Larry Ferlazzo is an English and social studies teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif.
(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)
The new question-of-the-week is:
What are your favorite classroom games?
In Part One, Shannon Jones, Jennifer Bay-Williams, Molly Ness, and Sheniqua Johnson shared their favorites.
Today, Jenny Vo, Donna L. Shrum, David Seelow, Kathleen Rose McGovern, Melisa “Misha” Cahnmann-Taylor, and Ciera Walker provide their recommendations.
‘Students Are More Focused’
Jenny Vo has worked with English-learners during all of her 26 years in education and is currently the Houston area EL coordinator for International Leadership of Texas. Follow her on Twitter at @JennyVo15:
Games are great tools to engage students in their learning. There are many educational benefits to playing games in the classroom. One, games make learning fun. Two, they encourage the students to pay attention. As a result, the students are more focused when playing games. Three, students learn to collaborate and cooperate with their team members when playing on a team. They learn the social skills of communication, listening, and compromising, just to name a few. The best benefit that occurs from playing games in the classroom is that students are learning content in a fun, engaging way!
Games can be used anytime during your lesson. You can use them to assess students’ background knowledge about a certain topic before you begin a unit. You can also use games to build background knowledge before you actually introduce your lesson/topic. There are some great games to practice and review vocabulary. Other games are perfect for whole-group or individual reviews before an assessment. Below are some of my favorite classroom-learning games.
Charades, Pictionary, and Pyramid are great games to use for vocabulary review. Charades is a word guessing game. Students can be paired with partners or in teams. One member will act out a word or phrase without talking or making noises. Along the same vein, Pictionary requires a team member to draw pictures, and the rest of the team guesses what the word or phrase is based on the pictures. Pyramid is a two-person game and relies on words only. The objective is to guess the mystery word using only words or phrases given by the teammate. I love using these three games because they require the students to pay attention to each other, collaborate with each other, and study/learn the vocabulary beforehand so their team can do well.
Another game that my students love to play is Kahoot!, a game-based learning platform. It is made up of quizzes that the students can play in class and at home. Teachers can access a database of ready-made games or create the games themselves. I used Kahoot! in a variety of ways—to build background knowledge, as vocabulary practice, and to review before an assessment. Students are not only competing against each other but also a time limit (adjustable by the teacher). With online learning during the pandemic, I relied on Kahoot! a lot for both in-person and virtual classes. The students loved the competitive aspect of the game and worked hard to see their names on the Kahoot! virtual podiums at the end.
The third kind of game that my students love to play in class is the old-fashioned board game. This may be surprising considering the technology-advanced world we live in, but my students LOVE rolling the dice and moving the game pieces around the game board! One year, when I was given extra money by my department, I bought a bunch of board games that focused on reviewing reading-comprehension skills such as main idea, details, inference, context clues, etc. Each year after that, whenever I would be given extra money, I would add to my collection with games from other subjects—math, science, and social studies. We had so much fun playing them, and the students asked to play them so much that we designated Friday as our game day. I chose the Friday game based on the skill we were working on that week. I think the students knew we were doing schoolwork, but they didn’t mind because we were also having fun, not sitting at our desks and doing worksheets.
Adding ‘Snap, Crackle, and Pop’
After teaching English for over 20 years, Donna L. Shrum is now teaching ancient history to freshmen in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She remains active in the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project and freelance writing for education and history magazines:
When students play a game, their brains reward them with dopamine. Incredibly, your curriculum alone doesn’t always provide that same brain rush for your students, so mixing games into your curriculum can add some snap, crackle, and pop. In fact, some teachers are completely gamifying their courses, structuring their curriculum as an ongoing game. But that is a discussion for another day.
While teaching with Zoom, I struggled to find ways to adapt the active games I’d used in my physical classroom. One success was playing tag: Someone in Zoomland was “it” and tagged someone of whom I asked a question. Answer the question wrong, and you’re “it”; get it right, and the tagger had to try again with another student.
