Published Online: September 19, 2012

Using Games in the ELL Classroom, Part I

In the Middle East long ago, Nasreddin Hodja crossed the border every day with bales of hay carried by a donkey. The guards were sure he was a smuggler but could never find anything. Years later, one of the guards retired and saw Hodja at a market. "I'm retired, so you can tell me now, what were you smuggling?" Hodja replied, "Donkeys, only donkeys."

It was very obvious to Hodja what was going on every day, but not so obvious to the guards. Teachers can use games in a similar way. "Trick them into thinking they aren't learning and they do," says Roland "Prez" Pryzbylewski, a teacher character in the HBO television series The Wire. In the show, he gets a very challenging group of kids to learn math by showing them how to determine odds as they play dice for Monopoly money.

Learning another language can be a challenging and often frustrating experience for many of our students. No matter how motivated students are, a good teacher must have many instructional tools at his or her disposal to help students engage in the class and not have to endure it. Games are one of those tools.

Judy Willis, neurologist and teacher, writes that students, especially adolescents, are more likely to store information as part of their long-term memory and make it available for later retrieval by participating in activities they enjoy. Researcher Robert Marzano also endorses learning games as an "engagement activity" that can result in increased student academic achievement.

Games have long been particularly popular in the English-language learner classroom, and research has borne out their effectiveness. Among their many benefits are creating meaningful and low-anxiety opportunities for learners to use all domains—speaking, listening, reading, and writing—learning to remember things faster and better, and developing greater fluency by "using" the language instead of "thinking" about making sure they use it correctly.

What Are the Qualities of a Good Learning Game?

We use six criteria to judge whether we want to use a game in our classroom:

1) It requires no or extremely minimal preparation on the teacher's part.

2) Any needed materials are developed by the students themselves—the preparation for the games is a language learning experience too.

3) In addition to not costing teachers much time, the game can also be done without costing any money.

4) The game is designed in a way that strongly encourages all students in the class to be engaged at all times.

5) The game, after being modeled by the teacher a number of times, can also be led by a student.

6) All students, whether they are winning or losing, should be having fun. Games must be played in the spirit of friendly competition and not result in those who lost feeling devalued or embarrassed.

Here are some examples of games that meet these criteria and can be adapted to all levels of instruction (and to most other subjects in addition to language). Many are old standbys, with a few special modifications:

Games Using Small Whiteboards

Having a few small, handheld whiteboards can make a number of games go smoothly.

Divide the class into small groups of two-to-four students. Research shows that the greatest individual gains come in groups of this size. You can change the way groups are formed, sometimes allowing students to choose their own partners and at other times having them number off. However, always reserve the right to move students around if you feel that one group is obviously too strong or weak in terms of language proficiency.

One game is calling out a question to answer or a word or sentence to spell, giving the groups 20 or 30 seconds to write the answer (telling them not to raise their boards until you say time is up), and then having them show the answer. The groups with the correct answer get a point. This way everyone has an opportunity to score a point, not just the first one with the answer. Sometimes end this game (and other games) with an opportunity for each team to bet all or part of their points on the last question—Final Jeopardy, of sorts.

Another option is for the educator to make a list of common writing errors and put them on the board. The groups then race to write them correctly.

A variation for these games could be assigning a number to each group member. For example, if there are groups of three, each group would have a number one, a number two, and a number three. When it is time for groups to call out the answer or do the response, the teacher could call out, "All number ones!" as a way to ensure everyone is participating. Students can also develop a list of their own questions and take turns being the game's leader.

Spotlight on ELL Assessment and Teaching

Another game where whiteboards come in handy is Hangman. In this version, though, you can dispense with the image of the hanged man—it just adds unneeded complexity and an unnatural ending to the game. The goal is to have students guess entire sentences and not just words. To facilitate this, the teacher should leave an obvious space between the word blanks, and the blanks can be further distinguished by using different colored markers. If you're studying food, for example, instead of having to guess the word milk, students have to guess the sentence, "I drink milk in the morning." This way, students can learn sentence structure and the game can easily be made harder for students with a greater grasp of the language being taught.

Games That Focus on Speaking Practice

"Messenger and Scribe" is a great game that develops both speaking and writing skills and was introduced to us by Joan Wink in her book Critical Pedagogy: Notes from the Real World. In this game, the teacher writes or types four sentences (or, depending on the class level, four short paragraphs) on four pieces of paper and tapes the four sheets in different sections of the room. Be careful that the letters are written in regular size so they can't be seen from a distance. Students are then divided into pairs—one is the Messenger and one is the Scribe. The Scribe remains seated with a paper and pen, and the other has to run to the wall, read the sentence, and return to the Scribe. The Messenger then repeats what he or she read and the Scribe writes it down. The Messenger cannot stand by the sheet and yell to the Scribe, however. The first five or so teams to write all the sentences correctly, including spelling and punctuation, are the winners. The teacher can then remove the sentences from the wall and review them with students.

"I Spy" is another old, but good, game. The teacher mentally picks an object in the classroom and then writes "Yes" and "No" on the board. Students again are in small groups and each group has a whiteboard. Students have to formulate questions that must be answered with a "yes" or a "no." For example, "Is it brown?" or "Is it in the front of the class?" Groups take turns asking a question and the teacher records it under "Yes" or "No." The first group to correctly guess the object wins.

Part II of this piece will be published next week.

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