Games are an important part of people’s lives. Although many adults have forgotten how to play, for children it is one of the main activities throughout their days. The reasons are introduced by Koťátková (Děti a my, 3, 26): ‘In a game, a child has the opportunity to try out and modify much of what they see; the game is therefore a source of cognition for them.". In this article she also states that a game is an opportunity for the child’s self-realization and a way to dispose of stress.
The idea of using games in teaching does not seem to be widely accepted and implemented yet, although its profitability and almost necessity has been proposed and justified as early as in the seventeenth century by Comenius. In spite of years of such knowledge and experience, it is still rare to see games implemented in the teaching process in schools in other than first to third grades. Also Maňák and Švec claim that ‘Comenius’s provocative appeal – schola ludus (school by play) remains nor understood, nor realized.’ (2003, p.126).
The use of games in the teaching process is not applicable restrictively to teaching languages; nevertheless, this is the area this work will focus on.
Let’s take a quick view at what a game is. Prodromou suggests (1992, p.120): ‘What is a game? One working definition is that of an enjoyable activity involving an objective that is achieved by following certain rules, usually in competition with one or more other people.’ Although the competition element is what characterizes a game most often, for the purpose of this work, both competitive and non-competitive games will be considered as a subject of the thesis, both can be, and are, used in language teaching.
The use of games in teaching English is not, however, appropriate at all times. Using various games can help students memorize vocabulary or grammar; it can eliminate the anxiety aroused from using a foreign language or uncertainty about the correctness of the output. As Demes da Cruz also states (2008, p.18): ‘While playing language games, students can be exposed to the target structures. However, because this is done in a context of a game, they relax and forget that they are being watched. They often become so involved in the game that they stop feeling anxious about their mistakes.’
At the same time overuse of games may take away the time the students can use to be working individually, having the matter explained properly or simply working with the language seriously. It can also create the overall class atmosphere in such a way that it is not a real learning, making it more difficult to concentrate on studying for serious purposes, like exams. The last consequence of overuse of games in language teaching to be mentioned here is the fact that the students might get bored with all the play. The reason is that students, especially students of higher secondary schools or adults, usually do not like to be treated like little children. The teacher must place challenge before them too, they need to have the feeling of having accomplished something more difficult than a good game result. Having said the above, experience, however, confirms that abandoning games in the classes of the older group age would deprive the teaching-learning process of enjoyment, which enriches and motivates the students. To be complete, it is also necessary to mention the teachers’ need to enjoy their work, enjoy the classes and activities realized. ‘The moment we enter the classroom, we must act as people who are looking forward to whatever is coming.’ (Paterson, 1996, p.13) (translated by the author). To fulfil that, games are of great help to keep the teaching work still enjoyable.
Simply put, the teacher must carefully consider how much and when it is appropriate to use games in the language teaching in order to be beneficial to the students and the whole teaching process.
According to Bönsch (quoted in Maňák & Švec, 2003, p.126):When utilizing game-like activities in the teaching process, it is necessary to realize that, despite many shared features, between the games and studying there is also a certain variance, as whereas play does not pursue strictly defined objectives, tuition is essentially target-orientated. While overcoming this tension, the didactic play must avoid two extremes: pursuance of the teaching aims must not superimpose the essence of play itself to such an extent that the pupil does not perceive the activity as a game; on the other hand, inexpedience and latitude of the game must not reach a degree when the actual aim of the teaching slips out.
These types of games concentrate on one of the crucial and most difficult parts of language learning. Listening is usually viewed as a passive part of the lesson. In fact, it is quite the contrary. Listening requires being very attentive and active, should it bring the desired result. In schools, listening is often carried out in a boring and uninteresting way, using only the exercises offered by the book. To make students enjoy listening, the teacher needs to bring it closer to them. A good way is choosing a topic they would like to listen about or a song they like. We can use many activities using listening not as an aim of lesson, which makes it always more stressful, but as a means to accomplish a different task, be it completing the lyrics of a song, getting correct instructions for playing a computer game or obtaining information about interesting people or places. In a similar way, listening games can be used in order to maintain the students’ attention and interest. To ensure the effort put into the listening is exploited in full, the teacher can partner the listening game with consequent post-activities.
There are hereby enclosed two examples of games aimed at improving listening skills.
Make a story
This game is best suited to small groups. While sitting in a small circle, participants are asked to construct a story by each participant adding one line at a time (e.g. As he got off his horse, he saw a big rabbit). This continues with each additional participant adding another line until everyone has contributed at least two lines.
There are many variations to this game but it highlights the value of listening to others.
Draw the grid on the chalkboard (as shown on the picture above). The best way to do this quickly is to draw the five columns of horizontal lines first, and then the vertical zigzags. Then write a different letter of the alphabet in each hexagon.
Divide your class into two teams and nominate a student to choose a letter. From a previously prepared word list, choose a word whose first letter matches the student's choice, and explain this word to your class. The first team to guess the word correctly claims the hexagon and chooses to continue either vertically or horizontally. (Mark the hexagon with a squiggle of colored chalk corresponding to the team's color). One team must go horizontally and the other team must go vertically. To win the game, a team must connect all the way from top to bottom, or from side to side. The ensuing conflict as teams vie for a winning route is what makes the game so fun and exciting.