This year, while teaching 8th grade civics, I used some of the review games I’d used for years to introduce material. I discovered that creating a Kahoot about current events was a fun way for the students to see if they could predict the correct answer and then I’d briefly fill in the details of the event once they saw the answer. I used Kahoot as an anticipation guide in the same way, creating brief “What Do You Already Know?” Kahoots before teaching a topic. At the end of the lesson, students could play again to see what they had learned.
I sometimes use Quizizz for variety, but this year, I have fallen in love with Quizizz Lessons. Instead of introducing material on Google Slides, I could put it into a Quizizz slide, then follow with a formative-assessment slide as a poll, open-ended answer, or multiple-choice question. Video slides are part of the paid package. Lessons still gave a score at the end, and I was surprised students viewed Lessons as a competitive game. It was a wonderful tool for Zoom, because providing the code allowed them to see the game on their computers (a feature Kahoot also introduced this year) without relying on a possibly unsteady Zoom screen share.
I’ve had the paid version of Gimkit for three years now, and in that time, an increasing number of other teachers have found out about this treasure, which offers a high level of competition as well as multiple game modes. As the school year drew to a close, I used the Drawing mode for short curriculum breaks. Drawing didn’t work well with my existing Kits, so I created ones just for drawing in which I entered words and phrases and then simply put a period as all the answers. In the future, I plan to create drawing Kits related to the classes I teach.
I comb online sites to find new game ideas, and these are the most popular with my students and links explaining how to play:
- The Unfair Game While I sometimes played whole class, I usually let them partner up and keep their own scores while they played on one computer between them.
- Grudgeball For some reason, honors classes play Grudgeball the most intensely.
- Motor Mouth. Use Google Draw to create playing cards. On each, put 4-6 terms you’d like students to learn. Print on card stock and laminate. Create enough sets for students to play in pairs. The game is like Password: The students split the cards, then take turns trying to get the other person to correctly guess the term. The partners who finish first win.
Games for all Ages
David Seelow currently teaches at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y., writes the Revolutionary Learning blog, and consults on game-based learning, online education, interdisciplinary instruction, and comics in the classroom. He is the editor of two collections of essays on innovative teaching: Teaching in the Game-Based Classroom: Practical Lessons for Grades 6-12, a Routledge, Eye on Education book, and Lessons Drawn: Essays on the Pedagogy of Comics and Graphic Novels:
I have several favorite games for different grades levels. For the elementary grades, Dragon Box Algebra 5+ is wonderful. It introduces algebra through fun, engaging activities that transition seamlessly into algebra without students even realizing they are solving mathematical equations. Minecraft remains a favorite. Students can build entire worlds and work either individually or as part of a team.
Pokémon Go takes the class out of the school building into the world where students can explore famous geographical and historical landmarks by visiting pokestops. In keeping with a geography theme, the board game Trekking: The National Parks allows students to experience an outdoor adventure indoors, learn valuable information about the country’s national parks, and cultivate the value of conservation, while enjoying magnificent photography of our natural wonders. KidCitizen uses primary documents in an interactive experience pertaining to democracy. The KidCitizen Editor gives teachers the tool to create their own episodes tailored to their class. Castle Panic provides children with a rich fantasy world to capture their imagination while also requiring cooperation to be successful in the game. Learning how to work in teams at an early age will be indispensable throughout a child’s education.
For the middle school age group, Biome Builder-Card Game has students build food chains in a race to help one of four biomes (the American Prairie, Pacific Ocean, Amazon Rain Forest, Sahara Desert) survive. Before leaving the middle grades, I want to recommend the online game Kind Words; students learn the value of being kind and helping others by responding anonymously to requests for help. The game promotes the best in social and emotional learning and can have a transformative impact on students’ approach to life.
Kind Words also reminds me to point out that many games can be played across grades levels. Biome Builder, mentioned above, has curricular alignment with elementary, middle, and high school students. Portal 1 and 2 can be applied to learning missions ranging fromr using statistics in 6th grade all the way up to AP Physics. iCivics has a suite of 30-minute games exploring all aspects of the U.S.’s three branches of government. Every student will benefit from playing these games in class.
