Speaking Games – Learning to play: Webinar

Webinar for Delta Publishing, 1st October 2014

Click here to watch the webinar on the DELTA Publishing website.

Picture1As well as being great fun, I believe speaking games offer some of the best opportunities for ‘authentic’ language use in both adult and teenage classrooms, promoting real communication in interaction between learners, interaction with the teacher and interaction with materials. In the webinar we explore potential learning opportunities both in the gameplay itself, and in the language use that occurs around the game (setting it up, incidental language, social interaction, etc.).

The following blog is intended as a supplement to the webinar itself. I have gone into a little more detail about some of the points I mention briefly during the webinar. Hopefully my arguments are a little clearer, too!

Keeping it real

Before I begin talking about authenticity and authentic language use, I should say that I consider myself to be a fairly eclectic teacher, and include a variety of activities ranging from ‘naturalistic’ language use to more ‘form-focused’ and ‘form-manipulating’ language practice. I don’t think that authentic is necessarily better, or more useful. However, like most teachers, I think an important aspect of the teacher’s job is to provide opportunities for ‘authentic’ language use within the classroom as part of any course of language learning, both as a rehearsal for the ‘real world’, and as part of that real world in itself – the classroom is as real as any other language use environment. Recognising that language use in the classroom can be authentic is an important part of validating the classroom as a ‘real’ context, the class itself as a ‘real’ community and the lesson as an opportunity for ‘real’ language use.

 There is no such thing as authentic materials…

… and no such thing as inauthentic materials, for that matter (see Cook 1997 or Breen 1985). Authenticity is not a quality or magic attribute of the materials we make use of as learning resources. It is happening, an event, an incidence of contextualised language use (productive or receptive) within a community. When a teacher takes a text not intended for language learners into class, he is not exposing them to authentic language, he’s presenting them with something that is now decontextualised. For a text to be valid within the classroom context, it has to have what Henry Widdowson calls a ‘pragmatic functioning’ within the discourse community (Widdowson 1998). Here’s an example of a potentially ‘authentic text’ from my classroom:


Insomuch as my learners usually choose to ignore this sign, they are, ironically, using the language on it authentically!

 Manufacturing authenticity in the classroom

I’m not saying it’s wrong to exploit texts from all across society in the classroom, I’m saying that we should recognise that the moment we choose to take something into the classroom, we necessarily turn it into ‘artifice’. All of this has been argued far more eloquently by Widdowson in ‘Context, Community and Authentic Language’, (1998), which he concludes as follows:

As TESOL professionals, we need to make language and language learning a reality for learners, and we cannot do so by bland reference to “real English.” It can only be done by contrivance, by artifice. And artifice, the careful crafting of appropriate language activities, is what TESOL is all about. Note that I say appropriate, not authentic. By that I mean language that can be made real by the community of learners, authenticated by them in the learning process.

Henry Widdowson  Context, Community and Authentic Language  1998, p.715

Earlier in the paper, Widdowson identifies the three elements that are necessary for language use to be described as authentic: context, community and pragmatic functioning:

“The authenticity or reality of language use in its normal pragmatic functioning depends on its being localised within a particular discourse community (. . .) this textual product can only be made pragmatically real as discourse if it is reconnected up with context of some kind.”

 What have games got to do with authenticity?

When I put together the activities in Speaking Games, I chose to define a speaking game as follows:

An activity in which learners use spoken language to reach a predefined goal in competition with one another.

Some readers may be a little surprised by this requirement for competition (and it may not be a good idea in all contexts), but I find it’s an important part of gameplay in the adult and late teen EFL / ESOL classroom. Games that involve such competitive interaction create two contexts for authentic language use, each within its own community, as follows:

Context Community Pragmatic functioning 
  1. The game
The players To win the game (or to play well)
  1. The lesson ‘event’
The class To play the game successfully/correctly/fairly

In the first context, whenever learners do what is linguistically required of them in order to progress towards success within the game, they are using language authentically. For example, if a learner is talking for a minute without stopping on a random topic, or trying to guess a word being described by a classmate, she is using language no less authentically than if I am playing Just a Minute, Charades or Pictionary with my friends. The language use is authentic because it has a ‘pragmatic functioning’ within the discourse community of the game, even if it fulfils a partly- or wholly-linguistic outcome (as opposed to a non-linguistic, ‘real world’ outcome); using language for its own sake is part of authentic language use (Crystal 1998; Cook 2000).

