Finding the game-like challenge!*

*With minimal preparation involved… Following a recent Friday workshop on teaching teenagers, in which, amongst other things, we discussed the difference between playing games for the sake of playing games and adding a game-like challenge into the activities we do in class, I have been thinking about different ways we can do this, without spending heaps of extra time on preparation. Here are some of the ideas I’ve come up with:

1. Board it and collaborate

Instead of (or as well as/before) having learners complete a table in their books, individually, why not put them in teams, put the table on the board and get them to race to complete the table accurately:

Linking words with teenagers

Linking words with teenagers

Here is an example from a teenager class of mine, looking at linking words in a writing lesson. The words were highlighted in a model text and the activity in the book was to divide them between a: words for contrasting two pieces of information, b: words to give reasons for something and c:words used to list arguments. Doing the activity this way got them out of their seats, changed the pace of the lesson and generated some useful energy. Of course, they also got to benefit from working together to solve the task. And all I had to do was draw a table on the board while they were reading the text.

2. Bingo it!

The age-old game of bingo can be used to liven up writing activities, as Sandy explains here or speaking activities, as I describe here. Bringing bingo into a speaking or a writing activity in this way gives students something extra to aim for, rather than just completion of a writing or speaking activity. It doesn’t hurt that the something extra is a) fun and b) encourages extra production and/or better use of the target language! Here is an example bingo board I used to model the activity for my Level 9 Upper Intermediate adult students:

Bingo with L9

Bingo with L9

All students need is a page in their notebooks on which to draw their table. No preparation is required beforehand, unless you want to make a model, in which case I think that one took me about 60 seconds to mock up! You could also play Reading Bingo, where students make a bingo grid of ideas or vocabulary that they expect to find in a given text, having looked at associated pictures or headings, and then read the text quickly to see if what they predicted is present, ticking off anything that is. First student to tick everything off in their grid wins! This is a good way to challenge students to read faster and resist reading every word.

3. Speed it up!

Adding a time constraint to an activity can up the level of challenge and bring in some competition. This is enhanced if the activity can be done in pairs or groups. Whether you set a time limit or do the old ‘whoever finishes first gets a point’ thing, heart rates will probably speed up. Beware though: a) make sure stronger and weaker students are mixed up. b) enforce an accuracy rule (i.e. being really fast but really inaccurate doesn’t win any points!)

60 seconds...starting now! Image taken from, licensed for commercial re-use with modification

60 seconds…starting now! Image taken from, licensed for commercial re-use with modification

4. Make it kinaesthetic!

If you can get students moving (for good reason rather than at random!), chances are you can make the language more memorable. For example, going back to the language my teenagers were looking at in 1, to test their recall of which words do what, you could ask them to put their hands up when you say a word used for giving reasons, stand up for any words used to list arguments and stamp their feet for any words used to make a contrast. Other variations on this include ‘river crossing’ or ‘traffic lights’ where students move to different parts of the room or move from side to side, according to where a given piece of language is allocated. This is a good way to change the pace of a lesson and generate some energy when teenagers – or adults! – are getting tired. Or, with younger kids, perhaps you’ll use it to get rid of some excess energy!

Kinaesthetic to the max! Image taken from, licensed for commercial reuse with modification

Kinaesthetic to the max! Image taken from, licensed for commercial reuse with modification

5. Bring out the banana boards (a.k.a mini-whiteboards!)

Mini-whiteboards are a fantastic way to spice up a lesson and add some game-like challenge. From something as simple as the teacher saying a verb and the students writing the past participle on their mini-whiteboard and then holding it up, and awarding points to the fastest and to those who got it correct but more slowly (so that everybody has a chance to win some points and nobody gets too far ahead or behind) to as complex as working on introductions in an IELTS class, mini-whiteboards come up trumps for their flexibility and students always love them!  Common uses include banana dictating sentences (i.e. dictating a sentence with a gap for students to complete) or sentence transformations. For lots of great ideas, here is a brilliant post from Chia Suan Chong, describing how she uses mini-whiteboards in her lessons. I particularly like the idea of having students summarise a portion of a text using pictures and then using the pictures to jog their memory when they tell a partner about their portion of text. A jigsaw reading with a difference! “But my school doesn’t have any mini-whiteboards!” I hear you say. Not to worry, all you need is a piece of card and a plastic folder like this (our YLC taught me this one!):

Home-made mini-whiteboard!

Home-made mini-whiteboard!

6. Drill it differently

Instead of just doing the same tired old choral drill, add some challenge to your drilling and make it more appealing to learners. Here is a post from Chris Ożóg over at ELT Reflections, which highlights the benefits of drilling together with lots of good ideas for how to spice it up. Another way to bring drilling to life, and make it more game-like, in the YL classroom, is to use a pronunciation wheel:

Pron wheel made by our YLC

Example pron wheel (made by our YLC)

Students take it in turns to spin the wheel and say whatever sounds, words or chunks it is that you are drilling in the way that the wheel stipulates. You can do this as a whole class, and then you can put learners in pairs or groups and they can continue the activity and drill themselves while you go round monitoring and working with individuals/groups to upgrade their production.

