How to Use English Games With ESL and EFL Language Learners

An EFL learner is someone who is learning English but does not live in an English speaking country while an ESL learner does live in an English speaking country. Both types of English language learner have a lot in common, and benefit from the use of games in the classroom, but sensitivity to the different circumstances and goals of each group should be used in selecting and presenting the games. 


EFL Learners

EFL learners will generally have similar backgrounds, but varied motivations. They are usually stable as regards to income, residence, and schedules. They are also usually literate in their first language. They may be learning English as a foreign language for a hobby or for their work. Aside from those studying for academic requirements, there is less emphasis on writing and literacy in English, and more on verbal communication. Academic EFL students will often want to focus on tests and test practice. When selecting games for EFL classes select according to students' interests.


For EFL learners who will be taking exams check if the test has a speaking component and if it does games can be very helpful in preparing for this. If speaking is not tested in the exam focus on English games that will support listening, skimming, reading, and writing skills. These students genuinely enjoy language games that are both relevant and still a break from the drudgery of exam prep. Quiz games and trivia games based on English vocabulary and grammar rules are excellent ways to work on exam topics while injecting some fun into the class. 


Occasionally both EFL and ESL learners may pin you down for specifics of how a game is supposed to help them prepare for a test, so it is a good idea to have a prepared answer detailing exactly what the game is re-enforcing. This has actually happened on more than one occasion with European University students. 


A particular German student was quite offended at the idea of playing games during class time, until she was shown the list of questions to be covered, and informed that many of them were taken directly from the same test practice books she would have used on her own. This EFL student became very enthusiastic about the weekly quiz competitions, and passed her Cambridge exams with flying colours. 


For those who study English as a hobby, or conversational English, almost any speaking or listening game will be of interest. Rhythmic chants, songs, and rhyming games are a lot of fun with these students. You can also work in some reading and writing painlessly, by playing build-a-sentence or build-a-story games and then having them actually write up the sentence or story they have just composed.


175 games and activities are included in the English Language Games and Activities Book for teens and adults.


Business students will appreciate games as a relief from the grind of daily work, but you will have greatest success if you connect them to the goals of the course and business situations in which the students hope to use their English. Role-plays and skits can be especially helpful with advanced business students, as they often bring out aspects of cross cultural communication that are taken for granted and not mentioned in books. 


A Japanese student taking part in a mock board meeting once stopped the game in the middle because he couldn’t believe that it was accurately portraying how the meeting would be run. The dynamics of business meetings in the U.S. and Japan were so different that this student simply couldn’t believe it. A colleague who had been stationed at an American branch of the company was able to assure him that the role-play was, in fact, true to a U.S. style of business meeting. Later, this role-play turned out to be one of the most highly rated parts of the training seminar. 


ESL Learners

ESL classes are marked by the diversity of cultures and backgrounds of the students. The economic resources of ESL learners are often, but not always, quite low. Schedules may be problematic due to appointments with immigration, and family responsibilities and long work hours. ESL students may have come from highly traumatic situations such as fleeing from war, poverty or persecution. Families may not be complete. Recent deaths may make certain topics difficult, or it may simply be that some members of the family were forced to stay behind due to financial limitations. Work hours may be long and hard. Students will often arrive at class exhausted, especially if it is a night class. 


When selecting games for ESL classes, one must take a much wider look at how the students came to be there, and what English they need to survive · When ESL students come from traumatic situations and directly into your class, games can relieve stress, and allow them to laugh and have fun at a time when there may not be a lot to laugh about. 


Be sensitive to your students’ experiences – Don’t play family games with refugees from a war zone, for example. You will probably have more than one dissolve into tears or ask to leave the room. That may seem like an extreme example, but it actually happened to a teacher with a class that turned out to be mainly comprised of Bosnian refugees. 


Even without a war, students with refugee status, or those who have had to struggle to reach a new country, will often have suffered many hardships. For these students, board games that help with vocabulary and grammar are great ways to start out, since they don’t require players to touch on emotionally charged issues, and they cover basics that these ESL learners need to focus on. 


Be aware of the variety of cultures in your class and how comfortable they are with each other. You might well have members from each side of a conflict in your class. Games can break the ice, relieve tension, and provide a structured venue for interaction between students from cultures that don’t traditionally get along. For example, Korean and Chinese students often view Japanese students with hostility. Arab Christians and Muslims can create tension in a class, as can Pakistani and Indian students. These are groups that have long standing histories of conflict. 


Stick to games like “Find someone who…,” board games, and team games like charades and Pictionary at first. These games have clear boundaries and objectives that keep hostility to a minimum while maximizing student interactions. Games with more improvisation, like role-plays, debates, and ‘murder mysteries’ are riskier, so wait until you know your students well before you try one of these. 


Language games are a great way to show recently arrived ESL learners that certain activities, like mixing genders in the same class, are acceptable in their new country, where it might not have been in their old. 


Ultimately, both ESL and EFL students want to learn English, and using games will help them to achieve these goals with more fun, laughter, and ease than any workbook or lecture ever could. All it takes is a little forethought, a wide variety of games to choose from, and sensitivity to the needs and experiences of the students.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Shelley Vernon promotes learning through English language games and activities.  Go to book: 175 Games and Activities for Teens and Adults.