The second context includes any language use that either facilitates or happens around the playing of the game. To make the contrast between this and the first context clear, imagine you took a photocopiable resource book, such as Speaking Games or Jill Hadfield’s Communication Games (1990) into class, gave it to the learners and said to them:

‘Play the game on page 36.’

The ensuing interaction would all involve authentic language use, including the communication between the learners (e.g. ‘OK. You go and do the photocopies, and I’ll check what this word means in the dictionary.’), the communication between the ‘materials’ and the learners (when they read the teachers notes to work out how to play, how many copies of the resources to make, etc.), and any interaction between the learners and the teacher (e.g. ‘How much time do we have, teacher?’; ‘We’ve finished!’ ‘Who won?’ ‘Camilla.’) in order to complete the task of playing the game.

I’m not necessarily suggesting we do this (although I have done it a few times – see the anecdote at the start of the webinar), rather I’m suggesting that the ‘around-game’ language use is just as important as the ‘in-game’ language use insomuch as it provides valuable opportunities for meaningful, authentic language use under the auspices of the teacher and the lesson event itself. And this language use can be surprisingly varied, both in discourse type and function, as the following examples from recent lessons illustrate:

around game

From the SLA (Second Language Acquisition) point of view, making the most of this ‘around-game’ language use is likely to be viewed as good practice. It provides potential opportunities for negotiation of meaning (Long 1996) and focus on form (as opposed to ‘focus on forms’; see Long 1991), both of which have been argued to promote language learning within the classroom context. It also allows us to get a peek at how learners are likely to be using language outside the classroom, providing a useful opportunity for conducting formative assessment of their accuracy and range in language use, which can help us to work out what areas of language to focus on in future lessons – a diagnostic role, if you like.

Isn’t this just ‘task-based learning’?

I don’t think so. Unlike games, tasks cannot really offer a distinction between ‘in-task’ and ‘around-task’ language use because language use in tasks (as defined by Ellis 2009, for example) is not normally governed by a set of artificial rules. Tasks only have before, during and after phases, something that games can also have (see below). In his definition of a task, Ellis argues that tasks should have a primary focus on meaning and a non-linguistic outcome, neither of which is necessary in a game, yet the language use (both ‘in-game ‘and ‘around-game’) can still be described as authentic within Widdowson’s definition of authenticity. Like tasks, games can be ‘unfocused’ (with no specific language learning aim) or ‘focused’ (designed to practise a specific grammatical feature, lexical area or function). However, unlike tasks, target linguistic features do not need to be ‘hidden’ (Ellis 2009: 223). Either I, the teacher, or the game itself can make the language learning outcome explicit to the learners without the language use in the game losing any of its inherent authenticity or value. See, for example, the extract from a game called Third Person Challenge, below:

third person cut

Extract from Speaking Games Jason  Anderson © 2014 Delta Publishing

How can we teach learners to play games?

The more we give the onus to the learners to play the game successfully, fairly and well, the more we are creating a shared responsibility between teacher and learners to create and interact within the class as a discourse community. And this involves, in my opinion, teaching learners to play. One potential implication of this is that we can and should, when practical and appropriate, give learners a more active role in the preparation for, organisation of, and reporting back of the game than many of us do – seeing it as a 3-stage activity cycle, similar to, those described in a number of models for task-based learning (e.g. Willis 1996, Ellis 2009).

