A Tsunami of Gaming Ideas from our Readers

A Tsunami of Gaming Ideas from our Readers

By: Think Tank Readers

Editors: At our request, a number of language teachers sent us their comments on gaming and suggestions for games.

Question Storm

Rachel Patterson - devoted to dark roast coffee and a good adventure story

I learned this activity from a colleague of mine way back.

Group students into teams of three or four. They’ll need a sheet of paper and a pen or pencil. Ask ten questions—they can be related to something studied in class and/or random, interesting trivia questions. As a bonus, I sometimes throw in pronunciation challenges, like “write the words you hear in this order: bus, bass, bath,” or “how many syllables are in the word ‘McDonalds’?” Give them only a few seconds to answer. After the last question, write or display the answers on the board. Teams count their total correct answers and write the scores at the top of the paper. Losing teams give a one-minute speech or self-introduction in English to their teammates.

It’s fast-paced fun for practically every level.

An old parlor game adapted into a good ELT one

Curtis Kelly - gamer for life in all things, including politics, work, and marital bliss

A trend in our field has been to expand the idea of English proficiency to include other competences, like negotiation of meaning, critical thinking, and willingness to communicate (at least, that has been my trend). So why not include another competence that has been rocking the century, the ability to lie? Well, here is a game that does just that. It emboldens students to lie and rewards them for fooling others, or on the receiver side, for catching the deceitful. What better way to prepare students for the difficult world we have endowed them?

Based on an old parlor game, I made a language teaching version. My students loved it so much that I put it in a textbook: Active Skills for Communication Book 1, published by National Geographic Cengage.

In groups of four, each student has to answer the same question with a “yes” and a story; the story has to be either 100% true, or 100% made up. After the story is finished, listeners push either the Truth or Lie button, based on their savvy for spotting a liar.

The storyteller gets a point for everyone who guesses wrong, and the listeners get a point, too, if they guess right. Full activity here.

It helps if you give the players a few storytelling tips beforehand, such as starting with the setting, and ending with a closer like “It was a terrible day.” I also suggest that if your students are up to it, you reinstate some of the original questions I had written, questions the publisher decided were too edgy for a textbook. They included: Have you ever kissed someone? Have you ever met a celebrity? Have you ever stolen anything? Without fail, some teacher at one of my presentations declares that such questions are invasive of learner privacy, but don’t forget, anyone who does not want to pass on such particulars can answer with a lie. And it is amazing how many students (and teachers) want to out their naughty doings! Enjoy.

Teacher GPS

Joe Suzuki-Parker - part-time lecturer at Rissho University and Dokkyo University

This is a fun and simple in-class activity, with very little preparation, that can be used to help students practice giving directions. I use this activity particularly after the students have reviewed vocabulary and grammar patterns related to giving directions (take a left, go under, walk across, etc.).

The goal of the activity is to have a student help navigate the teacher from one student to another in the classroom. It works best if you have many desks to navigate around. To start the activity, I stand in front of the class and announce that I need help getting to a specific student on the other side of the room. Then, I choose a student to be my navigator and give them the starting location and destination. Students can use the names of other students or descriptors (the student in the red jacket, etc.) when giving me directions. For added pressure (and fun) I tell the students that once I start walking, I won’t stop, even if I’m headed in the wrong direction. This means the navigator needs to be quick and decisive in giving directions. This can also cause all sorts of pandemonium (and laughter) as I have had students direct me over and under desks, into walls, and even out of the classroom!

This activity is highly flexible. It can be gamified by either setting a time limit, or simply make whoever guides me from point A to B the fastest the winner. The activity can also be done in small groups, where students guide each other. I have even done it in a race format, where two students race to guide a student from their group from point A to point B.

There are several benefits to the above activity. First, it allows students to improve their vocabulary related to giving directions. Second, it gives students the opportunity to practice their speaking and listening skills in a real(ish)-world context. Third, it exercises students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills as they need to figure out how to best navigate the teacher from one point to another. Finally, the activity is fun and engaging, which can help motivate, and encourage students to continue learning outside of class. I hope you and your students enjoy it!

The Alibi Game

Fiona Wall Minami - board game enthusiast and author of ELTons finalist Escape the Classroom.

Here’s a communication activity from the detective-themed mission “Alibi” in Escape the Classroom. It’s always a hit with students who are familiar with social deduction games such as Among Us, Werewolf, and Mafia.

In teams of 4–8 students, prepare a paper for each player. One has the word “DETECTIVE” written on it, another has “GUILTY,” and the others are all “INNOCENT.” All players pick a paper and keep their identity secret, except for the Detective who must now question the suspects to determine who is lying. Using the question “Where were you on (day) at (time)?” the Detective interviews each player one by one. Players with the Innocent card must answer honestly, and the Guilty person must lie in every answer and come up with a convincing alibi.

So, a typical game might go like this:

Detective: Where were you on Saturday at 3 pm?

Student A: I was getting a haircut at the salon near my house.

Student B: I was in my room writing a report.

Student C: I was shopping at Nitori.

The Detective then asks follow-up questions….