Customized lists of words can be used; textbook words from present and previous years, words that students have written and passed to the teacher, incidental words that have come up during class and topical or useful words that may be fun to use. If an end-of-term test is drawing near, the present textbook words can be used, because this is most useful for review. This list also includes a reference to the unit from which the word was taken, as occasionally students may to scan their textbooks for the answer. This is good reading practice, it helps students remember and relate to the word, and it helps the teacher get a feel of where more review might be needed.
Used as a follow-up to the previous listening, it is an excellent way to re-enforce vocabulary and expressions heard earlier. However, speaking games can be used at any time. The teacher must, nevertheless, make sure that a form of game is maintained. That means, the main focus is not put on the grammar (at the same time, it is an opportunity for the teacher to gather information about what parts of grammar the students have not acquired so far), the main aim is to make speaking and expressing ideas orally enjoyable and stress free. Once students get familiar with the principle of speaking games, it facilitates for ability to speak also in other parts of the lesson. As with the listening games, also in speaking ones, the teacher should concentrate on topics which are close to the students, their environment or interests. For instance, it serves its purpose well if the teacher avoids making students describe what they had for breakfast or describing a person without putting it into a game-like context.
Taboo is a word game, in which one player gets the other(s) guess a certain word using verbal explanation; there may also be a list of other words which the “explainer” must not mention. For example, “ladder” might be the word to describe, but without saying “climb, rungs, or fire truck” or any forms of those words. Having such a list of words makes the game more difficult, therefore such a restriction would be used in more advanced classes.
Much like with crossword puzzles, students get practice explaining words in different ways, and the taboo words make it more challenging and interesting. It is also easy to incorporate an element of competition, though it may be wise to do some kind of trial run to see how your students do; I’ve found that even relatively easy words often defy time limits, even with more advanced students. And it can of course be de-motivating for students to keep missing the time limit. A method of two teams working at once can be used, seeing how many words they can get through in a set time period, rather than, say, one minute for one person to explain.
Find someone who
This is a well known language learning game where students mingle and ask each other questions to find for which person the fact they have on their worksheet is true. This activity is good for waking students up by getting them out of their chairs and is also good practice for “Nice to meet you” and introductions. It can be done with real information, or, if the students know everything about each other already, the teacher will need to give each person a role-play card with some personal information about their “new” self, plus one worksheet with the information they should be searching for. The ‘Find Someone Who’ worksheets can be the same for each student or different for each person. They then stand up and go round the class asking questions until they find out that this person is Chilean, this person is 79 years old, this person is a seven year old film star etc, then sit down when they think they have found all the information. As can be seen from these examples, it is possible to add a little humour by the choice of role-play sentences. More speaking can be added to the game by students passing on all the information they have found out so far to the person they are speaking to.
Any pair work dictations can be livened up by sitting each person and their partner far away from each other so that they have to speak loudly to make themselves heard above their classmates (who will also be speaking loudly).
When used in schools, the game might be amended in such a way that only one couple would speak at a time, for the sake of the neighbouring classrooms. The reason for using this game is that being far away and having to speak loud helps the speaking skills. Many students tend to speak very quietly as they are shy, feeling their English is not enough or they are not sure about the right expression or pronunciation. They have no choice but to speak loud enough during this game and therefore it helps them build the confidence. It is also beneficial that it is not the teacher telling them to speak up, it is their colleague student they need to communicate with.
Also all games based on role-plays are very useful for practising speaking as they are very efficient at making the students use the target language actively.
Kinetic games are very popular amongst all age groups. They provide for refreshment in the class and teaching-learning process, especially at times when students are getting tired and find it difficult to concentrate. Certainly the kinetic games need always be joined with another activity too, be it reading, listening or speaking.
Jumping onto sheets of paper
This game can serve as practice opportunity of various pieces of vocabulary. In its simplest form the students may jump on coloured sheets of paper according to the colour the teacher shouts out. It may however practice more advanced parts of language – spelling of letters with letters written on the sheets, words if pictures are used, or even phrases if pictures of situations when the phrases are used are printed on the sheets.
Pictures on the walls
The teacher places pictures on the walls; each picture has also a letter on it. The class is broken into small groups, each of which receives a sheet of paper with brief descriptions of pictures which bear letters needed for completion of a word they need to practice. To make the activity straightforward, the descriptions are in the same order as the letters in the target word. However, they may also be in random order to create more of a challenge for the students. In such case, though, they should receive more information about the target word, to be able to complete it.
Each group completes a different word so their actions do not interfere. Nevertheless, they use the same pictures if they are looking for the same letter.
The game may be adapted by using the whole words instead of letters, in which case the aim is to complete a sentence or a phrase. Another rule which may make the activity more difficult might be, that each team has its assigned base with a sheet of paper and they may not take it with them, they have to remember all they need.
