Supporting English Language Learners with Gamification

We learn another language most easily through meaningful participation in activities that we enjoy or are important for our daily lives (Pransky, 2008). The use of games in the classroom can encourage enjoyment and be a valuable approach to facilitate active participation through social interaction for English Language Learners (ELLs). These interactions, with Canadian peers, foster the development of conversational and academic language. Specifically, participating in games and solving puzzles, helps ELLs internalize new words and sentence patterns (Coelho, 2004). 

The fun factor makes games an equalizer in the inclusive classroom (Yudcovitch, 2010). ELL students are able to observe and model their English-speaking peers while playing alongside them. Cooperative groups are an important way to get students to work together and create social cohesion. Since cooperative games stimulate conversation and promote positive relationships, they are recommended over competitive games. Yet, even competitive games have value along with a variety of online games to foster L2 development. 

The following are a variety of games that can be incorporated into the classroom:

Simple Language Games: Games including ‘I Spy” and “Simon Says”, help students recognize and practice naming objects, parts of the body, and simple actions. These games are best for division one students.(Kindergarten to Grade 3)

Realia (Grab Bag): Students sit in a circle and the teacher has a bag of several items (It is best to work with a theme such as all animals, fruit, and vegetables). There are enough items in the bag for each student. The bag is passed around the circle and each student reaches in to take one item and says the name of it. The naming process continues until every child is able to identify all the objects. Learning can be extended by having the child make the sound of the object or using the name of the object in a sentence. (Kindergarten to Grade 3)

Mime: Mime is an excellent way for younger ELL students to interpret and show understanding without having to speak. Working in groups the students are given “Mime Cards” where an idea for a story is written. Start with simple ideas: drinking/eating very hot soup, waiting for a friend, going outside on a cold winter’s day, scoring a goal in soccer or hockey.

Puzzles: Have students work in pairs to solve simple crossword puzzles.   Headline Cues was developed by Michigan State University. Players are shown a headline and a short summary. One or more words in the headline are missing and players must figure out what the missing words are supposed to be. For each missing word, players see the word’s first letter and the number of missing letters. Any time players are stumped, they can ask for a letter to be filled in.

 Information-Gap Activities: Requires the students to work together to seek information in order to solve a problem or complete a puzzle. The jigsaw approach is one kind of information-gap activity that helps to stimulate the exchange of information. For example, each student in a group would have a different clue to a word but all clues are needed to identify the word.

Bingo games: Bingo games are easy to create and help students develop sight word vocabulary the student can recognize in print. For example, the teacher could create a bingo game using a list of 20 classroom objects. Each student receives a card with a different set of 12 words printed in three columns of four rows each. The caller would show or point to real objects or pictures and have the students cover the word (with counters) if they find it on their card. 

Board Games: Board games can be incorporated in the classroom throughout all grades such as Scattergories and Apples to Apples

Spot It: Players try to match cards but there is only 1 matching symbol between any 2 cards. This game is good for players age 7 years and up and it helps to develop visual perception skills and speech-language skills.

Last Letter:  A player picks a category and then chooses a word in the category.Then players have to take the last letter of that word and make a new word starting with that letter. 

Pickles To Penguins:  Players have to get rid of their cards as quickly as they can by figuring out what their cards and the cards in play have in common. 

Hedbanz.  Players ask "yes" or "no" questions before the time runs out to figure out if the cartoon card on your headband is an animal, food or object. The Hedbanz categories are simple (animal, food or object), allowing everyone, to join in the fun!

Rory’s Story Cubes:  Collection of nine dice with images printed on each side of the dice. There are lots of ways to use Rory’s story cubes in the classroom. Story cubes are a great way to prompt a presentation about a topic. If focusing on grammar, teachers could use the cubes to help review the key grammar concept from a lesson. Story cubes can also be used as Guided Story Templates.


For older students:

 DIXIT is a guessing game in which players select from a series of cards all featuring dreamlike images. The game begins with each player drawing six cards. Then, one player serves as the storyteller. The storyteller examines their six cards, then chooses one of the cards and creates a sentence that describes the image on their card. It is critical that the storyteller does not describe the card too accurately, but instead constructs a sentence that leaves room for interpretation.

The Resistance is a social deduction game. In this game, the players all work toward a common goal; however, one or several players work to conspire against the group. The language and communication aspects of the game revolve around players trying to convince one another who is a villain and who is a hero.

Virtual Games: 

English Media Lab has a wealth of interactive games and puzzles to help students practice grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. 

English Vocabulary Games with Pictures has a variety of different games and activities primarily for newcomers to practice difference games and activities. 

Learning Chocolate great for new ELL’s to learn vocabulary and then practice their new skills through games.

Common Sense Media is a non-profit organization that provides education and advocacy to families to promote safe technology and media for children. The information on the website is evidence-based.

These vocabulary games, apps, and websites get words in front of students in engaging ways, and give students opportunities to understand definitions, uses, and meanings. Using these vocabulary tools, along with a regular reading habit will help students build word knowledge. They feature tech-enabled supports like text-to-speech, customizable flash cards, adaptive instruction, and clever gameplay. There are also resources for teachers to craft activities, lessons, and assessments to keep kids' vocabulary skills on track. 

  • Beck and Bo PreK-K
  • Endless Wordplay: School Edition PreK-K
  • Flocabulary K-12
  • Vocabulary Spelling City K-12
  • Osmo Words  Grade1-8
  • Spaceteam ESL- Grade 2-12
  • Word Runners-Touch Press Games Grade 4-5
  • Master Swords Grade4-8
  • World’s Worst Pet-Vocabulary Grade 4-8
  • Membean Grade 4-12
  • W.E.L.D.E.R swap Grade 4-12
  • Ink Blott Underground Grade 5-8
  • Scribblenauts Remix Grade 5-8
  • Puzzlejuice Grade 5-12
  • Wordcraft Grade 6-12
  • Duolingo Grade 7-12
  • Grade 7-12
  • Vocabador App - Grade 9-12

Speak Agent is designed for elementary students. It gamifies learning academic vocabulary for K-4th graders

Quizlet  provides various ways for ELLs to learn vocabulary words (flash cards, matching, embedding images, etc.).  It does not replace vocabulary instruction; it simply augments it.

Minecraft The openness of the game allows teachers to use it any way they see fit as well. Teachers have used it for language learning, creative writing and world history. Currently, there are three versions of the game, each with their own pros and cons, and choosing the best version for your classroom is mostly a matter of classroom context.


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