THE POWER OF GAMES. SPANISH EXPERIENCE.
Using a FL effectively requires having a number of abilities that linguistics identify as linguistic skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing. However, before students are able to produce chunks of language in the FL, receptive skills play a central role, as it happens with L1 acquisition. In other words, the natural route for learning any language goes through reception before production.
However, the development of our learners´ communicative competence entails the use of appropriate materials and resources to provide them with varied learning contexts in which the FL is used meaningfully and with a purpose. Besides, if we want that FL learners take the risk to engage in active receptive skills (i.e. making guesses, inferring the meaning of words, etc) and productive ones (i.e. making questions, writing a song, etc); it is essential to create a non-threatening learning environment, so that students do not feel deterred towards active participation and risk-taking.
In this sense, the use of games in the FL area is one of the best ways to motivate learners and develop a taste for English. As we shall see in this topic, games provide the opportunity to practise and recycle English from all linguistic skills. Moreover, it is commonly acknowledged that games have an intrinsic engaging power that facilitates catching out learners´ attention.
There are many benefits in the use of games in the FL class; amongst others, it is crucial that games usually create willingness to communicate since learners have a purpose for it; they want to take active part in a game. In other words, through the implementation of games in ELT, we can take advantage of children´s natural interest towards joyful activities. Besides, the positive experience of a game in the FL promotes positive attitudes and develops children´s confidence and self-esteem, as learning occurs in a stress-free atmosphere. Therefore, far from being occasional resources, games should be considered as an integral part of language learning.
GAMES AND CREATIVITY IN THE LEARNING OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE
First and foremost, is has to be said that the pedagogical value of games is widely acknowledged by FL teachers and researchers. Apart from being intrinsically motivating, games are a source of “authentic” contexts, because children need to use the FL with a purpose embedded in the game itself. Lewis and Bedson (1999) accurately define the attractiveness of games for children: “Children are curiously paradoxical. They can be both committed to co-operation and, at the same time, fiercely competitive. They love the security of routine and the predictability of rules, yet they are often amazingly unpredictable and creative. They love to have fun, yet they dedicate themselves with deadly seriousness to the activities they engage in. It is not surprising therefore that games are so popular with children; games too involve both co-operation and competition, rules and unpredictability, enjoyment and serious commitment”.
Games are by definition a creative activity. When children play a FL game they think and behave imaginatively; and the gaming action is directed towards the achievement of an objective (i.e. win the game or collaborate to solve the challenge of the game). In addition, the processes in the game usually generate original answers. In the FL class, we can encourage students to use their imaginative thinking by engaging them in playful activities that connect to their previous language experiences and knowledge. In fact, games contribute to promote a creative environment. In this sense, Horner and Ryf (2007) establish some indicators regarding the way children demonstrate creative thinking:
- They generate imaginative ideas in response to stimuli.
- They discover and make connections through play and experimentation.
- They explore and experiment with resources and materials.
- They ask ‘why’, ‘how’, ‘what if’ or unusual questions.
- They try alternatives or different approaches.
- They look at and think about things differently and from other points of view.
- They respond to ideas, tasks and problems in surprising ways.
- They apply imaginative thinking to achieve an objective.
- They make connections and see relationships.
- They reﬂect critically on ideas, actions and outcomes.
However, despite the engaging power of games and its contribution to creative thinking, we must not forget that any activity we design for the FL classroom should entail a linguistic “benefit”, including games. Of course, language games must have a “fun component”; nonetheless, the linguistic component of the game should be considered when planning games, being the goals clear for teachers and students (depending on the level). There is no point in playing a game for its own sake. As any other activity, games should have specific outcomes and goals, even though children perceive that they are just playing. This “hidden practice” is actually one of the greatest advantages of using games, as children are engaged naturally in them, whether they deal with any of the four skills and require an effort on the part of the students.
On the other hand, apart from the intrinsic benefits of using games for FLT, teachers need to have in mind the purpose of the game. In this sense, Brewster, Ellis and Girard (2002) highlight several language learning purposes (adapted):
- Games encourage memorization of chunks of language which can be slotted into various contexts.
- The purpose of the game may be focused on useful pronunciation practice, as long as it provides effective models.
- The language required for the game can be a part of another activity where the focus is on getting something done, rather than practising the game for its own sake.
- The FL can be practised with a wider educational goal in mind (i.e. we may implement a reading game to reinforce vocabulary or to learn more about the topic being covered in the didactic unit).
