Games in the Spotlight: Teaching English to the Young Learner

by Christina Nicole Giannikas & Lou McLaughlin

Benefits of Games for YLs (3 – 17 years)

Games are an essential part of any YL teacher toolkit. The reason for this is understood when we compare adult and young learners. YLs are in the process of learning how to learn, and games assist YLs in cognitive, social and linguistic development (McKay, 2006). There are identifiable characteristics which highlight the different stages of development of the YL (Pinter, 2011), the most notable being short attention span. This essentially means we have to ensure they are engaged, both with the material and the task at hand. When YLs are having fun they are engaged, and this is most easily achieved through the use of games in the classroom. At the most fundamental level, Brewster, Ellis & Girard (2002) argue that games provide a link between home and school. They are a means of bringing the external, natural environment of play into the classroom. Additionally, as Rixon (1991) affirms, YLs learn more effectively or at least are more cooperative, when teaching includes enjoyable activities.

Implementing Games

Although there are a myriad of games available for the YL teacher, successfully introducing them into the classroom is not always easy. There are many pitfalls to be avoided. The following is a checklist for teachers to use when choosing a game:

AGE Is it age appropriate? Is it too simple for teens? Is it too difficult for primary?  
LANGUAGE Is the language level appropriate? Does it practice the target language?  
SKILLS & ABILITIES Are the skills & abilities required a suitable match for my learners?

Does it provide the correct level of challenge?

ENGAGING Is it engaging for the learners? Is there an element of competition?

Can they achieve something?

TIME EFFICIENT Is it time efficient? Is it easy to set up? Will it be over in 5 minutes?  
AUTONOMY Will it develop learner autonomy? Can they repeat the game themselves?  
VARIETY Can all learners participate? Is this different from our usual “games”?  

Answering these questions can help teachers decide whether a game is suitable for their learners in all areas, e.g. ability, preferences, linguistic knowledge, etc.

Games in Action

The YL teacher has the opportunity to not only teach children a foreign language, but to make the journey worthwhile. Playing games can give a very different note to language learning and language development. The specific games not only increase the dynamics of the student-centred classroom and add pleasure to the lesson, but allow language teachers to evaluate and assess students’ performance and progress. The following are a few examples of this:

  • -Tic-Tac-Toe: (British Noughts and Crosses) is altered to accommodate language learning, but the traditional objective of three-in-a-row remains. YLs must work together to correctly answer questions in order to gain a chance to place an X or O (based on their team). Each YL on the team gets a chance to answer for their group. Questions can be in the form of pictures that match vocabulary, or whatever you choose to review/assess with the YLs. (Firstien & Killian, 2002)
  • Concentration is a game to teach YLs the use of cards to match vocabulary or grammar points, and is best played in circle-groups so everyone can see the cards and each other. Once each set of cards is shuffled, they should be laid face-down in the middle of the circle. Each YL takes a turn by flipping two cards face-up. If they match, the YL wins those cards. If they do not match, the YL must flip them face-down again and continue to pay attention so that they can make a match on their next turn (ibid).
  • Introductions Chain is a game where YLs stand or sit in a circle. Say, e.g. My name’s…and I like… (dogs). Accompany this with a mime, e.g. pretending to stroke a dog. The next YL says This is… and she likes dogs (everyone joins by repeating the mime) I’m…and I like football (and adds a mime of their own, e.g. kicking a ball). The teacher can continue in the same way round the circle, prompting the YLs to repeat the sentences and mimes until everyone has introduced themselves. If a YL cannot remember what others have said, they say Help! rather than go out of the game and other YLs respond. If the class is large, YLs can do the activity in two or three groups. (Read, 2007).
  • The Puppet says: This game is for the whole class. The teacher asks the YLs to lay a set of picture cards face up on the desk. The teacher holds up the puppet and says, e.g. The puppet (or use its name) says: Show me the apple, please! and YLs hold up the corresponding card. If the teacher doesn’t say ‘please’, YLs fold their arms and say nothing. Speed up the game as YLs respond more confidently. A good option is to use a system of ‘lives’ if YLs respond wrongly, but not make them out of the game. (ibid).

