The Aim of the Game

This week we have a post from one of the latest people to join the Hands Up Project’s ever expanding team of volunteers around the world – Anya Shaw. Over to you Anya….

Games are a core part to a teacher’s repertoire in class and were also the topic of one of the Hands Up Project’s online sessions for getting students in Palestine and around the world interacting, using their English and having fun in the process. I was lucky enough to volunteer in these online sessions and it really got me thinking about games in class and how to make the most of them. My conclusion? There’s a lot more to a successful game than meets the eye…

What exactly is a game? 

We may use them every day in class or even play them with friends and family, but the first question I asked myself was what exactly is a game? After a bit of digging online, frequent key features that came up included rules, procedures, players, outcomes, goals and aims. That makes sense. However, thinking about aims of using games in class, it struck me that there is important difference between what a learner wants to get out of playing a game and the teacher’s aims.

Why use games?

For learners, especially younger learners, games in class probably mean having fun. There’s nothing wrong with that. But a good game to use in class needs to be more than just fun.

There are a number of reasons why using games in class can be beneficial to learning:

  • Affective: games can encourage learners to use language spontaneously and creatively and can therefore be highly motivating as long as the game is achievable. They can also provide a meaningful context for learners to speak.
  • Cognitive: games can be used to review, reinforce or extend particular areas of target language communicatively.
  • Class dynamics: games should be learner-centered and can help build rapport, class cohesion, collaboration, teamwork and participation. ‘Friendly’ competition is important so the teacher’s attitude is key.
  • Adaptability: games can be easily adjusted for age, level, interests and needs and they often a range of social and linguistic skills.

Games with Aims:

Classroom language games come in all shapes and sizes; guessing games, vocabulary games, board games, memory games, card games, online games, individual and team games, for instance. When choosing a game to use in class, it’s vitally important that we teachers think about the aims of the game we plan on using. As we saw earlier, a good game will have some kind of outcome or goal to motivate learners and give them a reason to play and use their English.

For example with the vocabulary game ‘spin the wheel’, the teacher gives learners a letter of the alphabet and in groups they have to think of e.g. a country, a sport, an adjective and a food starting with that letter. If they get a word that the other teams don’t think of, they get extra points. Here the goal is to think of less common words and score more points! But what about from a teacher’s perspective? What language or skills does the game help learners to develop? The linguistic aim for ‘spin the wheel’ is  to revise and even peer teach vocabulary related to those topics. Alongside this, learners will be speaking to each other and also negotiating which word is the least common, agreeing and disagreeing with each other. This game therefore combines language development with speaking practice.

In a survival game for example, the teacher sets the scene of the learners being stuck in the desert. The teacher gives them a list of 10 items and they have to decide which 5 (and only 5!) they take with them.  For the learners choosing the right items to be able to survive is the goal and outcome; for the teacher, the aim is for learners to develop their speaking fluency, to get them discussing, thinking critically about the value of each item and why, giving reasons and agreeing.  Successful and effective games in the language classroom are more than just fun; they have a clear linguistic aim.  It’s therefore the teacher’s task to select and adapt the right game so learners are having fun but also learning at the same time.

Lessons learnt:

For a game to work well in class, rules are needed; if rules are a key element to games, then so are instructions. Rules for games can also be negotiated with learners, which involves them in the activity more, too.  Anticipating problems and planning solutions is also extremely important if you are using games. When I was planning for the online session, I found it useful to ask myself the following types of questions:

What tasks will learners have to perform? How will I demonstrate the task and check they have understood how to play? Instructions are key here!

What language and skills will they need to be able to play the game?

What type of response is required to play the game? Do they need to simply recognise a picture and point to it to win a point, do they need to say a word or a sentence? Is what they say very controlled (e.g. asking a particular type of question) or is it freer?  Do they need any functional language e.g. to negotiate, to agree/disagree?

What happens if some learners get very competitive?

What happens if one group dominates or finishes first?

Which groups/pairs would work well together? Which learners need support?  How can I ensure everyone takes part e.g. by allocating roles within group?

All of these questions are the kind of things we teachers should be asking ourselves when planning to use a game in class.  Afterwards, reflecting on what worked well, what could be changed for next time and the game’s pedagogical value can also be extremely useful. Perhaps the learners spoke a lot but it got a bit noisy or they didn’t really understand how to play the game so I had to help them. Maybe the learners didn’t really talk in English as much as I’d expected and used their first language or the game took much longer than planned.  This will happen when using games in class. The key here is to reflect and ask yourself what you could do differently next time. This reflective practice is vital for us teachers.  You could also share games with your colleagues, including the level, time, preparation needed, materials and possible variations.

Games can be very effective in class but there are a number of things to bear in mind when choosing a game to play. So, have fun but remember the aim of the game is to choose and adapt your games to enhance your learners’ development.

Anya Shaw

One thought on “The Aim of the Game

  1. Great post Anya! Thanks very much for writing it. I really like what you say about games combining language development with speaking practice. When I was watching the video I notice how much you and the other adults present are exposing the learners to useful spoken language in discussing how the game works, feeding back on it and in general chat. I think games are a nice way to provide what Jane Willis refers to as inner language (the language focus of the session – in this case vocabulary) and outer language (all the language that happens around that). Because of the fact that the volunteers come from another place and use language in a different way to the kids they are in a unique position to be able to provide this ‘outer language’ I think this has been a feature of many Hands Up Project sessions since the beginning. In fact I wrote a post about this topic very early on in the life of this blog… Thanks again for your great post!


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