What did you buy at Nitori? What was the name of the hair salon? How long did it take to write your report? 

And finally, the Detective has one chance to guess the liar and explain the reasoning. Then, all players reveal their cards. The game can be played in around ten minutes but students often want to play a few times so that they all have a chance to play different roles.

Editor’s note: Fiona has brought gaming into the classroom in another way that you just have to see! Check out her superb book: Escape the Classroom

Telepathy Game

Kathryn Akasaka - board- and dice-game lover, fun aunt, and Girl Scout Leader

Set up: Display a vocabulary set on the blackboard/screen, or open to the appropriate page in the textbook.

Students work in pairs. One of them thinks of a word really hard and tries to convey the word using ESP or mental power; the other student tries to guess the word. You can set a limit on time or the number of tries. Pairs who guess the words quickly or easily have a “good connection.” I have the pairs change frequently. I love this game for young learners as it is a fun and no-prep way to drill vocabulary. It also helps to build class community as students who are not always paired together have a chance to develop good relationships.

Please Don’t Stop the Music!

Tanya Livarda - (MA TESOL, CELTA, DELTA) - Teacher, teacher trainer, oral examiner

I feel that I can do this activity forever! It is a great get-to-know activity, a team-bonding activity, and an activity that can work with all levels and all ages!

The idea is simple! Take your favourite, or not, mug! Place some questions in it (depending on your aim) or let your students create their own questions. Play a tune (I like this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DA-m6OrZZyk—some funny music tunes to choose from or you can play your favourite piece of music—I have played metal as well!). The students/colleagues have to pass the mug to each other and when the tune stops the one that holds the cup has to answer the question.

It’s an easy, fun, material-less and stress-free game.

Gamification Is an Answer, Not the Answer

Matt Ehlers - enjoys Spanish, doing web search, and evaluating online information

Editors: We encouraged Matt to include this in order for us to balance the highly positive tone of this issue with a different perspective.

My first experience with gamification was in elementary school, when parents and teachers started a contest to get students to read as many books as they could. And, when I was in fourth grade, I finished second, behind one girl who probably cheated. Though it was disappointing, I still felt good since I was basically the best reader in my entire school.

The next year, they changed the contest to make it harder to cheat, by having students take quizzes on books they’d read to get credit for them. But, though I still did fairly well that year, I read less in sixth grade. And, I didn’t read much fiction after that, until I was in college.

That was 30 years ago, so I don’t remember why I lost interest in reading for several years. Likewise, I do not know if that contest had something to do with it. However, I do know that I don’t like games: playing them is stressful, they are easy to take too seriously, and losing can be discouraging.

Furthermore, neither games nor gamification really help me learn. As an example, lessons and activities based on them did not make me fluent in Spanish and Swahili: doing things I enjoy, like reading books, listening to interesting podcasts and radio programs, and talking to people, did.

However, there are other EFL and ESL teachers who like and use them. And, I am glad for them, since I understand they can be useful techniques, so I wish them the best of luck with them. I only ask that they (and others reading this) remember that gamification and games may not work for everyone and may even backfire for some, and that they use other techniques while teaching.

Seven Little Words

Chris Clancy - educator at Saku Chosei High School

I first came across the “Seven Little Words” activity in the Japan Times on Sunday English newspaper edition in Japan. In the activity, seven clues are given, with the number of letters in each solution listed in parentheses beside each clue. Below the clues is an array of letter combinations from which solutions to the clues can be constructed. Each letter combination can be used only once, but all letter combinations must be used to complete the seven little words. Below is an example of the first such On Sunday puzzle I used with a high school freshman class I met three times a week.

Noticing that this was difficult for most, I introduced the terms “synonyms” and “thesaurus,” and directed learners to thesaurus.com. I even suggested copying each clue and pasting it into an internet search engine. Working together in groups, learners were eventually able come up with the seven solutions:
1. glanced; 2. searched; 3. tossed; 4. poured; 5. disappeared; 6. immediately; and 7. plenty

After using this activity in a couple more classes as a warm-up, I decided to let the learners have a go at creating their own “7 little words” puzzles based on any theme of their choosing.

1. Decide on a theme
2. Choose seven words and divide them up into sections of letters
3. Make hints for each of the words and include the number of letters in parentheses (13).

Below is an example of a student-created puzzle from the same freshman class.

Answers: 1. chiken (misspelled) 2. Cow 3. penguin  4. giraffe 5. elephant 6. goat (Sorry, sensei, my goat ate my homework😂) 7. cockroach

See https://www.7littlewords.com/ for further examples.

Every “7 Little Words” introductory activity and class warm-up I use now is student-generated. Topics have included colors, fruits, sports, school subjects, countries, Japanese idols, companies, and more. The activity is an opportunity for students to dive into enjoyable English and dig deeper into producing English for communicative purposes.

Phonic Dictation Race

Steven Apotheker - Assistant Professor, Seinan Gakuin University, Kettlebell Thrower

Short vowels and anchors. Don’t be afraid to draw terrible pictures on the board.

