Using games to promote communicative skills in language learning

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №6 - 2014

Author: Melnikova Tatyana, Kazakh-American Free University, Kazakhstan

We will consider why communicative games serve as a very useful activity when teaching English. The use of games is definitely a powerful language learning tool. On one hand, the aim of all language games is to make student (learners of English) use the language; on the other hand, during the game learners also use the language they are learning to persuade and negotiate their way to desired results. This process involves both the productive and receptive skills.

Recently language researchers and those practitioners who are involved in teaching English have changed their focus from developing individual linguistic skills to the use of language to achieve the speaker's objectives. This new area of focus is known as communicative competence. This kind of communicative competence leads English teachers to look for task-oriented activities in order to involve all their students in creative language use. According to Saricoban and Metin, those games, that are task-based and have a purpose beyond the production of correct speech, may serve as very good and useful communicative [1, p. 154]. As well known, the aim of all language games is to make the language learner use the language they are studying to communicate their thoughts and ideas with the desired results.

Why should the games be used when teaching any foreign language? The first reason is that games can offer students a fun-filled and relaxing atmosphere for learning and practicing. Uberman proves that after learning and practicing new vocabulary, students have great opportunity to use the language in a non-stressful way. When the learners of English are playing games, their attention is generally on the message, not on the language. In most cases the participants try to do everything to win the game. At the time they forget about the language, don’t pay attention to correct use of the language, its different forms [2, p. 21]. As Horwitz, Horwitz and Cope note this method can ease the fear of negative evaluation, the concern of being negatively judged in public (that is a real problem for some language learners), and which is one of the main factors inhibiting language learners from using the target language in front of other people. In a game-oriented context, anxiety is reduced and speech fluency is generated [1, p. 158]. Thus, communicative competence is achieved.

The second reason say that games are motivating. Games introduce an element of competition into language-building activities. According to Prasad, this provides valuable impetus to a purposeful use of language. In other words, these activities create a meaningful context for language use. The competitive ambiance also makes learners concentrate and think intensively during the learning process, which enhances unconscious acquisition of inputs [3, p. 247]. Most students who have experienced game-oriented activities hold positive attitudes towards them. An action research was conducted by Huyen and Nga in 2003. The results of the serves say that students said that they liked the relaxed atmosphere, the competitiveness, and the motivation that games brought to the classroom. On the effectiveness of games, action research reported that their students seem to learn more quickly and retain the learned materials better in a stress-free and comfortable environment [2, p. 46].

According to Lloyd Rieber, author of Seriously Considering Play: Designing Interactive Learning Environments Based on the Blending of Microworlds, Simulations and Games, 'it is somewhat surprising that one of the most fundamental and important concepts of human interaction has received so little attention.' He goes on to explain how the misconceptions surrounding play foster this attitude. For example, people view work as respectable and play as easy – even though many of the things we "play" are actually quite difficult (such as chess, sports and music) [4, p. 59].This is why many people balk at the thought of pupils playing games in the classroom – it is not respectable or rigorous enough to be useful. Nguyen Thi Thanh Huyen and Khuat Thi Thu Nga, authors of Learning Vocabulary Through Games: The Effectiveness of Learning Through Games, conducted a study exploring just how successful games are in terms of helping pupils learn vocabulary. During this study, they gathered pupil reactions to using games in the classroom and found that they were positively received for various reasons. They 'like the relaxed atmosphere, the competitiveness and the motivation that games brought to the classroom'. Pupils also reported that they like using their imagination and creativity and that they learned new vocabulary during that games 'but also were forced to recall existing knowledge and put it to use.' [5, p. 107].

The benefits of using games in language-learning can be summed up in nine points. Games...

1) are learner centered.

2) promote communicative competence.

3) create a meaningful context for language use.

4) increase learning motivation.

5) reduce learning anxiety.

6) integrate various linguistic skills.

7) encourage creative and spontaneous use of language.

8) construct a cooperative learning environment.

9) foster participatory attitudes of the students [6, p. 194].

