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. …