Number one for English language teachers

Playschool for grown-ups? Changing the rules of the game in language teaching

Type: Article, Teaching notes

Daniel Monaghon asks whether game-playing has a legitimate place in the ELT classroom.

Teachers sometimes have doubts about using games in lessons. The TEFL world traditionally emphasizes student enjoyment, and so most of the time they may be able to put these doubts aside, reassured that by using games they are in step with a majority of their colleagues. If, however, they start to teach a course in a more formal context than normal, these nagging worries may return and whisper to them that 'playing games' is no longer appropriate. Perhaps part of the problem is that TEFL materials generally give quite a narrow view of a 'language game'. Expanding this concept could give new ideas for serious and enjoyable learning. This article begins by looking at the nature and status of traditional language games and then goes on to describe an alternative perspective. I conclude by looking at three examples of activities for different types of students within this alternative viewpoint.

People often think of a 'language game' as an activity where students use language to achieve a goal (usually by exchanging some kind of information), according to clear rules, in an enjoyably competitive environment. A classic example would be 'Back to the board', where players have to identify unseen words on the board against the clock by using clues from their team-mates. It seems clear that this type of language game has a widely accepted place in TEFL methodology. When the BBC/British Council 'Teaching English' website asked visitors to the site to respond to the statement 'You shouldn't use games with adult learners', 83% of respondents disagreed. [1] Many people posted comments indicating that teachers should see games as a legitimate use of classroom time and a useful motivational tool, offering valuable language practice. There is now also a plentiful supply of published materials featuring a wide variety of language games. Some of these start with the games themselves rather than the arguments that support their use. It seems therefore that games are now so well accepted that some writers feel confident they can pass over the Why? and concentrate on the How?

I want to suggest that it is much less clear to what extent language games have a fully respected place in TEFL methodology. This seems to be because of the emotional response that the idea of 'playing' in a lesson creates. Many of the words we commonly associate with 'games' are slightly unusual because they tend to carry a highly positive charge in some situations, but an equally negative one in others. As a result, teachers frequently consider games appropriate in some teaching contexts but not in others, and this is despite the fact that the underlying rationale for their use is unaffected.

Supporters of language games have presented various arguments in their favour. These typically include the suggestions that games can:

  1. Reduce student stress and so make students more receptive to learning.
  2. Offer demanding and thorough language practice.
  3. Provide a context for genuine, purposeful communication.
  4. Allow teachers an opportunity to analyze students' areas of weakness or difficulty. [2]

These are all highly valid points, but we could use them for many activities that have little or nothing to do with games, and so they cannot be a complete justification for games as such. The answer seems to lie in the simple phrase: games are fun. Fun gives games the magical quality that can make them irresistible to teachers trying to engage a class. Fun can transform a (mundane?) task or drill into a rewarding game. It seems logical to suggest that an activity which is fun is going to be motivating. This is probably the argument that justifies the use of games for many people.

'Fun' however is at the heart of a widespread and deep-rooted cultural ambivalence towards games. At first, as I have suggested above, it appears to be a highly positive word - it is, after all, a synonym of 'enjoyable' and an antonym of 'boring'. Dig a little deeper however, and some rather less appealing associations come to mind: it is a synonym of 'frivolous' and an antonym of 'serious'. If you do something 'just for fun' because 'it is only a game', you are unlikely to be taken seriously. Fun is like watching reality television or reading your horoscope - you may enjoy doing it, but you might feel that you need to keep a little intellectual distance from it (especially if you are in a situation where your status could be under threat): 'I just happened to be watching Big Brother last night...'