For children, also real items with a letter stuck on it may be used, making it more ‘hands on’ and fun. It may help if they are in boxes so they are not seen from afar.
This game is not only kinetic, it practices reading at a large degree, vocabulary and communicative skills.
Experiential games are very interesting in a sense that they may not be games as such. The real aim is not to win or complete a language task but to experience the process and learn from it. The main thing to learn might be various things and the language is used only as a tool. What the participants learn may be qualities far overreaching the language skills or any other knowledge. They may influence peoples’ attitudes and teach them understanding; not only understanding of the phenomenon around but also themselves.
However, while target language is used, the students are driven into being able to communicate effectively, recycle vocabulary and work on their fluency.
Experiential games have also great effect on the way the students are able to re-use both vocabulary and grammar. It is more natural, easier and effortless to remember the language learned through experience.
Experiential approach can be adopted with any of the game types described above; in other words, any skill can be deployed using experiential games.
Some of the experiential games are suggested below.
The teacher chooses a topic (students can also participate in the decision process, it draws their interest about the topic prior to discussing it), which is interesting enough for the students to discuss. He/she divides the class into groups. It is usually two groups but may be more if more than two strong opinions on the subject are possible. It is desirable not to reflect on the students’ real opinions on the subject. The teacher then assigns each group they focus conception on the subject. The groups need to be given time before the discussion itself to prepare their arguments. It may help if each group has a dictionary at their disposal. During the discussion itself, the numbers of the groups take turns and try to explain and reason their view.
The aim of this activity is not to make students argue; on the contrary, apart from using the target language actively, they need to adopt techniques of expressing their view with confidence and yet without getting into quarrel and accepting other peoples’ opinions. What is more, by standing for a different opinion than is their own, they learn to understand others rather than judge and deprecate them.
Simple but enjoyable is this game of memorizing what is placed on a tray. As can be read in Experiential Learning Instance 6: ‚Another succesful example has to do with how I learned to memorize effectively in school. My teacher used to bring in a tray full of assorted things to class. She then gave us a few seconds to gaze at the tray. We then listed out all those things that we remembered seeing on it. With the teacher's help I realized that I could remember the names of most of the objects on the tray when I grouped them together meaningfully.‘ At the first sight this does not seem to be much experiential, yet the teacher by helping the students to find a useful strategy to succeed made it part of their important experience, rather than sticking to a simple vocabulary practice.
Games in different kinds of classes
It is advisable to distinguish between classes we cater for when using games. Each and every class is very specific and the teacher needs to take its characteristics into consideration when preparing and realizing a game, in the same way the whole teaching process is (or should be) tailored to a specific group of learners. However, it is impossible to reflect on all existing classes; therefore we will take a closer look at using games in different types of classes, based on several criteria – language level, age group and class size.
In classes of beginners, it is often difficult to maintain the students’ attention for too long, especially in cases when they are to learn their first foreign language and they are not used to trying to operate in other than their own mother tongue. It is very difficult for beginners to remember all the new words and expressions they need to acquire in order to proceed further. It is therefore most useful to incorporate games and other fun activities in the teaching-learning process. This not only helps the students to relax from the ‘serious’ learning, it also helps them to reinforce the new vocabulary. Probably the most specific outcome of using games in the class of beginner learners is building of their good relationship with the new language. It is crucial that the students do not learn to hate the language as is the case frequently in many schools. Once they learn to feel easy and happy about the foreign language being around them and being used, it becomes much easier later to build on this relationship and make further progress without having to overcome an aversion.
Intermediate students have already gathered vast amount of knowledge and skills regarding the target language. They have already built the relationship; they are usually aware of and realize the fact that the language is a real thing spoken by real people, rather than mere lists of words and set of rules. They are able to use the language actively and therefore the ground is set for more complicated games if desired. This can also be a springboard for games, using knowledge and skills practiced in different subjects, for instance mathematics, geography or biology. Games for these students are not an essential part of a lesson, nevertheless, it brings the refreshment and enjoyment to the teaching-learning process, and it is an occasion to use the target language in an active manner. It is very important that the students use the language without prior careful thinking about a correct way to express themselves. An instinctive and immediate reactions and use of language reinforces the language abilities further and helps the students to adopt it as one of their basic skills.
Advanced students with their almost absolute knowledge of the target language and ability to use it without thinking it through are a difficult group of students. The teacher does not focus on the basics any longer and builds rather a fine understanding of the language and the given culture. Games at this stage are not used very often, yet they still play an important role as a means of making the students live with the language and use it for not only educational purposes but mainly for interaction and serving as an instrument for experiential aims.
Using games in the process of teaching languages is not restricted for any language level classes. It is a great tool for all levels, though it may serve different purposes and may be used in different ways. As seen in above paragraphs, games will always help students of all levels to feel comfortable and therefore more confident in the process of acquiring a new language. Language learning is a difficult task and requires adopting various skills. Games are a priceless support which a teacher may take an opportunity to use in order to help the students to succeed.