1 Preparing for the game
2 Playing the game
3 Reflecting on the game

Thus, instead of setting up a game by giving a careful instruction, a quick demonstration and then reeling off a few slick instruction check questions, we could begin by giving learners copies of the Rules of the Game and the materials, allowing them to negotiate things like groupings, seating dynamics, supplementary rules (e.g. use of mother tongue, error correction policy, penalty for cheating, etc.) before they begin playing, and we could encourage a more enriching feedback stage after the game (when they report on things like who won, what they learned from the game, what language they used, etc.). This can be followed by teacher feedback on how they performed, including praise, correction and suggestions for future learning. When games are competitive, the teacher may also need to give feedback on how the learners dealt with the competitive element (either as a group or individually if a learner needs a ‘quiet word’ on his/her behaviour); all this feedback is authentic language use.

One provision I have made in Speaking Games to enable teachers to experiment with this negotiated approach to playing games is to create a photocopiable set of rules that have been designed for learners to read (see extract: Rules of the Game below). Interestingly, as such, these Rules provide an opportunity for ‘authentic reading’, despite the fact that the language used has been carefully and consciously graded for learners… Indeed, this grading authenticises the materials. Guy Cook (1997) makes the point that there is nothing inauthentic about grading spoken language intended for learners:

Simplified grammar, slow clear speech, and the selection of basic vocabulary, are natural features of adult speech to children, and for that matter natural features of speech to a foreign speaker of our language who does not understand. In all circumstances an effective communicator adjusts to the level of his or her interlocutors. . . . what could be more unnatural and unauthentic than teachers trying to force themselves – against their better instincts – to talk to language learners as they talk to their compatriots?

Guy Cook, Language Play, Language Learning 1997, p.225

Likewise, there is nothing inauthentic in grading written language intended for learners – language that has pragmatic functioning within the discourse community of the language classroom, when the aim is to enable the reader to play a game:


 Extract from Speaking Games Jason  Anderson © 2014 Delta Publishing

The benefits of games to a learning community

Having come through the UK education system in the 1980s, I benefited from a fairly holistic education that spanned the whole range of cognitive skills (both lower and higher order) and knowledge types described in Bloom’s taxonomy (e.g. Anderson et al. 2001). My mixed-sex education (the school, I mean, not me) also provided the opportunity to learn and interact socially in complex ways with my cohort, naturally fostering my emotional and social development as an individual. Through my work as a teacher and teacher trainer across the world, I am aware that not all language learners have the same opportunities during their school education, or even beyond it. There are a number of countries (both developed and developing) and institutions in which mainstream education places, in my opinion, too much value on lower order thinking skills such as remembering and understanding at the expense of higher order skills such as analysing, evaluating and creating. In addition to this, both more traditional and more intensive modes of education with a narrower variety of learning activities, less collaborative learning, and a narrower range of assessment means, are less likely to facilitate the development of social skills among learners.

I have often noticed in both EFL and ESOL classrooms that learners who have had a more narrowly focused education benefit both from playing games and from learning to play games appropriately. When such learners first join a class they aren’t very good at playing games. They might get over-competitive, make inappropriate accusations, get too emotional, have difficulty keeping the game in perspective, etc. With time, feedback from peers and teacher, and reflection on their own behaviour, these learners usually ‘wise up’, eventually recognising that maintaining good relationships with their classmates, playing fairly and enjoying the game for its own sake are more important than winning or defending one’s own actions or words. I would argue that this is an important role for gameplay in the language classroom, even if it were not possible to argue that it contributes to language learning per se.

However, I believe that the development of the required social skills to play games successfully does contribute directly to language learning, when viewed as part of a communicative, holistic learning experience within a learning community. Breen (1985) calls it the ‘social potential of the learning group’. Put simply, I’m talking about what most of us call ‘rapport’ in the classroom, and the importance of this in facilitating learning. The complex interpersonal interaction required by gameplay provides a wide range of opportunities (both in-game and around-game) for learners to develop more complex, more natural relationships. They learn about each other’s interests, personalities, preferences, learning needs, culture and personal lives, all of which are likely to lead to more interaction between learners and more authentic language use. An obvious example of this is icebreaker activities, which are nearly always games for good reason. As such, games play a useful role in creating a community and an opportunity for socialising in the language classroom.