7. Make it a memory game

If learners have just done a crossword or a vocabulary activity in their course books, rather than check/feedback and move on, why not re-use the activity to challenge their memory? Get them to cover up the crossword clues and try to remember what the clue for each word in the grid was. Or get them to cover up the grid and test each other using the clues. Get them to close their course books and see how much language they can remember from the page (in pairs or groups, make it a competition) or call out prompts, so that you encourage active recall. Give students a time-limit in which to read a text, then have them close their books and see how much of it they can recount in pairs.

Testing your memory? (Image taken from Google image search licensed for commercial reuse with modification.)

Can you remember? (Image taken from Google image search licensed for commercial reuse with modification.)

8. Hand it over!

Sometimes the game-like challenge may also be a case of making a game more challenging, so that students are pushed more. A good way of doing this is finding ways to make games as student-centred as possible. For example, getting students to make up some quiz questions rather than only answering teacher-prepared questions. Here is a post describing how I upped the challenge in the review team game, Kaboom!



This picture is taken during a recent Kaboom! review with my teenaged upper intermediate students.

What do you like doing to bring a game-like challenge into your lessons? 

Post-IATEFL reflections: the challenges we take away?

You spend ages anticipating it, it finally arrives and then it’s over in a flash! That’s IATEFL for you. I’ve also heard it described as:

 “an unnaturally high concentration of TEFLers in a single location.”

“a human pinball machine” [@hughdellar: If you’ve never attended IATEFL, imagine being propelled round a human pinball machine containing everyone you’ve ever met in ELT]

…neither of which I would argue with!

What do you take away?

Now that it’s over, all that remains is a bunch of footage on the British Council Harrogate Online site, happy memories and hopefully other take-aways too. And I’m not talking pizza here. Neither am I just talking ideas, though there are plenty of those. (I’m glad I blogged so much – it means that now I have the opportunity of going back and reminding myself of all the ideas I’ve been exposed to over the last week!) I think a major take-away from a conference like IATEFL is that of challenge.

  • the challenge of grappling with all the new ideas you’ve met.
  • the challenge of actually experimenting with those new ideas in your school/lesson.
  • as a speaker, the challenge of reflecting on your talk/workshop and identifying what lessons you can learn from it, to improve for next time.
  • the challenge of articulating, at least to yourself, why it is that you don’t agree with everything that you heard, rather than dismissing anything that doesn’t fit in with your current beliefs as just plain wrong.
  • the challenge of deciding where CPD will take you next – and acting on that. (Is it just a personal action research/experimental practice plan? a training course? a renewed resolution to read more – books, articles etc? submitting a speaker proposal for a different conference?)

Challenge is important

Many attendees have been up-in-arms over the final morning plenary by Sugata Mitra (summary here), with quite a backlash of Tweets and Facebook posts resulting. – I think that’s great! They – and their beliefs – have been challenged. If you only ever attend talks that you completely agree with, your beliefs may become entrenched and less open to change/development/evolution. (That’s not to say that attending talks whose speakers you are on the same wavelength as is a bad thing: far from it – it can be quite a euphoria-inducing thing to hear somebody else articulate those things that you, yourself, feel strongly about. I think people quite naturally like to feel validated in what they believe.)

At IATEFL, the spread of topics and contexts that you can attend talks and workshops on, is phenomenal, and this is part of what is so special about it. In my Day 2 reflections post I comment on this:

“To me, IATEFL is about the learning (attending talks, giving talks) but also about keeping in touch with the big, wide ELT world that exists out there.”

Hugh Dellar touched on this during his talk, too, suggesting that when we attend conferences, we shouldn’t exclusively be looking for new ideas to take away and try in the classroom, but also look to engage with theories. To theories, I would also add different aspects of our profession: talks related to different areas of professional development, to contexts that we don’t currently work in and to research. Why? To broaden our horizons. To engage with our profession as a whole rather than just our tiny day-to-day slice of it. To challenge our beliefs and practices.

Challenge and growth

My three-part challenge to all participants of IATEFL 2014, whether live or online, is:

  • to not move swiftly on and forget about it till next year’s IATEFL rolls around but rather to reflect on what you’ve learnt and decide how it’s going to affect your beliefs and practice in the time to come: try new things out, experiment with adjustments and see if they are effective or not…find out more about anything that was new to you, and see where that takes you…
  • to fully engage with anything you disagree with. Debate it. Argue with it. But don’t just say it’s wrong and dismiss it. (And I can already see some people are engaging – fantastic!)
  • to remember how big and varied the profession is, when you’re back in your tiny slice of it and life has moved on and keep abreast of it through reading – books/journal articles/anything that reunites you with the wider world of ELT and opens your mind to what’s happening outside your little patch – and interacting with colleagues world-wide online through various channels of communication.

What would you challenge everybody to do post-IATEFL?

Or, how has IATEFL challenged you? Let’s share challenges, challenge each other and, in so doing, help each other stay engaged and on the ball?! 🙂

Thank you, IATFL, for an enriching few days and to everybody who has been part of my IATEFL this year. See you all next time?