Language Play, Language Learning

by Sophia McMillan
(Shane Training Centre, Japan)


'Language games' are seen as an activity where learners use language to achieve a goal (usually by exchanging some kind of information), according to clear rules, in an enjoyably competitive environment. A classic example is 'Back to the board', where players identify unseen words written on the board using clues from their team-mates.


Teachers should see games as a legitimate use of classroom time and a useful motivational tool, offering valuable language practice. There is a plentiful supply of published materials featuring a wide variety of language games.

The advantages of language games are that they can:
1. Reduce learner stress and so increase their receptive to learning
2. Offer demanding and thorough language practice
3. Provide a context for genuine, purposeful communication
4. Allow teachers an opportunity to analyze learners' strengths and weaknesses

However, fun can be a trap for inexperienced teachers, because they might assume that learners who are 'having fun' are automatically learning. The use of games could imply that most learning is boring, and this could undermine the entire learning process. Penny Ur has used the expression ‘GLALL’ (a Game-Like Activity for Language Learning), which she argues differs from a game as it is not just for fun.

It is vital that the teacher is clear why they are using a game and how it helps the learning process.

There is of course another type of language game, one that involves playing with the language itself. This involves trying to demonstrate creativity and promote responses. This view of playing with language is explored in the book 'Language Play, Language Learning' by Guy Cook. He argues that native speakers (both children and adults) play with language in a wide range of situations - when they tell a joke, make a pun, write a poem or do a cryptic crossword for example. He shows that when people play in this way, they experiment with the form of language (e.g. when creating plausible new words), its sound (e.g. when using rhyme or rhythm), its meaning (e.g. when exploiting multiple meanings in different contexts) and its pragmatic force (how it is likely to affect the listener). They also play by using language to express their imagination; they create events, people and places with words.

Vocabulary Activity - Similes 'As... as...' (Int)
There are a number of similes that follow the above pattern, e.g. 'As good as gold', 'As quiet as a mouse' etc. It is possible to teach learners some of these standard forms, but many of them can sound clichéd and it is perhaps more interesting to see what alternatives the learners can invent. It may also be more motivating as they can create forms that are relevant to their lives. It is also interesting to allow them to try to create new similes for adjectives where no recognized simile exists.

Procedure: Give the learners some examples of the simile pattern and show them how they rely on alliteration, imagery or cultural reference to create their full effect. Explain that although there are many fixed expressions, new forms are also being invented all the time.

Give the learners a list of adjectives and ask them to create their own similes. They can compare their answers in small groups, choosing the best alternatives before reporting back to the whole class. If you want to add an element of competition, you can get the learners to vote on the most expressive or original answers. They can then compare their answers to any standard forms that exist (this is useful passive knowledge and can help to highlight interesting cultural similarities/differences).

Advertising Slogans (Adv)
Advertising slogans are everywhere. They are also among the most memorable pieces of language.

Procedure: Give the learners an advert from a newspaper or magazine that includes a well-known slogan. Have them discuss how the slogan reinforces the overall marketing and placement of the company. Give them some products to market (obvious examples would be the school where you are working, or a textbook or dictionary that you use) and explain that their task is to think of a slogan for the product and an image/short text to go with the slogan.

The activity can be made more challenging by having the learners to role-play the part of advertising executives who must then present this campaign to their clients (you/the rest of the class).

Alternative Realities (Young Learners)
Young learners can often learn and forget quickly, and so their lessons feature lots of drilling and repetition. However, it is important to give an opportunity for them to use language more freely and creatively.

Procedure: Use the text/own materials to introduce and practice the relevant structures e.g. animals, “it has …” Then explain that the children are explorers in the jungle who have each found a marvelous new animal which they are going to describe (and draw). The easiest way to explain this is to demonstrate it using your own example ('Where am I?' 'In the jungle.' 'I can see an animal. It's a very strange animal... etc). If you cannot draw, so much the better, because anything the children produce will be better than your picture. Allow the children sufficient time to think of a fantastic animal and describe it. You can also ask the children to name their animals.

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