The game method as a part of language education is thought to be a free learning activity that certainly gives students opportunity to train and use the languages they are learning with practical purpose and to use their creative skills in joyful atmosphere. Mostly for that reason students of almost all ages like games. On the base of school observation and discussion with teachers researchers consider that a great number of learners and teachers underestimate game as a useful activity just for relaxing. Some methodologists, for example Richard and Rodgers, do not examine a game as a method in language education, on the other hand, others think that games should only be considered as an additional device for building up the basic skills in language education at primary school. But in our opinion and n many others’ opinion, games are very useful as a method of teaching a foreign language not only at primary school but at any age and in any group of student. Many different surveys show that all learners of English are willing to play games during their lessons.

Enjoyment of games is never restricted by age. Some individuals may be less fond of games than others. But very much depends on the appropriateness of the games and the role of the player. In most cases it is accepted that young learners want to play games. Sometimes teenage learners might be reluctant to do it. Games which can be played in pairs or groups may be particularly useful for them [2, p.48]. Some problems can occur when a group of adult learners are reluctant to play games, as they consider game not useful and appropriate. The aim of adult learners is to learn the language for a particular purpose, to pass an exam to get promotion or to be able to work in a new office abroad, to be more competitive for example. The teacher has to respect their point of view and be able to justify the use of each game in terms of meaningfulness of practice it provides.

Grozdanova mentioned that “second language learning is a continuous process of discovery, checking out and proving/ disproving the hypothesis; it is related to problem-solving and decision-making. L2 system has to be in meaningful context” [3, p. 106]. Games can help a teacher to create contexts in which the language is useful and meaningful. The learners generally want to take part and in order to do so have to understand what others are saying or have written, and they have to speak or write in order to express their own point of view or give information. Sometimes games can encourage many learners to sustain their interest and work. Sometimes games reinforce student motivation and form creative and positive emotional atmosphere in learning process.

Games are one of the best training activities and at the same time an active break. A great number of games provide repeated use of certain language forms. By making the language convey information and opinion, games provide the key feature of drill, that gives the opportunity to sense the working of language as living communication. We must agree with Wright, Betteridge and Buckby that language games can be regarded as central to a teacher`s repertoire [6, p. 42].

Games provide practice in all the skills (reading, writing, listening, speaking), in all the stages of teaching/ learning (presentation, repetition, recombination and free use of language) and for many types of communication tasks (encouraging, criticizing, agreeing, explaining etc.).

The essential ingredient of a game is challenge. It is very important for games to be based on speech and reflection activity. For instance, if the teacher asks students to describe a house in the forest (given on a picture) it does not stimulate them for speaking activity because there is no challenge to student’s imagination and thinking. This is not an ordinary communicative task. If the teacher says: Imagine who lives in this house and what is happening there now – it is a communicative task based on thinking and speaking challenge and activity. It is typical for a language game then. Challenge is not a synonym to competition but many of the games are competitive and need cooperation or team work to solve problems. This kind of games provides an opportunity to develop speaking skills as well as students’ social skills especially in group work. The problems should better be related to the students’ age and interests.

Different kinds of game may be examined as a variant of cognitive functional approach, a realization of usage-based theory [7, p. 21]. For example, Tsvetkova shares this approach and suggests a simple English structure with present continuous tense as a cognitive model. This model consists of the parts of the cat – head (that is for the subject that is moving), neck (for the finite verb form in the sentence), body (for the verb itself) and tail (for the ending – ing). It is always attached to the body, to the basis of the verb to form the present participle. This way is appropriate to acquire linguistic information by young learners at primary school. This approach demonstrates an hierarchical relationship in English sentencein images and facilitates a learning process [7, p. 22].

It is essential to note that new educational resources in the Internet are game based in most cases. They are shown in bright image context, which has a nice music background, playful word and phrase repetition in different situations and very often there are typical cultural elements [8, p. 302]. All these things are components of any game as a strategy and these resources will develop more and more in the future. In a present language learning process e-resources should be examined as an important part of the learning process that has to be combined with traditional resources.

In which ways games can help the teachers and the learners in the classroom?

First of all, we must say that games not only help, but also encourage many learners to sustain their interest and work. Secondly, they help teachers to create contexts in which the language is useful and meaningful. Thirdly, they create a friendly and more relaxed atmosphere. It is that learners respond to the content in a definite way. Some of them are amused, some are angered or surprised.

