10 things in ELT which board games do best

If you end up teaching a lot of higher-level classes like me, then it can be a challenge to find interesting, useful and motivating activities for your students.  My learners had already done most of the excellent, tailor-made ELT materials which you can find online and in resource books.  The main problem I had was that most of the advanced language structures I was looking for weren’t covered at all! This is what drove me to start experimenting with using board games in my classroom.

I know a lot of people think that board games are either boring or just lazy teaching, but honestly this just couldn’t be further from the truth.  I have found that there are lots of table-top games that actually provide superior learning opportunities to the vast majority of published materials.

If you don’t believe that table-top games can deliver on this promise, then scroll down and read on.  In no particular order, here are the 10 things in ELT that board games do better than the competition.

1) Vocabulary Practice

If you want to learn new vocabulary, then practice makes perfect.  Staring at lists of words has never been a very effective way of doing this: teachers know it and students know it too.  Pretty much every teacher in the history of ELT has been at least partially inspired by either a table-top game or a TV game-show (turned boardgame!) for practising vocabulary at some point.  Blockbusters, Taboo, Pictionary, Scrabble – all of these were cardboard, until an enterprising TEFLer figured they could commandeer the idea.

Znalezione obrazy dla zapytania blockbusters
Blockbusters – here’s one for all you British readers! Source: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/AsSzXq34ysg/hqdefault.jpg

More recently, game designers have worked really hard to come up with new and interesting ways to make word games, and almost all of them can be successfully adapted to the classroom.  Codenames, is one.  Used straight out of the box, it can test students’ understanding of the many words provided.  But combine it with a regularly maintained vocab box or Quizlet set, and it positively sings!

Whats in the box? Source: http://arstechnica.com/uncategorized/2015/11/ars-cardboard-codenames-the-secret-agent-party-game-youve-been-seeking/
Codenames: Whats in the box?
Source: http://arstechnica.com/uncategorized/2015/11/ars-cardboard-codenames-the-secret-agent-party-game-youve-been-seeking/

Idioms are another thing that can be a bit of a pain to practice in the classroom.  Enter Apples to Apples! If you need to practice adjectives then Apples to Apples works beautifully, fresh out of the box.  Give your advanced students a bunch of body-themed idioms and watch them persuade one-another what is more of “a pain in the neck”, Justin Bieber or Running Out of Toilet Paper.

Other notable mentions: Paperback, Word Domination, Rewordable, Kaleidos, Concept.

2) Practising Relative Clauses

This is such a useful area of grammar and yet teachers seem to really struggle with interesting and creative ways to practise it.  I used to have a lovely activity for relative clauses in which students made an elevator pitch for regular, mundane items like paperclips, doors and forks.  I liked it, because I could see that the students had fun and also used the language.  The problem was that lots of my colleagues started to like it and more and more I was getting students who had already “done” it.  The problem was not in the activity so much, more its lack of range.  There were a limited number of every-day items that the game worked with, so I needed to think further afield.  Although I didn’t know it, Snake Oil was the game that I had long been waiting for.  It offers practically endless variety and puts it in the context of an entertaining speaking game.  You can’t play Snake Oil and not use relative clauses; what better way to practise a useful language point?

Other notable mentions: Balderdash, Taboo, HedBanz, Deck Around, Bad Medicine, Mobscenity, The Big Idea, Great Scott!

3) Collaborative Decision Making

For me, this is such an important skill for two reasons: 1) all the big Cambridge exams like First, Advanced and Proficiency have a collaborative task in which students are graded on their Interactive Communication, and 2) this is one real-world communication skill that people in schools and workplaces need all the time!

The last few years has seen a massive growth in cooperative board games.  In these, players have to work together to manage their resources and coordinate their actions in order to beat the game and not each-other.  Probably the most widely-known of these is Pandemic.

In Pandemic, players cooperate to save humankind from four aggressive and fatal diseases.  They have to work together closely, use their unique abilities and carefully plan their moves if they want to be successful in finding the four cures and winning the game.  There’s bundles of language here too: real conditionals, speculation, agreeing and disagreeing – all of these functions and structures are integral parts of the planning process.

Source: http://www.zmangames.com/store/p25/Pandemic.html (ZMan Games)
Source: http://www.zmangames.com/store/p25/Pandemic.html (ZMan Games)

I’ve found that younger learners really enjoy and benefit from doing these kinds of tasks and playing these kinds of games.  I am constantly surprised at how motivating these games can be for EFL learners.  Try it with them – you will be too!

