Some Tips From an “Old Hand” at Boardgames and Two Recommended Starters

Some Tips From an “Old Hand” at Boardgames and Two Recommended Starters

By: Lawrence Levy

Playing games in a university class? Not very serious, is it? Students having outright fun in class? Not the point of higher education. Education is a serious endeavor. Don’t waste limited time on frivolous activities. Really? Says who? When I started my Boardgames Communication class I was on the receiving end of many scowls and a few quietly reserved smirks. More than twenty years down the road, the class has earned a niche following in the elective offerings and even some positive acknowledgement from colleagues. The following points of advice have been distilled down from teaching a full year (two-semester) English Communication class for over twenty years, using boardgames as the only medium of study and use of class time. I will assume that readers of this piece will not be using the same boardgames—only the same class approach; however, it is recommended for best results to use games as a regular part of class time, rather than as a “one-off” treat in class. Students love it!

English Communication classes are intended to develop skills by motivating students to gain competency by using language as a communication tool with other people. Boardgames are a task-based method for encouraging this outcome. Use physical games that require interaction with actual game components and people, not games on an electronic device.

Prepare by having students learn rules and operating skills by studying the actual rules provided by the game manufacturers. Give a rules quiz to guarantee that the students are prepared to play properly. This furnishes a true, real-world, opportunity to study and apply English directly, with immediate feedback. Provide a list of questions to study for the game as homework and make the quiz from some of the questions on the list. Set and enforce an expected score on the quiz that will demonstrate enough understanding of the rules and methods to allow entrance to the “playing field.” This will make things go much more smoothly when play commences. Students should understand that they are not just “playing” while playing boardgames. If someone does not pass the quiz, they are sidelined to study until they can properly pass the quiz, while all who cleared the hurdle can play.

Although boardgames are usually played against others individually, for our goals we should have students pair up to play the “individual” roles. Participants are expected to always perform with a partner. Working in pairs and sharing responsibility for all decisions during play results in communication becoming constant, task-based, and focused.

Insist on their using the target language only: it is the reason for the activity. Really, do not allow use of students’ first language, particularly when the students want to use it just to handle a difficult spot. Once you box them into using only English, you effectively set the students free from code switching. To assist with this, review and brainstorm together basic phrases for play that students may not know. For example: OK, let’s start, Whose turn is it?, Do you have an idea?, Good idea!, What’s next?, and Let’s do that, are examples of such phrases. Have the students make a list in Japanese of things that they wanted to say while playing but were unable to, for them to translate as homework for future use.

One result of the fun atmosphere during play is that often conversation can drift away from the game being played. Allow this as long as the students remain in English and play is not interrupted. Although the students are straying from the task of playing the games, the greater goal of spontaneous communicative exchanges is being served. Students also enjoy getting to know each other more intimately than a typical class would allow.

The above are just a few pieces of advice but worth considering. Often in my classes, the biggest problem is getting the students to stop playing at the end of the lesson—a problem we can all happily endure!

The following two recommended games, used as part of the above-mentioned class, are easily obtained and have been highly regarded (confirmed in questionnaire responses) by students and are the easiest to introduce and use.


UPWORDS, a simplified version of SCRABBLE created for children, is a boardgame in which the participants construct crosswords from randomly selected letters. (How-to-play video here.) In UPWORDS, competitors create a growing crossword by attaching a new word to a previously made word in the crossword that incorporates at least one letter from a word already on the board. They can do this by extending previously made words, by attaching letters to the front and/or back of a word, or by stacking different letters on top of the letters of a previously played word as long as at least one letter remains from the original word (e.g., mail into tail, or mail into garlic keeping the i and the l from the original word, mail).

This last move, “stacking,” is unique to UPWORDS and provides an opportunity to consider vocabulary from playfully child-like and flexible perspectives that are never encountered in standard language study. In the above example of a “turn” changing mail into tail, by stacking a t on top of an m, the player discerned and produced the minimum morpheme shift that resulted in a completely new word from the existing one. This is a sophisticated cognitive process that a young native speaker learning, or “playing” with, a language, might do but it would not normally take place in the typical study of a language. In the example of changing mail into garlic, the participant recognized points of intersection of letters between two completely different words. By stacking a g on top of the m, an r over the i, and adding i and c to the end of the previous word, a completely different word was formed. This action necessitates sophisticated vocabulary knowledge, perception, and cognitive flexibility.