Some teachers are open about their doubts. In a recent Guardian article, one writer argued that fun can be a trap for inexperienced teachers, because they might assume that students who are 'having fun' are automatically learning. [3] Others worry that it may be hard for some activities to compete with the glittery attractions of games. If we use games, we may send the implicit message that most learning is boring, because we need games to make it interesting. Such a message could ultimately undermine the entire learning process. [4]

The effect of these ambivalent feelings towards fun is that teachers often consider games appropriate for children and teenagers, or on short summer courses which combine study with a holiday. Here the positive associations of games are foremost in people's minds. Where a course has a more formal title, the negative associations become too strong and the use of games diminishes. Alternatively, teachers engage in verbal gymnastics to try to keep the enjoyment of games while ditching their perceived frivolity. This often involves re-branding games as (competitive) activities, perhaps because 'activity' sounds more professional than 'game'. For example, Penny Ur has used the expression 'GLALL' (a Game-Like Activity for Language Learning), which she argues differs from a game because it is not merely for fun, but serves a utilitarian purpose. [4] The final result is that games are widely and enthusiastically used, but they never quite manage to gain academic credibility - the underlying associations are just too strong. Perhaps the simplest solution to this tension is to be clear why you are using a game. If you can think of ways in which it should help the learning process, then it is probably worth using. Furthermore, it is almost certainly worth sharing your viewpoint with your students. If you think games have value, tell your students why, but never let your students think that only games can make learning rewarding and enjoyable.

There is another type of language game however. Rather than playing by using language, it involves playing with language itself. Rather than trying to transmit information, it involves trying to demonstrate creativity and provoke a response. This view of playing with language is explored in the book 'Language Play, Language Learning' by Guy Cook. [5] He argues that native speakers (both children and adults) play with language in a wide range of situations - when they tell a joke, make a pun, write a poem or do a cryptic crossword for example. He shows that when people play in this way, they experiment with the form of language (e.g. when creating plausible new words), its sound (e.g. when using rhyme or rhythm), its meaning (e.g. when exploiting multiple meanings in different contexts) and its pragmatic force (how it is likely to affect the listener). They also play by using language to express their imagination; they create events, people and places with words.

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, 'The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean; not to affect your reader, but to affect him precisely as you wish.' In fact, that is not just the difficulty of writing literature, but also the difficulty of using language. To be successful, users need a high mastery and appreciation of all the aspects of language mentioned above. This is as true for second language learners (and perhaps especially for those learners who are going to be using language in more formal contexts) as it is for anyone else. Language play develops users' skills in all these areas and the apparent 'frivolity' of some of its forms is in fact a vital element in allowing users to take risks, to adapt and to experiment. Language teachers already use activities that practise these skills. The beauty of language play is that it can involve a mixture of them at once, as well as allowing a teacher to focus on any one of them.

'Language Play, Language Learning' is an argument for allowing language play to influence the language classroom. The writer does not mean that teachers should be using endless games to teach, but he does mean that perhaps they should be exploiting these alternative views of language play for the serious purpose of learning, just as tabloid headline writers, advertising copywriters and politicians (to name but a few) exploit our appreciation of 'frivolous' language play with serious intent. Guy Cook is a professor of linguistics and so his book is academic in nature. In the final section, I try to give some examples of language games that involve playing with language within my interpretation of Professor Cook's book.

Anchor Point:1Example 1: Vocabulary Activity - Similes using the structure 'As... as...' (Intermediate level. Young adults/adults)

There are a wide number of similes in English that follow the above pattern, e.g. 'As good as gold', 'As quiet as a mouse', 'As happy as Larry'. It is possible simply to teach students some of these standard forms, but many of them now sound clichéd and it is perhaps more interesting to see what alternatives the students can invent. It may also be more motivating for them, because they can create forms that are relevant to their lives (e.g. I am not sure how many students really appreciate 'as boring as a wet weekend in Wigan'). It is also interesting to allow them to try to create new similes for adjectives where no recognized simile exists.

Outline Procedure: Give the students some examples of the simile pattern and show how they rely on alliteration, imagery or cultural reference to create their full effect. Explain that although there are many fixed expressions in this pattern, new forms are also being invented all the time. Some of these will go on to become new fixed expressions. Tell the students that they are going to have the chance to create some of these new expressions. Give the students a list of adjectives and ask them to create their own similes. The students can compare their answers in small groups, choosing the best alternatives before reporting back to the whole class. If you want to add an element of competition, you can get the students to vote on the most expressive or original answers. The students can then compare their answers to any standard forms that exist (this is useful passive knowledge and can help to highlight interesting cultural similarities/differences). This activity works well when it follows a reading lesson based around poetry.