- A game can be played to provide enjoyable repetition, to recycle what they already know or to encourage creative use of the language.
- Through an informal use of the language, we may intend students to infer the rules by posing solving-problem activities.
- The main purpose of the game may be related to make learning more memorable and getting students to use non-linguistic strategies (i.e. gestures, mime, movement) to facilitate communication.
In real practice, games are rarely related to just one learning purpose; although there can be a prevailing objective, after carrying out a game the teacher may discover that some unexpected objectives have also been covered.
As we can see, games can be used at any moment of the lesson and with different learning purposes. However, due to the usefulness of games and their versatility, it is essential that FL teachers integrate them into the FL programming. By doing so, we make sure that games are not an “improvisation activity” that rewards pupils when they behave correctly. On the contrary, games must be carefully planned and have clear objectives and outcomes. The integration of games into the FL syllabus enhances the role of games as valuable backup to additional materials and resources (i.e. we can play a game to add some practise to an activity in the coursebook; to practise vocabulary related to another activity, such as a song; or simply to elicit vocabulary items as a preparation activity before a storytelling.
Up to certain extent, the way we select, organize and manage games are weighty factors for their success. Therefore, we shall now consider how to deal with games selection.
A successful games selection must be based on having clear criteria to establish which types of games are more likely to be motivating, linguistically “profitable” and adapted to our specific group of students. See in this light, we shall consider:
Language level: In Lewis and Bedson (1999) view, determining a learner´s level is an inexact science, particularly with young ages; since the traditional terms (beginner, intermediate and advanced) suggest a linear progression which is not really applicable to primary school ages, as it is difficult to filter out the linguistic components from children´s development. Therefore, a good starting point is to devise an imaginary framework connected to the official curriculum (RD 1513/06, establishing the minimum teaching requirements for primary education) for each cycle. As an example, with very young children games should contain simple language and basic procedures, easy to understand through demonstrations. Notwithstanding, it is also worthwhile having in mind that games should entail a “reasonable challenge”; which means that at some points we should include language slightly higher that their production level. In this line, it has to be noted that sometimes the challenge of the game is not only to be seen in the language used, but also in the cognitive procedure involved in it (i.e. in a treasure hunt, apart from the linguistic demands, students have to put into practice other skills related to digital competence, learning to learn, etc).
Grouping: The way in which we organize games may vary in different ways. When we plan a game, we have to establish if the game is going to be played in pairs, in groups, or with the whole class playing against the teacher or one leader. This factor may help the teacher decide whether a game is suitable.
On the other hand, the organizational pattern of the game is itself controlled by the rules of the game. Obviously, the role of the children is not the same for all games; a game played in pairs shall involve more oral interaction on the part of learners than a teacher-led game. As an example, the game “Find your partner”, consisting on negotiating pairs for children to meet their ideal partner to go to a concert, involves extensive oral exchange; whilst a vocabulary game played in groups, such as “test your memory”, involves reading practice of a limited number of words, and perhaps some oral negotiation relating to dealing cards. Each game has its own characteristic range of language activity.
Besides, it is essential to consider the way in which groups shall be formed. If the game involves oral interaction, we may decide to organize children in homogeneous groups, so that they all will be engaged in communication at different levels. On the other hand, other times heterogeneous grouping is more advisable for students to help each other (peer´s tutorials). One way of coping with heterogeneous groups and ensuring that all students will be involved consists of assigning different roles within the group. Thus, in a cooperative game such as “scoring scrabble”, some students may be thinking of words and writing them down; whereas others may be in charge of reading them and scoring words according to a rating alphabet.
Materials: Another relevant factor in the teacher’s choice of games is the nature of the materials needed: computer games, board games, card games, paper and pencil games, blackboard games, and the like. Each game involves using different materials; therefore, the FL teacher must ensure that these materials are available or easy to achieve; easy to store and reusable
Nature of the game: As we shall see in the next point, games can be competitive or cooperative. In competitive games our pupils strive for being the first to reach the goal. On the other hand, in cooperative games pupils collaborate towards a common goal. Notwithstanding, many times the distinction between collaboration and competition relies on how we approach the procedure of the game. In other words, nearly any game can be presented as a competition or collaboration, depending on how learners participate in it. In we decide to challenge students with a competitive game, it is important that there is some kind of “luck element”, so that winning comes everyone’s way at some point in order to maintain involvement and enthusiasm. Similarly, bearing in mind that these principles (cooperation-competition) are at the heart of many games; sometimes a coursebook language activity can be turned into a game by introducing an element of competition in order to stimulate effort.
