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Academics and teachers have been writing about the benefits of using games in the language classroom for many years. Wright et al (1984), Lee Su Kim (1995), Ubermann (1998), Ersoz (2000), Yong Mei and Yu-Jin (2000) and Thi Thanh Huyen and Khuat Thi Thu Nga (2003) all pretty much agreed that games provide a useful and meaningful context for language use; encourage students to interact and communicate; can both challenge and reduce anxiety (as the emphasis is on the message, not the form); provide practice in all four skills; and help students to make and sustain the significant effort involved in learning a language.
Kim and others have also noted that games can offer a welcome break from the usual routine of the language class. Playing a game after an intensive test or with over-excited students after break time can help re-engage learners instantly in your lesson, and you'll maximize your time with them.
Lengeling and Malarcher (1997) took the list of potential benefits of games in the classroom even further.
- Games lower the affective filter
- They encourage the creative and spontaneous use of language
- They promote communicative competence
- Games are both motivating and fun
- Games reinforce learning
- They both review and extend learning
- Games focus on grammar in a communicative manner
- Games are extremely student-centered
- The teacher acts only as a facilitator
- Games build class cohesion
- They can foster whole-class participation
- Games promote healthy competition
- Games can be easily adjusted for age, level and interests
- They utilize all four skills
- Games require minimum preparation after the initial development stage
It is important to bear in mind that when the above was written over 20 years ago, it was with reference mostly to more traditional games. But more recent evidence seems to indicate that the same principles apply. Some additional benefits cited by teachers I've spoken to are that:
- Games could make language lessons less threatening for less confident pupils as their concern about getting sentence form wrong was reduced, and so their production greater.
- Students learn more than just the language of the lesson when playing a game; they may learn instructional language through discussion or rules and sometimes negotiation skills and a lesson in cultural differences too.
- Students can form a greater variety of emotional connections with language through playing games, for example acting out a word or seeing another student do so, or remembering a clue for a word.
So, playing games can help students learn a language – but is just playing them enough? Some teachers like using games with less motivated classes who won't engage with straight practice activities and will willingly use key vocabulary and structures in a game, gaining much-needed practice without even realizing it. In today's language-learning context, though, is that a good thing?
Motivating the unmotivated
In recent years, much research has shown that students learn better when the intention or objective of the lesson is clear to them. In short, they understand what they're supposed to be learning and why and, when taking it to the next level, can assess their own learning and be actively involved in planning their next steps.
Would knowing that the games they play are actually a way of doing some additional language practice make these students engage less? Opinion differs, and some discussion seems to center around the actual activity involved. Some games are thinly veiled group-work tasks, but other games that are at the right proficiency level (or slightly above) and take into account factors like cultural context, available time, learning topic and the classroom setting are generally considered to have a positive impact.
Another major influence on improving motivation is the feedback a student receives, and this is something games can also support. Online games can provide richer simulated learning experiences and immediate feedback to students in a variety of ways.
Above all, the main issue for the less motivated students is usually that they can't see why they need to learn English. Playing games not only simulates 'real' contexts but also helps them understand that they can accomplish a variety of tasks using English as a medium, which is motivational in itself.
As teachers, there is a responsibility to explain how or why games will help students learn. This can equally motivate learners (or parents) who fear that playing games is just frivolous time-wasting. For example, informing even adult students that a simple hangman or hot seat game helps them improve spelling skills, gets their brains focused on recognizing the shape and structure of new words, and facilitates their learning of new vocabulary soon helps them see the value (Simpson 2011).
Can games help learners acquire 21st-century skills?
Maybe we can draw the conclusion that games can positively impact learning – but is that even enough? Today's teachers have to ensure not just that their students learn but that they acquire the skills they need for life and jobs in the 21st century. Can games help here too? This is a newer area of research, but evidence seems to indicate that games can help students learn a variety of important skills such as critical thinking skills, creativity, teamwork and good sportsmanship.
These ideas were taken seriously by Robert Morris University Illinois, who offered an e-sports scholarship for the first time in 2014. They studied two groups of students – football players and gamers – and found that levels of competitiveness, perseverance, focus and determination were very similar. Both groups showed a similar desire to excel as part of a team. Both 'sports' required the team members to be detail-orientated, have good hand-eye coordination and have a strategic mind. The only difference was in the level of cardiovascular activity. Both groups received performance analysis and tactical advice from coaches and both subsequently made improvements.
How many universities will start to offer these types of programs remains to be seen. Still, the idea that online competitive gaming can improve performance is being brought to the workplace too. Think about what virtual teams could learn from playing role-based collaborative games. Team members have set roles and clear and shared goals and have to work closely together to formulate an action plan to achieve them. Teamwork, skill, strategic thinking and communication are essential.
All these are important skills for today's workplace, so maybe gaming can provide an opportunity to hone these in a lower-risk environment and improve business performance.
These examples are clearly far from the norm, but they do seem to indicate that using gaming to support learning in the classroom is not a waste of time. When you get the right mix of gaming and learning, it develops a student's autonomous learning skills and encourages them to spend more time on task – both of which greatly impact learner outcomes.
Need language learning game ideas for your young learners? Read our post 5 quick and easy ESL games for teaching young learners.