The Power of Games: Using Games to Teach English Language: David Kinder Argues That Games Can Be a Powerful Tool in the English Classroom, and Describes Some Games for Teaching Grammar and Other Aspects of Language, at A Level and GCSE
Kinder, David, English Drama Media
In his seminal book on teaching practice, Teaching Today, Geoff Petty has an interesting chapter on using games in the classroom. 'Games can produce intense involvement,' he writes, 'and a quality of concentration no other teaching method can match.' I know of many teachers who would agree with this. Quiz them carefully, however, and you may find that their enthusiasm for games has a limitation: they may deliver a bit of incidental learning, their primary purpose is to provide a bit of fun. Whilst I have no problem with the idea that games can be fun, the purpose of this article is to argue for a more radical faith in the power of games in the English classroom to deliver actual learning. Used well, games can be a vital learning tool for delivering both content and skills every day, not just as an end of term treat.
This article will focus in particular on A Level English Language, but many of the strategies can be used lower down the school. Teaching English Language at this level requires that students learn skills which are of a particularly complex and abstract nature (clause analysis, for example) as well as taking on a large body of challenging linguistic theory. The games that I have seen working cover both these needs.
Cards and Boards--Grammar Games and the fundamentals of the English Language
Students arrive at A Level knowing only small amounts of grammar. Often their knowledge will consist of knowing the difference between adjectives and nouns and some basic understanding of pronouns. It is less likely that they will know the difference between abstract and concrete nouns and, once you move beyond word level to look at sentence types, most KS5 teachers would, I think, agree that they know nothing at all. There is nothing wrong with this. It is conceptual, abstract thinking that best fits A Level study, and it is not necessary to be able to analyse clauses to get an A* in GCSE English. At A Level, though, they have to know about grammar--and games help students grapple with both the parts and the processes of English grammar.
To begin at the beginning--with word classes, what used to be called 'parts of speech'. There are eight of them, four open--nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs--and four closed--prepositions, conjunctions, pronouns and determiners (although there is some disagreement about how much the last two overlap: is 'my' a possessive pronoun or a possessive determiner?). Students need to know them if they are to see what writers are doing in texts, for all sorts of reasons. How, for example, can you learn the true art of manipulation without being able to spot a modal auxiliary verb?
How, then, can games help the learning of word classes? Some inspirational teachers I have been lucky enough to work with have introduced me to a wide range of options here, many of them great fun. There is, for example, the old favourite of doing an action 'in the manner of the word'. In grammar terms, this means simply asking students to write an intransitive dynamic verb in its present participle form (walking, running) on one bit of card and an adverb of manner (sneakily, cunningly) on another and put each in a different hat. The hats are passed to a volunteer who takes one verb and one adverb and has to do the action in the manner of the adverb. Another I have seen work very well involves putting a 'story' up on a Powerpoint slide along the lines of 'once upon a time a group of eager AS students took up English Language ...' There is a code on the slide: you cough for a verb, laugh for a noun and so on. The whole class gathers up front and as you read the story they have to make the sound or do the action that goes with the word class of every word in the story.
Both these examples fit into the class of consolidation games, the kind of thing you do at the end of a long lesson where students have been introduced to definitions of particular word classes. This puts them more in the 'treat' category than some of the games to be discussed here, but the fact that such games can be used as 20 minute activities to change the atmosphere in the classroom and cement learning is nevertheless very important. They are still there, to be used, every week.
There are games, however, which can actually teach the fundamentals of word classes. One strategy I have developed myself with the help of colleagues in two different English departments in the last two years is to use word cards. It is easy to make up your own (although relatively inexpensive commercial versions are available) with the word on one side and its word class on the other. These two games, which work well, illustrate the point:
Games for Teaching Word Classes 1
Students work in pairs. They find an abstract and a concrete noun. They hold them up, round the class, so that the word class is being properly aired. They then put it back into a pack of cards with a mixture of word classes in it. In their pair, one student holds up a word, reading the word class off the back of the card and the other has to identify whether it is a noun and what kind of noun it is. Students identify as many as they can in a minute and then swap roles and repeat.
Games for Teaching Word Classes 2
Students play a simple rummy-type card game, where they have to collect words of a particular word class by picking up and discarding in turn from the pack in front of them. When they have three of a kind they put the set down on the table. 'Runs' can also be made, but instead of sequences of ascending numbers they must create little sentences. Once you have got all your cards out you call Rummy and the game stops.
These two games are about building familiarity with word classes, in a tactile way. There is scope for the teacher to work round the class as the students are happily and relevantly occupied and discuss the effect of word classes in particular contexts, perhaps testing students on how they recognised a word's word class during a game.
