In modern English classrooms all over the world, games are used to introduce new topics, grammar structures, language functions and English vocabulary or reinforce the learners’ previous knowledge in a rather “informal” way which encourages them to express themselves with spontaneity, creativity and enthusiasm.
In his book entitled “Teaching by Principles”, H. Douglas Brown defines a game as “an activity that formalizes a technique into units that can be scored in some way” , the author giving an extended description of the steps which need to be taken in order to perform these kinds of activities. According to the author, there are 8 rules for introducing a group activity such as a game:
1. The introduction of the technique which includes the purpose/objective of the activity;
2. Justifying the use of small groups instead of the whole class for the secure practice of certain language forms or functions;
3. Providing a model especially for new and potentially complex tasks;
4. Giving explicit detailed instructions: rephrasing the purpose if necessary, reminding the dos and don’ts, establishing the time frame, assigning the roles;
5. Dividing the class into groups with or without pre-assigned groups according to proficiency levels, age, personality types, interests, target language goals etc;
6. Checking for clarification and making sure that one or two students are able to restate the purpose of the activity instead of asking the whole class whether they have understood it or not;
7. Setting the task in motion;
8. Monitoring the task and adopting different roles: Facilitator, Resource etc.
With the help of this type of practice, the English teacher creates language circumstances and events in which knowledge is applied, dialogues are performed, problems are solved and topics are discussed even if, at first, what really matters is that a competition will eventually be won and some players’ confidence and self-esteem will boost, thus motivating their learning.
More and more teachers of English are adopting these activity types as they allow their students to work in pairs, groups or teams and share their knowledge and skills in a way which puts their social, cognitive and communicative potential to the best use. The teacher may decide about the best ways to divide the class, but students may be allowed to choose their pairs, groups or teams from time to time. For instance, students can be divided according to the things they have in common, but also by arbitrary means such as counting off in “ones”, “twos” or “threes” or simply matching two halves of a paper, a word, a proverb etc. Moreover, the teacher is also the one who generally chooses the activity types which meet the interests and preferences of the class, estimates the time and needs for other resources and, if necessary, prepares the materials necessary for the activity.
Undoubtedly, games do bring visible language benefits and interaction. They are the “trick or treat” method we use in order to engage our students into real communication even if some of their perceptions may be that we are there for their entertainment only . But what both teachers and students should keep in mind is that a classroom game has clear educational objectives and fixed rules.
My experience has shown me that the presence of rules is vital for both cooperative and competitive games and that the teacher must do his or her best to enforce them as fair-play and willingness to involve are related to following the rules of the game. Nobody can deny the behaviour implications and the emotional risks of organizing or taking part in a (competitive) game. They explain – at least partially – why some English teachers are still afraid of using them even though they are more than aware of their usefulness and attractivity.
Carol Read discusses the advantages of games in her book “500 Activities for the Primary Classroom”, the author giving an elaborate list of reasons why using games for teaching English is the most natural choice, especially with young children: “As well as developing language skills, games and directed play help to develop young children’s social skills, such as showing willingness to cooperate and take turns, listening to others and learning to follow and respect the rules of a game.” The same author is aware of the holistic role of communicative games in both education and self-development terms: “In games which involve actions or movement, they also help to develop physical coordination and psychomotor skills, while other games develop skills such as children’s visual-spatial awareness, creative thinking or numeracy.”
With young learners the teacher needs to lead and control the activities, to demonstrate the tasks and explain them again, especially when introducing a new game. Training learners to use games should be a gradual process starting from simple picture card games, guessing games, mime and drama games, spelling games, word games and ending with pair, group or team games.
Last but not least, we should all pay attention to the selection we make and sometimes change some aspects of a given game or activity, adapt them, in an attempt to make them more suitable for the students’ interests and needs and more useful for our teaching and their learning. What is more, I believe that if the teacher is “away”, the students will “play” so I always take my class management responsibilities very seriously and I have noticed I am able to handle the most “risky” situations with a smile on my face.
Another important rule of the teaching with games approach is for the teacher to play the right role at the right time. During a simple activity like a communicative game, for example, a teacher should know precisely if or when he or she needs to be a Coordinator, a Facilitator or a Partner, a Moderator, a Collaborator, a Demonstrator, a Participant, a Motivator, a Coach, a Monitor or an Evaluator. In the end, I have chosen one last quote from Diane Ackerman to illustrate my strong belief in the benefits of using games in the classroom: “Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.”
Brown, H. Douglas, Teaching by Principles: An Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy, Prentice Hall Regents, 1994
Read, Carol, 500 Activities for the Primary Classroom, Macmillan Education, 2007