Teaching Grammar with Games in the ESL Classroom

You may remember when you were in school the dreaded grammar lessons of sitting in a desk writing, correcting and rewriting sentences to learn proper grammar usage.  Well, while some people may still teach grammar in this method, there is a movement towards teaching grammar with games.  Just imagine your class when you announce that it's time for a grammar lesson and instead of moans and whining, you get smiles and excitement.  It is possible and believe it or not, teaching grammar with games will still be as effective, if not more effective, as just teaching them through repetitive writing and rewriting.


Topics in this article are:


  • Research shows teaching grammar with games gives excellent results
  • The value of intrinsic motivation
  • What kinds of games work best
  • Tips for using grammar games successfully - Organization, expectations, variation, respect, routine and nurture



Research shows teaching grammar with games gives excellent results


Arif Saricoban and Esen Metin, authors of "Songs, Verse and Games for Teaching Grammar" explain how and why games work for teaching grammar in an ESL classroom.  They say, "Games and problem-solving activities...have a purpose beyond the production of correct speech, and are examples of the most preferable communicative activities."  They go on to explain that grammar games help children not only gain knowledge but be able to apply and use that learning.

Additionally, games have the advantage of allowing the students to "practice and internalize vocabulary, grammar and structures extensively."  They can do this through repeated exposure to the target grammar and because students are often more motivated to play games than they are to do deskwork.  Plus, during the game, the students are focused on the activity and end up absorbing the grammar subconsciously.

While games are motivating for the students, probably the best reason, according to Saricoban and Metin, to use games is that "the use of such activities both increases the cooperation and competition in the classroom."  Indeed games can be used to add excitement through competition or to create bonding between the students, and between the students and teacher.

Aydan Ersoz, author of "Six Games for the ESL/EFL Classroom" also explains more reasons why games do work for teaching grammar.  Learning a language requires constant effort and that can be tiring, but Ersoz outlines two good reasons why games should be included in the classroom:

* Games that are amusing and challenging are highly motivating.
* Games allow meaningful use of the language in context.


The Value of Intrinsic Motivation


The theory of intrinsic motivation may also give some insight as to why teaching grammar through games actually works.  Intrinsic motivation refers to the internal factors that encourage us to do something.  Most young learners will not internally decide that they want to learn grammar.  They don't yet understand the concepts of why it's important to know proper grammar, so these external factors won't affect them much either.  Instead, intrinsic motivation can encourage them to play games.  If these games are good then they will be learning while they are playing.

Joel Bacha, author of "Play and Affect in Language Learning", explains how this theory works.  Exposure to challenges and stimulation piques the children's natural curiosity and, in turn, promotes learning through the activity's required skills.  This is because activities that get the students to move around activate their mental capacities and stimulate neural networks, thus promoting learning and retention.  Bacha's article goes on to point out that some studies are even beginning to show that intrinsic motivation can promote long-term language retention.


What kinds of games work best?


When you are looking for games to use in your classroom, don't just pick something to be a "time filler" that does not have any linguistic purpose.  These games may entertain the students, but when you don't have much time with them each day as it is, you want your game to do double duty to get the most out of the time you spend playing games.

Lin Hong, author of "Using Games in Teaching English to Young Learners", explains that not all games are going to work to teach the students language skills.  If the game is simply for fun and not linked to educational goals it may not be the best use of your time.  It is possible to have a fun game that is educationally sound, however.  To find out if the game is educationally sound, think about these questions posed by Hong:


  • Which skills do the games practice?
  • What type of game is it and what is its purpose?
  • Does the difficulty level of the game mesh with the students' ability level?
  • Does the game require maximum involvement by the students?
  • Do the students like it?  Do you like it?

To add to these questions also ask yourself:


  • What specific vocabulary or grammar are you introducing or practising with this game?
  • Can you keep control of your class and play this game?
  • What materials do you need for the game and can you obtain these easily?
  • What controls, if any are needed, will you have in place to ensure the children are on track?
  • Competition is not always appropriate, and it is not appropriate at all for five year olds and under.  Can you play a game for the sake of the game and not in order to define winners and losers?  Here are some ways play down competition:  Do not keep score all the time, make sure the teams tie, play down any "winning", praise everyone, play until everyone has finished - the winners are those who finish, not those who finish first, and everyone finishes. Etc.
  • Are the rules easy and clear?


