Learning and Games

In the Beginning

Long ago, I took a typing class as an elective, but lost interest shortly after learning how to (badly) touch type.  Since I had nothing to lose by failing, I happily flunked. When I left the class, I could type about 15 WPM (words per minute).

A while later, I got a part time office job.  On slow days, I amused myself by exploring my computer’s software, and discovered Mavis Beacon — a program to teach/improve typing.  I tried it and was hooked because it taught typing through games!  For instance, I could race against several opponents, and how fast I went depended on how quickly and accurately I typed.  Furthermore, Mavis remembered my scores, so the games got harder each time.

I kept playing Mavis for fun, and as a result I ended up typing over 80 WPM!  I was 14 years old at the time.


Years later, I taught computer classes and found many students who wanted to improve their typing.  Remembering Mavis, I sent them to this free site with online typing games.  There, students blasted asteroids, raced cars, danced and more — all by typing.  Students enjoyed this so much, that I often had kick them out of the computer lab when it closed!

It was years later that I stumbled on the terms Gamification and Edutainment, and thought of Mavis. I then wondered about other areas to which these concepts could be applied.

I got a chance to find out later — when I taught ESL (English as a Second Language).  I wanted students to practice more, improve attendance and retention. To this end, I built a toolbox of techniques and sites for games-based language practice.  If engagement = success, this was a hit as students skipped breaks and even refused to leave class because they wanted to keep playing!

Here are things I did or am considering doing.

  • Taboo: A student gets a card with a word s/he must describe and a list of words s/he cannot use.
    • Example: Describe “lunch” without using “breakfast, dinner, meal, or noon”.
    • Trains: Vocabulary, prompting, hinting and questioning skills.
    • Progression: Use different words or change the forbidden words.


  • Guess the Picture: A student gets a picture, and must describe what it looks like so that other students can guess the picture.
    • Example: Given a picture of a pig, say “it is pink”, “it has four legs”…
    • Trains: Visual language and prepositions
    • Progression: More complex pictures or require more complex language forms


  • Draw the Picture: A student gets a picture and tells another student how to draw it; when done, the artist must guess the object.
    • Example: Given a picture of a pig,  say “draw a circle”, “draw 4 lines below it”…
    • Trains: Visual language, imperatives, prepositions and shapes.
    • Progression: More complex pictures, or requiring more descriptive shape language


  • Twenty Questions: A student gets a picture or description of an object and the other students must ask questions to guess the object; they only get 20 questions.
    • Trains: Q&A
    • Progression: Demanding more or less grammatical correctness.


  • Information Gaps: Students get incomplete tasks, and must consult with other students (who have incomplete, but complementary tasks) to complete their sheets (without looking at each other’s sheets).
    • Example: Pairs of students get two similar pictures  and are then told to find 10 differences without looking at each others’ picture.
    • Trains: Vocabulary, preposition use and Q&A.
    • Progression: Picture complexity, number of differences, requiring certain language (e.g.: complete sentences, comparison/contrast forms, etc…).


Minimal Word Pairs: A student secretly rolls dice and flips a coin, and reads a word at the corresponding cell in a table. Other students must guess the die roll and coin flip from the word read.  Use words that differ only by a single sound — one the students find challenging.  Here’s a sample chart:

 Roll Heads Tails
1 grin green
2 ship chip
3 cut cute
4 berry very
5 best vest
6 wine vine


  • These games can be played with the teacher, which can be useful if some students are trouble following, to demonstrate the proper language, or even teach by showing the necessary language as the need arises. For instance, the drawing game can be used to teach/practice shapes and prepositions, like below…
    • Student 1: Draw a circle.
    • Teacher draws a circle.
    • Student 2: No, no, longer.
    • Teacher: Oh, that is an OVAL.
    • Teacher writes “oval” on the board, has the class say it, then prompts the student to re-word his/her instruction using “oval” before drawing it.
    • Student 3: Draw 4 lines.
    • Teacher draws 4 horizontal lines.
    • Student 3: No, other way.
    • Teacher: Oh, draw them VERTICALLY.
    • Teacher writes “vertically”…
    • Student 4: Yes, but not up, down.
    • Teacher: Oh, you mean draw them BELOW THE CIRCLE.
    • (and so on).

