Games for learning, not just fun

Q. When I teach primary school children, they are always asking for games. I am happy to play games, but I wonder how often I should play them, for how long and what I am supposed to accomplish by playing them. Also, how can I get them to play games and not speak Japanese?

A. First of all, I do not recommend playing games on demand. The teacher is in charge of the lesson structure, not the students; games should be an integral part of a planned lesson, not a response to a request. When I do teacher-training seminars, I always suggest teachers introduce a game the last five to 10 minutes of class, sort of like dessert after a nourishing dinner.

Playing a game in English is a stimulating activity whereby students are prompted to put away their books, notebooks, dictionaries and pencils. In order to succeed, they have to dive into English and focus on the challenges at hand using such skills as listening, guessing, being imaginative, speaking without hesitation and taking risks to reach their goal of winning. Games also foster cooperation by requiring students to wait for their turns, to give others chances and to respect everyone’s effort.

The five reasons to play games in the EFL (English as a foreign language) classroom are:

  • To teach new vocabulary.
  • To teach new expressions.
  • To foster students thinking in English.
  • To give students a vehicle to interact with each other in English.
  • To demonstrate good manners and sportsmanship

If your students can do the above five components, then the playing of games is a success in your class.

If they cannot because they are chattering in Japanese, then they are clearly having fun, but the activity fails as an English teaching tool. At our school, the first person to speak Japanese during game play loses his or her turn. This sends a strategic signal to all players that Japanese does not belong in the English game zone. In the long run, we all feel so good playing the game and even making jokes with each other in English. Everyone always walks out at the end of class with a touch of pride and a well-earned smile.