A hard sell?

Having said all of the above, I very much doubt that I need to sell the idea of playing games to teachers. Most of us know all of the above, either from reflection or instinct. We play games because they reach the part of learners that other learning activities cannot reach. Far more importantly, they’re fun, capable of intrinsically motivating the most recalcitrant learners or apathetic classes. Not only do they create motivation out of Picture1nothing, they demonstrate achievement. For by playing games in the classroom, learners find that they are able to use language for something that everybody enjoys doing outside the classroom, making them truly authentic language use activities.

Click here for a link to my latest title for DELTA Publishing: ‘Speaking Games’, where you can download some sample units from the book.


Anderson, J. (2014) Speaking Games. Peaslake, UK: Delta Publishing.

Anderson, L. W., Krathwohl, D. R., Airasian, P. W., Cruikshank, K. A., Mayer, R. E., Pintrich, P. R., … & Wittrock, M. C. (2001) A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives, abridged edition. White Plains, NY: Longman.

Breen, M. (1985) Authenticity in the Language Classroom. Applied linguistics, 6(1), 60-70.

Cook, G. (1997) Language play, language learning. ELT Journal, 51(3), 224-231.

Cook, G. (2000) Language play, language learning. Oxford: OUP.

Crystal, D. (1998) Language Play. Chicago: Penguin.

Ellis, R. (2009) Task-based language teaching: sorting out the misunderstandings. International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 19 (3), 221-246.

Hadfield, J. (1996) Intermediate communication games. Harlow: Longman.

Long, Michael (1991) “Focus on form: A design feature in language teaching methodology”. In De Bot, K., Ginsberg, R. & Kramsch, C. Foreign language research in cross-cultural perspective. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 39–52.

Long, Michael (1996) “The role of the linguistic environment in second language acquisition”. In Ritchie, W. & Bhatia, T. Handbook of second language acquisition. San Diego: Academic Press. 413–468.

Widdowson, H. G. (1998) Context, Community, and Authentic Language. TESOL Quarterly, 32(4), 705-716.

Willis, J. (1996) A Framework for Task-based Learning. Harlow: Longman.

Please feel free to write your observations, comments, etc. or ask a question below.


5 thoughts on “Speaking Games – Learning to play: Webinar

  1. Hi Jason. Great webinar – very interesting and I have some good ideas for my classes, especially the Opinion Olympics. I am going to try the yellow card and red card for encouraging that they use English only.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with Iwan. I think you are also right that pupils need to practice playing games to improve their social skills. I think you can also add some of the ideas for correcting mistakes to the blog. Like you, I often try to help them translate the things they say in German into English. Have you read ‘The Bilingual Reform’ by Wolfgang Butzkamm and John Caldwell?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Petra and Iwan,
      Thanks for your comments.I will add a few of the suggestions I made in the chat at the end of the webinar, but it’d be good to find out exactly how you do these things. I’m a big fan of The Bilingual Reform. There are several other good books now on the use of translation and mother tongue: Guy Cook’s Translation, Deller and Rinvolucri’s Use of the Mother Tongue (also Delta publishing) and just out this year: Translation and Own-language Activities by Philip Kerr. This last one has some really good practical ideas you can try out.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Dear Jason,

    I tried Haunted House, from DELTA website link with my students. It was a little bit difficult for them, but they enjoyed it so much. When the lesson finished, nobody wanted to go home! I am going to try Sport Busters on Friday!

    I look forward to the book in December.

    Ludmila from Ukraine.


    1. Hi Ludmila,

      That’s good to hear. Sometimes it’s quite tricky when they don’t know all the vocabulary related to ghosts and things, but it usually gets them using the past narrative tenses fairly well.

      Let me know how sport busters goes!


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