The (Classroom) Management of Games

As aforementioned, choosing games requires careful deliberation, leading to the practical side of setting up games in the classroom. Teachers must always plan how to set up and run the game, taking into account the age of the particular YLs.

Lexical set (Games):

In any game, specific lexical sets are used repeatedly. These should be taught to the YLs at the beginning of the lesson so as they can understand and use the lexical items as required. These can be added to depending on the level of the YLs. The following are words which learners may use in the games outlined above:

games image

The instructions for games follow the same pattern as those for any activity in the YL classroom. These should be taught as early as possible and used as often as possible. Introducing these via flashcards, pictures, mime or description will depend on the age and ability of the young learner. The lexis of instruction is as follows:Instructions:

  • Listen
  • Match
  • Draw
  • Tell
  • Show
  • Put
  • Work in pairs
  • Work in groups

Functional Language:

Language focus should be extended to the functional language needed in order to play the game. These chunks enable YLs to interact with one another and practice the L2 (foreign language) in a natural way (see Brewster, Ellis and Girard, 2002). As the level of the YL increases, the complexity of functional language does so as well:

  • Can I have the…dice / counter / paper / card…?
  • Can you pass me the …dice / counter / paper / card?
  • It’s my turn.
  • It’s my turn / go and then you.
  • Whose turn is it?
  • The points go to…
  • Well done. Good answer.
  • That’s not fair.
  • That’s unfair because…

Incorporating functional language exploits the use of games even further, adding to the benefits of their use.

Using Games for Assessment and Evaluation

As McKay (2006) has argued, early childhood teaching is based on principles of child growth and development. Therefore, games are vital in primary language learning, and help increase students’ motivation in a less intimidating and more child-friendly environment, whilst also giving valuable insights to the YL teacher in the process, inviting more spontaneity from the student. When using games as assessment tasks, the YLs classroom is offered ‘valuable ways to unlock the instructional power of games and support a student-centred environment’ (ibid). Teachers can present their students with interesting and engaging games, as the ones mentioned above, which can be used to assess the YLs without the traditional testing approach. The games included above can work as assessment tools to examine students’ grammar, vocabulary, listening skills and comprehension. As games take place, the teacher can monitor the students, record their progress, and use the information gathered as input when grading. This approach can lower anxiety levels and help YLs perform better, while also help them reach higher levels of language development, through more child-friendly means of assessment.


Using games in the YLs’ classroom is an added pleasure that is full of potential and benefits for the learners. Although games are enjoyable, teachers must be aware of basic classroom management techniques in order to apply them, as even the simplest of games can prove challenging. It is vital to know how games can assist in the students’ progress and provide the teacher with information that may be difficult to gather from other forms of activities and contexts. Games in the YLs’ classroom play a special role in their learning and L2 development and it is important to include them in the language lesson as they encourage YLs to use the L2 communicatively and creatively.

Author’s Bio: Lou McLaughlin is an ELT Management Consultant & YL Teacher Trainer and tutors on the YLCM Course (IH London). Her main areas of research are young learner teacher cognition and teacher training. She was an editor of the recent Garnet publication “Children learning English: from research to practice”. Christina Nicole Giannikas holds a PhD in Applied Linguistics. Her interests focus on Young Learners, creativity in language learning, language learning policies, CALL and teacher training. Christina is a freelance materials writer and editor and was chief editor of the IATEFL YLT SIG’s recent publication Children Learning English: from research to practice.


  1. Brewster, J., Ellis, G., and Girard, D. (2002). The Primary English Teacher’s Guide. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.
  2. Firsten, Richard, and Patricia Killian. (2002).The ELT Grammar Book. Alta Book Center Publishers, Appendix 3.
  3. McKay, P. (2006). Assessing Young Learners. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Read, C. (2007). 500 Activities for the Primary Classroom. Oxford: Macmillan Education.
  5. Rixon, S. (1991). The Role of Fun and Games Activities in Teaching Young Learners. In Brumfit, C., Moon, J. and Tongue, R. Teaching English to Children. London: Collins ELT.
  6. Pinter, A. (2011). Children Learning Second Languages. UK: Palgrave Macmillan.