Roadblocks to using games with adults

foreign ESL students in English class

Walking into a classroom full of adult English language learners can be far more intimidating than facing a class of children. You are there to teach a serious subject, one that may affect your students’ careers, hopes for the future and even their ability to survive in a new country. You may not feel that asking students your own age, or older, to play games is going to help your teaching or their learning, but in fact you couldn’t be more wrong. English language games can help you overcome numerous roadblocks that stand between your students and their mastery of English.

The main roadblock you may face, as a teacher who might want to use language games in the classroom, is your own hesitance about using this approach with adult learners. However, basically, there is no difference between young and adult learners because we all like to have fun. Classes for adults that contain games are refreshing and allow ample opportunity to practice communicating.

According to research many adults feel anxious when learning a foreign or second language. Games can help them forget that they are learning and instead enjoy the experience while enhancing their knowledge. The positive emotions make them relax and feel more confident. Adults can learn through games in English language teaching just as much as children. They learn from known to unknown. As a Chinese proverb says, “I hear I forget. I see I understand and I do I remember.”

The gender question

All people learn differently, and there are many factors involved as to why there is so much variation. For some cultures, gender is still an important factor to consider. In some cultures, women may be shy to speak if men are present. Making a woman a team leader in a game might vex a macho male from a nation where women are mothers and servants, not leaders. I’m not saying ‘don’t do it’, I’m just saying ‘be sensitive to possible friction.’

How does any of this impact your English language teaching? 

Games provide a safe, fun outlet for competitive urges and help keep the class from becoming too ‘exam centered.’ They also create a changeable situation that encourages flexible thinking in all students. Role-play games, re-enactments, and ‘murder mysteries’ where students have to improvise and play parts outside their every days lives are good examples of this. Students who struggle with test-anxiety often achieve new levels of fluency in these language games because the goal is not to get a good score, but to find out “who did it” or to achieve some goal, such as bargaining with other groups for items they need to complete their game-objective.

Most language games combine verbal and analytical elements so that both male and female students can excel at them. Word puzzles, such as Hangman and Rivet, as well as quiz games, like Jeopardy, mix language skills withstrategic thinking in a way that is fun for everyone. It is not unusual to have teenage boys remain silent all through class, because they feel they are too cool for school, until these games come out. Suddenly, it’s all about winning, so they don’t mind speaking in English. The girls want to show off as well, and pretty soon you can’t keep them quiet!

Games provide a way of linking language and activity so that both men and women can learn effectively in your class. The most obvious example of this would be Charades, but Simon Says and Hand Sign Stories also accomplish this. Men are more likely to be kinaesthetic learners, who take in information best through touch and physical activity. Women are more likely to be auditory learners. They got a lot from the language games as well, through calling out answers and listening to others’ responses.

All these games are included in the English Language Games Book for teens and adults.

The culture question

Before including a lot of English language games, it is important to consider the cultural background of the students you are working with and the cultural setting of your class.

Students in multi-cultural classes in an English speaking country are usually more flexible in the expectations of the class. Start with get to know you games and games that allow your students to examine their preconceptions in a new setting. Riddle contests where students try to stump each other, or where you set the class a riddle to solve, can be a really fun way to do this at the intermediate level, since riddles inherently require players to look at ordinary things from a different point of view. It makes for an interesting cultural lesson if the students translate riddles from their own countries. If you have the students solve their riddles in teams, then this also makes a good ice-breaker.

Students in mono-cultural classes in their home country will bring a lot of their own cultural expectations into class. Get to know just what these expectations are in regards to adults playing games. If you are new to the country, it’s important to ask teachers who have been there for a while, as well as read up on the culture before going. Even if you do all that, be sure to get a run down on individual students from your school administrators or secretaries whenever possible. Adult Japanese students will enjoy all kinds of language games from the beginning, partly because organized party games are a big part of their normal after-work socializing. If you are teaching in Germany, on the other hand, you may run into resistance at first, since adult game playing tends to be less rambunctious, and language study is seen as a very serious endeavour.

You may need to start out doing mostly role-plays in order to get your students ready to step outside of their daily roles. Build up your classroom as an English culture-zone so that students will begin to expect interactions that are not like their own cultures. Games will be less surprising then. Decorating the walls is always a good way to start, but may not always be possible. Bringing in weekly comics from English speaking papers, English news magazines, and sharing out snacks from home are other good ways to set up your cultural boundaries. Comics especially can lead to some interesting cultural discussions, since many kinds of humour tend to be dependent on cultural norms and expectations.

How can you play games while still treating your students as adults? 

One useful theory for working with adult learners is Malcolm Knowles’ (1975, 1984, 1984) Andragogy theory. In this theory he makes four basic assumptions that have definite relevance to how we use games in the classroom: 

1)    Adults need to know why they need to learn something. So don’t assume students will be interested just because the teacher is telling them to do something. Make sure to explain how the game will help their English 

2)    Adults need to learn experientially and language games provide a far greater variety of experience than any textbook exercise, through the simple process of human interaction. 

3)    Adults approach learning as problem solving. Children learn instinctively through trial and error, but adults bring a lifetime of strategies into the classroom. Many games are inherently problem-solving situations and allow students to apply new and different strategies for language learning in a non-stressful environment. 

4)    Adults learn best when the topic is of immediate value. ‘Immediate value’ is a tricky term. We all have different things that we value. As you get to know your students, you will be able to select language games that enforce not only the current teaching point, but also wider goals, such as making friends, socializing, and gaining knowledge of another country. Find out what your students want, and select activities that will directly help them on the path to attaining these goals.

Ultimately, if you respect your students and get to know their goals in learning English, then you will be able to use games to enrich their learning experience and improve their English skills. It’s fun and easy, and all it takes is a little planning.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Shelley Vernon promotes learning through English language games and activities.  Go to: Book of Games and Activities

This book is also on Amazon if you prefer a paperback, you’ll find it under “Shelley Ann Vernon”, Title: ESL Classroom Activities for Teens and Adults.

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