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Gamification for EL Teachers

by Deborah Healey | 19 Nov 2013
Resource Description: This resource provides information for teachers interested in gamifying their English language teaching. It has a description of different game elements that could be used in the classroom to add motivation, as well as some specific activities as examples.
Audience: Teacher Training
Audience Language Proficiency: Advanced
Teaching Tip:

Gamification is becoming an increasingly popular concept in teaching. Today's "digital natives" have grown up with video and computer games, and they look for excitement. The fast pace of many games fits their short attention spans. The concept of "gamification" - using game elements in non-game contexts to motivate and persuade - is moving from marketing to teaching. While games have long been part of a language teacher's bag of tricks, teachers can benefit from learning about the elements of games that will help us appeal to today's learners. suggests 24 game mechanics, several of which teachers may already incorporate or could relatively easily add to their lessons. This tip explains how English language teachers can use the different game mechanics to improve learner motivation, collaboration, and willingness to spend time practicing.

The game mechanics most likely to be used by teachers are:
  • Cascading Information Theory – breaking up information into bits so that each bit can be effectively learned; not getting all the information at once. We do this all the time; it’s called curriculum.
  • Achievements – where learners have accomplished something, and they know it. These may be made visible in a variety of ways. Teachers tend to do this a lot with their learners. Game theory calls those who are greatly motivated by achievement relative to others “Achievers” or “Killers.” Both need to know that they’re better than others, but the latter (“Killers”) want to have more power than others or power over others. Good teachers try to channel this desire for control into helping others. Sometimes it works.
  • Community Collaboration – working together to solve a problem or do a task. We call it “group work” in teaching. In game theory, “Socializers” are especially motivated by this. Women are more likely to be socializers and motivated by collaboration than young men, particularly “Achievers” and “Killers.”
  • Points – giving numerical value for actions. We call them grades. We tend not to give points to a group or for routine activities, but we could.
  • Loss Aversion – not getting a reward, but avoiding punishment. Grading is often how teachers implement this.
  • Behavioral Momentum – the tendency of people who are doing something to keep doing it. This works in tandem with what SCVNGR calls Fun Once, Fun Always – activities that remain enjoyable, even with repetition. Classroom routines would fall into this category.

Other game mechanics that we can and should try to include:

  • Countdown – having only a certain (generally short) amount of time to do something. As the deadline approaches, there is more activity on the part of players/learners. While we routinely include this with homework and tests, it’s also something that could be incorporated within a classroom lesson to gamify just about anything. The key is making sure that everyone can succeed sometime.
  • Levels – gaining more points leads to more or different rewards. If we changed grading so that learners started from zero points and added more, we would be doing something like this. A very interesting idea!
  • Progression – gradual success, typically via completing a series of tasks; the key is that progress is visual in some way. A chart of reading speed might be one example of this. It’s something that language teaching doesn’t always do well. Learners often don’t know where they are in their move toward language acquisition.
  • Ownership – feeling that you control something. Having learners publish their work to a broader audience can give this sense, as can giving learners more autonomy in choosing topics and tasks in the classroom.

Project-based and task-based learning and game mechanics

  • Blissful Productivity – the idea that people like working hard and feeling productive. It’s not work for its own sake, but the sense of productivity that makes this powerful. Task-based learning often exemplifies this.
  • Discovery/Exploration – people like certain kinds of surprises. Some learners are especially motivated by discovery. Game theory calls these people “explorers.”
  • Epic Meaning – the sense of accomplishing something big, like saving a world. Language teachers can approach this by having learners do projects that go outside the classroom and that have a large external audience.
  • Quests/Challenges – overcoming obstacles, either alone or with a team. Project- and task-based learning can use this. It’s another way of visualizing progress.
  • Virality – a game or task that works better with many people. Project-based learning is often characterized by teamwork.

As an example, let’s look at a high-beginner class. The game mechanics are in [brackets, in italics].

The teacher starts the class by asking the designated team (selected in the previous class) to mention the topics that they covered. In this case, it was colors and clothing.
[classroom routine=Behavioral Momentum; team=Community Collaboration].

The teacher shows 2-3 pictures of people and describes each: This is Salim. His shirt is green. This is Marta. Her dress is black. This is Toshio. He has blue trousers. The students sit in groups of four. They have 5 pictures and descriptions of each picture, cut into words or phrases. The teams have 10 minutes to create a correct sentence for each picture.
Teams get points [points] for:

  • having different people on each team make sentences [community collaboration, virality]
  • when they finish (earlier gets more points) [countdown], and
  • how many sentences they complete correctly [achievement].

An option is to deduct points for incorrect sentences. [loss aversion, challenge]

As a follow-up, students are asked to go into the community and either take pictures of people or of signs with people on them, or find pictures in a magazine. They have to find images that they can describe. They then need to create descriptions.
    [challenge, ownership, and discovery]

The next class will review by sharing pictures with other teams and writing sentences.

The teacher posts a wall chart showing levels of skill with descriptions: recognition (matching words and pictures), reconstruction from samples (task with words and phrases), creation of new sentences (their own pictures and sentences). This shows the progress that each group has made [progression].

Try using the different game mechanics to gamify your class. Start small, but keep the focus on the student as an active player, not a passive recipient of information.

References: (2013). Game mechanics. Available at (2013). Gamification. Available at

Juul, J. (2003). The game, the player, the world: Looking for a heart of gameness. Available at

Kapp, K.M. (2012). The gamification of learning and instruction: Game-based methods and strategies for training and education. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

Penny Arcade. (2012). Gamifying education. Available at

Schonfeld, E. (2010). SCVNGR's secret game mechanics playdeck. Available at

Useful Links: Gamification for EL Teachers:

Slideshare with gamification presentation by D. Healey:
TESOL Interest Section: Computer-Assisted Language Learning