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5 Engaging Games for Writing Development

by Betsy Gilliland |

As teachers, we know that when students are engaged in a lesson, they are more willing to persist in learning difficult concepts and complex processes. One way to keep students engaged is through building games into the lesson, giving them the opportunity to have fun and possibly compete (in a friendly way) as they develop their language proficiency. In my blog post 2 years ago, I interviewed my former graduate student Lin Zhou about a topic of her expertise, online role-playing games for teaching writing.

Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking about other ways that we can bring games into the writing classroom, ideally making learning to write a bit more fun for our students while still giving them ample opportunities to hone the many skills that build into a successful writing practice.

1. Lists

This game strengthens students’ vocabulary knowledge, a valuable asset for writing. Give pairs or teams of students a category word (fruit, animals, sports, etc.) and set a timer. Each team should brainstorm and write down as many words as they can think of that fit in that category. The winner is the team with the longest list.

In a virtual context, teams could work on separate Google Docs in breakout rooms so the other teams can’t see what their competitors are writing. In the classroom, this game could be played as a relay race with the lists on the board: Teams line up on the opposite side of the classroom, with individual students running up to the board to add a word. Each member of a team can only write one word and then has to run back to the team and tag the next team member.

2. Add-a-Word

In this activity, students must apply lexico-grammatical rules, such as adjective order, while choosing words that fit conceptually with the meaning of the original sentence. To play as a whole class game, write a basic sentence (subject, verb, and object) on the board or in a Google Doc. Students take turns adding a single modifier (adjective or adverb) to one of the nouns or the verb. As a class, you can decide whether the modifiers need to make sense or can be silly.

Students could also do this activity in small groups, either in the classroom or virtually. To make it a competition, see how many words each group can add within a set time period while maintaining a (somewhat) logical sentence. This game is adapted from the site Journal Buddies, which also offers many more creative ideas for teachers.

3. Guess Who?

This activity challenges students to choose ways to write descriptions that are specific enough to capture a particular person without being too obvious. Students write a description of a well-known person (e.g., a famous person, someone at their school, someone in their class), providing key details but not giving the person’s name. They pass their description to another student or read it aloud to the class and then evaluate whether anyone was able to guess the person.

4. What’s in My Pocket?

Like the previous game, this activity also involves writing a description, but the description is focused on objects rather than people. Writers describe an object in their pocket (or bag or desk) in short sentences, starting with the most vague adjectives and moving to more specific.

For example, a description of a tube of lip balm might start “It is long and round” (which could apply to many things people keep in their bags or pockets) and then move through gradually more specific descriptions toward a final descriptor, such as “You put it on your lips when they are dry.” The writer reads their description aloud to a partner or the class, one sentence at a time, giving the audience a chance to guess after each sentence. The first person to guess (using the most vague clue) earns a point.

5. Roll the Dice

This is an activity to foster students’ creative writing in narrative genres. Write the numbers 1–6 on the board in three or four columns. At the top of each column, provide a category label relevant to your class’s interests (e.g., animals, occupations, cities, sports). Have the class brainstorm six words that fit in each category. Give each student a single die and have them write the categories on a piece of paper. Students then roll the die once for each category and note the word that corresponds to the number they rolled. They should then write a story that incorporates all the words as characters, settings, or other elements of the narrative. In an online context, you could also use the Flippity Randomizer instead of rolling dice. (Here’s an already-made randomizer that could work well for this purpose.)

For other creative writing ideas, see Hetal Ascher’s TESOL Blog post, “4 Low-Prep Creative Writing Ideas.”

These are just a few ways to incorporate games into the writing classroom. Check out Jeff Kuhn’s blog post on developing board games for some more ideas. What writing games have you used in your teaching? Share your thoughts in the comments section!

About the author

Betsy Gilliland

Betsy Gilliland is an associate professor in the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa, where she teaches courses on second language writing, teacher research, and qualitative research methods to undergraduate and graduate students. Co-editor of the Journal of Response to Writing, she was chair of the TESOL Second Language Writing Interest Section (2019-2020) and has published in TESOL Journal, Journal of Second Language Writing, and ELT Journal, among others. She was a Fulbright Scholar at the Universidad de Atacama (Chile) in 2018.

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