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Games or purposeful tasks?



Game

  1. a form of competitive activity or sport played according to rules.
    synonyms: match · contest · tournament · meeting · sports meeting · meet · event · 
  2. an activity that one engages in for amusement:
    "a computer game"
    synonyms: pastime · diversion · entertainment · amusement · distraction 
  3. a complete episode or period of play, ending in a final result:
    "a baseball game"
  4. a type of activity or business regarded as a game:
    "he was in the restaurant game for the glamour"


There’s a good deal of debate around the value of games in the languages classroom. Inexperienced trainees I meet are often strongly encouraged to use games, while others feel "gamification" may devalue the subject and contribute too little to learning. I wonder how you see the role of games...

My own feeling on this is if a game is a purposeful task which enhances learning at least as well as any other, then why not use it to provide an enjoyable and memorable lesson? Take the common whole class game Simon Says. Is there a better way to present and practise parts of the body in a memorable, enjoyable way? How about bingo and variations thereof - surely an obvious way to get students to hear numbers out of order while doing an authentic activity. What about a pairwork Battleships game to build skill with verb conjugation - not much to criticise with that.

Other classic games may be more questionable. Does Hangman generate much learning? Do single word games such as pelmanism (i.e. find the pairs card games) or game-like apps such as Memrise embed vocabulary as well as using words and chunks in meaningful contexts? Is playing Dominoes the best way to help acquire vocabulary or is it for keeping the class busy and quiet? It’s always worth asking yourself these questions when planning lessons.

But in any case you don’t have to play games to be an effective teacher and pupils shouldn’t come along expecting to play a game. Game playing can generate poor behaviour and inattention too, so it won’t be for every class or every teacher. A game may be best used as a reward for good work over a number of lessons.

One major benefit of playing a game is that students get to perform a task with a purpose. This creates a need to communicate, there is a focus on meaning and pupils are likely to want to take part. Games therefore fit well with the task-based paradigm of language teaching: get students to do meaningful tasks which require input and maybe output and acquisition should ensue!

One of my favourites Alibi (the one where two students leave the room to prepare an alibi for an imagined crime then come in one by on to be interrogated by the class), is a super way to practise listening and oral skills, while allowing students to here the perfect and imperfect tenses modelled repeatedly. Another similar game "How well do you know your bestie?" works along the same lines. In this case each partner is interrogated about their friends likes, dislikes, habits and so on.

I can see a case for making games an occasional activity, one which offers an element of surprise and special occasion. In this way they may be valued more highly in a context where students see “serious work” as the norm. There is a risk that some pupils will see languages as frivolous, less serious than other subjects on the curriculum. This works both ways, of course. Students sometimes say they enjoy language lessons because they are different to their other classes and more fun. If the game is used sparingly it may be more memorable to students afterwards. They may even go home and tell their parent(s) "We did this amazing activity in French today!"

The element of competition when game playing can certainly produce more commitment to a task. Some claim that this is particularly effective with boys. Maybe. All sorts of purposeful games can involve a competitive element. Indeed, simply introducing competition to a regular classroom task turns it into a game. If you you get a class to do a "running dictation" activity, simply by saying that the first pair to present a perfect version turns the task into a competitive game. Pupils work faster and with greater enthusiasm. When setting up a pair work task, e.g. "things I did last weekend", if you tell them the the first individual who cannot say something is the loser you will find that students keep talking for much longer and achieve more.

Listening can be easy to gamify in a useful way. Spot my lies is an easy listening task to set up. let's assume you have been practising the perfect (preterite) tense. Tell the class you are going to describe what you did during your holidays but that your account will contain three incorrect facts. You can make these as subtle or obvious as you want, depending on your class's abilities or sense of humour. A useful "micro-listening" task would be to talk to the class and tell them that every time they hear a certain word, sound or intonation pattern that they must, say, stand up, raise their hand or something similar.

In conclusion, I have often observed that younger teachers especially are often concerned about making lessons “fun”. Without wishing to sound too died-in-the-wool, I might suggest that the aim of lesson planning should be to engender enjoyment through study and interesting activity pitched at the just the right level. This may be more beneficial than aiming for fun. Fun may emerge from all sorts of lessons, game-based or not. If you’re battling with a reluctant or disruptive class, playing a game may be the worst thing to do.




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