Teaching Games

by Mike Astbury

Why use games in the classroom?

Games work and I think that most teachers use games and fun activities in their lessons. This post will firstly examine why they work, and encourage their wider use, and secondly provide two games that you can download and print to use with your students that demonstrate some of the ideas below.

There are certain elements of games which are obviously advantageous in language learning: repetition to revise vocabulary and practise pronunciation, humour to make chunks of language more memorable and collaboration to encourage students to learn from each other. I love using games because they are capable of this and so much more. They also bring competitive energy, discussion and enthusiasm into elements of a lesson that might otherwise seem dry by comparison. Above all they provide students opportunities to experiment with language and enjoy the process of learning and discovery.

Untapped potential

I would like to see games being used more often and as a larger part of teachers’ lessons. I love seeing games being used but often they are a quick distraction during the lesson or a reward at the end. While this is a valid use of games, they are actually extremely adaptable and can go beyond this limited scope. Also, while I have nothing against the staples of: dominos with matching pairs, roll and move dice games and crosswords, modern games have moved on.

Modern board games include a mixture of conversation, tactics, puzzles and creativity. Modern board games often have mechanics which are perfectly suited to the classroom and fit neatly into EFL teaching methodology. It’s going to take some time for these games to reach the mainstream, so if you’re a teacher who enjoys using games in your lessons you should be seeking them out, rather than waiting for published material to catch up.  I would like to examine two examples and in the process give you two ready-made activities to try out yourself.

Game 1 – Guess the sentence

This is a simple game that can be used with a wide variety of language. I’ve chosen second conditionals as an example as they are particularly suitable to the nature of the game, which involves taking half a sentence and thinking of a way to complete it. The game is played in groups of 4 to 6, but I would play one round with the whole class first as a quick introduction; showing is far easier than telling. This game is suitable for intermediate students and above.

How to play

Each group is given a set of cards, shown above, and a stack of small sheets of paper. The sheets of paper should be big enough for students to write a legible sentence on. The first player draws a card and reads it aloud to the group.

“If I were friends with the president, …”

The first time you play you should elicit that the next part will start with “I would…”

The other players should think about what the first player’s answer will be. Each player then takes a small sheet of paper and writes the next part of the sentence with that person in mind. The first player also writes his own answer on a sheet of paper. Once everyone has finished writing, the first player collects all of the answers, including their own, and shuffles them. Then the first player reads each of the sentences in full:

“If I were friends with the president, I would get a comfortable government job.”

“If I were friends with the president, I would tell him to resign.”

“If I were friends with the president, I would meet a lot of interesting people.”

“If I were friends with the president, I would give him some of my ideas.”

Now, the other players each have to guess which answer they think is the “real” one that the first player wrote. Once everyone has made their choice the first player reveals which one was their answer and why. This part can be in an open discussion in most cases, especially for adult classes where they’re not too interested in winning points and are more interested in who wrote what. This is the case with a lot of creative games and you’ll rarely need to worry about keeping score.

Some students, especially competitive teenagers, may prefer to choose the correct answer in secret so that you can keep track of each player’s answers and award points for correct guesses. Students make their guesses by writing down their choice. They can get two points for a correct guess with the correct grammar structure, or one point for an incorrect answer with the correct grammar structure. This means they should be focused on listening to each other because they are being awarded for accuracy. This is less communicative but you can talk about their choices after the points have been awarded.

After the first round students will understand the game far better than if you try to explain it beforehand. They will also understand that a big part of the game is in fooling other people into guessing your answer. The range of answers and the creativity of my students has impressed me and the game has always been very well received.

Further adaptation

There are a number of ways you can adapt this further. Instead of using my pre-made cards, you could elicit some possible clauses from your class and then make a set of cards with them. You could also make sentence starters from whatever language you’ve been learning in class; another set I’ve made is based on animal idioms for an advanced class: “A time I should have let sleeping dogs lie is…” “Someone in my family whose bark is worse than their bite is…”

At the end of the game you’ll be left with a lot of written language to use for feedback and error correction in the following lesson.
The cards can be downloaded here: https://mikeastbury.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/2nd-conditional.ppt

Game 2 – Professions and personality

This is a speaking game comprising of two sets of cards: professions and personality adjectives. The game is played in groups of four to six students. There are 60 profession cards and 40 personality cards. This version was made for an upper intermediate class but could be adjusted for lower levels if you chose simpler adjectives and a smaller set of professions.

How to play

Each player is dealt six cards from the professions deck. A starting player is chosen, who will be judge for the round, and that player takes a card from the personality deck. They reveal the card to the other players, who then each choose a profession card in their hand which best matches the personality adjective. Then, players take turns explaining why their profession card is the best match to the judge’s personality card. After everyone has had time to explain their reasoning (including a degree of debate) the judge picks a winner.

Here is an example round of the game: There are five players, four players who are competing and one judge. The judge’s card is ‘wise’.

The four players select professions which fit this adjective and reveal their cards. The four cards the judge has to choose between are surgeon, newspaper editor, lawyer and diplomat. Each player gives their reasons and the judge asks a few follow up questions. After a short discussion the judge then picks a winner.

The winner is given the personality card to show they won the round and each player draws profession cards until they have a full hand of six. Then the role of judge moves clockwise and the game continues until a player has won three rounds.

The game is very simple to follow and generates interesting conversations and unique arguments. The great variety of jobs and personalities in the game means that the game will be different every time. Students are encouraged to justify their card any way they can, which means that they can try to gain the judge’s favour by being the funniest or most inventive. This gently competitive edge pushes students to think creatively so they should generate less conventional ideas. Players don’t win by having the right card; they win because they give the best or most interesting explanation.

Further adaptations

The card sets include some tongue in cheek professions like drug dealer, queen and magician. This creates a lot of unexpected combinations and unusual debates. My set includes a lot of professions that revolve around crime and media because it’s what we were studying at the time, so feel free to change the cards to match your own syllabus. You could also try other noun and adjective combinations.

The cards can be downloaded here: https://mikeastbury.files.wordpress.com/2015/05/jobs-and-personality.ppt

Author’s Bio: Mike Astbury began teaching when he volunteered in Myanmar and fell in love with the job. He has since worked for IH Newcastle and IH Brno and is very grateful to all of the teachers in both schools who have influenced and inspired him. He regularly makes new games and the ones that work well, and students enjoy, he puts on his blog: www.mikeastbury.wordpress.com


For more games you can find my blog at: mikeastbury.wordpress.com

Game 1 uses mechanics found in Truth be Told:

Game 2 uses mechanics found in Apples to Apples: