of the students involved and interested.
  • A game should encourage students to focus on the use of language rather than on the language itself.
  • A game should give students a chance to learn, practice, or review specific language material.

What kind of games can I use?

According to Gaudart (1999) there are four types of games that can be used and they are:  card games, board games, simulation games, and party-type games. When choosing games a teacher does not have to have a multitude of games up his/her sleeve, but rather creativity at taking existing, familiar or popular games and adapting it to the classroom to aim for maximum student involvement. Traditional games like hangman, Pictionary, charades, Chinese Whisper, Bingo, Snakes and Ladders, Battleships, Who wants to be a millionaire? etc. can be modified and tailor-made for your learners and teaching content. Many games require modification in use when the students' needsare taken into consideration. It is also important to note that a game doesn’t need to involve a lot of movement or excitement or cheering, but it does need to be intellectually challenging.

Teachers can use a variety of extra incentives to keep the energy in the classroom going during games with: group or team competition, using small prizes depending on age (stickers, stamps, reward points etc), using dice to determine amount of points or using fake money or playing cards as point system (every time a student answers correctly he/she receives a card or note). Students could be given a sticky ball to throw at vocabulary words, grammar structures etc that are written on the board and then asked to use them in sentences. Or alternatively they could answer a question and throw at a target on the board to win points. A paper airplane or bean bag could also be used in a similar way. Small whiteboards can be used in spelling competitions and be sent around in the team. Students love to play rock-paper-scissor and it can be adapted for various functions within games.

Games could also be based on real-life sport such as baseball or basketball. The teacher can draw a playing field/court on the board and each time a student/team answers a question they can move to the next base or score a goal. Interactive games such as hot seating or role play can also be used. Teams can, for example, do “shopping”, where they have to buy a certain amount of things with their money, while at the same time practising dialogues and vocabulary. Another popular game is Taboo; where a student from each team sits with their back to the board, the teacher writes a word on the board and the rest of the team must explain the word without using/saying it. The first team to guess the word correctly wins. A similar game that can be adapted for the classroom is 30 Seconds. An ABC game can also be used where students have to give a word beginning with the next letter of the alphabet. Or a similar game is Chain spelling, where a student is asked to spell a word and then the next student must say and spell a word beginning with the last letter of the previous word. With newly arrived students teachers can use a school or campus treasure hunt.

Teachers can use Directed Activities Related to Texts (DARTs) such as jigsaws, prediction, sequencing etc in a competitive way to create a game. For example the first team to assemble their jigsaw wins; the team to make the closest prediction wins; the team who correctly sequences events/storyline wins. The teacher can then use DARTs to present or practice the target language, yet at the same time it can develop into a game. There are innumerable ideas for games available, but the success of the games depends on the teacher. The teacher must ensure that the games are appropriate for their students and that it is relevant to their work or real-life.

Can I use games with all age groups?

Games can definitely be used for all age groups, but some caution is needed when used for adult learners. Teachers have to ensure that their games are age appropriate and not too easy or challenging for their students. Kopecky (2009) states that adult students look for structure in lessons and by keeping a game clearly tied to the work it helps maintain their confidence in the teacher.  He advises that you should know your adult students (their interest, how they interact etc) and prepare games that are intellectually challenging and have some “substance”. Ensure that clear instructions are given and that students clearly understand the goal of the game. To motivate adult students you have to be motivated and enthusiastic yourself, yet professional when executing the game. Ensure that you monitor as the students play the game to help them keep the goal of the activity in mind and also monitor your time.  

Hong (2002) suggests a few questions to keep in mind when considering which game to choose for the different age groups:  Which language does the game target? Which skills does it practice? What type of game is it? What's the purpose for using it? Does it fit the students? How could I simplify or make it more complex if necessary? How much interaction and participation is there? Do I like the game myself?

Important things to consider when using games in the classroom

  • Choose suitable games (depending on the number of students, proficiency level, cultural context, timing, learning topic, and the classroom settings).
  • The way students perceive a game depends on the actual design and implementation of the game.
  • Give clear instructions, give clear rules and give clear time limits.
  • Rather demonstrate than explain.
  • There must be a clear purpose and achievable goals.
  • Clear objectives and goals must match the difficulty level of the game and ability level of the students.
  • Ensure that shy or quiet students are not alienated and have an opportunity to take part.
  • Debriefing, or the evaluation of results/ events in the game, is crucial to the game’s success.
  • It must still be fun, but still help the students to learn.

Games lower anxiety levels, are entertaining, educational and give students reason to use the target language. It is a natural way of learning and exposes students to real learning opportunities. “Games encourage, entertain, teach, and promote fluency. If not for any of these reasons, they should be used just because they help students see beauty in a foreign language and not just problems that at times seem overwhelming.' (Uberman, 1998)


Deesri, A. (2002) Games in the ESL and EFL Class in The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VIII, No. 9.
Ersoz, A. (2000) Six Games for the EFL/ESL Classroom in The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VI, No.6.
Hong, L. (2002) Using Games in Teaching English to Young Learners in The Internet TESL Journal, Vol VIII, No. 8.
Gaudart, H. (1999)  Games as Teaching Tools for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages in Simulation Gaming, 30:283
Huyen, N.T.T.  & Nga, K.T.T. (2003) Learning Vocabulary through games in Asian EFL Journal.
I-Jung. C, (2005) Using Games to Promote Communicative Skills in Language Learning in The Internet Kim, L.S. (1995) Creative Games for  the Language Class in English teaching Forum 33:1.
Kopecky, A. (2009) Using Games to Motivate your Adult ESL Students.
Kumar, R. & Lightner, R. (2007) Games as an Interactive Classroom Technique in International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Volume 19, Number 1, 53-63.
Mei, Y.Y. (2000) Using Games in an EFL Class for Children in Daejin University ELT Research Paper.
Uberman, A. (1998) The Use of Games for Vocabulary Presentation and Revision in English Teaching Forum 36:1.
Wright, A. & Betteridge, D. and Buckby, M. (1984).  Games for Language Learning. Cambridge University Press.