Post-mortem: 2010-2013 Classroom Games Part #5

September 20th, 2016

[This piece was originally written for Adventures in Games Analysis: Volume I back in 2013. I now feel that it would be too indulgent to dedicate some 6,000 words on myself to paid copy. Plus, these activities—whilst good in their own right—are not an accurate reflection of my current teaching practice. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.]

Developing Presentation Skills

Aim: To prepare the students for giving speeches.

I like to run my teenage students through a series of debating classes. In terms of language teaching, debating is a wonderful alternative to the skill-and-drill death march of the Chinese education system as:

Although classroom debates take a few lessons to establish, once the students get a handle on the structure they practically run themselves. Before I cover debating I focus on public speaking because without good presentation skills, the students can’t have a debate. I mean—literally—if some kid mumbles through their argument, it’s hard for the others to form a rebuttal. I begin these lesson by giving a bad speech and having the students identify my weaknesses. From there we form a list of dos and don’ts. I then give the students a pre-prepared speech and a few minutes to practise before they speak in front of the class while their classmates evaluate them against the aforementioned student-developed criteria.

I like to model a bad speech as it provides a safe and accessible starting point. Having the students critique my delivery and develop the list of dos and don’ts gives them some buy-in (i.e. makes it harder for them to squirm out of the activity) and prepares them for the subsequent step (both in terms of critiquing their classmates and giving their own speech). The students are also encouraged to consider language as performance (contrary to the dominant language as a system view), which is a nice bonus.

In the second lesson I cover the criteria more thoroughly through short mini-games. Here are two examples:

Eyes Around the Room

I have a student stand in front of the class and talk about themselves. Meanwhile I’m at the back of the room holding up a brightly-coloured object and moving from left to right. The speaker must talk and look at the object at the same time. When I click my fingers they have to gaze into the eyes of someone in the audience. A second click returns them to me. The goal is to encourage students to make different types of eye contact. Keeping the speech going while following the brightly-coloured object, i.e. multi-tasking, is the core form of engagement. As with many of the games introduced so far, my role as the facilitator allows me to scale, balance, and add mix-ups to the game.

Eye Contact Face-Off

I split the class into pairs and have one of them stare into the other’s eyes while introducing themselves. The quiet student must call me as soon as the speaker looks away. The pair then switch roles. The student who can talk the longest without looking away is the winner. This game attempts to make the students less afraid of looking into someone’s eyes when speaking to them.

These two games exaggerate the significance of their respective speaking skills so that when the student speaks naturally they will still remember to incorporate these elements. It’s more a case of having students be more concious of the nature of speaking, than mastering these skills outright. The gimmicky nature of these games helps support this function. One of the reasons why I decided to create these game is because I found it hard to speak a second language whilst looking someone in the eye.

Debating Skills Practice

Aim: To improve the students’ rebuttal skills and the quality of their arguments.

I like to structure the debating classes so that one week we have a debate and the next we do debating skills. The following is an example of a debating skills lesson. You can read about how I conduct classroom debates here. Each step tests a different debating-related skill (see parentheses).

I present the class with a speech based on the previous week’s debate topic. As I read aloud, the students write down the weaknesses in my argument (listening and taking notes). After reading the speech a second time, I have them share their ideas with the class (akin to the open discussion of the floor). This gives the students a more complete picture of the potential for criticism. In pairs they must then write a rebuttal for each point (preparing counter arguments). Once they’ve finished, I give them a print-out of my original speech and ask them to rewrite it so as to counter all of their rebuttals while maintaining the original arguments (planning for potential rebuttals). With the speech rewritten, I then have one student from each group read their text to the class (presentation skills) while their classmates listen and note down any flaws in the argument, as they did with the original speech. The class then share their criticisms, which can sometimes lead into mini-debates as the group who spoke defend their rewrite (akin to the open discussion of the floor). By this point I’m usually out of time, but as you can imagine we could continue this cycle multiple times with the students digging ever deeper into the central argument on each rotation.

The student-centred, student-generated nature of this activity is its core strength. The students pick apart a speech, use their rebuttals to improve it, and then have their improvements dissected in the same way as the original speech. They bounce between different roles and different tasks, but remain anchored to the core argument. This allows me to test a variety of skills from the perspective of both the proposition and opposition, while reusing and building off of the students’ earlier efforts.


