“Okay, guys, whose turn is it?”
“Roll the dice. What colors did you get?”
“Green and black!”
“Black is for the cat…. here comes the cat! Here comes the cat!”
“Okay, so who are we going to help? The bird, the mouse, or the chipmunk!”
…just a few bits of dialogue, typical for a round of “Max the Cat”. Children love this game, and find it terribly exciting to make decisions about which animals to help, when to feed the cat, and counting out spaces as they move their counters around the board. With this particular game, children work together to move the parent animals – a chipmunk, a mouse, and a bird – to the tree, so they can feed their babies. Each time a green dot is rolled, the group decides which parent animal to move forward. In the meantime, there is also a hungry cat on the prowl. Each time the child rolls a black dot, the cat moves forward one step. When he gets too close, the children can “feed” the cat one of his favorite treats: milk, cat food, cheese, or catnip. That means the cat has to go all the way back to start, giving the smaller animals a temporary reprieve in their quest to feed their babies. Children identify with the various animals, often saying things like “I’m the bird! I want to fly!”
As they play, the children discuss various decisions and work together to reach a common goal, making this a very effective way to work on their social skills. At the same time, they are developing language skills, making this activity doubly effective.
Games are a wonderful way of learning language in a natural environment. As teachers, we need to be aware of the different kinds of language we can teach with games: game-specific language, and general language of play. In the case of “Max the Cat”, game-specific language would for instance include the names of the players: cat, bird, mouse, chipmunk, and babies. It could also include short utterances like “here, kitty kitty,” when the children feed the cat and call it back home. This is the language that is tied to this specific game, due to the types of players and kinds of moves in the game itself. General game language would include things like “it’s your turn”, “roll the dice”, and counting the spaces as the players move. This is language that is applicable in different kinds of games, no matter the game. This worksheet (borrowed from elteachertrainer.com) provides excellent examples of general game language.
When designing a lesson using games, we can look at these types of language use and plan the kind of language we want our learners to pick up on, including examples of chunking and phrase-building. Keeping with the example of Max the Cat, game-specific language we can employ, including levels of chunking, might include cat, the cat, the black cat, or the hungry cat. It could also include the question “who do we help?”
If we look at another game, like “Guess Who?” game-specific language would include facial characteristics, and learning how to ask and answer questions. “Does he have a big nose?” or “Does she have brown hair?” are examples of fitting game-specific language.
When we play games with our language learners, we need to be constantly aware of the fact that we are, in fact, doing several things at once. We are giving our learners a space to acquire language in a natural, enjoyable fashion. At the same time, we provide them space to practice that language and provide them feedback with every set of the game. And of course, we are simply having fun – as we well should!