Implementation of games in the FL classroom:
We have recognized the value that “hidden practise” represents within a communicative approach and the benefits of children involved in a linguistic activity with a playful component. However, it is important that children understand the linguistic value of FL games and perceive them as a different type of work. In this sense, it is interesting to make the reasons for playing games explicit in an understandable way (i.e. “we are going to play cards to review vocabulary about food”). Another way to make children aware of the linguistic relevance of games is through reflection and evaluation of a game. Thus, after concluding a game we can make simple questions such as “why do you think that we played this game?” to encourage reflection.
The implementation of games for FLT requires considering some tips or golden rules:
We know that children tend to prefer familiar games; notwithstanding, it is advisable to vary our repertoire of games. In fact, overdoing the same game may result counterproductive from a creative point of view. In this same line, despite the fact that certain routine is useful since learners know what comes next in the learning sequence, too much predictability may spoil the surprise factor, which is a motivating ally when students seem to have lost interest.
On the other hand, experienced FL teachers know that games must not be played for too long, because lengthy games are very likely to end up as a boring or mechanical activity. It is difficult to know the right moment to finish a game, because even amongst children of the same age, the attention span is different. As a rule, the younger students are, the shorter their attention span will be. As Lewis and Bedson (1999) point out: always end an activity when the fun is still at its peak. In other words, it is preferable to leave students with a sense of “I want more, please”, instead of “I´ve had enough of this game”.
Another relevant consideration is that the organization of the game should be carefully planned, in a way that there is not improvisation, particularly with younger learners. If we mix up the rules of the game or the norms are not clear enough, the game can turn into a confusing activity. Besides, we need to ensure that all the materials required for the game are available and ready to use. Finally, the organization of the game entails thinking how the classroom space is going to be arranged. As we know, different games suppose different classroom layouts (i.e. playing “hangman” may be done in small groups; whilst a role play shall need a free space in the middle or front of the class for students to interact, and then a U-shape is the best option).
Participation must be extended to all the children in the class. This implies that we must cope with students with specific needs of educational support. Even in competitive games, all children must be occupied so that they do not disrupt. If the game has a competitive nature, we may devise alternative “gaming stations” for those groups of students who “have lost” the game, moving into a different game. In addition, we must bear in mind that students learn in different ways (learning styles) and they also may present strengths or weaknesses in relation to their prevailing intelligences (Gardner´s theory of multiple intelligences proposes that there are seven main areas in which all people have special skills). The types of intelligence that a person possesses (Gardner suggests most of us are strong in three types) indicates not only a person’s capabilities, but also the manner or method in which they prefer to learn and develop their strengths – and also to develop their weaknesses. Therefore, to cater for all strengths in the class, we must design a varied proposal of games, being some of them more based on linguistic capabilities, whist others may be more demanding from a kinaesthetic, auditory, creative, cooperative points of view.
It is very likely that the main benefit of communicative games is that they create a “desire” to communicate to be able to take part in the game. Apart from this weighty reason, communicative activities in the form of games are useful to practise new language in real-life situations and apply what has already been learnt (review). It should also be noted that communicative games enhance socio-cultural aspects of the language. In this sense, the authenticity of the language and situations provided by communicative games are excellent factors to enhance real use of the FL.
Communicative games are by definition creative activities that entail a purpose to foster negotiation of meaning. They are usually based on the information gap principle, which acts as a purpose and provide learners with chances and authentic contexts where they feel the need to use real-life language to communicate with others meaningfully and purposefully. In addition, as opposed to traditional techniques, in communicative games the teacher encourages communication instead of focusing on continuous error correction. In this positive and relaxed atmosphere created by the game, students are not deterred to use the language by public correction and will feel secure and confident to take the risk with the FL.
According to Hadfield (1999), communicative games are activities with a goal or aim that is not linguistic (or not entirely linguistic). Successful completion of the game will involve the carrying out of a task such as drawing in a route of a map, filling in a chart, or finding two matching pictures, rather than the correct production of a structure. Thus, the emphasis in communicative games is on fluency rather than on accuracy of the language. However, communicative games require grading the type of language that students will use and a progression from controlled to less guided practice. The techniques for communicative games include: information gap, guessing, matching, exchanging, role-plays and the like.