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Tips for Using Grammar Games in Class Successfully




The first thing you should do when start teaching a preschool or elementary school ESL class is to figure out how to organize your class.  For the younger students you'll want to change your activities every five to ten minutes because they have shorter attention spans.  If you don't change your activities, they'll soon start losing interest.  As you get towards the higher elementary grades, you can expand the time you spend per activity.  The best way to gauge this is to pay attention to your class for the first few days to see what length of time works the best for them.  Additionally, try to have everything ready to go before the students enter the classroom.  That way you can go from activity to activity with minimal downtime.  This is essential as you can lose control of the class if you do not keep them occupied.



If you notice that your class is getting noisy or rambunctious, it's time to change activities.  Kids of this age like to be active; in order to balance out the energy levels in the classroom, alternate between active activities and quiet activities.

Be careful how you use activities that require fine motor skills - or more importantly pay attention to your expectations for activities that require fine motor skills.  Children in preschool and early elementary are just learning to write in their own languages.  This is not the best time to expect them to write in a foreign language as well.  As they progress through elementary school, however, you can begin using games and activities that require them to write small amounts.



Make sure your activities appeal to all sorts learning styles, so even when you are using games to teach grammar you'll want to vary the types of things you expect your students to do.  For preschool and early elementary grades, stick to games that use talking, listening, looking and moving.  For middle and high elementary, you can continue to use games that use talking, listening, looking and moving and add in some games that use writing and reading.

Going along with this same idea, think about what children learn from the easiest.  Television commercials are short and catchy and the most memorable are the ones that are repeated often.  Keep these characteristics in mind when you are teaching grammar to your students - incorporate these characteristics into your daily activities.



To make games work for you and your class, be sure to operate your class with the utmost respect - both to and from students.  This includes teaching your students from the very start that you expect respect at all times.  This includes giving encouragement and following the rules.

That said, you'll need to make sure the rules for all of the games are clear and manageable.  When possible, explain the rules in the students' native tongue so that they all know what is expected of them.  When there is an environment of respect in the classroom, the students will feel safe enough to participate in the games so that they can get the most educational value out of them.

Towards the end of elementary school, you can start introducing competitive games, but only if the class is respectful and it shouldn't be the main focus of the game.



Even if you only have your students for a short time every week, establishing a routine will help the class go smoothly.  Children of this age (preschool through elementary school) thrive on routine and if they know what to expect next, they will be more able to participate in what's going on now.  Set up a schedule for the type of activities you'll be doing at any given time throughout the class whether it is a game, story or song or whatever you want to do.  Then, when you are planning your class, plug in the appropriate activities to each section of time.  You should also leave a little time at the end of the class period to allow the students to clean up and gather their things as well as time for you to recap the class, praise the students and tell them good-bye.

You can also designate a "sign" to use to signal to the students when it is time to change activities such as clapping or signing a specific song so that they know it's time to return to the circle, table or desks.



Perhaps the most important thing you can do with your students is to nurture them everyday.  For each child in your class, find something you like about him or her and be sure to tell him or her.  Be encouraging, patient and kind while playing games and participating in activities and they'll like you as a teacher and a person which will in turn help them get excited about your class and what you have for them to do everyday.

Using games to teach grammar can be both fun and rewarding for you and your students.  Just remember to keep them engaged and make sure that you're games are truly teaching the skill at hand and you'll soon have a class full of students who get excited about learning grammar!  If you need some ideas to help you get started, just visit the link in the box below this article for some free materials on how to use games in your classroom.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Shelley Vernon has inspired thousands of esl teachers with her games. Get her free games now to find out how to enjoy your time in class more and make your teaching even more effective.  Receive the free games here! Fun ESL Games for Children aged 4-12

And Preschool Games and Illustrated Stories here: Fun games and stories for children aged 3-5

Ersoz, Aydan.  Six Games for the ESL/EFL Classroom. iteslj.org/Lessons/Ersoz-Games.html.
Hong, Lin.  Using Games in Teaching English to Young Learners.
iteslj.org/Lessons/Lin UsingGames.html.
Bacha, Joel.  Play and Affect in Language Learning.
Saricoban, Arif and Esen Metin.  "Songs, Verse and Games for Teaching Grammar."