Other notable mentions: Forbidden Desert, Elder Sign, Dead of Winter, Robinson Crusoe, Betrayal at House on the Hill, Tragedy Looper, Ghost Stories.

4) Narrative Tenses

From time to time, we can get students to write stories.  Sometimes we can ask them to share anecdotes, but both of these activities have their limits.  Generally speaking, students don’t seem to like writing and anecdotes are only really as interesting as the experience that’s being recounted.  This is why the semi-cooperative card game Once Upon a Time made such a splash when it was released in the mid-90’s.  In Once Upon a Time, students work together using wonderfully illustrated cards to create a fairy tale.  It’s competitive though, requires listening skills and a lot of thinking on one’s feet – all the while using past tenses.

Source: https://boardgamegeek.com/image/1494710/once-upon-time-storytelling-card-game (Laszlo Stadler)
Source: https://boardgamegeek.com/image/1494710/once-upon-time-storytelling-card-game (Laszlo Stadler)

Storytelling is also a big part of a lot of another fabulous game, Man Bites Dog.  Interesting stories aren’t just limited to fiction of course.  In most countries, the tabloid press serve up spectacular and fantastic tales on a daily basis.  In Man Bites Dog, students will create hilarious headlines which they are only allowed to score if they can justify them and summarise the story.

Source: https://boardgamegeek.com/image/385652/man-bites-dog (University Games)
Source: https://boardgamegeek.com/image/385652/man-bites-dog (University Games)

There are oodles of other storytelling games out there, with each one getting students to use past tenses to retell a narrative in new and creative ways.

Other notable mentions:  Rory’s Story Cubes, Gloom, Fiasco, Nano Fictionary,

5) Creativity and Divergent Thinking

A wise colleague once said to me that when a student gets to the higher levels of their ESL studies, it stops being about the science of the language and becomes about the art.  This really resonated with me and got me wondering about how much I really stretch my learners and get them to be linguistically creative.  Fortunately, this is also a large element of many table-top games!  Funemployed, for example is an absolute blast.  Players are given a range of random skills and features and have to turn these into attributes which make them the perfect candidate for a particular post.  Not sure how a cape, really bad aim and being sweaty makes you the ideal candidate to be a plumber?  Watch your students work it out and prepare to be impressed by their originality.

Source: https://boardgamegeek.com/image/2311804/funemployed (IronWall/Urban Island Games
Source: https://boardgamegeek.com/image/2311804/funemployed (IronWall/Urban Island Games

Any game that makes players justify and explain their ideas is gold as far as I’m concerned.  This particular gameplay mechanism also has the added benefit of getting students in the habit of producing longer, more grammatically sophisticated utterances.  Who among us doesn’t want our ESL students to do that?

Other notable mentions: Apples to Apples, Snake Oil, Tales of the Arabian Nights, The Big Idea.

6) Speculation and Deduction

Short of showing your students a bunch of weird pictures to be talked about, there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of variety in the tasks that you can get EFL learners to do to practise speculation and deduction. Fortunately, there’s a mass of excellent games that can get your students doing exactly that.  A perfect example of this is Deception: Murder in Hong Kong.  Players have to work together to solve a murder case based on some clues that they are given.  The kicker is that one of the players will be the murderer! In fact there are a total of 5 different roles available, and these are randomly allocated at the outset with each role playing slightly differently.  Thanks to the fantastic materials, all the vocabulary is beautifully shown and contextualised.  Deception is an excellent game that with the right support, really helps students get to grips with the language.

Source: https://boardgamegeek.com/image/2900207/deception-murder-hong-kong (Bojan Brankov)
Source: https://boardgamegeek.com/image/2900207/deception-murder-hong-kong (Bojan Brankov)

There are now a mass of party games called ‘social deduction games’. Almost all of these offer different contexts in which players have to work out their comrades’ secret identities.  You’ll find that quite naturally lots of speculation and deduction will come out of using these types of games.  Plus, they’re often really quick, which makes them nice little warmers and fillers.

Other notable mentions: Spyfall, Mysterium, Tajemnicze Domostwo, Two Rooms and a Boom, Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective.

