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Making a Game Plan Work

Regina Szuszkiewicz explains how well-chosen and wisely used games can play a significant role in second language acquisition

Nowadays, anyone having anything to do with second language (SL) acquisition would likely agree that games support SL education. Plenty of research has proven that a relaxing atmosphere and released tension improve the effectiveness of teaching. Creating a friendly and often funny atmosphere, games enable students to memorize words and grammatical structures. Fun, moving, and visual materials stimulate the brain, boost motivation and engagement, and open students’ minds. Engagement triggers positive attitudes and feelings, which help both teaching and learning.

Even though the above-mentioned arguments are undeniable, other factors affect whether or not language games bring about the expected educational results. In order to make language games effective in the classroom, not only should teachers be aware of these factors, but they should also be able to adjust their teaching techniques correspondingly. This is because, even though games can improve students’ language acquisition amazingly, they can also bring about rather opposite effects, like confusion, frustration, and disgruntlement in the classroom. The teacher’s efforts then become then useless and ineffective, doing more harm than good, so we need to establish what factors play a meaningful role in the whole context of gamification in SL teaching and learning, and what evokes positive emotions in the classroom and boosts language acquisition while entertaining students.

Over the last few years, there has been a heated discussion about introducing gamification into education and its impact on students’ performance. Some people confuse teaching through games for gamification so let’s clarify what gamification actually means. It is the deployment of digital game rules in other areas of life, such as work or education. Gaining points, reaching levels, and anticipating rewards are the main and typical elements of gamification. Even though gaining points and competing with others may enhance engagement in the classroom, players who lose themselves in getting points and reaching a certain level stop paying attention to the path that leads to the prize. Instead, they focus on the aim of the game itself and forget the reason the game was introduced in the classroom. This is the reason why when incorporating educational games, we should remember the language objective and the results we want our students to achieve. Games shouldn’t be too competitive as strict game mechanics may actually block some students, while other students may become too competitive to give others a chance. Games become a useful motivational and educational tool only when they support and encourage engagement and interpersonal cooperation, while providing language development that leads to the expected results. When implementing gaming mechanics in the classroom, teachers should adjust and alter them to their students’ specific needs and characters.

Language objectives
“Games provide one way of helping the learners to experience language rather than merely study it.” (Wright et al., 2006: 2) Having only a few English lessons per week in the curriculum and dealing with an overloaded program, teachers often lack the time to incorporate games into the classroom just for entertainment. However, since games can provide meaningful practice and a quite realistic context for using a second language, they should not be merely treated as a way of passing the time. To be effective, they should focus on language learning and teaching, and should be related to the curriculum. Games can be used for various language teaching purposes: from learning vocabulary, through practicing grammar in various contexts, to using more sophisticated language. The entertainment factor is particularly helpful in enabling students to succeed on challenging tasks, like memorizing difficult vocabulary, overcoming speaking anxiety, and correcting repetitive mistakes.

Experienced teachers can predict the problems with which their students are likely to struggle, so it is up to the teacher to choose which game to use in a particular situation, bearing in mind the teaching goal and meaningful input.

Simple rules
For a game to improve SL learning, the students playing it should have fun and enjoy the activity. Otherwise, not only will it not improve their education, but it can even degrade their development. The games’ rules will strongly affect the final educational result. Before choosing a game, the teacher should read the rules and, when necessary, explain these in the simplest possible way to the students. Grabbing the game without knowing the rules might result in impatient students waiting until the teacher figures them out. Trying to use a game to teach language to students who are irritated—or frustrated, or amused—because they have no idea how to play it is a bad educational idea. Therefore, language games in the classroom should have rules that are simple enough for a teacher to explain quickly. Once they understand the rules, students can focus on learning and performance. The teacher must ensure that all the players agree on the rules and accept them. Otherwise the game will lead to conflicts and provide little actual support to students’ knowledge.

Shyer and weaker students should have the possibility to win
As already mentioned, game rules are crucial, for various reasons. Imagine a game in which students with less knowledge of the language are unlikely to win against those who know the language much better. It will discourage the weaker students, who might never want to play it again. Language games should aim to lower anxiety and to encourage shyer or weaker learners to take part in the lesson, not vice versa.

Therefore, when coming across a game that matches the curriculum but whose rules favor excellent language skills, the teacher should change the rules so that all the players can contribute to the game and learn from it while playing. After all, this is our targeted aim when using language games.

All students should be involved
Games that do not always engage all students should be avoided. Teachers use language games to activate students, the shyer ones in particular, so it would be rather ironic to see that a game makes some students lose interest.

Games shouldn’t favor smarter or faster players, not all students like competing; some are anxious about getting things wrong and don’t want to participate in these games, so the teacher has to make sure that active students don’t monopolize the game. If necessary, the teacher should consider changing the rules to make the game friendlier for less competitive students. Otherwise they’ll quickly become confused and unenthusiastic. Building trust and offering enough time to accomplish tasks during the game without pressure will help all students do their best.

Dealing with emotions
One of the most significant and positive aspects of learning through games is an opportunity to release students’ tension, which is so prevalent in most classrooms. Deeply absorbed in the game, students speak freely, without the feeling of being observed or judged. Even though we perceive games as a relaxing activity, we must not forget that students have different characters. Not all of them feel safe while competing with others; what’s more, rivalry may trigger anxiety and even block those more sensitive.

Teachers need to observe the players, recognize their emotions, and reactions to defeat. The teacher should be flexible, able to react in case of possible conflicts and alter the rules of the game or at least foster empathy, by encouraging players to understand each other’s emotions. It is the teacher’s role to motivate those who failed to try harder next time, and to react when one or more students seem disengaged or disgruntled. Problems should be addressed immediately. Being aware of emotions and managing them adequately will help the teacher avoid conflicts and keep the classroom a safe place for everybody.

Get the most out of it
On a limited budget, choosing the right language game to meet several different language objectives can be difficult. Flexibility is key—choose one which can adapt to as many various situations as possible. For example, when you have verb cards, you can use them not only to produce sentences in a particular grammar structure, but also to tell stories or create discussions. Look at the game in a broader context and ponder how useful it might be for your students in various situations. Learning a second language requires a student’s attention, involvement, and interaction. In itself, this is not a simple task to accomplish, and so various tools have been proposed to support SL education. Games are one example. They can help reduce internal barriers, improve the overall atmosphere in the classroom, and—most importantly—boost positive attitude towards a foreign language.

However, this doesn’t mean they can be used without deep consideration and preparation. Students’ needs and language objectives should be treated as the main criteria when choosing the right game. By harnessing the energy, motivation, and sheer potential of students’ game-play and directing them toward learning, we can provide students with tools for becoming successful in their lives.

Wright, A., Betteridge, D., Buckby, M. (2006). Games for Language Learning. Cambridge University Press.

With an MA in English Philology, Regina Szuszkiewicz is a passionate English teacher and language games developer. She has built a recognizable brand—REGIPIO language games, and has always emphasized that games may enhance language acquisition if they are appropriately used. She runs workshops for English teachers on how to use games in the classroom. Regina has presented at national and international conferences including TESOL Spain 2017, ELTAF Frankfurt 2017, PASE Warszawa 2018, TESOL USA Atlanta 2019, BELTA 2019, Brussels, PASE 2020, and IATEFL Poland 2020.

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