Over the past 3 years I’ve come up with more than a hundred classroom games, ranging from five-minute mini-games to projects that span over four 2-hour lessons. Some have been good; others have been awful. Regardless, the teaching context is constantly changing and there’s only so far you can get recycling the same old material, so it pays dividends to constantly be on the offensive planning new games and activities week in, week out. Video games and games analysis have helped guide my teaching practice and have sparked the light of inspiration in times of creative drought. By analysing a sample of my classroom games, we’ve been able to explore the relationship between the two disciplines of video game and classroom game design.

Post-mortem: 2010-2013 Classroom Games Part #4

September 13th, 2016

[This piece was originally written for Adventures in Games Analysis: Volume I back in 2013. I now feel that it would be too indulgent to dedicate some 6,000 words on myself to paid copy. Plus, these activities—whilst good in their own right—are not an accurate reflection of my current teaching practice. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.]

Slip Matching Game

Aim: To test the students’ understanding of vocabulary and grammar.

Slip matching games are common in ESL teaching. You write a few words on some pieces of paper and have the students match them up. Such activities may include:

There are various different dynamics going on in these games: the physical moving of slips, the team work and social dynamics, and the sharing of collective knowledge among students. Here are some of my own special variants:

Wrong Months

When teaching months I create two sets of words: one with the months spelt correctly and one with the months spelt incorrectly. I then mix them together and have the students find the months with the correct spelling and arrange them from the start of the year to the end. For the first step, the students recall the spelling of each month and compare it with the spelling on the paper. For the second, they recall the order of the months and arrange the slips of paper accordingly. Most students do both at the same time. I like this game because two sets of knowledge are tested for the price of one. By adding an extra layer of complexity (misspelt words), I was able to achieve much more depth out of this game (depth being  the higher-order task of managing two distinct processes simultaneously; spelling and month order).

The Never-ending Listening Task

I take a dialogue from the text book, remove a couple of words per sentence, and print each line out on a slip of paper. In class I set the dialogue’s audio track to repeat on a loop and have the students arrange the slips of paper in sequence and fill in the word gaps. As the students can’t complete the task on their first listen, their progress is suspended across multiple runnings of the dialogue. Therefore each time they listen they have to listen for different pieces of information—whether that be to identify the next part of the conversation, check an answer from the previous rotation, or listen for the missing word. Groups of students work together to complete the task and they all hear the dialogue at the same time, and so there’s a lot of potential for interplay between them (such as when one student hears an answer that another student was listening for). By making a few alterations to the formula, I was able to transform a simple slip sorting task into a “listening for specific information” task which shifts dynamically with the students’ progress.

Category Mix-up

I put together a group of words that can be sorted into multiple categories and have the students–you know–sort them into the those categories. For example, the students could sort food words by flavour, size, colour, food type, healthy/unhealthy, and the meal at which they’re eaten. Switching up the parameters forces the students to filter the content and tests adaptation skills.

Have/Don’t Have Game

Aim: To get young learners engaging in natural dialogues using “have” and “don’t have”.

I have the students sit in a circle and close their eyes. One by one each student opens their eyes, takes a picture card, and places it face side down on their lap. Once everyone has a card, they can open their eyes. I then ask each student, “Do you have a …?” and they answer, “Yes/no, I have/don’t have a …?”. For the second round (the main game), I have the students ask each other. The student who answers one question must then ask the next. When a student guesses correctly, the other student must forfeit from the game. The last remaining student wins.

It’s best to choose a group of words that the students know well, this way you can focus all your attention on the grammar.

From a teaching standpoint, what I like about this game is that it gives young students the opportunity to construct their own dialogue independently. From a game design standpoint, I love the deductive reasoning and decay dynamic (the more students sit out, the fewer answers remain) and how the two feed into each other. For the kids the social interaction is engaging in and of itself, but the option to scale the difficulty by listening carefully and thinking deductively adds a layer of higher-level play. From personal experience, the difficulty level is optimal for 6-year-old students as they’re just old enough that they can engage on a higher level, but doing so is still a challenge. The game also has a card-game-like quality where the students must hide their cards from their classmates.

In Part 5, we’ll explore a series of activities related to debating.

Post-mortem: 2010-2013 Classroom Games Part #3

September 6th, 2016

[This piece was originally written for Adventures in Games Analysis: Volume I back in 2013. I now feel that it would be too indulgent to dedicate some 6,000 words on myself to paid copy. Plus, these activities—whilst good in their own right—are not an accurate reflection of my current teaching practice. Part 1. Part 2.]