An example of a simple communicative game based on the information gap principle is the “The flash-hats”, already explained in point number 3. The simple procedure of the game hides essential principles for the development of communicative competence. Apart from the fun element and the basic materials for the game (cardboard hats and flashcards), this game takes what may seem a mere practice of familiar vocabulary to real communication with the use of limited language, (i.e. what colour is it? Where does it live? Is it an animal?). Similarly, the game can be graded to different levels and students with specific needs of educational support may be given clues to make questions. However, the most relevant aspect of this game is that it is an example on how we can create a need to communicate and engage students in understanding others and getting their meaning across by devising a joyful communicative purpose. There are plenty of basic communicative games to promote real communication from the early stages of learning. Another example could be: “Who is who?” in which we can use a familiar game focused on descriptions, whose procedure is well known by students. In pairs or small groups, each child or group has a set of characters with their names underneath (the same for each team) and secretly choose one of them. Then, in turns they have to make questions to guess the character selected by the other child or group. The winner is the one that guesses the character first.
On the other hand, creating appropriate situations for communication to take place is essential to develop our students´ communicative abilities. In this sense, through simulations and role-plays we may increase enormously the scope of communicative situations in the FL class. As Littlewood (1981) suggests, with these techniques, students are demanded to imagine themselves in situations which could occur outside the classroom, from the simplest situation of meeting a friend in a shop to more complex contexts. They must adopt a role in those specific situations and behave as if the situation really existed. Obviously, at early stages of learning, the communicative situations devised should be simple and the teacher should provide enough support to guide their dialogues through non-verbal language, cues, prompting the language, etc. As students advance in their communicative abilities, role-playing turns less controlled and some creative answers and spontaneous use of the FL appears.
Classroom market is an example of role-play in which the classroom is transformed into set of stalls and students interact assuming the roles of customers and shop keepers. In this game, children ask for and give things, say prices and use polite conventions. The materials required are: realia (i.e. plastic fruits and vegetables, paper money, etc). Once children have been assigned their roles (customers or shopkeepers), the pre-activity consists of making a shopping list (customers) and deciding the prices for each object (shopkeepers). Next, students and teachers review the type of language we want them to use (i.e. formal greetings, polite requests, etc). Then, customers in pairs have to do the shopping in a time limit. Finally, customers report to the rest of the class the things they have bought and how much money they have left; and shopkeepers can tell other children how much money they earned. More advanced learners can add comments related to the prices, the quality of the products, etc.
Obviously, role-plays are games that require careful management and organization; and the division of the game into three stages (pre, while and post). Similarly, FL teachers may have to devise some supportive measures for students with specific needs of educational support (i.e. prompters, clues, gapped versions of questions, etc).
In guise of a conclusion for this point, we may state that creative games are essential tools to promote the development of communicative competence, as they create the need to use the FL with a purpose and in a pleasant atmosphere.
As we have seen along this paper, games provide opportunities for FL practice in contextualized and meaningful situations; therefore, they should be regarded as an integral part of the FL syllabus. There is a wide variety of games that can be used for different purposes, although students are not aware of their ultimate aim. Seen in this light, through a game like bingo students may develop their pronunciation skills or reinforce the relation between meaning and word; and therefore develop their communicative competence.
Apart from the linguistic benefits in the use of games for FL teaching and learning, one of the most important reasons for using games is simply that they are immensely enjoyable for children. This undeniable fact represents the cornerstone for success in teaching languages in primary education. If we use games to practise the foreign language, we are taking advantage of children´s developmental stage, their curiosity and creativity, and the powerful fact that games and playing are in the essential nature of children. In other words, the procedure of the game and the final goal act as motivating and engaging factor, whilst the linguistic and communicative factors turn into “hidden practice”.
- BREWSTER, J., ELLIS, G. And GIRARD, D. “The Primary English Teacher’s Guide”. 1992. London: Penguin English. New edition 2002.
- HADFIELD, J. “Beginners Communication Games”. Pearson ELT. 1999.
- HORNER, C. and RYF, V. “Creative Teaching: English in the Early Years and Primary Classroom”. Routledge. 2007.
- LEWIS, G. and BEDSON, G. “Games for Children”. Oxford University Press. 1999.
- LITTLEWOOD, W. “Communicative Language Teaching. An Introduction” Cambridge University Press. 1981.
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