Columns on View All Columns
Visit ELTBOOKS - all Western ELT Books with 20% discount (Japan only)

Humanistic Teaching

An approach to learning English

January 31, 2010

The Keyword Game

Today I learnt a new game, well almost. I guess it would be more accurate to say that I learnt a new name. I attended the ETJ Hiroshima January presentation on Elementary School English, jointly presented by Cedric Noto, Carl Zeman and Carla Wilson . Teachers living within easy reach of Hiroshima missed a treat. I hope the presentation gets a proper write up.  Carl took on team teaching, Carla focused on activities to get the children communicating and Cedric tackled how to make the best of Eigo Note.  It was the first time I had seen it and from a cursory glance appears that the Keyword game is a staple. Interestingly, Cedric and Carl had differing opinions about it. Cedric found it engaging. Carl  found it violent. I guess the answer depends upon the level of competition experienced.

The version Cedric taught was simple. Players split into pairs and place a small object such as an eraser within easy reach. The teacher announces a target word, perhaps also showing a flashcard and then begins to list words within the same vocabulary category. When the teacher announces the target word that is the signal to snatch the object. The player snatching the object is the winner and the slower player is the loser. Not that Cedric was suggesting focusing on this. But that, I'm sure is how children, especially competitive ones, perceive it.

Though the name was unfamilar, the basic game was not. I used a different version of it when I first started teaching children. In the version I knew there were several objects but less than the number of players who formed groups. The player who missed out on getting an object lost a life and the game would continue until one player was out. I think we used to spell some word which might have been "slow" or "butterfingers" (though that strikes me as too long) or "stupid" (I hope I wasn't crass enough to use that, but I can't swear to it). I just can't remember, but I do remember noticing that children liked the game but that with class one child was just physically too slow and always lost. That made me uncomfortable and was one of the rurning points that got me to seriously question using competitive games at all.

Anyway, rather than write more about that or the game I'd like instead to focus on some alternatives. The basic excitement of the game springs from not knowing when the key will be triggered and the physical movement involved in snatching the target object. Accordingly any replacement should probably be just as physical, though I can't help but mention one mad idea that isn't. In fact I'll start out with it:

NOISE DETECTOR: Ideally the teacher would have a big cardboard cut-out with a dial and pointer that could be turned from the back. When the keyword is spoken the whole class tries to shout out in unison, repeating the word. The Noise dectector gives feed back on their performance. Class points could even be scored for getting the needle into the red. For teacher's wanting more physicality the students could be encouraged to clap, stomp or jump.

RING THE BELL: Basically the same idea except that instead of using a fake noise dectector the teacher could use a picture of a fairground test your strength game, or even just draw one on the board. The teacher could strike a real bell when the students are vocal enough or with no bell available just say "dong!". This could be combined with quickly raising and lowering some kind of marker (perhaps a round magnet) on top of the picture, again with the idea of giving feedback. 

In case you are wondering why have the same game in two forms, I want to emphasise that presention and storyline are important elements for success. Sometimes a game can fail with one presention and succeed with another. It's all about capturing attention and stimulating the imagination. Oh, a memory has returned. I think the game I used to play was called "Grab it". 

TIGER CLAW: A blatent attempt to tie in the current Chinese zodiac sign. Every player has an object and balances it on the back of one hand. When the teacher says the keyword that is a signal to toss the object up and catch it claw style (palm facing the floor) with the same hand.

CUP TOSS: Players work in pairs with a paper cup each and one object. One player starts with the object in their cup. The keyword is the signal to toss it to their partner by jerking the cup so the object flies out.

CO-OPERATIVE DROP: Players work in pairs, each pair has one paper cup and one object. The keyword is the signal to lift the object into the cup. Each player may only use one finger so the players need to work together to lift the object. This method could even be used to teach the names for different fingers. "Ok, for this round use ring fingers" etc

This last idea is based upon something I have done with kindergarten aged students. Rather than doing slam/karuta we sometimes do "finger touch". We all use one finger and make a kind of wheel with each finger being a spoke. The idea is then to move to the flashcard named without breaking contact. With even younger children where mothers are present mother and child can work in pairs.

I want to stress that I haven't tried any of the keyword game varients listed above. If you do try any of them out, please let me know how it goes. The problem I have with the keyword game is that at its core it is based upon scarcity. Do we really want to model the notion that snatching up goods is a legitimate action? Yes, it is only a game, and it is supposed to be in fun, but the root behaviour is based on is ugly, naked aggression. We can do better.

« Quitting | Main | Teaching To The Test »


Just wanted to say I always read and enjoy your essays. They help me put into practice my intention of non-violent/cooperative learning and living. Please continue!

HI Chris,

I missed that presentation due to circumstances but REALLY wanted to go. Thanks for writing about it. Interesting concepts as I've attended "English camps" where students who were quite good at English lost to the bigger kids who were simply stronger physically.

Also, I teach at kindergartens and some of the students are (is this PC) "physically challenged". So I have been challenged with new ways of preparing lessons so they can participate along with their peers. They can, provided I avoid exactly the things you despise -competition.

I will be trying some of your ideas and hopefully can fill you in next time we meet. I won't miss the next one

The "Keyword Game" is one of those games I'd prefer to see used sparingly if at all. Karuta fits into this category too.

Far too often I see students refusing to play because their partner is either highly competitive and pushes their partner's hand out of the way or the partner has a faster hand or the partner has more English knowledge or..... well, the list goes on.

The other issue I have with it is the fact that I am doing most of the speaking during the game and the students are echoing me. My modification recently was to just hold up the card and the children say what is on the card unless it is the keyword.

It still does not thrill me and I have been pointing out to teachers I find are receptive to my comments that it may be counter-productive for some students, making them hate having to play games or do activities during English class. A bit of competition is fine but this game and Karuta are just too competitive in my opinion and teachers are too focussed on the outcome of the game instead of what is supposedly learned in the game.

If I do anything like the "Slam Game" (Karuta) I do not bother having the kids count how many cards they got and they share in the calling of the cards.

The way I do the "Slam Game" is everyone points to the card and the card comes out. No competing for "points". Everyone also shares in the calling of the cards.

I really wish ETJ would figure out how to videotape the conferences and put up the seminars for all to see because I would have loved to see the seminar you mentioned, Chris.

Steve W.

Sorry, Steve, I thought your reply got published on the day you wrote it, but I just noticed it hadn't.

I concur with everything you wrote, except for the remark about a bit of competition being fine - how much is a bit, and what benefits does it bring?

One thing I do with karuta type games is to leave the cards on the table and just turn them over. This way the same item can be called several times and it becomes an act of memory to remember where it is. There are no points unless the total number of items is tracked in some way, for example, marks on the board or counters in a cup. This creates a group total rather than an individual total. Asking a group to beat their previous best score is very different from asking them to compete with each other. Cheers!

Recent Columns

Recent Comments




World Today