If you ever saw a couple of sibling kittens you probably saw them chasing one another and trying to surprise each other with unexpected attacks. These kittens are playing. They are having fun. But they are not doing just that, they are also learning. They are rehearsing different approaches and techniques for hunting.
We, human beings, also learn from the games we play when we are children. In fact, playing is much more than just having fun. As children, we have that psychological need for playing. We need it to organize our thoughts and to understand the world that surrounds us.
We also need to play with peers to learn how to relate to others. We learn rules of behavior and attitudes that will help us as we grow up. We even pretend to be grown ups and imitate how (we think) they behave.
Most of the people lose their need for play as they grow up. As a result we have a great majority of adults who do not play anymore. Maybe this is because we think we are too old for those childish activities or maybe because subconsciously we believe that the rest of the things we need to learn cannot be learned from playing games or just because we are too busy with “more important things”.
In Lockhart Academy we think playing is key, specially when we are learning. We have brought games into the English classroom and we have observed how they have improved the process of learning/acquiring the language. What we have seen is that games:
- help build a feeling of a group. Learning a foreign language is, in a certain way, like practicing a sport. We need to do it several times a week and during quite a lot of time if we want to get results. Students need to be motivated to keep up with this rhythm and, as happens in some sports, this group feeling can give learners that extra motivation point they need to cope with it.
- promote the subconscious learning of the language (aka. acquisition). This happens because the learners are paying more attention to the objective of the game and the fun they are having than to the input they are receiving or the language they are using. Stephen Krashen and Tracey Terrell (1988) defended the idea that the foreign (or second) language, the same as the mother tongue, should not be learned consciously but acquired subconsciously. The learners should receive immense quantities of comprehensible input and have chances to use that input in meaningful contexts and close-to-real and motivating activities. Games can be a very good source for these kinds of activities.
- help memorize. Memorization and repetition are things that remind us of methodologies from the past. The audio-lingual method used drills with the idea that if the students repeated a certain structure a lot of times, even (or better) if it was out of context, they would end up interiorizing it and being able to generalize its use to other contexts whenever they needed. These drills ended up being boring and not-very-useful activities that did not accomplish their objective. Even so, we now know that repetition (and some memorization to a lesser extent) is an important part of the language acquisition. We see that in the acquisition of our first languages, especially in the early stages. Games provide us with the chance of repeating structures, phonemes or words in a meaningful and funny way that will make these repetitions more useful and motivating.
- A language is not a set of written texts with grammar exercises and comprehension questions. A language is not only the oral conversations we have about a certain topic for one hour, either. A language has to be understood as a whole. The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (Council of Europe. and Council for Cultural Co-operation. Modern Languages Division. 2001) stated that there are 5 skills we should work with our students: listening, speaking, reading, writing and interacting. All of them are important and all of them should be promoted and thoroughly worked. There are certain types of games that allow us to work these 5 skills in a combined way that will add a sense of variety and fun that will convert the least appealing skills into very attractive and interesting things to do.
- Most of the games we use end up promoting peer communication. This enables our students to use much more language in the same amount of time. Some people argue that without a proper and direct correction, the students will run the risk of learning certain mistakes from each other, but this has been proven wrong. While the students are playing and communicating, the teacher can go around trying to identify errors, mistakes and some construction problems and can help with them, either in that very moment or once the activity has finished. The students, curiously enough, tend to remember the correct forms used by the “competent speakers” of the language rather than the mistakes of their peers.
As we have just seen, playing games can provide our students with immense quantities of comprehensible input, giving them the chance to produce a lot of language at the same time they are having fun and socializing with their classmates. Games can promote all 5 skills of the language and can do so in a very integrated and motivating way. Through games we can make students repeat certain structures or phonemes at the same time they have fun. And we do all those things in a subconscious way avoiding that feeling of over-stress and struggle some associate with the learning of English.
Harold Eugene Edgerton once said that “the trick to education is to teach people in such a way that they don’t realize they’re learning until it’s too late”. That is exactly what happens when we use the appropriate games in the English class. And, what are the appropriate games for the English class? We will analyze that in our next methodological post.
Council of Europe. and Council for Cultural Co-operation. Modern Languages Division. (2001). Common European Framework of Reference for Languages : learning, teaching, assessment. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Krashen, S. D. and T. D. Terrell (1988). The natural approach: language acquisition in the classroom, Phoenix ELT.