Anchor Point:2Example 2: Project Work - Advertising Slogans (Advanced level. Young adults/adults)

Advertising slogans are everywhere. They are also among the most memorable pieces of language in existence. The website contains a vast number of examples and includes a section for students and educators. This contains a subsection on the 'Art and Science of the Advertising Slogan', which gives a step-by-step guide to all the things a slogan should and should not do. It also highlights current trends in advertising and gives the most popular words used in slogans. It can be used to set some project/self-study work for advanced learners. It is of course particularly suitable for learners with an interest in marketing or sales.

Outline Procedure: Give the students an advert from a newspaper or magazine that includes a well-known slogan. Get the students to discuss how the slogan reinforces the overall marketing and placement of the company. Give the students some products to market (obvious examples would be the school where you are working, or a textbook or dictionary that you use) and explain that their task is to think of a slogan for the product and an image/short text to go with the slogan. Direct them to the website and show them how they can use it to gain ideas for their campaign. The activity can be made more challenging by getting the students to role-play the part of advertising executives who must then present this campaign to their clients (you/the rest of the class). They should explain how they developed their ideas. This lesson follows neatly on from a lesson available on, which introduces students to the area of brands and provides some useful vocabulary. [6]

Anchor Point:3Example 3: Writing Activity - Alternative Realities (Elementary level and above. Young learners.)

It is well known that children learn quickly and forget quickly, and so lessons for young learners often feature a high level of drilling and repetition. However, lessons cannot simply consist of drills, and it is important to give children the chance to use language more freely and creatively. The problem is that some writing activities can be a little dull. A typical example is a sequence of activities to teach animal descriptions ('It's got four legs and a long neck etc'), ending with a writing task which asks the children to describe a particular animal (e.g. a giraffe). There is nothing wrong with this, but as an exercise it has very little communicative value, because everyone involved already knows what a giraffe looks like. Maybe it is more interesting for children to write a description of an imaginary animal. This also sets up a genuine communicative gap, because no one knows what animal the child might create.

Outline Procedure: Use your course book/own materials to introduce and practice the relevant structures. Then explain that the children are all explorers in the jungle who have each found a marvelous new animal (this often links quite well with story-based textbooks that involve children having a series of highly implausible adventures). They are going to describe (and draw?) the animal they have discovered. The simplest way to explain all this is to provide your own example ('Where am I?' 'In the jungle.' 'I can see an animal. It's a very strange animal... etc). If you cannot draw, so much the better, because anything the children produce will be better than your picture. Allow the children sufficient time to think of a fantastic animal and describe it. (Watch in amazement as a lot of the girls produce painfully neat drawings of cuddly animals that you wish really did exist, and a lot of the boys produce scrawled sketches of monsters that should be in a horror film.....) If you like, you can also ask the children to name their animals (opportunities for more language play here). This type of 'imaginary world' approach can be used with many structures.

Throughout his book, Guy Cook highlights a number of contradictions that are implicit in games: they can be both competitive and collaborative; stress-busting and tension-creating; we play them in our free-time according to complex rules. Perhaps for teachers the main contradiction is that we use them a lot, but truly value them much less. Are we ready to have some serious fun?

Anchor Point:4Bibliography

[2] e.g. Hadfield, J. (1990) Intermediate Communication Games. Walton-on-Thames. Nelson. This book expresses views similar to these in its introduction.
[3] Senior, R. (May 2006) Don't Play Communication for Laughs. Guardian Unlimited. Available online at,,1783764,00.html
[4] Ur, P. (March 1986) How is a Game like a GLALL. Practical English Teaching. Available online at
[5] Cook, G. (2000) Language Play, Language Learning. Oxford. OUP
[6] Available online at

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