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Kids World

Topics of interest to teachers of English as a second or foreign language to young learners.

March 15, 2003

Playing Games in English

Kids Twenty years ago when my son was small, I would play English games with him in an attempt to raise him bilingually. He really liked those games, and when he outgrew them, I used them in my elementary school classes. I was amazed to see how enraptured Japanese youngsters were with English games. As a result, I became a strong believer in the natural talent of Japanese youngsters to absorb English through games and activities which enable them to take charge in the target language. Such a realization put into motion my quest to import English games and materials and introduce them to the EFL market in Japan.

Way back then, I initially spoke with Kinokuniya and Maruzen, and based upon their interest, I started the Little America Book Store in an attempt to help teachers, parents, students and retail stores find useful English games to help make English come alive for Japanese students. Well, many years have passed, and many other services have emerged as a result; now there is an excellent array of games for everyone to choose from.

But now with the recent introduction of English in elementary schools, I often get annoyed when I read or hear the phrase, "Let's play games and have fun with English." It is as if adults who learned English the old translation way now want to do the exact oppposite with the next generation and let children play, play, play. I think games should be a source of fun, but too many peope are on the "fun bandwagon," which sends the wrong message to students, namely that they have free license to fool around speaking Japanese WHILE playing English games.

Based upon my years of experience, I think the introduction of games in an English class should be done with clarity, purpose and dignity. In this article, I would like to share with you what I believe the five purposes of playing English games to be:

  • The students should learn new vocabulary as a result of playing the game.
  • They should also learn new, useful English expressions while playing.
  • Students should be able to think in English during the game.
  • The playing of the game should promote English interaction among students.
  • Students should demonstrate good manners to each other and the teacher while playing.

Having said all that, if the students can successfully put into use the five points listed above, then playing games will naturally be fun and exciting. But if the children are busy speaking Japanese during the game, they will miss out on chances to learn new vocabulary and absorb and use new phrases. If they speak Japanese during the game, they will also miss out on many chances to think in English and interact with their peers in English. And in the final analysis, they will be denied opportunities to display good manners in English, such as using the phrases, "Here you are, thank you, you're welcome, after you, you go, it's your turn, pass, I won, I lost, How many do you have?, etc."

Now, one might ask, "How does the teacher stop students from speaking Japanese during a game?" It is quite easy. The first player to speak Japanese loses his/her turn. It works without fail if the teacher is fair and consistent from the beginning of the game until the end. And the marvelous thing is it only needs to be done once, as all the students get the message clearly.

The teacher's role during game play is to furnish the players with the English words or phrases to use during the game. As time goes on, the students will master the words and phrases, use them with each other, and then the teacher can eventually enjoy stepping back, just being an observer, watching the children play and interact with each other in the target language.

I would like to add that the playing of games does not necessarily have to produce a winner. I personally believe all the students are winners because they increase their vocabulary; they learn and use new expressions; they think in English and interact with each other in English, and they demonstrate positive social skills by being polite to each other in English. Playing games in English is a win-win situation for all.

As of next month, I will be introducing how to play one English game a month in the new GAMES section. I look forward to sharing with you many games that can strategically help Japanese children speak English in a natural and interactive way.

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