Why games?

9 reasons for the board-gamification of ELT.

Reusable fun in a box for the cost of a textbook.  Why wouldn’t you?

I have a confession to make: I am an English teacher.  Not the kind of real English teacher who explains things like iambic pentameter and dramatic irony.  I teach English as a Foreign Language (EFL), which in many cases means teaching people how to do practical, every-day things like comparing and contrasting two pictures.

I’ve been teaching English for over 10 years and I’ve always taken a certain amount of pride in my work, especially when it comes to making learning fun.  I try to be creative and come up with new and innovative activities; anything to try and make my students’ classroom experience enjoyable and above all useful.

Then, about six months ago, I discovered The World of Board Games.  Well, I discovered what I thought was a world of board games, but later came to understand that this was far too simplistic a term.  “Table-top games” more neatly encompassed the new breed of card, board, dexterity, tile, app-integrated and social games that I was about to experience.  Not one of them reminded me of Monopoly.

Anyway, I discovered this new world.  It had forums (or, yes, fora if you must), little-known online stores, “The Geek” and something called a math trade.  You see, it turns out that lots of people, normal people, have started to turn their backs on digital media and embrace the entirely analogue experience of sitting down with a bunch of fellow humans to play a game.

Now, I do not consider myself to be an expert on board games – I’m certainly no Tom Vasel or Richard “Rahdo” Hamm – but I do really enjoy games and my experience as an English teacher has helped me see gaming from a different perspective: language.  Almost immediately, I felt that through these games, there was the potential to take language learning somewhere new – or at least new-ish.  I know that language games themselves are nothing revolutionary – teachers use different kinds of games in the classroom all the time – but these new games … well, they are really something else.

The more I looked, I found more and more brave souls (hail BGG brethren and sistren!) who had been having similar ideas and using  board games for language learning.  But what is it that makes these games so effective?  Why should we use them in our classrooms? Well …

  1. They are fun –  game designers try really hard  to ensure that their games are enjoyable to play.  Doing something entertaining in class can be fantastically motivating for learners, especially those who are used to more formal styles of education.  Motivation will keep learners interested, as well as keep them in class and on task.
  2. They are authentic – These games are real.  They contain real English, made for real people.  Their linguistic content is authentic and the activity of sitting playing a game is culturally relevant in today’s world.
  3. They are cognitively engaging – Games require thought, consideration and reflection in order to play them successfully.  Research has long shown the value of task-based learning, critical thinking and problem solving as an aid to language learning and acquisition.  The majority of cooperative puzzle games like Forbidden Desert, Pandemic and Legends of Andor will easily give the old grey matter a run for its money.

    Source: http://www.zmangames.com/store/p25/Pandemic.html (ZMan Games)
    Pandemic (ZMan Games) – a cooperative puzzle to solve. Source: http://www.zmangames.com/store/p25/Pandemic.html (ZMan Games)
  4. V.A.R.K. – As many teachers learn on their initial training courses, there are four primary learning styles: visual. auditory, read-write and kinesthetic.  Board games can appeal to each of these.  Many have stunningly beautiful art direction and images for visual learners, like Deception: Murder in Hong Kong.  Auditory students will gain from the explanation and in-depth discussion that goes on during game-play.  Other games like King of Tokyo and T.I.M.E. Stories are excellent for read-writers, while kinesthetic learners will benefit from the tactile nature of moving components as well as the trial-and-error/problem solving aspects of taking part in board-gaming.

