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Motivating Adult Students: Playing Games

by Lorraine Hopping Egan | 22 Aug 2013
Resource Description: Tips and strategies for playing English language learning games, including a sample phonics game using a set of reproducible letter cards.
Audience: Teacher Training
Audience Language Proficiency: Advanced
Teaching Tip: Games aren’t just “kid’s stuff.” They’re motivational tools for adults and kids alike. People who are having fun and paying attention learn better. My students work all day or have family responsibilities; they’re often tired, and games help energize them in a way that fill-in-the-blank worksheets and rote exercises simply can’t.

There’s a difference between educational games and games that are educational. Many learning games teach important skills and are useful classroom tools, but they aren’t fun to play. I first seek out games that play well, including commercial products that I enjoy with my family at holiday time, and then adapt them to beef up or incorporate solid educational content and language skills.

Keep score! Some teachers are reluctant to do this to avoid having “losers” or putting pressure on students, but scoring is a key component in game play. It’s what makes players want to win, want to follow the rules, want to succeed, want to do better the next time. Remember: These are adults, not kids; no one’s going to cry if they lose. In my opinion, if you don’t keep score or have a decisive resolution (a “finish line” or “pay-off” of some sort), it’s not a game—it’s an exercise—and you lose the motivational push that games provide. I would also
argue that the pressure and tension that a competitive situation creates is a positive; it mimics the pressure and tension that every language learner feels when faced with communicating in a foreign tongue.

Good educational games teach the very same skills that workbooks do. It’s important to point this out to students at the beginning of the lesson, especially for those who don’t play a lot of games. You might encounter a little skepticism from students who are used to formal
lessons and homework, but this quickly fades. Also, I follow up every game with a solid review of vocabulary and concepts.

Games of skill document progress as players get better with each session—an informal assessment tool! In fact, the first game session is often the shakiest, as students get used to the rules and learn strategies. After introducing a game, I play it several more times in consecutive sessions at higher skill levels or with varied content and point out to students the progression of improvement and the levels of mastery. Adults catch on faster than kids, so you can “up” the level of play quickly.

Competition and cooperation are not “bad” or “good.” They’re vital tools for game inventors and educators alike. Most good games are a mixture of the two dynamics.
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