Skills called upon and enhanced during gameplay do not fall within the domain of standard English Communication programs. Creating or extending words in a crossword is easily understood by participants. Getting the players to transform words by “stacking” often requires a demonstration. This is accomplished by playing example turns or giving advice while being an active observer. At first, many students struggle with word transformations made possible by stacking, but it also becomes clear that the scoring opportunities offered by stacking far exceed simple crossword building. The team that most effectively “stacks” has a much better chance of winning. Often there is a moment when the students suddenly understand the concept of stacking and there is a comparable sudden explosion of complexity in play.

Successfully playing requires a focus on cultivating excellent spelling skills. UPWORDS allows players to remove incorrectly spelled words without losing their turn, which encourages risk-taking, self-correction, and discussion of words and spelling between partners. Giving homework assignments for studying prefixes and suffixes—something that is rarely addressed in English programs in Japan—is a good way to expand the vocabulary skills of students and let them play more successfully. It is also an opportunity for students to expand vocabulary decoding and creating skills by exploring word roots and families through assigning prefix and suffix study assignments. Observing student excitement and satisfaction when applying their new word transformation abilities is a pleasure.


PICTIONARY Junior is derived from the original board game PICTIONARY. The only difference from the original version is the level of difficulty of the vocabulary used. In this game, teams compete to sketch vocabulary items in order to lead participants to correctly guess the item within a one-minute time limit. (How-to-play video here.)

The person drawing, the “picturist,” can sketch a picture of the actual item or representations of the sound or sounds necessary to produce an utterance of the item. For items that are easily rendered directly, simply sketching the item is effective. For items that are more abstract, sketches aimed at reproducing sounds may be more effective. If the item is elephant, drawing an elephant would suffice. If the item is somewhat abstract for example, handsome, rather than trying to depict “handsome” itself, it may be easier to prompt the players to say the word by drawing the sketch of a hand “+” the sketch of the sun together to produce the sounds (hand + sun). Some items may require a combination of techniques, for example; a pig “+” an upward pointing arrow “+” a truck to form “pick-up truck.”

Competing in this game encourages constructing very creative homophone combinations, intuitive leaps of thought that align with, or are, English-derived, and novel combinations of sounds and images. The picturist cannot speak, gesture, or use letters or numbers—only draw. The pressure of watching the one-minute timer run down also creates an opportunity to learn to adapt to an environment necessitating creative thinking and observer generation of language while highly stressed.

Most of the topics and lexical items used in the game are familiar objects, but they are very often in colloquial form. (Sometimes it is necessary for the instructor to Google and show the item to the picturist.) The students encounter vocabulary that would most likely be encountered in a native English-speaking environment. An example is the topic clue “creepy crawlies,” which means small animals that crawl or slither and an item from the topic, “daddy long legs,” the colloquial name of a common spider. This would be easy for a young native English-speaking child but challenging for someone studying English. The participants always enjoy encountering this vocabulary and find the homework assignments on them enlightening.

Any items encountered for the first time and items that competitors could not successfully answer are assigned to study for homework. In the following class the words are reviewed with the students giving definitions, sentences using the word, and pronunciation in English, along with a drawing, preferably a representation in sounds, of the item.

It often takes multiple attempts and demonstrations for the students to develop the aptitudes to make and process sound representations of items. There is a natural hesitancy to blurt out new and unknown sound combinations, but it is also a source of genuine hilarity during competition. Students learn many new lexical items and develop and enhance communicative skills that cannot be directly taught from a textbook. Of course, instructors can also make original game cards to intentionally include vocabulary items from class into the mix.

PICTIONARY Junior is highly entertaining and exciting to play. The level of energy exhibited by the participants is always intense and, particularly as the timer runs down, can become frantic.

In closing I would like to encourage teachers to give boardgames extended time in class and to encourage your students to run class by themselves. There are many classes where I have simply put the games on desks, stood back, and let the students run class from start to finish, doing nothing more than assisting and refereeing if needed or requested. The students enjoy the self-determination and self-responsibility for class time with teacher talk at close to zero. Most of all—dare to simply have fun!

For more information on how to use games in class, including writing assignments and other useful games, contact me at this address.

Lawrence S. Levy (MEd)  is a Lecturer at Kyoto Bunkyo University in Kyoto Japan. He has published multiple papers and has given multiple  international presentations on using boardgames in the classroom. He is dedicated to never outgrowing playing, and never becoming too grown up. He encourages others to follow suit.

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