– Are your wands real magic wands?
– Yes! They are! But magic comes from within you, not the wand. A wand is a tool.

You’ve probably already heard about the ‘shocking’ findings of the recent OECD study revealing that the use of technology does not lead to any noticeable improvement in pupils’ performance. In fact, in terms of test results, it says, ‘those students who use tablets and computers very often tend to do worse than those who use them moderately’.

One more tool has not lived up to the hype.

And the search continues.

‘What’s your quest? – To seek the Holy Grail!’

I reckon equal results could have been obtained in relation to the use of any other tool in the teacher’s toolbox – pens, whiteboards, course books – you name it. When used well, each and every tool, including technology, has its ‘Holy Grail’ potential and might enhance learning but it takes a teacher and consistent (and principled) approach to empower their use. When in the wrong hands, these tools, with no exceptions, can turn into ‘the bad and the ugly’  leading to lower performance and ‘killing creative and critical thought’. Paraphrasing the infamous Bananarama’s song,

‘It ain’t what you use, it’s the way that you use it, and that’s what gets results’.

Over the years, I have come up with a list of tips how to prevent turning a potentially powerful instructional tool into a waste of time. Though the focus here is mainly on games, I believe these ideas may equally apply to any other tool in the toolkit of a language teacher.

‘When the why is clear, the how is easy’.

Whenever we plan or design activities with the tool in the classroom, it is essential to clearly see the ‘why’ in terms of language learning.

Use tools as a means to an end, rather than for their own sake.

Why do we use games? – Everybody loves games!

Right, and everybody loves chocolate but we won’t be using it in the classroom, will we? (Well, I tried. See CANDY CONFESSIONS or IT’S ALL ABOUT TENSES: TIME TO ‘CHOCOLATE’). We have long known that making content more playful can be a great way to engage students and add diversity to classroom activities. Games most certainly add a fun element to the lesson. However, if the main focus is on engagement, it is only logical to expect improvement in engagement or enjoyability, which may or may not lead to improvement in performance.

When we decide to use a game for learning purposes, the main question should be

What do they learn?

There is so much buzz about creativity and innovation nowadays calling for ditching ELT ‘normality’ and taking ‘creative effort to bring out the most creative thinking’ in classes that sometimes I get the feeling that we have somewhat forgotten that ultimately we are there to teach language and develop creative and critical thinking and communication skills in and through the target language, enable learners to adapt to a foreign culture encoded in the target language and develop their learning intelligence (LQ) needed to make progress in the target language. Even ‘fun’ has its aim to get learners engaged and keep their interest in language learning (See GIVE ‘EM A BREAK).

Hence, whatever game is chosen, it should be about, with and through the target language and lead to certain language-related learning outcomes. This is closely connected with the next question:

Is the time and effort devoted to games justified in terms of gains in learning?

If the process of design, adaptation, preparation and playing the game is likely to take a significant amount of your personal time (to prepare cards, boards, questions, etc.), and time in the classroom – to explain the rules, distribute cards/boards, draw boards, and play the game – these time costs and effort should be justified in terms of gains in learning the language.

Practical tip: Multi-purpose games can significantly save your time and energy. E.g. the Football Game can be used for different types of tasks, areas of language and different levels of learners. PPT game templates may also be a great time saver.

If you choose to play a game which is mainly based on pantomime (which is incredibly exciting and fun when played as a party game or pastime), or much drawing, or any other non-verbal activity, you should be certain that it truly facilitates the process of language learning.

Similarly, when the process of creating a certain product by learners (e.g. an avatar) applying different effects and reimagining themselves in different scenes takes more time than actual work with the target language, it is highly unrealistic to expect it to bring about significant improvements in language learning (though the level of enjoyability will most certainly go through the roof).

Is it the best option available?

There are multiple uses for games. We can use them to drill and review the material covered, to introduce and further practice vocabulary or grammar forms, test students, stimulate communication and practice speaking skills, or take a break. However, they are not the only tools available for these purposes. If there is an option (it can be a different game as well) that is more time-efficient and leads to the same learning outcomes, consider using it instead. If your ‘drawing game’ is used to introduce or revise 5 words, with the drawing process taking 80% of time in the classroom, I would suggest considering a more efficient approach that may fill this 80% of time with language work (see GAMES OF IMAGINATION), or supplementing it with language intensive activities.

Practical tip: There is always an option to gamify any activity/exercise by using certain game mechanics (see GAMIFICATION: LEVEL UP).

Do they know the ‘why’?

As Elwyn White said in relation to humour, ‘Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process.’ In the case of games, and learning tools in general, the frog has to die, I’m afraid. It is not only you who should clearly see the rationale behind the game, but your learners as well.

If your game is built around grammar or vocabulary, e.g. idioms (see IDIOMS IN CLOSE-UP), have a debriefing session after the game, look through the idioms that were in the game once again, make sure your learners have an opportunity to revise them later – give references where students can find these idioms, provide the cards you used for the game.

Practical tip:  Instead of explaining the rules of the game, find a video showing people playing the game and use it for listening comprehension. E.g. see Google or Gavin game in JUST GOOGLE IT.

Basically, every game used in the classroom has its analogue in the ‘real world’. The effect would be much higher if your students get interested in the game and play it with their friends, this time on their own, out of the classroom.

Practical tip:  After your learners have played WORD GAMES, encourage them to challenge their friends to play scrabble or any other word game online.

Have you used the game to its full potential?

At times, the full potential of games as learning tools remains underexploited. If we intend to use tools as effectively as possible, we should make sure that we have explored them to the full. One of the ways to do it is to engage learners in the process of preparation of the game as well.

For example, one of my favourite games is Mad Libs (see MAD LIBS). It’s a word game where one player prompts others for a list of words to substitute for blanks in a story, before reading the story aloud. The procedure of preparation usually involves removing a few nouns, verbs, adjectives, colours, numbers, etc. from some text. You can find a lot of worksheets online, as well as MadLib generators, that may be used to play the game. And then students play the game:

Prompt for words to fill in blanks → Read the story aloud

What could be done to maximize learning, though, is to get students to create these worksheets for the game. In this case, the learning scenario will be as follows:

Read the story Make prompts → Prompt for words to fill in blanks → Read the story aloud → Read the initial story aloud

Is everybody engaged? 

Unless it is a Wimbledon tournament, there should be no audience – the game has to provide for full and active participation of each and every student in the classroom.  If you have a couple of students playing the game, with the rest of the class watching them, consider all possibilities to build activities around the game to turn it into a learning experience for all the students.

Practical tip: When you pair up or split students into small groups, make sure you have provided them with answer keys. The easiest solution is to provide an answer on the card with the task leaving students no option but to read questions to their partners. E.g. See cards to the Ladder Game

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is no such thing as one size fits all. One tool cannot be equally successful for all learners. Not every learner is encouraged by points or badges, nor is every learner a good sport.

It is a meaningful mix of tools that might work their magic.

They say, teachers will not be replaced by technology, but teachers who do not use technology will be replaced by those who do. I strongly doubt that would ever happen. The challenge is not to bring the game or any other tool into the classroom, the challenge is to build effective activities with this tool to the end of better language learning. Teachers will not be replaced by tools, but there is a high chance they will be replaced by those who know how to empower these tools.

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It’s been a year since I embarked on my blogging adventure. I’d like to say a huge thank you to all my followers and fellow bloggers. Happy birthday to ELT-CATION and happy teaching to all of us!

(Image: Karen Roe,, Creative Commons)

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