Problems with EFL ESL Games

If you observe any English lesson in an elementary school or English conversation school (eikiawa), you’ll notice that a popular format for lessons is to practice words with flashcards, sing songs, and play lots of games. The games are often competitive, being used to reward students for studying and to encourage learning. This method of teaching English to children might seem effective because the children are having fun while learning new vocabulary, but there are some drawbacks which could potentially inhibit the efficacy of English education and have detrimental effects on young learners in the long run.

Have you ever encountered a class of students who simply aren’t interested in learning anything until the lesson’s content is framed in the context of a game? Do your students expect to play games every lesson, or do they constantly beg to play games in class, much like children beg their parents for coins to play video games at an amusement arcade? Although playing games may have some limited merits, it can be argued that there are greater detrimental consequences which can occur, inhibiting the student’s ability to understand and internalize English as a tool for communication, rather than an abstract rule as part of a game.

Is the Competitive Nature of Games the Problem in ESL/EFL Classes?

Is the competitive nature of games the problem in ESL/EFL classes? No. At least that is not the argument here. There is an ongoing debate regarding the benefits and drawbacks of introducing competition into the classroom, but in this article, we will not approach the problem with games from the standpoint of competition. The way games are used as an extrinsic reward to teach English will be the main focus in discussing why playing games can be ineffective and detrimental to English education for children.

 Understanding Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Rewards for ESL/EFL Students

Extrinsic rewards are usually physical or tangible items that are rewarded for accomplishments. In the context of English lessons, a teacher rewarding students with the chance to play a game after practicing unfamiliar words or grammar can also be considered an extrinsic reward. Students know that they will be rewarded and work to achieve the goals necessary to play a game.

Intrinsic rewards, on the other hand, aren’t something physical or tangible. Students learn to appreciate and value the importance of education by constantly achieving their goals. Intrinsic rewards are earned in the feeling of accomplishment and desire to improve. If students can realize the benefits of intrinsic rewards over extrinsic rewards through their own efforts, they will become more motivated to learn and accomplish more.

Of course, there are some benefits of using extrinsic rewards to initially motivate students, but once the students become aware of the accomplishments they can make without an extrinsic reward, intrinsic rewards should be the focus of the curriculum and games should be eliminated as a staple lesson activity.

A True Story Illustrating Intrinsic Rewards Replacing Extrinsic Rewards

Extrinsic Rewards in EFL ESL English classes

Upon entering his freshman year in high school, there was a student who lost all motivation to go to classes. After skipping nearly every class, his grade point average (GPA) after one year was 0.5 GPA. Looking for a way to improve their son’s motivation, his parents offered to reward him with $200 per quarter (up to $800 per year) if he got straight A’s: a perfect 4.0 GPA. Anything less and the student wouldn’t get a penny.

Sure enough, this extrinsic reward was a powerful tool to motivate the student to get straight A’s for his entire second year, earning him $800. Of course his parents were relieved and proud of him, but the student also took pride in his accomplishment. In the student’s third year, he was more determined than ever to get straight A’s again and earn some cash. And he got the 4.0 GPA again.

After presenting his report card to his parents to cash in on his achievements for a second year in a row, his parents laughed and said, “Sorry, that agreement was only good for the first year.” The student was naturally irritated, mainly because his wallet would stay empty, but he had still earned an intrinsic reward from his accomplishments. Nevertheless, he was proud of his accomplishments and determined to continue on the same path, even without the cash reward.

This student, who got all F’s and a single D in his freshman year, graduated from high school with straight A’s for three years. He then went on to graduate from university with a 4.0 GPA, earning Summa Cum Laude honors, and finishing in the top six students of his class. After that he went on to get a masters degree in mathematics, focusing on topology. That student is now writing this article.

Changing the Focus From Games to Communication Centered Activities (Extrinsic Rewards to Intrinsic Rewards)

From the story above, we can see how extrinsic rewards are powerful tools to motivate students to learn what they are capable of. After that, it’s important to help students give themselves their own intrinsic rewards by eliminating the extrinsic rewards.

Many English conversation schools, for example, have a reward system using fake money or stickers to motivate students. At my school, Step by Step Eikaiwa, we also use this system from the ages of 3 – 5 (kindergarten-aged students). Once students start elementary school, however, they have already proven to themselves that they can study and use English, so the reward system is no longer necessary. We stop using that form of extrinsic reward for students ages 6 and older.