Finally, for the high school age, making ethical decisions should be an essential skill, and no game teaches this better than Papers, Please. In the game, you play an immigration officer making life-changing decisions about who can or cannot cross the border of a totalitarian country. The board game Pandemic has immediate relevance for students living through COVID-19. Importantly, this game requires cooperative learning to win. The game effectively simulates the need to cure, cope with, and prevent a pandemic in 60 minutes play time.
Language arts/English are well served by two narrative-based games: Gone Home and What Remains of Edith Finch. In both games, players explore a family home in the Pacific Northwest. In the former, as protagonist Kate, you learn about family secrets including a nuanced depiction of an LFBTQ+ relationship. In the latter game, you explore a haunted ancestral house in a brilliantly executed story reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe and perfect for teaching literary elements. Finally, encouraging students to slow down and appreciate both the wonders of the natural world and the marvels of language will prove invaluable to their future lives. Students need to step outside their screen-dependent world to reflect on their surroundings and their own life, and, paradoxically, Walden, a Game helps them do just that.
Oh, before I go, Jeopardy! is still a great game for the classroom; just have students design the answers.
Building a ‘Trusting Community’
Kathleen Rose McGovern is a TESOL specialist with the U.S. Department of State and a lecturer in applied linguistics at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She’s authored several publications at the intersections of drama, language teaching, and immigration theories, including Enlivening Instruction with Drama and Improv:
One of my favorite games to play with intermediate learners involves an extension of the popular language-teaching (and party) game: 2 Truths & 1 Lie.
Basically, it involves inviting students to share three personal stories (not statements, but stories with a beginning, middle, and end). Then, after each person has told their stories, and classmates have guessed the lie, I divide students into groups and guide them through an improvisational process in which they perform one another’s stories.
I find that students are typically very engaged because they are sharing stories that are important to them with their classmates and negotiating the language involved in putting together a scene (e.g., “come in from the right and stand by that table”). This also offers opportunities for literacy practice as students can write out their stories or even draft scripts from their improvisations. This activity was the backbone for my work devising plays with my intermediate ESOL students at a nonprofit language school for immigrant learners in Massachusetts. But I have used it in nonperformative contexts as well. It’s a wonderful way to collaboratively explore language relevant to the students’ interests and build a trusting community at the same time.
Melisa “Misha” Cahnmann-Taylor, a professor of language and literacy education at the University of Georgia, is the author of five books addressing intersections between language education and the literary, visual, and performing arts including her newest co-authored book, Enlivening Instruction with Drama and Improv: A Guide for Second and World Language Teachers (Routledge, 2021):
“Getting to know you” games can be terrific for any time you want a group to learn more information about each “player” in the class, including and going beyond learning one another’s names.
By using it at the beginning of any class or semester, teachers gather a great deal of information about who is in the room, including how comfortable and familiar each student is with performance as well as information about any limitations or concerns students may bring to these embodied practices. The information garnered from these games, including students’ individual needs, strengths, and limitations, will assure greater trust and success in play and language learning throughout your group’s time together.
One of my favorites that I use with any group is the Poetry in Names Game. Even if a group already knows one another, it can be a fun and lyrical challenge to create a class poem for which each student uses alliteration and/or rhyme to describe themselves in their person. First, show students how to play by saying your name and something you like in the following formula: [Name], he/she likes _______. E.g.: “Misha, she likes marshmallows.” While you say this, make an exaggerated movement (e.g., mime eating lots of marshmallows). Advanced learners may consider things that have the same first-letter sound (alliteration), consonance sounds, assonance (vowel) sounds, or rhyme (exact or slant). Here’s a video of a group of TESOL educators playing this game.
Many theater and improv games can and should be played repeatedly. By changing the prompt, teachers can change the target language of the game—from vocabulary acquisition to specific grammatical forms or pronunciation features such as intonation and stress. Just as the same game can be played differently, the same words can be communicated differently depending on how they are said, where, to whom, by whom, and for what ends. These games introduce or review target language words and phrases that help students understand an important communicative lesson: It’s both what you say, and how you say it!