    Deception: Murder in Hong Kong (Grey Fox Games) - an excellent example of a social deduction game. Source: https://boardgamegeek.com/image/2900207/deception-murder-hong-kong (Bojan Brankov)
    Deception: Murder in Hong Kong (Grey Fox Games) – an excellent example of a social deduction game.
    Source: https://boardgamegeek.com/image/2900207/deception-murder-hong-kong (Bojan Brankov)
  5. The Gamification of Everything – Robust academic research on the effects of gamification in ELT (English language teaching) is admittedly still in a very early stage.  Thinking about it though, almost everything else in out lives is becoming more and more gamified, so why not language learning?  Smartphones and fitness bands now track all kinds of different activities, from counting steps and calories to hours asleep.  If apps like Zombies, run! can get people off their sofas and into running shoes, then the right games can surely get people learning, or at least talking!
  6. They create shared context – Many games present a background theme or context.  This can be especially helpful if there is lots of vocabulary or if the game requires players to use specific language functions such as negotiation or speculation.   Pandemic is a great example of this, forcing its players to use various health-related terms as they travel the world, managing outbreaks, treating infections and building research stations in an attempt to cure diseases around the world.
  7. They develop transferable communication skills If you look carefully at the kinds of communication which games require, you can see that playing them can develop lots of genuinely useful real-world skills.  While this is nice for adults, it’s an absolute essential for our younger learners.  Cooperative games like  Pandemic force players to work in a team, while games such as Snake Oil, Apples to Apples and FunEmployed require players to be able to make a convincing pitch.  Need to practice negotiation skills?  Look no further than the wheeling-dealing Sheriff of Nottingham.
    Sheriff of Nottingham (Arcane Wonders) - What's in the box? Source: https://boardgamegeek.com/image/2431484/sheriff-nottingham?size=original (Nuno Silva)
    Sheriff of Nottingham (Arcane Wonders) – What’s in the box?
    Source: https://boardgamegeek.com/image/2431484/sheriff-nottingham?size=original (Nuno Silva)


  8. Most students are goal-oriented –  Most teachers will tell you that in the course of a typical English lesson, the majority of students tend to complete tasks as quickly as possible.  If it’s a speaking task, this usually results in opportunities for further discussion not being fully exploited. While this can be frustrating for a teacher, in this results-driven, deadline-obsessed world we live, who can blame learners for bringing this mindset to the classroom?  Games allow this drive to be channeled into  the completion of the game, harnessing this tendency, not railing against it.
  9. They are restrictive (but in a good way) – Many communicative language practice tasks are cleverly structured to encourage various structures to be practiced in relatively meaningful contexts.  Whether these tasks are successful or not though,  often relies on the learners being self-disciplined enough to force themselves ‘out of their comfort zone’ and use this new and unfamiliar language.  In my observations, as well as those of many colleagues, some learners are more successful at this than others.  This seems to be bigger issue at more advanced levels, where learners are already extremely effective communicators. They tend to follow the path of least resistance in order to find ways to get around the gaps in their knowledge. In games, the new language is an part of the game-play.  It’s actually impossible to play a social  deduction game like Deception: Murder in Hong Kong and not do any speculation.

So, what do you do if you are thinking of taking a game into class?  Well, there are some important things to consider first.  What kind of game do you want to use?  There are games for solving puzzles, exploring imaginative environments, making deals, solving crimes and all manner of interesting themes. Many titles are widely accessible and they can benefit learning both inside the classroom and out.  If you are a learner, your language skills are definitely going to improve if you are playing games in English.

However, like many things in life, not all games are created equal. There are also many titles which involve little, if any, communication – you know, the ones where you sit silently plotting the violent downfall of a beloved relative.  Don’t get me wrong, I own plenty of games like this, but I’d need to have a really good reason to take one into class.  One of the greatest obstacles a teacher will face is that there will be students who see playing a game as a waste of time.  In some cases they may be right!  If I were preparing for an important exam and feeling unprepared, then I would also feel pretty skeptical about the value of spending half-an-hour playing Scrabble.  This is why it is important to have a very clear purpose about exactly what a game is being used for.  It’s also crucial to share these aims with the students and provide them with carefully thought-out materials that can further focus them on these language areas.

I use a lot of different games as practice activities.  Sometimes these are grammar points and other times language functions.  Some games – admittedly a minority – can be used “straight out of the box”, but most of them need a bit of tweaking or some extra materials to wring the very best out of them.

That’s what I want to share in my blog.  You can find out a bit about a game and what areas of language it’s good for practicing.  It is a place where both teachers and learners can share ideas and materials so that, if you have a copy, you can give it a try – either in class or over a relaxing drink with friends.  For teachers, I’ll also be posting a bunch of other activities which I come across, and I hope these will prove useful too.

For most schools and individuals, games can often present a significant financial outlay.  To all language school managers and heads of departments I say this:  invest in at least some of these games featured on TEFLGamer (check out this list for some solid examples).  With the majority of these games, it’s possible to adapt them in such a way that one set is enough for a class of 12 students.  The production quality ensures they will see (and survive) lots of use, the students will benefit from it, and the teachers will thank you for it.  To learners of English I say: give it a go!  Try some of these games with English-speaking friends.  If you don’t like it, you can always math-trade it for something else.

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Board games for learning and practising English – #EFL #ESOL #ESL #EAL