Making Games Educational

This is in part a reaction to another thread about having English learning being fun without using games. I believe the main point of the threat is correct, that you can (and really should) have a class that is fun enough without having to resort to playing games to maintain class interest.

But on the other hand, I believe that games are a legitimate tool for teaching, and that it is a tool that can be powerful. The “no games” POV is often a reaction to poorly planned games, or games that are not educational.

The purpose of this thread is to take games and find ways to improve their educational value. The best games are ones where the mechanism of the game requires students to use the target language succesfully in order to achieve the purpose of the game. But even sticky-ball games can be useful and truly educational. Please share how you make a non-educational game into a more educational one.

Tic-Tac-Toe Type
One example of what I think is often a mis-used game is Tic-Tac-Toe/Connect4/Bingo style games. Often this game is just a crutch to try and get kids to volunteer to answer a question so that they can take a turn. Essentially, the game and the Q&A are unrelated. you could just play the game and have the kids answer Q&A separately and there would be no difference.

Any grid game can be modified so that columns and rows correspond to Subjects/Verbs or Subjects/Objects (depending on what is being taught) and students can use the target language to plot their move. You can use the Connect4 version with each column equalling a question word. This makes students manipulate the language in order to accomplish the goal of their turn.

I prefer to make Battleship grids. This makes the game more student centered, and the teacher’s responsibility becomes observing and teaching more one-on-one while students get more repetitions in the game.

Stickyball
Many teachers play stickyball games where kids, once again, answer a question before being issued a stickyball to throw for riches, glory, or death and destruction. Again, the game is totally divorced from the language being practiced.

Simply putting vocabulary on the targets begins integrating the activity with the language. Hitting the target then determines the context of their question or key words in the pattern they are to use.

There are a lot more games that can be refitted with a stronger tie to the content being taught.

I agree that whenever possible, the language should be a part of the very structure of the game. I rarely use the kind of game where the game and the scoring system are separate from the target language.

Tic Tac Toe / Connect 4 style games and sticky ball games can be used in conjunction with comprehensible input. For example, you write a word or phrase in each of the Tic Tac Toe boxes and to get that box, the students have to read the word and draw a picture or do the appropriate action.

With sticky ball games, you or other students say a word and the student with the ball throws it to the correct picture. Or you/other students do an action and the student with the ball throws it to the correct word. There are a great many potential variations.

But I know that you just mentioned sticky ball and Tic Tac Toe to point out that even these can be used in a constructive way that aids acquisition. There are of course endless potential games and activities that contain the target language at their core rather than it being tacked on as an afterthought. In another thread, I mentioned Penny Ur’s excellent book “Grammar Practice Activities” which contains a wealth of ideas for activities that are both fun and great aids to language acquisition. The reason they work so well is that the language is in a meaningful context.

Right. Sticky ball and grid games are not the best. They are examples of decontextualized language activities. They are easy to do, and can be adapted to have a level of educational value, but even with these adaptations they tend to be teacher-centered and divorced from the communication of real ideas. (There are ways to contextualize these games and make them truly good activities, but that requires tailoring the activity to a relevant context.)

There’s a sticky thread up top about people’s favorite language acquisition activities where there are some good ideas for intrinsically educational activities. What I’m focusing on here are games that are usually not educational in nature and adapting them to make them more useful in the classroom.

Musical Chairs
Most of the time this game is played with a song just to give the kids another exposure to the song they’re learning. But this can also be used with a pattern by having some of the kids sitting in chairs while the music is playing and the others having to ask those sitting in a chair to get up. Students sitting when the music stops are the “winners” for that round.

Example:
One student is sitting in the chair. Another comes up and says, “Excuse me, could you give me your seat?” Sitting student asks, “Why should I?” Standing student: “I have a terrible stomachache.” Sitting student gets up and says: “You should drink lots of water, then.”

The target language being practiced would be that related to being sick or that of giving advice. Depending on what is being taught, the dialog can be adjusted.

Correction: Games are not good for teaching. They are good for reinforcing and reviewing.

To make a game educational, you first have to know what the learning objective is.

For instance, if you are playing Spelling Battleship, the learning objective is for the students to review their spelling words.

If you are playing “I Never…” with musical chairs, you are reviewing present perfect tenses.

Having an educational goal for a game and a format to meet that goal in a practical and meaningful way makes a game educational.

When we have the next Teacher’s Network meeting…if we have a next Teacher’s Network meeting, we had discussed having Learning Games, particularly grammar-focused learning games, as the topic.

Please explain.

“I’ve never broken a bone.” If you have, instead of taking a drink, you have to get up and find another chair. The person in the middle (without a seat) calls out their sentence and everyone who has done it has to get up. I make it so it can be true or false so it’s easier for them to think of sentences since that’s the point. The last person to find a chair is it and calls the next sentence. If someone is “it” for three turns, then they get to pick someone to replace them.