But Aren’t Games Effective for Teaching New Vocabulary and Concepts?

I don’t disagree that games are a powerful tool for getting students to use and repeat language. A major problem with games, however, is that they often abstract language and remove the context necessary for communication in real life. If children become so focused on winning and thinking of language as rules for games, they won’t be able to make a connection between the words they practice in a game and the words they need to communicate.

Many people agree that language acquisition occurs in stages requiring input, internalization, and comprehension. Based on this, many people will argue that games are effective for input and internalization, and that comprehension can be taught with different methods afterwards. This is a valid argument, but teaching ESL/EFL to young children in Japan is often done once per week in 50-minute lessons. From the standpoint of curriculum efficacy, even if students didn’t consider games to be a kind of extrinsic reward, replacing games with activities that introduce context and allow students to gain better language comprehension faster would be more efficient, and therefore, more effective in the long run.

A straightforward way to see that games can abstract language is to look at a game which all children in Japan love to play: ROCK-PAPER-SCISSORS. This game can be taught to children as young as 3 years old and is clearly competitive, having a winner and loser. When young children play the game, they’re not thinking about words as physical objects: a rock, a pair of scissors, and a piece of paper. They’re thinking about the words as rules for a game. To test this theory, try playing ROCK-PAPER-SCISSORS with a child ten times. Then show the child a pair of scissors (or a piece of paper or a rock), and ask, “What are these?” Can the student answer, “Scissors”?  They often can’t unless they have studied the words using different methods such as flashcards or task-based learning.

This illustrates why games are good at helping students learn words out of context, but not as effective at building the comprehension required for communication. If all language that is acquired and practiced through games requires additional activities to develop comprehension, wouldn’t it make more sense to replace games with activities that can teach language and comprehension simultaneously? This is especially true in the case of young ESL/EFL students who only have the opportunity to study once per week.

Ways to Replace Games with More Effective Activities

Taking Role Classroom Warmup is am are

At Step by Step Eikaiwa, we have completely removed all games from our lesson plans and curriculum with the exception of special lessons and holiday lessons. If an activity has a component of competition or a winning team and a losing team, then it’s not allowed in the classroom. Activities which challenge students to compete with themselves such as timed readings or vocabulary review, however, are highly encouraged.

Rather than play games, we try to design our lessons to be a series of activities, tasks, or challenges which require students to use English and communicate from the beginning to the end of class. When students arrive, they must ask, “Can I come into the classroom, please?” When they go home, they must say, “Can I go home, please?We also take attendance in every class, and students must use the expressions, (I’m here. He’s here. She’s here. You are here. He’s not here. She’s not here). These activities not only teach students new grammar and vocabulary, but they do so in an environment that gives context to the language and simulates verbal communication in real life.

Another way to replace games in your English classes is to assign larger homework assignments and devote the last 10 to 20 minutes of class to doing worksheets from the homework. This has also been an effective use of time for us at my school. We have developed the BINGOBONGO Curriculum, FUN!books, and worksheets precisely for this purpose. We typically give our students between 4 and 8 pages of homework. Not only do they love doing the worksheets in class and at home, but they beg us to get their homework assignments EVERY CLASS! On top of that, students not doing their homework is virtually unheard of in our school. BINGOBONGO Learning’s worksheets are designed to give students ample practice for reading, writing, and phonics, but above all, speaking is the number one priority of all the worksheets which are based on fun challenges and puzzles. Every worksheet can be used as a tool to facilitate verbal communication in lessons.

Make Your Lessons More Efficient with The START Method

Another thing to consider is that you can structure your lessons to be more effective for promoting intrinsic rewards by using the START Method which builds a great environment to promote peer-based learning and better comprehension. Students not only learn from their teacher, but also from the other students in the classroom when using this method. You can learn more about the START Method and its benefits for a more efficient and effective classroom here.

To see more of the way we structure our lessons without playing games, feel free to contact us. You can also visit BINGOBONGO Learning at many ETJ and JALT events. Come visit our table to see all of our awesome, FREE teaching resources, or drop into one of our presentations to learn more about the way BINGOBONGO Learning can help make your students excel.  To see a list of upcoming events and presentations, please see the “About the author” box below.

There are plenty more articles for language school owners below!

Starting your own language school can be a rewarding career path, both financially and personally – so check out our other articles on this topic to find out everything you need to know about setting up and managing your own English language school (eikaiwa school in Japan)!