When teaching a foreign language through games it is important to speak about so-called method “break the ice”. Breaking the ice is important on many situations and it leads to more productive and more comfortable conversations.

Icebreakers are structured activities which are designed to relax learners, introduce them to each other, and energize them in what is normally an unduly formal atmosphere or situation. Icebreakers are not usually related to the subject matter, where as “openers” are related to the subject matter that is to be discussed. In addition, they help to break up the cliques and invite people to form random groupings in a non-threatening and fun way.

The term “icebreaker” comes from “break the ice,” which in turn comes from special ships called “icebreakers” that were designed to break up ice in the arctic regions. And just as these ships make it easier for others to travel, an icebreaker helps to clear the way for learning to occur by making the learners more comfortable by helping to bring about conversation.

It is essential that the learners are totally familiar with the games they are asked to play. It might be helpful if they are familiar with the rules of the game in their own language. New games are normally introduced in the following way:

1) explanation by the teacher to the group or class;

2) demonstration of parts of the game by the teacher and one or two learners of the language;

3) trial by a group in front of the group/class;

4) any key language or instructions might be written on the board;

5) first try by groups;

6) key language should be removed from the board;

If the teacher is unfamiliar with the use of language teaching games then it is advisable to introduce them slowly as supplementary activities. When the teacher is familiar with a variety of games, they can be used as a substitute for parts of the course.

Many teachers sometimes believe that competition should be avoided. It is possible to play the majority of games with a spirit of challenge to achieve some results, rather than “to do someone else down.” It can also be wrong to compel an individual to participate. Those learners who are reluctant to do this might be asked to act as a judge and scorers.

It is always advisable to stop a game and change to something else before the learners become tired of it. In this way, their good will and concentration are retained.

The teacher’s attitude and language are important in the process of any communicative game. The teacher must never interrupt a game which is flowing successfully in order to correct a mistake in language use. It would mean that the teacher is more concerned with form than the exchange of ideas. In general, it is better to note the error and to comment on it later, when a game is finished.

In order to use game as an effective strategy in the process of language teaching/learningevery teacher should answer the following questions.

1) Will the game be relatively easy for you to organize in the classroom?

2) Is it likely to interest the particular group of learners you have in mind?

3) Are you forcing language activity into the game?

4) Is the amount of language and the type of use enough to justify the use of the game?

If your answer is yes to each of these questions, then the game you have in mind is a highly efficient means of satisfying learners` needs.

The teacher has to decide which form of interaction during games is the most appropriate and structure them effectively.

Game strategy may be considered as a basic element of conceptual matrix of communicative language teaching [2, p. 239]. Game is one of the basic communicative methods in language education. Lozanov’s Suggestopedia is a perfect illustration of a game based education that develops hidden human reserves and creative skills.

In present language methodology it is necessary to realize a role of game in language education. A perfect example of game philosophy in education is the Suggestopedia method. The process of learning in it is motivating and interesting both for students and teacher. The reason is special game strategy and the atmosphere it can create. According to Lozanov “the whole process of learning is a game, special, pleasant, game of two plans (conscious and unconscious). Play this game! Life is a game with its emotions and ambitions!” [6, p. 85].

The author of this article believes that game in its traditional and e-version has to be considered and explored not as an additional device but as a main strategy in language education both for children and adults. Because the game maintains learners` interest and motivation, facilitates the process of teaching and learning and converts language education into real intellectual and emotional experience developing student personality.


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3. Savignon, Sandra J. (2000). "Communicative language teaching". In Byram, Michael. Routledge Encyclopedia of Language Teaching and Learning. London: Routledge. pp. 125–129.

4. Whong, Melinda (2011). Language Teaching: Linguistic Theory in Practice. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

5. Klippel, Fredric. (1984). Keep Talking. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

6. Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon

7. Littlewood, William. (1981). Communicative Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

8. Ma Callum, G. P. (1980). 101 Word Games. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

9. Piaget, Jean. (2001). The Language and Thought of the Children. London: Routledge.

10. Porter-Ladousse, G. (1987). Role Play. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

11. Rixon, Steven. (1981). How to Use Games in Language Teaching. London: Macmillan.

12. Stern, H.H. (2002). Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching. Shanghai: Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press.

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №6 - 2014

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