7) Meaningful Negotiation Practice

Business English and soft skills students often want to develop and practise language of negotiation. Now, this can prove really challenging when there isn’t really anything at stake.  This is where games can are invaluable.  These students do tend to be a little more serious, but a lot of their skills can translate really nicely to most games.  Provided the theme is well-matched to the students, negotiation games add some much needed context and value to proceedings.

Sheriff of Nottingham is one of few games which works just fine straight out of the box.  You will bluff, lie, cheat and trick your way past one-another.  There are very few restrictions on the tools you can negotiate with – it’s all about getting the deal done.  All of the players take turns in being the gate-keeping Sheriff character so the fun keeps going around the table. But then so does the karma!

If the medieval theme is likely to put off more serious-minded players, then a 1950’s style US stock market might be a better fit.  Panic on Wall Street offers a lot of fun and lots of negotiation practice.  This time the focus is on playing the odds and getting a good deal on stocks in the hope that they do well and earn you a fortune.

Panic on Wall Street is one of the most beautifully produced games out there.  It has really well-crafted components that students like the feel of and add to the overall quality of the experience.

Other notable mentions:  Merchants of Araby, I’m the Boss, Chinatown, Lifeboats, Junta.

8) Motivating Readers

Most experienced teachers will tell you that the difference between advanced learners that do well in exams like Cambridge: Advanced or IELTS, and the ones that don’t is READING.  How can reading be turned into a game, you may wonder?  Well games like Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective and Mythos Tales do exactly that.  They provide finely-written, linguistically rich texts that players have to explore, one short extract at a time in order to solve a mystery.  It doesn’t matter if this is a murder in Victorian London, or a Lovecraftian plot to raise an elder god, both of these games create thrilling plots and collaborative gaming experiences, all through the medium of the written word.

If that doesn’t inspire and the text is too lengthy, then what about the revolutionary “decksploration” game T.I.M.E. Stories? Many reviewers (myself included) have been bowled over by the game-play experiences that have come out of playing this game.  The magic happens when individual players are privy to certain information and must report (not read) it back to the rest of the team.  The opportunities for naturally reported speech here are many.  The best thing is that there is a growing library of scenarios, so once you’ve finished one, you can move onto the next!

Other notable mentions: Elder Sign, Assault on Doomrock, King of Tokyo.

9) Pushing Limits

The last two items on this list apply to almost any and all games that you decide to use in class.  Table-top games are authentic materials and as such will present a degree of linguistic challenge for most EFL students.  You can (and should!) support learners as much as is possible, but not to the extent that you are doing some of their thinking for them.

Some games, such as Tajemniczy Domostwo, Dixit and Mysterium feature some truly beautiful abstract art.  You can exploit this in some really creative ways to really push your students into areas that they’ve never explored linguistically before. (see here for an example).

mysterium-vision (Erik Gillespie)
Above: the dream cards from Mysterium / Tajemnicze Domostwo are similar to the cards in Dixit – super psychedelic!

If you want to really put students’ linguistic flexibility through its paces, then look no further than the upcoming Still Alive.  The first of the TEFLGamer Exclusive Print & Play series, Still Alive forces students to combine every day objects to solve survival challenges.  For practising divergent thinking and clauses of purpose, there is no substitute!

Other notable mentions: Dixit, Gloom, The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchhausen. 

10) Peer Teaching and Learner Autonomy

The last point on this list is perhaps the most abstract.  As EFL teachers, we want our learners to become autonomous, ideally to the point that they are fully equipped to go on learning long after they have left our classroom.  By presenting learners with authentic, demanding tasks and offering limited but strategic support, you can encourage them to play the game and do the best they can with their own wits and strategies.  The most natural thing when you need help in a game is to ask a fellow player for advice.  This is exactly the kind of openly supportive classroom environment that I want to cultivate in my classes through peer teaching.  If EFL students behave this way when playing games, then they’ll keep these habits during regular study.

Final thoughts …

Now, nobody is suggesting that you can just go down to the shops, buy one of these great games and serve it to your students.  Most learners are going to need help to understand the game and some of the more challenging language it contains.  Fortunately, your friends here at TEFLGamer.com have already done all the heavy lifting for you!  On our blog. you can find glossaries and language scaffolding for all the games that get reviewed.  Can’t find it here, then get in touch!

If you have any suggestions or ideas about using a game in the classroom, why not let us know?  We look forward to hearing your ideas, either on the comments section, or on our Facebook page.

Get gaming!












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