Skills Triathlon

Aim: To review grammar, have the students use full sentences, and test all language skills.

This is a good game for reviewing a unit of work. I type up a series of review questions (around twenty), print them out, and cut them into small slips which are then placed on a chair outside the classroom. I put the students into teams of two and give each team a blank piece of paper. One student from each team must run out the room, grab a slip of paper, bring it back, and read the question to their team mate. The team then write a full-sentence answer and raise their hands to call me over. The students read their sentence. If the grammar and spelling are correct, the second team mate can go grab another slip. If they’re not correct, I’ll point out the error directly or give the students a clue or have them find the mistake for themselves (the response depends on group’s language level). Once they’ve corrected the sentence, they must raise their hands again. The students keep each slip of paper on their desk. If they pick up a question they can’t answer, they need to run back and exchange the paper for another. The team with the most slips of paper when there are none left is the winner.

Skills Triathlon is governed by an organic timer created by the gradual reduction (decay) of paper slips. This timer prompts the students to play quickly and efficiently. There are two dimensions to the time dynamic: how far your team/the other teams are in front (relative time) and the remaining number of slips (absolute time). The former tells a student how much lead they/the other teams have while the latter tells them how long they have to maintain/close that lead. There are many natural opportunities for the students to read the timers as the game takes place in a shared space. When one team rushes to get the next slip, the other teams can see that they’re a few seconds behind. Similarly, when one team calls the teacher over or a student curses their partner for choosing a difficult question, the other teams can overhear it. Just by being in the classroom the students are constantly given feedback on the progress–something which helps draw them into the game.

The interesting thing about the timer is that because of the game’s variable and changing nature (difficulty of questions, the team the teacher chooses to go to first, how heavily the teacher scrutinises the answers, the likelihood of the students picking a question they can’t answer, and each team’s individual progress), the further the students are into the game, the harder it is for them to tell who’s out in front. This is ideal for the teacher because it prevents students from giving up when they realise they’re on a losing streak. The obfuscation of the timer keeps all students engaged in the game.

Another powerful dynamic that affects the gameplay is the choice of questions. Since some questions are harder than others, students will often try to pick out the easy questions for easy points. Yet the longer they take to find an easy question, the more time the other teams have to rush back and answer their own. So there’s a risk/reward dynamic that governs the hunt for easy questions. As the game progresses and there’s fewer easy questions in play, the students are persuaded to just take whatever’s available. This pursuit of the path of least resistance not only adds an interesting risk/reward dynamic to the game, it also carves out a nice difficulty curve (as the questions organically become more difficult as the game rolls on).

Movement also presents its own form of challenge. As students move in and out of the classroom, they need to be careful not to run into their classmates. If they’re really sneaky, they can slow down the other teams by “accidentally” blocking their path. Since the game takes place in the physical space of the classroom, controlling that space is a viable tactic.

Each turn the two students must switch roles (even if the students can’t answer a question and need to exchange their slip of paper for another). This prevents them from designating their own “runners” and “writers” (i.e. the strong student does all the work while the weak student acts as their delivery boy).

Getting Chinese students to speak in full sentences (instead of one-word answers) often takes far more work than it should do. As an English Second Language teacher in China, it’ll be the bane of your existence. Many of my classes—especially with individual students—have been all about getting the students to open their mouths and say something—anything! Skills Triathlon was designed to tackle this problem head on and in my experience it has been a great success. Here are some of the reasons why it’s so effective:

Skills Triathlon was named as such because it is similar in design to a triathlon and covers a good distribution of the four macro skills: reading (choosing a slip of paper and reading the question to the “writer”), speaking (reading the question to the “writer” and submitting your answer to the teacher), listening (listening to the “runner” read the question and listening to the teacher’s response), and writing (writing the answer).

Phrasal Verb Variant

Skills Triathlon also works well when teaching phrasal verbs. I replace the questions with phrasal verbs (“get up”, for example) and an accompanying sentence which uses the verb (like “I get up at 7 o’clock in the morning”). The students must then use this information to deduce the phrasal verb’s meaning and construct their own sentence. Since the students tend to paraphrase the original sentence (“I get up at 8 o’clock in the morning”) and are more likely to make errors (as they may not have used these words before), the teacher needs to be on guard when checking answers.

In Part 4 we’ll look at the design space of slip matching games and a clever way of getting young children to engage in simple dialogues.