More sample sentences - “I’ve never eaten lamb.” “I’ve never been to America.” “I’ve never spoken Japanese.” “I’ve never worn earrings.” “I’ve never missed school.” “I’ve never left Taiwan.”

I also like to play “What are you doing?” to practice the present progressive. But I won’t explain that until the next Teacher’s Network meeting. Can’t reveal all my tricks, eh?

Semantics aside, I agree with you. But I’m the kind of person who has a hard time putting semantics aside, so…

Teaching is not just telling someone something. It’s the entire process of getting them to learn and understand. Teaching a language is far more than telling about a language, it’s getting them to understand and then actually acquire the language. So reinforcing and reviewing are absolutely essential parts of language teaching.

Thus, games can be good for teaching if they help accomplish those goals.

But I understand what you mean, and if you define teaching differently then you’re right. But you left off one benefit of games, and that is assessment. Games allow you to observe students without stress and see which ones understand, and which are watching everyone is to try and guess what they are supposed to be doing.

BTW- Thanks for the idea. I call that activity “Colored Eggs” but I usually use it for teaching lower level classes and normally restrict it to personal adjectives and what people wear. Applying it to grammar practice like that hadn’t occured to me.

I don’t usually post in this forum but after seeing this topic, I had to add a few thoughts. Let’s get past the semantics. We are talking, or am I missing something, about teaching AND THEN reinforcing (don’t even think about correcting my English) an English concept while, at the same time, allowing the learner some activity or enjoyment while doing so. I know there are other threads about activities but I offer this as an example. After teaching some basic time prepositions - in particular, “on” and “at” and “for”, try distributing a calandar for one week - Monday through Friday - from a standard dayplanner. For younger learners post on the board and explain:

SCHEDULE
One day holiday with your parents (any day)
1/2 day dentist appointment (any day)
1 hour with your teacher (any day)
3 days lunch with friends - 1 hour (any day - any time)
Skip school with friends - 1 afternoon (any day)

Have learners schedule these events in their dayplanner. When they have completed the task, add to the board that they must make a 1/2 hour appointment with (here it gets difficult depending on the number of learners. If the number is more than 20, choose a number of students that represents 1/2 the class total. If less than 20, then with each other student.) They should be able to use “on” and “at” and “for”. Learners should be on their feet and moving around. If not, they are not doing the exercise and require some personal teacher assistance. The scheduling becomes more difficult with more sudents due to the inherent conflicts. Watch for and emphasis when you can, "Are you available on . . ", “Can we meet” at . . . " and the, “No, I’m sorry” or “Yes, I’m available”. Of course there are a myriad of other possibilities and don’t hesitate to make the classmate appointments for one hour or a combination.
This should continue for about 30 to 40 minutes, depending on class size.
As the first few students appear to have their scheduling completed, go to the board and write:

IMPORTANT MESSAGE FROM THE PRINCIPAL
This class has been chosen to plan the school party. All students must attend a meeting:
THURSDAY (or any day)
FROM 12:00 to 6:00 (or any day but include the lunch hour)

Now most - or all - will need to re-schedule some of the appointments as conflicts will abound.
This exercise also works well with adults but change it to a corporate setting.

Expect at least a 45 minute exercise.

Again, I know this may be off-topic, but I want to point out that it would be impossible to do this exercise without pre-teaching “on” and “at” and “for”. The activity simply reinforces the teaching concepts. I venture that it would be impossible to do the exercise without the basic preposition knowledge beforehand. Or, am I wrong?

Ah, the scheduling game. I miss doing stuff like that. Nice information gap activities too. I had played with different flyers from around the university campus and then the students planning which events they wanted to go to and when and later working out with their classmates how they could go out together.

I just finished playing a Jeopardy game with my students - 6 categories, 10 questions (5 per round x 2 rounds). One of my students remarked how good a day it was because they didn’t have to do any work. And I pointed out that they were - they were answering questions about spelling and phonics, one of the content areas we spent the last month learning about, past participles, vocabulary (antonyms and synonyms), comprehension about past stories we read, and parts of speech in a context. The students were surprised to learn that they were in fact practicing all the skills that we had been covering.

I love end-of-the-year review Jeopardy. :slight_smile:

And I guess that is what you and I were both pointing out. The activities/games are nothing more than a reinforcement of past learning. Enjoyable and, after the exercise, the learners are ready to use the concept in the real world. What else could one ask for. Aww, hell - life is wonderful. (I need a hobby)

Good example of a positive activity with a meaningful context. Making non-educational games more like that is what I intended this thread for.