Japanese college students are notorious for freezing mid-sentence when reading a passage. This is because they lack the skills to sound out long words. A phonic dictation race on the board is one simple way to make phonics practice fun for your students. I find that by including regular phonics practice at the beginning of each lesson my students have improved both their listening and reading skills. If you are unfamiliar with teaching phonics, I recommend that you follow this progression. Begin the first week with the short vowels. Over the weeks move on to two-letter words (ip, if, ig), CVC words (cat, bat, zip), long words (hippopotamus, gorilla), and double-letter phonics (ar, or, ir). Remember to include nonsense words (ep, dag, ziplip) in the game to really test their listening ability.

To play the game, split the students into teams, have them select a team name, and form lines in front of the board. Dictate the sound, word, or nonsense word (i as in igloo, pin, or pigpin) and encourage students to be the first to write the correct answer on the board. For example, the teacher says “i,” pronounced as in igloo. The first student to write “i” on the board scores a point for their team. The students then pass the marker to their next teammate and go to the back of the line. I recommend that you immediately dictate the next sound or word, while students are still handing off the markers, to make the game move more quickly and encourage lively competition. With two teams it is possible to play the game up to 15 points. If you have three or more teams it is best to play the game up to ten.

The first few weeks will be the most difficult as your students get used to phonics practice. I suggest that you use anchors to help your students remember the short vowels. The anchors I prefer to use for these are apple, elephant, igloo, octopus, and umbrella. I draw pictures of the anchors on the board, write the word underneath the picture, and then underline the initial short vowel. You can pre-teach the anchors and short vowels or allow your students to guess, make mistakes, ask for hints, and self-correct while playing the game. I choose to let the students make wild guesses the first time we play but draw the anchors on the board after the game is finished. Once you have introduced the short vowels, you can begin to incorporate regular phonics practice into your lessons with the simple, no-prep, phonics dictation race. Just remember, simple doesn’t mean easy. This will be a challenge for almost all of your students. If you do not have the time to commit to regular phonics practice, I suggest a dictation race with vocabulary from your lesson as a fun way to help the students review vocabulary.

What’s the Word?

Nikki Atzolidaki - age enthusiast, committed educator, lifelong learner

    • Put students into groups.
    • Place as many chairs as there are groups facing the classroom (i.e. with their backs to the whiteboard)
    • One member of each group sits on the chair and has to guess the word that the teacher writes on the whiteboard, based on its description/synonym/antonym given by the rest of their group.
    • Each group gets a different word, so you may also want to divide the whiteboard into as many parts as there are groups.
    • Students take turns in both guessing and giving clues. However, when a student who has to give clues gets stuck they’re very welcome to first get help from others in their group, and then give the description/synonym/antonym so that their teammate can guess the word written on the whiteboard.
    • To make it even faster, and for some groups funnier too, you can put a time limit (e.g. How many words can you guess in a minute?).
    • You can also turn this game into a boardgame using cards or a relevant app (I use genial.ly to make online boardgames).

Using Open-Ended Role-Playing Games

Charles Ward (Charlie) - an indie games designer based in Japan who runs EX1ST GAMES


I barely teach these days. Instead, I draw up imaginary worlds for my students to explore, interact with, develop, learn from, and remember. This is not for everyone because you need to let the players do what they want to do, and you need to be imaginative and improvise, and give them what they want. The result is “something to look forward to every week,” as student Ryu, Matsumoto Shuho Secondary School, put it.

I’m talking about Role Playing Games. Nothing complicated like Dungeons and Dragons. There are hundreds of rules-light role-playing games, and one of them is mine. In most role-playing games, you, and possibly some friends, create and direct the main protagonists through a story that you weave as you play. It’s like being the lead role in a popular movie for which no one has a script.

In brief, you would start what is called ‘Session Zero’ with some inspiring visuals of worlds you might like to explore (sort of like a time-travel agent) and two sets of rules. THE FUN RULES establish the tone of the game and expected player behavior, and THE GAME RULES establish things like character progression, success or failure threshold, and who is the final arbiter. Keep it simple.

With these out of the way, you would start world-building and facilitating character creation with the students. For preschoolers, just have one pre-made character that the class directs. From elementary onwards, each player in a small class (six or fewer) can create and direct one or more characters.

Journaling is an important part of the experience and a great way to review the last session before picking up where you last left off. Homework for students is reading the journals, world-building, naming the places their characters want to visit, providing made-up backstories and descriptions for any of the characters in the world (not just the player’s characters), and even video-recorded dialogue if possible.

The short-term goal is for everyone to become immersed in the world you are building and adventuring in. To do this, you must create moments of tension, danger, challenges, and moral dilemmas, and kill off a character if need be (if the story calls for it, not just to be mean).

The long-term goal is for one of the students to eventually lead the session and respond to the players with improvised or pre-planned events, points of interest, characters, dialogue, and plot twists.

For more information on this, and all the educational skills that come with this, I suggest you dive into the world of #TTRPG (tabletop role-playing games) and #TTRPGKids specifically and look at the excellent work of Michael Low from Luck of Legends here https://twitter.com/LuckLegends

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