There are games, however, that do more than this. The game featured below has been proven to work by a number of colleagues, with GCSE students as well as A Level students, and allows great flexibility for the teacher to draw out the learning without spoiling the fun.
Games for Teaching Word Classes 3
1. Students work in pairs or small groups. You get hold of some A4 card, cut into thick strips lengthways, in 8 colours. You write down a word on a strip of each colour following this colour scheme: verb = green; noun = pink; adjective = orange; adverb = blue; preposition = brown; determiner = yellow; red = pronoun; purple = conjunction. You stick these up at the front of the class and explain briefly what they all are and what they do.
2. You then give each group strips of card in the colours that relate to word classes you are working on in that lesson. So if you want to teach nouns, adjectives and determiners you give them pink, orange and yellow card. You draw attention to the example words stuck on the board at the front and perhaps give some basic definitions of them (they will know them if they have played the games above). You then ask them to write their own examples on the cards.
3. You work round, checking what they are planning to write before they commit to paper.
4. Given that you are focusing on nouns, adjectives and determiners you might, at this stage, pause and talk about noun phrases, asking them to hold up the phrases they have made for others to see and discuss what noun phrases are.
5. When you are ready to play the game, the students bring up their words and place them in piles, according to colour, at the front. If they are only providing three word classes you need to have written out words belonging to the other word classes yourself so that you have 7 or 8 piles of coloured card, face down, at the front of the class (7 because it is often a good idea to miss out subordinating conjunctions until you are tackling complex sentences).
6. You then call a group up and you give them 1 minute to select a word of each word class from the piles and make a sentence on the board (blobs of pre-rolled blu-tac are useful here). There is then feverish activity and much cursing and laughter. At the end of the minute you shout 'stop' and the students step back from what they have created. They get a point for every word included in a grammatical sentence. Any words left over are put to one side and count against them.
7. There is then a brief and vital moment when you can ride the wave of enthusiasm that comes from the game playing to draw attention to the words on the board. Why, for example, in the sentence below (3 points scored), is there no way to include the preposition, the pronoun and the conjunction in the sentence? What word classes would be needed to include them? You can ask them to add more word cards to make a grammatical sentence and have a brief discussion about why certain word classes are needed to make a sentence work.
my lazy duck danced beautifully to he and
This spell of actual teaching can last as long as the students have stamina for it. The minute the teacher feels that their interest is flagging they can call up another group to play their round. Thus a structure can be maintained and teaching and learning of grammatical concepts can also be achieved, all sustained by the competitive instinct.
Games for Higher Level Grammar
Games have a habit of growing organically, I find. The more you play them, the more you want to create them, and when a concept is difficult to convey, a game seems to emerge to help solve the problem. Higher level grammar fits into this category.
As students move through an A Level English Language course, most specifications require them to take on more
complex grammar. This will almost certainly mean needing to know concepts such as how the passive voice is formed. It will no doubt mean being able to spot the difference between a simple, compound and complex sentence as well as an ability to identify and use sentences with different 'branches'--where the complex sentence comes before or after the main clause, for effect. It may mean that they have to identify types of dependent clause. There are games which can handle all these things.
One amazingly versatile resource which every English department in the land should have is a set of mini-whiteboards. They are the key to turning a rather static to-and-fro of grammatical questions and answers into games which will ensure high levels of involvement and even a certain degree of (on-task) screaming and shouting. A game that typifies the approach you can take to higher level grammar is the SVOCA game.
Sooner or later, as students learn grammar at this level, they need to see the way sentences are constructed around basic principles. Most grammar books will divide the elements of clauses and sentences around the units of Subject, Verb, Object (Direct and Indirect), Complement and Adverbial. Most English Language specifications require students to know SVOCA, and many concepts, such as the passive voice, cannot be taught without knowing what these elements are, and what they do. The SVOCA game teaches these elements well:
The SVOCA Game
1. You give out mini-whiteboards, pens and a cloth to pairs of students who have been carefully selected so that confident grammarians are sitting with less confident learners.
2. You prepare a set of Powerpoint slides, beginning with a slide which defines what a subject is in a sentence, with a couple of examples. (It is best to keep this simple: something like 'the person, concept or thing which is doing, thinking or being something in a sentence'). You then put up a slide which does the same for verbs: 'what is happening or being in the sentence' works well for many students.
3. Then you put up a slide with 'SV' on it and the students are immediately in a race. They have to write a sentence with a subject and a verb (which will be an intransitive verb such as 'cried' if the sentence is to be grammatically correct). The first pair to have their board in the air with a grammatically correct SV sentence gets two points: one for being right and one for being first. Every other pair gets a point if they have got it right. Before the winning board is wiped, the less confident learner is invited to explain the sentence, pointing out the clause elements within it.