Then there are online language games like the ones on this site

General Questions About Gamification/Edutainment

Sometimes, gamifying is as simple as adding visuals and sounds to a standard drill.  For instance, typing games generally use standard typing drills where successful typing leads to things like shots being fired, and the speed of enemies serving as timers, etc…

Sometimes, teachers can keep score (not a grade!).  For instance, passing out tokens for correct answers, counting them up at the end of the class and (possibly) presenting a prize may be enough.  For that matter, tokens could be used with any of the above games to add further gamification dimensions.

Can games teach, or do they only provide practice? Sometimes the line is blurred, as when games include tutorials on how to play.  Taking this to heart, can the lesson be presented as game rules?  Further, even if games are just for practice, practice may be the most important part of learning. Make practice fun and more students will practice more and longer.

Language is great for games because language is how we accomplish anything socially. So any game with a social element is a chance to practice language; it need not be a language game per se.  Still, some games are better at training students in certain domains.

Prepositions come up often, since they describe relationships — often spatial or temporal.  Picture games naturally train the former, while comic strips (or sequence diagrams) can train the latter.  This is fortuitous because students often have difficulty with prepositions.


10 thoughts on “Learning and Games

  1. Games are a wonderful teaching tool. I wish I had played typing games as a kid. As it was I didn’t get a computer until my sophomore year of college. I’m only 32, so this is really strange. Luckily I was required to take a keyboarding class in HS. There were no games there…just pure horror. I remember walking into class and panicking when I saw the blank keyboards. I will say this—that class was balls to the wall, but I don’t look at the keyboard at all now!

    I also taught an ESL course for a very short while. These were adults from all over the world…teaching this class was a blast. I didn’t have to worry about people speaking their native tongue to each other since they simply couldn’t. I liked to play a game of catch for “bowling” types (people from countries such as South Korea, Japan, or Germany where culturally people don’t speak all at once, but one at a time). I’d set up some topic and they would stand in a circle. I’d throw the ball at someone, and that person would have to answer the question, then toss it to someone else. It makes them speak without thinking too much (which can be a problem with “bowlers” who tend to want the grammar to be perfect in their minds before they’ll speak). Of course, this game can be altered in many ways. If you speed it up, it can be pretty challenging.

    Or we’d play a role-playing game involving going to the doctor, applying for a driver’s license, etc. All practical activities that they’d someday face. They universally loved this game since they were all nervous about how to do these things, and they could feel more confident going out into the real world armed with appropriate phrases. We’d go over some vocab and then act out different scenarios using the new vocab. Great for those phrasal verbs (signing up, signing in, giving in, filling out…)

    That class was so much fun. Those students were hilarious and we always had a great time.

    1. Blank keyboards. Nice way of guaranteeing that you have to touch type 😛

      I need to try “catch”. My class is small enough that this can work, and I can even be part of the game (which will allow me to provide examples of proper language). Thanks for the idea!

      Also, role playing is a great idea — my main challenge in this area is finding enough structure, as I found that my students do better when there’s a structure than if something is completely free form.

      I’ve had some fun classes, and I try to make all my classes at least moderately engaging, although ideally, every one of my classes would be a blast. I assume students are more likely to retain material from a fun learning session, plus it gives them more motivation to keep coming to class.


  2. Games take the slog out of learning. One of the most tedious parts of learning Japanese is learning the multiple readings and meanings of the kanji (Chinese characters like those in 漢字 which is pronounced “kanji”.) I used to use flashcards but I could only learn a few before my eyes glazed over. Then I found a game on the Internet called Slime Forest. It’s an old-fashioned, unsophisticated game but it has taught me hundreds of kanji so far. I use it every day.

    1. Slime Forest sounds like the kind of thing I’d like to find in English! In fact, I’ve toyed with the idea of interactive fiction as a medium for this, and there are some “Interactive Fiction” videos on YouTube that make use of the ability to embed links into a video to good effect.

      1. That sounds intriguing. Do you have a link to one of these Interactive Fiction videos I could try? It sounds a bit like those books one used to get where you’d go to different pages depending on the choices you made for the story-line. Do you know what I mean?

      2. Thanks for the link. I just played “Ronald has a spider on his head.” Very funny. I’m looking forward to trying some of the others. 🙂

      3. Also, I know what you mean about the choose-your-own-adventure stories, and that’s what some of them are. I treat interactive fiction, choose-your-own-adventure and adventure games as one concept — the difference is in emphasis. There are also some nice tools for creating choose-your-own-adventure stories, although I wonder if they’re overkill, considering that this is basically nothing more than page navigation, and your browser’s back button let’s you undo your last decision. At some point, I might blog about some ideas relating to this.

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