Board games are a classic tradition that have enriched the childhoods of many and vastly improved countless rain-drenched caravan holidays. The most famous games can be found throughout the world but every country has board games of its own. In Japan it’s not hard to find someone who enjoys a game of Shogi, the Japanese version of chess, or Igo, a grand strategy game played with white and black stones the rules of which totally befuddle me!

The fun of playing board games can be easily harnessed and used in the ESL classroom. I’ve seen students of every age come out of their shell thanks to the simple game-play mechanics found in a standard board game. But, how should a teacher go about inserting one into their lesson plan? Well, here are my thoughts on that.

Carts and Afts

For the Elementary, Special Needs and English Club crowds arts and crafts are a big hit. So, making something they can then play with is a total slam dunk. Set the theme based on whatever is being studied at the time. An example for Elementary school could be a board modelled after a Zoo as a way for them to practice animal names.

For Elementary and Special Needs classes it’s probably fine to let each student make their own board but for English Club I think it really helps the club dynamic if they work in pairs or groups for most activities.

PRO TIP: Check with your JTE before doing any craft activities. They may be against it for some reason (maybe the class has been doing a lot of craft recently) or they might have access to some resources, such as paint or colouring pencils, that you can make use of.

Play Time

I like taking the rules from existing games and adapting them to the ESL classroom. I’ve done this with board games too. My favourite example of this was when I introduced my English Club to Cluedo (called Clue in America). I explained the basic rules and then asked them to make an original board of any theme with any characters they wanted. I also let them design their own murder weapons. So we ended up saying things like

“I think the Chicken Boss did it with a flood in the Haunted Mansion.”

because this game was about the murder of Mickey Mouse in Disneyland (and no, I’m not entirely sure what a “Chicken Boss” is, but it wore sunglasses).

However, when preparing a board to be used in a regular class I think it makes sense to stick to a simpler game so that less time is spent on the explanations. My go-to board is a standard Snakes and Ladders with a couple of extra rules. I’ve added special squares such as “Roll Again” and “Go Back To Start.”

Language Injection

Of course one should not forget the point behind using board games in the classroom. It’s not just a bit of fun, it’s also a tool by which students can practice a given language pattern. There are a number of ways to apply English to a game but the one I use most frequently is with vocabulary cards. For each board I make for the lesson I also make a stack of small paper cards with key words on them. On the boards themselves I have labelled certain spaces as “Challenge” spaces. During the games players who land on a “Challenge” space have to pick up a “Challenge” card and make a sentence or short conversation from what’s on it. For example, if we’re practising infinitives I would put various infinitives on the “Challenge Cards” (to play, to make, to eat, etc.) and ask students who land on the special spaces to form a sentence starting with “I want” such as “I want to play soccer.”

Another approach is to have the dialogue hints present on the board itself. So, when practising “I like / I don’t like” have a board full of various pictures and each time a player moves they have to state whether they like or dislike the thing upon which they landed.

PRO TIP: How can you teach someone the rules of a board game without speaking their language? Simple. Show them! Whenever I introduce a new group game I ask everyone to stand up and gather around one group. I then sit with that group and gently guide them through the rules as we play. It’s not necessary to demonstrate every single aspect of the game, as long as the basics are understood the students can either make up their own definitions of the rest of the rules or ask about them.

Fun Ratio

Board games are great fun and they can bring quiet classes out of their shell, however it’s important to temper the fun with learning. If they get too involved in the game it becomes quite easy for the language to fall to the wayside. The reverse is also true; If the dialogue is too complex or long-winded then all the joy quickly drains from the activity. When playing board games, or any language-learning game for that matter, its necessary to get the fun ratio properly balanced. This only comes with trial and error.

So go on, give it a trial.

What board games have you played in class? Do you find them effective? Let us know below.

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