4. And so you go on. You put up a slide with 'Object' on it, and an explanation, such as 'the person, thing or concept to which the something is happening'. Then you put up a slide with 'SVO' on it. You play as before.
5. You add definitions of Complement ('a word, phrase or clause which tells us more about the subject or object') and Adverbial ('a word, phrase or clause which tells us when, where or how something is happening'), putting up 'SVOC' and 'SVOCA' each time.
6. Then you have more slides with variations in syntax, 'ASVO', for example, or 'SAVC'--and see what the students come up with.
7. Teaching and learning can be incorporated into this game in all sorts of guises. The teacher can, for example, include something that the students have not yet formally learnt and let them make mistakes with it. You can then fill the vacuum of their confusion with some Socratic questioning which draws out the facts you wanted to deliver. For example: you can put up 'OV' on a slide and set them off on a round of the game. The students will almost certainly write a sentence with an SV structure ('the bird ate'). Once the boards are in the air you pause and might say, for example, that you do not want to know who is doing the action, you only want to know the person or thing to whom it was done and ask them to try again. If they get nowhere you can suggest that the word 'was' needs to be part of the verb construction. Eventually someone will write a sentence in the passive voice ('the bird was eaten') and you can ask them how the sentence works.
With this kind of teaching, you give the students a chance to learn the grammatical theory themselves, without formal explanations from the teacher. Through a game, therefore, students have learnt new concepts and skills, and not merely consolidated prior learning.
Never mind the content, what about the theory?
A key element of English Language A Level (and, from 2010, English Language GCSE) are the language topics. They vary from specification to specification, but they are likely to include one more of the following: Child Language Acquisition, Spoken Interaction, Language Change, Language Varieties, Language and Gender and others. Depending on the exam board, there is a varied amount of actual theory that students are required to know. For the purposes of this article, I will focus on Language and Gender, with particular reference to Spoken Interaction.
There is a considerable body of research available on this topic. In most textbooks, the journey tends to begin with the work done by Robin Lakoff in the 1970s and her book Language and Woman's Place (1975). The students need to know about these findings, but primarily as a springboard for discussion of later research by the likes of Jennifer Coates (1989) and Deborah Tannen (particularly You Just Don't Understand: Men and Women in Conversation (1990)). The key debate here tends to be between whether differences that are identified between the way men and women talk is a reflection of a perceived weakness in women's language--a largely discredited deficit model--or simply a reflection of cultural or other differences between the genders.
This topic seems to lend itself particularly well to games, and this one works well in terms of learning the material and seeing it in practice:
The Discourse Feature Game
1. You begin by asking the students to create a set of cards which look like this:-
Aim: to interrupt as often as you can
Research: Zimmerman and West (1975) found that in mixed sex conversations in a (small) sample 96% of interruptions were made by men
2. The game is best played in groups of four, with two teams of two in each group. A set of cards is placed in the centre of each table, face down.
3. One member of the pair picks up a card and reads it. He/she reads out the topic of conversation. He/she MUST NOT read out the Spoken Discourse Feature. He/she passes the card to the other team to judge.
4. The pair make an effort to talk. The card-holder must try to do what it says on the card and his/her partner must try to guess what he/she is doing whilst conversing.
5. When the player's partner has guessed the feature correctly (as judged by the opposing team) that team scores a point. If they can also name the relevant researcher they score another point.
6. A pair has to complete as many cards as they can in two minutes, with the other pair timing.
The students find this game very enjoyable, but the learning comes all the way along, from the creation of the materials to the playing itself. When the students actually inhabit the conversational feature, I believe a kind of deep learning takes place which cannot be achieved by discussing the features objectively.
From consolidation to learning
As a collector and keen creator of games myself over the last few years, I can say that the games featured here are only a taste of the huge range that are available. There are many teachers who will only want to use games as a consolidation technique. They are excellent for this purpose. Once you risk the idea of using games as a learning tool, however, and not just a device to consolidate learning, the more their potential becomes apparent. The more games you use, the more you want to use them.
David Kinder's Grammaticus is a set of 104 word cards, each with the word class identified on the reverse of the card. With them you can play a range of grammar games and learn about word classes, clause elements and sentence structures along the way. For more information go to http://teachgames.co.uk
David Kinder is Head of English at Godalming College.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: The Power of Games: Using Games to Teach English Language: David Kinder Argues That Games Can Be a Powerful Tool in the English Classroom, and Describes Some Games for Teaching Grammar and Other Aspects of Language, at A Level and GCSE. Contributors: Kinder, David - Author. Magazine title: English Drama Media. Issue: 17 Publication date: June 2010. Page number: 27+. © 2008 National Association for the Teaching of English. COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale Group.
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