How I’ve Changed My Mind About Games in the Classoom

When I was a traditional teacher, I absolutely HATED playing games in the classroom, for a few reasons. First of all, I spent the majority of time speaking in English when the primary goal of my classroom should have been to speak in the target language (TL), which in my case was either French or Spanish. Second, they were pretty boring. Usually it was a “Jeopardy” style game, which was basically question and answer. Sometimes I could spice it up with electronic buzzers or a bit of movement, but the novelty wore thin pretty quickly. Third, no matter how I tried to even the playing field, our games were almost always rigged. Everybody knew that the students who were going to win the games were the kids who knew the most, so the weaker students tended to tune out while the stronger students answered all the questions. And lastly, I felt that playing a game for an entire class period was a cop-out lesson plan. It was something to do when I didn’t feel like having a “real” class, and I wasn’t convinced that my students were getting anything out of the games themselves.

Now that I have started teaching with comprehensible input (CI), I have incorporated games back into my classroom. Just so you know, none of these is my original creation. Most of these games I learned about from TPRS blogs, and I have included a link to the original blog post where I learned about the game if you want more information about it, want to know who created the game, or want to see what else those people have on their blogs.

In no particular order, here are some of the games I have tried this year that worked really well for me.

1. Six! In this game, students are divided into groups of three or four (if some groups have three and some have four, that’s fine). Each group is given a pen, a six-sided die, and a sheet of sentences in the TL. It is very important that the sentences on the paper be something familiar to the student, such as sentences based on a recent Movie Talk, a class story, or a chapter of a novel that the class has read recently. The first student rolls the die as many times as needed until a six is rolled. Then the student yells “Six!” in the TL, grabs the pen and paper and begins writing out sentence translations in English. While Student 1 is busy translating, Student 2 grabs the die and starts rolling it in hopes of getting a six. Once a six is rolled, Student 2 yells “Six!” in the TL, takes the pen and paper from Student 1, and begins translating. Then Student 3 grabs the die and the process continues until time is called. Be warned that this game can get loud.  Depending on the number and complexity of sentences, it usually takes about 15-20 minutes to complete a majority of the sentences. Once time is called the class quickly reviews answers and counts points.

How This Game Levels the Playing Field: Rolling the die provides an element of chance. A student could be the smartest person in class but may have to roll the die multiple times before getting a six.  And then after finally getting a six, a student may not even get a chance to write anything if the next student gets a six on the first roll. I  only assign a point to the student who finishes a sentence. One student may translate almost an entire sentence but lose the opportunity to finish it if the next student rolls a six, but that is just bad luck. And lastly, I assign multiple winners. Each group has an individual winner, the person who translates the most sentences in the group, and the class winner is the group that translates the most sentences overall.

2. Scrambled Eggs. This game requires pairs (an extra person can be a monitor to make sure each pair stays honest or can be in charge of the eggs). I type up ten sentences in the TL based on a story or Movie Talk we have done recently and cut them up into individual strips. I place the strips in plastic Easter eggs, one per egg, and then I put the eggs in an Easter basket in the center of the room. Each pair has a “runner” and a “writer.” The runner goes up to the basket, picks an egg, and brings the egg back to his or her partner. The runner opens the egg (but not until s/he has brought the egg back to the writer), dictates the sentence to the writer, but DOES NOT show the paper to the writer. Then the runner returns the egg to the basket, takes another egg, returns to the writer, and repeats the process. After the runner does this five times, the runner and writer switch roles. After each pair has all ten sentences, they need to put them in chronological order based on how they appeared in the story or video. The first group to complete this wins.

How This Game Levels the Playing Field: I use a dozen plastic eggs but only have ten sentence strips. Two eggs contain blank strips, so a runner may lose valuable time going back to his/her partner only to find that s/he has no sentence to share. And my plastic eggs are the same color, which means the runner may grab eggs with sentences that the pair has already written down. Also, while I don’t allow the runner to show the sentence to the writer, I do allow the runner to spell words to the writer when needed.

A variation of this game is Running Dictation. In this game instead of putting the sentence strips in eggs, they are posted all around the classroom or, even better, in various locations around the school. Students have to run around looking for those ten sentences. One major difference in this case is that the runners can’t bring the sentence back to their partner and instead must try to memorize it.

3. The Unfair Game.I prepare a PowerPoint with a series of multiple choice questions (around 30) based on something we have read or seen recently. Then I divide the class into two teams. Each team takes turns answering questions, but only one person on the team may answer on behalf of the team. If a team member gets a question right, s/he must pick a card revealing how many points that answer is worth. The point values are both positive and negative and include half points. The team goal is to have the lowest POSITIVE score possible. If a team gets the answer wrong, the other team may answer. If a team member gets a question right, s/he must pick a card revealing how many points that answer is worth, but then gets to decide whether to keep the points or give them to the other team.

How I Level the Playing Field: The arbitrary nature of the points takes care of this.

4. The Fork Game. I prepare a series of statements, some true and some false, about a story we have read or a Movie Talk we have completed recently. Students sit at desks in pairs, facing each other with a fork between them, in two rows. The students sitting in the outside row form a team and those in the inside row form a second team. I read out the sentences one by one (or have a student read them if I have an extra). If the sentence is true, each pair competes against each other to grab the fork first, raise it in the air, and say “Fork!” in the TL. The quicker student earns a point for his/her team. If the sentence is false but a student grabs the fork, raises it in the air, and says “Fork!” in the TL, I award two points to the other team.

How This Game Levels the Playing Field: Sometimes getting the correct answer is just a matter of being quicker and not knowing more, which makes things more equitable. In addition, I sometimes have students switch seats so they face off with different people.

5. Flyswatter. Traditional teachers, myself included when I taught this way, use this game as a vocabulary review. The teacher writes vocabulary words on the board and calls out vocabulary words in English. Two students with flyswatters must find the word in the TL and be the first one to hit the word with a flyswatter. Turning this into a CI game does not require much work. I prepare a PowerPoint with images from a reading or video we have recently been discussing, usually four, and I say a sentence describing one of the pictures. The two students with the flyswatters must find the correct image and be the first one to hit the image with the flyswatter.

How This Game Levels the Playing Field: Sometimes getting the correct answer is , once again, just a matter of being quicker and not knowing more. I also only ever play best of three or five.

Guys, you are going to notice that the common element to all these games is that each game is based on a text that students have ALREADY SEEN. By the time I get around to playing each game, the text I’m using to play each game is one that my students have seen in one form or another multiple times. And I no longer feel that playing a game is a cop-out lesson, because what I am doing is an activity that continues to provide comprehensible input to my students. And most of the time my students are so excited to be playing a game that they don’t even realize that I am sneaking more comprehensible input into my class, which, as I’ve said many times, is the best way to help my students acquire language.

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