English Learner Article Games in adult ESL: Why does my teacher use games in an adult class?

Summary: Do games have a place in an adult ESL class?

By: |Audience: All|Category: Learning English


One of the most common complaints by students is that they are playing games in their English classes when they should be doing serious study. Most teachers do not listen very carefully to those complaints, because serious study and playing games can often be the same thing and most teaching experts agree that games are sometimes useful. If you still have the opinion that there are too many games in your English class and you want the teacher and school to listen carefully to your complaints, before you say anything you will need to check that in your class the bad reasons below are true and the good reasons are not.

Good reasons for using games in an adult class

  1. More drilling/ controlled practice - There is a limit to how many times you can repeat the same grammar or sentence before your brain switches off. With some games, however, it is possible to repeat the same language many more times in interesting ways and so improve your ability to produce next time you have a real conversation in English.
  2. Fun and memory - When you are having fun the language that you hear and use is more likely to make an impression on your memory and so be easy to recall in the future.
  3. Class spirit - Many classroom games help students to get to know each other and learn to work together. The team spirit this produces improves your motivation to come to class and do your best, and so helps increase your English skills.
  4. Knowing when you are doing well - When you are speaking a foreign language it is very difficult to know when you are speaking well and when you are speaking badly. In a game with points it is much clearer when you have done well.
  5. Warmers - Sometimes you need waking up before your brain is ready to absorb new language, and the best way of doing this is usually with a short game.
  6. Using different parts of your brain - Normal classroom learning usually uses your memory quite a lot for vocabulary learning etc, and also sometimes uses the logical parts of your brain for things like working out grammar rules. If you can also engage other parts of your brain with things like drawing, hand eye coordination and music, this will help you learn the language more fully. The easiest way of bringing these things into class is usually language games.
  7. A natural way of learning - Although most people are aware that babies learn a language naturally by copying people around them and then interacting, what is less commonly remembered is that children spend a lot of time just playing around with the language with fun with things like nonsense words, puns and skipping rhymes. Adults need the same playful and creative attitude to the language they are learning to motivate themselves and really get to feel like they have mastered it.
  8. Competition and motivation - For some reason, people run much faster when they are running next to someone else. The same is true of language learning, and games make these feelings of competitiveness come out and so make you work harder to produce more complex and/ or accurate language.
  9. Most students like games - It may be that the other students in your class are happy to do games, perhaps because they are less motivated to learn English and so tend to lose concentration if they don't have a short term goal like getting points. As long as each game has a serious teaching point, there is no reason why more serious and less serious students can't both gain from playing it.
  10. The students complain about games for the wrong reasons - Some students may look for things other than their own lack of effort to blame a bad test score on, and games are an easy target. If the teacher knows that you or other students complain about games when the games are not really the problem, they might not take your real questions about using too many or the wrong types of games seriously.
  11. Variety - Just like a sport or martial art, in order to master a language you need to approach it in many different ways. If you rule out any things that could be considered games, this really cuts down on the number of different ways you can try to improve your reading, listening, writing and speaking skills.
  12. Remembering the language by the game - Sometimes the best way of remembering language is picturing the place or the conversation that you first heard it in. As the people and place in the classroom are usually the same, the teacher can make each lesson, and therefore each item of language introduced in that lesson, more individually memorable. One of the best methods is using different games each week.

Bad reasons for using games in an adult class

  1. Killing time - A good language learning game has a clear purpose and finishes whenever students could more usefully move onto something else. If you think your teacher is making you play games when these two things are not true, for example by making you play a game again when you got a perfect score the first time, then you could ask the school manager/ head teacher if the teachers could clearly explain the reason for each game before you are asked to play it.
  2. Learning just like kids - Although adults can learn a lot from how kids naturally pick up a language, the adult brain is very different from a child's one and a class that made children learn the language quickly is not usually one that would work perfectly for adults without some changes. If your teacher seems to be making the assumption that you should learn just like children, then it might be worth asking him or her to explain their language teaching philosophy to you.
  3. The teacher just want to try something new - This is a difficult one to judge as a teacher who is always trying new ideas to make better and more interesting classes is usually a good teacher- but that does not always mean that the new game will make the best possible lesson for you today. If you think your teacher is being too experimental with your class, a good way to approach this is to suggest what things you would be happy to do again with comments like "I really enjoyed..." and "Before the test could we ... again?"
  4. It's fun for the teacher - Teachers are human too and want to have fun in their jobs sometimes, but the teacher is only one of the people in the class and if the majority of students agree that a game is useless it might be a good time for you to finish the game off quickly and show that you want to move on by opening your book etc.
  5. The teacher thinks smiling faces means happy students - Many teachers are surprised when a student who was smiling, laughing and taking part in games later complains about that game or that there are too many games in class. If you enjoy the games but don't think they are useful, it is worth explaining exactly this to the teacher rather than saying that you "don't like games".
  6. The teacher doesn't know what else to do - Many English teachers are trained to use games and if the school tells them to stop using them it can be very difficult to think of other interesting and motivating ways of practicing the language. If you have specific ideas for what you could do in class instead, for example something that you did in another class, suggesting this to the teacher or school manager might help them come up with suitable ideas.

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Written by Alex Case for UsingEnglish.com