ESL Games

various colored dice

I’ve been thinking about games a lot this week.  I had viewed games in ESL as a way to engage students and possibly elicit some complex language tasks such as negotiation that might be challenging to practice in a more abstract context.  I had even contemplated developing a simple video game design class for the same reasons.

Since participating on a panel discussing the role of video games in higher education this week, I’m seeing games in terms of a more authentic purpose.  Specifically, learning games should an activity fun so that the player gains experience doing a given task in a low-risk environment.  If the game is fun, the player will be inclined to repeat it, thereby gaining more experience.  So, for example, a game that rewards your avatar for making good dietary choices could be a good way for diabetic children to learn about foods that can help them manage their diabetes.

But what is the equivalent in ESL or language learning terms?  Should a game be very simple (a fun replacement for a drill-and-kill activity) or complex (navigating a virtual world in the target language)?  Can games be made in a way that students can gain something more from doing the activities more than once?  Can some part of a game be crowdsourced to the students so that the teacher is not the sole guiding force behind their design?  Can games incorporate some web 2.0 or social media elements?

I’m curious to know if any ESL or EFL teachers regularly use games in their classrooms.  If so, what games are most useful and what are the essential elements that make them so successful.  If you use games, digital or otherwise, please share it by leaving a comment.


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4 responses to “ESL Games

  1. I haven’t used as many digital games as I would like. I work with K-5 kids and currently my biggest ‘class’ is 4 kids. I use some of the games at PBSkids with my little ones (kindergarten & 1st grade) when I only have one or two of them at a time. (I usually have just one computer available for them to use, though I do have access to more.) I use games like bingo – good for receptive language, but more able kids can be challenged by being the caller. Lots of ‘memory’ card games – like bingo they enable lots of repetition with out the kids being bored by it. I have a board game called Gram’s Crackers from Linguisystems that my kids love and beg to play. I like that kids of different language levels can play it together because there are different levels of prompts.

    • My own children love the games and activities offered through PBS and other educational media sites. Most of the students I work with are 18+, so these are not always idea. I have found a few good ones, though. For example the Holly Hobby House on Nick Jr. could be a good way for English language learners to learn furniture vocabulary, but it is clearly targeted to young girls. Would a 40-year old Libyan doctor embrace it? Perhaps, but for how long? There has to be something better. At least that’s my thinking behind Blank or Blank.

  2. I think learning should be fun and playing language games is a good way to stimulate our learners. Some games will require the learners to move around and that is really good for some of the kinesthetic learners.

    I use games to review materials and encourage discussions. The following is a list of games that I use in the classroom:
    Boardgames and card games – conversation
    Bingo – vocabulary
    Jigsaw – reading and writing
    Song – grammar

    You can also create free language games at

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