A wonderful example of this is the game, “The house is on fire, let’s…”. One person in the pair begins, saying, “The house is on fire, let’s_____,” filling in the end of the sentence with ANY suggestion not connected to the actual scenario of a house on fire. (For example, “Let’s buy a canoe”; “Let’s eat some candy”; “Let’s study math”; “Let’s braid our hair.”) This game exercises students’ fluency, creativity, sense of humor, and ability to laugh in light of making L2 (second language) errors. See this video to watch how hilarity ensues and fluency is developed!
Ciera Walker is a seventh-year systemwide elementary school ELL teacher in east Tennessee:
At the beginning of the school year, my students set academic goals based on their WIDA Access scores from the previous year. While goals always vary, this year, many students had a goal to improve their speaking scores. I set out to intentionally create differentiated lessons for my students that involved multiple opportunities to speak. Each week, students use Flipgrid with rubrics and personalized feedback to practice and improve speaking. Additionally, I utilized a learning game I read about in 39 No-Prep/Low-Prep ESL Speaking Activities for Kids written by Jackie Bolen and Jennifer Booker Smith called Running Dictation. This game was a favorite among my students this year. Below is a list of materials needed for the game, a description of my interpretation of the game and how I used it in my classroom, some benefits of the game, and suggested improvements to the game to fit my students’ needs in the future.
- Printed phrases, sentences, or paragraphs from a text that students are reading (I typed out sentences from passages or novels that we were reading in class.)
Description/How to Play:
- Students will partner up. One student is the “runner” while the other student is the “writer.”
- Designate two areas in the room, one for the sentences to be posted (out of sight for the writer) and the other for writers to transcribe what they hear.
Go over rules for runners and writers:
- Runners must be careful not to run into each other!
- Runners need to be very intentional when they tell the writer what to write.
- Runners can spell words or tell the writer where to place punctuation, but they cannot touch the paper or the pencil (or they are automatically out).
- Runners must keep their volume low when they are sharing information with the writer (so the other groups don’t hear).
- Writers must communicate to the runner when they need something repeated or need help spelling words.
- The phrase, sentence, or paragraph must be exactly the same as what is on the printed-out sheet.
- Runners must be careful not to run into each other!
- Have the runner stand next to the writer to set up the game.
- The runner will run to the area where sentences are and then run back to relay what is on the paper to the writer. They will run back and forth until the entire message is correctly written.
- When a team is done writing the entire message, they raise their hand.
- The teacher comes by and checks the sentence (other groups continue working in case the first team done isn’t correct).
- If the sentence is incorrect, the teacher will let them know, but the runner and writer must work together to figure out what is incorrect.
- If the sentence is correct, the team wins!
- Students are constantly communicating very specific information.
- Students are engaged in using punctuation and spelling patterns.
- Students must be able to verbalize when they need more information or are confused.
- Students are actively engaged in grammar while writing.
- Students are practicing speaking, listening, reading, and writing all in one game.
- Cross-curricular connections can be made in various subjects such as language arts, science, or social studies.
Implications for the Future:
- I hope to use Flipgrid captions in combination with the running-dictation game to show students that what they say isn’t always interpreted or heard correctly. This will help emphasize the importance of speaking clearly.
- For higher English-proficient students, I might use a paragraph, and once the paragraph is written, have students put it in order (as suggested by Bolen and Booker Smith).
- Have students use the original text to answer questions about what they wrote during the running-dictation game.
- Have students interpret and discuss the paragraph.
- Use a paragraph that students haven’t read yet to introduce a new unit/topic/vocabulary.
The game is a wonderful and fun way to get students reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Additionally, I would recommend the book 39 No-Prep/Low-Prep ESL Speaking Activities for Kids for anyone looking to enhance engagement in the ESL classroom.
Thanks to Jenny, Donna, David, Kathleen, Melisa, and Ciera for contributing their thoughts!
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