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Game-Based Instruction in English Language Learning

Published on: Feb 22, 2021

Language Game
Image credit: Franck Boston/Shutterstock

The number of ESL students entering public schools remains on a consistent upward trajectory. As educators welcome a more diverse student population into their classrooms, it’s becoming increasingly imperative to add better, more differentiated tools for language learning to our pedagogical tool belts.

Enter game-based instruction, a crucial strategy for impactful language learning. This resource aims to give you an overview of how to teach ELLs through fun, memorable, and inclusive instruction. Keep reading to discover:

  • Quality instructional games available at your fingertips
  • Why games are great for differentiating ESL instruction
  • Strategies for using games to assess ELLs

Choosing Instructional Games

One of the best things about games is that they get kids talking without thinking about it. You might use part of your classroom budget to pick up games at Target. Or you might create your own iteration based on your students’ unique needs. Either way, the objective remains the same: to get your students to speak in a language other than their mother tongue.

These selections, a mix of group and individual language games, will help you accomplish that mission.

  • Hot Potatoopens in new window: Teachers can adapt this game for beginning, intermediate, and advanced ESL students. The game involves passing around a small object until the timer runs out. The student left holding the object at that moment must answer a question.
  • Adjective Opposites: This lesson helps students learn vocabulary for opposite descriptors (e.g., large and small, inhale and exhale, full and empty). In the interest of versatility, the game allows for pairs or individual game-based learning.
  • Balloon Volleyballopens in new window: This whole-roster game uses common classroom supplies and focuses on categorizing words. Ideal for an entire class of ELLs, this game builds community and teamwork while reviewing vocabulary and parts of speech.
  • Comparative and Superlative Forms: This game aims to show ESL students how to employ comparative and superlative adjectives. English is a complex language even to native speakers, and knowing the distinction between these types of adjectives will help students significantly with everyday conversation.
  • Category Battleshipsopens in new window: Designed to mimic the classic, two-sided board game of the same name, Category Battleships teaches students how to determine the goal and function of a set of words.

Games for Differentiated Learning

Differentiated instruction has long been part of the teacher lexicon. You’ve no doubt heard the phrase in 90% of faculty and professional development meetings. But the need to adapt lesson plan content for individual students remains paramount, particularly for ELLs.

Dr. Lori McDonald, an elementary teacher with a doctorate in education administration, expands on how game-based learning provides a near-perfect route to differentiated education. In this article, Dr. McDonald expands on how games provide:

  • Engagement: Students find it difficult to daydream or get distracted while playing a classroom game. The focus remains on the objective and (ideally healthy) competition. No matter how old they are or what their background is, ELLs need engagement to retain and appreciate what they learn.
  • Motivation: Students will want to meaningfully compete at whatever game you choose, and in a game-based learning context, that means competitiveness will drive them toward better learning. Even if students are reticent to test their English-speaking skills in other contexts, games will motivate them to want to communicate with their peers as they play.
  • Context: “Why do I need to know this?” That’s an all-too-common question that teachers hear. With all its homonyms, homophones, and confusing rule exceptions, English is one of the most difficult languages to learnopens in new window, and focusing on memorizing all the nebulous rules can be as boring as it is confusing. However, when students engage in game-based learning, they’ll see how these rules apply in context, which will help them apply and appreciate them in real-world conversations.
  • Collaboration: Teamwork is an essential element of almost any game, but that tenet becomes especially pertinent in the classroom. Working together toward a common goal gives students a sense of community and will help to break down barriers to inclusion in your classroom.
  • Adaptability: Just as you tweak a lesson plan, you can adapt a game based on the needs of your class roster. ELLs come in all shapes and sizes; some have higher levels of English proficiencies than others, and they all have different learning styles and preferences just like native English speakers. In this way, games are incredibly valuable for their ability to adapt to a wide variety of student needs.

Assessing ELLs in Game-Based Learning

Games are a great way to informally assess your students’ English proficiency. They allow you to uncover individual needs and see where the class as a whole misses the mark, which helps you hone and redirect your ESL pedagogy accordingly.

Scaffolding assessment might be the most appropriate vehicle for measuring ELLs’ game-based learning performance. Veteran teacher Rebecca Alberopens in new window recommends the following scaffolding strategies:

  • Use visual aids. Pictures, charts, and graphic organizers give all students, including ELLs, another vehicle to represent and organize information. If the assignment is to write a paragraph or essay, or to participate in a discussion, graphic organizers are a good first step to help ELLs review foundational concepts and vocabulary before diving into the more complex assignment.
  • Leverage conversations. How many English conversations are your ELLs having? These scenarios represent the end goal of effective communication to native speakers, so make sure to give ELLs plenty of opportunities to practice. That way, you can observe and meaningfully assess how they’re doing with different skill sets.
  • Model outcomes. Whatever final goal you’ve set (whether it’s mastery of comparative language or passing a proficiency test), show your students what a successful final product looks like. This show-and-tell technique gives them a specific example of the goal they’re working to achieve.

Earn PD Credit with Game-Based Strategies for Language Instruction

In this course, you will investigate the effectiveness of gamification and game-based learning compared to traditional language instruction. You’ll review a variety of examples of games and how each of them helps to deepen students’ engagement and understanding.


If you’re looking for other opportunities to improve your language instruction pedagogy, check out these professional development opportunities from Advancement Courses:

  • Own Your Words: Effective Vocabulary Instruction: Spice up your vocabulary lessons with games and differentiated activities designed to engage all learners. Meant for teachers of every subject, this course gives you tools for teaching the building blocks of your subject, with emphasis on helping ELLs.
  • Teaching Speaking and Listening Skills to English Language Learners: With more and more ELLs entering the general population classroom, teaching language acquisition skills is no longer solely the job of ESL teachers. Learn how to actively engage your ELLs, modify instruction and assessments, and create a culturally inclusive classroom environment.
  • Integrating Native and Heritage Speakers in the Language Classroom: Create a culturally diverse classroom that supports students from a variety of linguistic backgrounds, including native and heritage speakers. Develop strategies for making your classroom more linguistically inclusive with project-based learning (PBL), the cognitive apprenticeship approach, reflective journaling, and concept development.

Earn PD and Implement Game-Based Instruction

The content in the article above comes from our full course Game-Based Strategies for Language Instruction. Learn about the theories behind gamification and create games that will help your students learn crucial language skills—and have fun doing it!

Advancement Courses offers over 280 online, self-paced continuing education courses for teacher salary advancement and recertification. PD courses are reviewed and offered in partnership with regionally accredited universities for graduate semester hours of credit and CEU/professional development hours (or their equivalent) in all 50 states.