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Tabletop Games as Teaching Aids

As an EFL teacher and to improve my students’ speaking skill, I have been taking advantage of using board & card games in my classes. Typically, when you start a new method and take a new path, you will be faced with a lot of questions. In this article, I have gathered together the answers to some questions that I was frequently asked by colleagues, students and other friends. 

Why Tabletop Games?

Since the emergence of smartphones, many people—particularly the young people who are known as Generation Y—tend to stay aloof from eye-to-eye connections. We check our cellphones sometimes for no reason and in every family or friends reunion are some who cannot take eyes off their phones. To save and encourage human interactions, I have found tabletop games the best means.

Having been a big fan of boardgames, I remember the first time I used them was when I was teaching a free discussion class. Free discussion sessions are designed for students of intermediate or upper levels. Some of these participants wish to become more fluent in speaking and some just want to use it not to lose it. The material that teachers prepare for these sessions consist mainly of questions, handouts, tapes and short stories to encourage talking. Seasoned teachers know that real-life experiences are the most educating ones. After teaching different sessions and talking about various topics, I was pondering whether I could put my students in a more real-life situation and that was the time I came up with the idea of using boardgames as teaching aids.

Some Skills We Practice When We Play Games

When students practice shopping or restaurant language in a class—respect to all learning activities—they just role play. Now, let us take a look at some speaking-involved skills we (sometimes unconsciously) practice when we play boardgames.

Have you ever tried to sell something for the best price? Have you ever been a salesperson who needs to haggle for a better price? A lot of games put you in such situations. Sometimes you need to persuade or dissuade your game mates (or even make small presentations) into/from buying or selling an item. Take the classic Monopoly for instance; street owners try to pitch for the highest bids and buyers want to pay as little as possible because you need money to keep playing or not to lose. That is how it goes not only in the game, but also in the real world.

If you are playing a co-op game, you need to consult with your co-players prior to taking any actions. In these games, you should group talk in order to reach agreements to solve riddles, defend your team members against enemies, stop a virus and so on. Just like the game instructions suggest, you need to cooperate to survive, win and enjoy. 

Bluffing is a very common process in some games, like the Sheriff of Nottingham which is a popular one in this genre. In short, you need to hide the truth, and distract and mislead the other players to win in these games. I don’t think coursebooks teach you how to bluff in a foreign language, do they?

Sometimes you need to team up against a mutual enemy, so you had better negotiate with other players to persuade possible allies. Here is a piece of advice: often you need to keep both enemies and friends close to win when you are playing this type of game.

Yes, You Can Teach Lexis

For starters, you can begin with basic, instructional words (like counter, shuffle, deal, draw, flip). More complicated games come with more sophisticated words. New vocabs can range from uncommon verbs to location names, job titles or the use of specific terminology and jargon.

Even better, for thematic games you can choose a target language to teach. If you want to teach farming language for instance, playing the boardgame Bohnanza will automatically do the trick. Bohnanza players are farmers who plant, harvest and sell crops to make money. Just like real farmers they can grow their business through making the best use of fertilizers, tractors and extra fields. I can assure you that on average, intermediate students will leave the class with about 15 new words or more. 

So Far So Good?

We have already read about skills that depend directly on speaking. Before we go any further, let me again remind you that here people are playing games and mostly having fun. We all love playing games more than studying, so game instructions are more engaging than routine class instructions. Now you have everyone’s attention and interest more easily because they count as gamers not learners. Players forget to check cellphones, they lose track of time and moreover they do not remember that they are being taught.

What’s More

In addition to what we have reviewed, while playing games we practice some other skills that are connected to speaking. I remember once a very shy student came to me when we were playing Dixit (the best game to play in class) claiming that she had scored but I did not move her counter forward. She made me review the last round and convinced me that she was right. It was amazing because she would not have done so in a regular session. At that very moment she had to stand up for herself in order not to lose. Furthermore, game players learn how to accept an offer and decline another one. They learn how to say no to an unfair offer or even make counter offers. The list of advantages to playing games can go on and on since the strategies people implement are countless.

Last Words

In this article, I tried to introduce tabletop games to my interested colleagues and curious students. Just like any other lesson to teach, if you want to run a game session you must go through a lot of preparation steps and have a complete lesson plan. First sessions could be really formidable but once you get used to playing games in your class, they will become your teaching aids for good.


A shortlist

I have been asked to suggest some games. Here is a shortlist of some games that are worth trying.

  • DIXIT (if you ask me, try this abstract game the first. You will love it. Up to 12 persons can play it)
  • CHINATOWN (players are businessmen who want to take over neighborhoods. Up to 5 players)
  • MAFIA DE CUBA ( all mafia games are based on bluffing speculating and lie detecting but I have found this version the best. Over 10 players)
  • CAMEL UP (camels race and players place bets on the fastest and slowest. Up to 8 players can practice betting language)
  • VOTING GAME (any number of players)
  • MASQUERADE (bluff to hide your character. Over 10 players)
  • MONOPOLY / MONOPOLY DEAL (if you think you need it takes a long time to play the boardgame try Monopoly Deal. Each round takes maximum 15m. Each deck is for 5 players but you can have several deck and divide your students to groups.)
  • DILEMMARAMA (speaking based. Great for drilling advice language and second conditionals. Any number)
  • TICKET TO RIDE (build railway tracks to connect cities. up to 5 players)
  • BOHNANZA (practice farming language. Max 7 players)
  • WHEN I DREAM (describe your dreams. Up to 4players)
  • CODENAMES (cooperate and follow the hints and clues to make your team win. Any number of players)
  • SPLENDOR (you are merchants who need to collect gems &…. max 4 players)
  • SCOTLAND YARD (players are a team of officers who need to cooperate to catch a thief. Up to 6 players)

There are literally hundreds of games that might be suitable to play in your class but before you start here is some advice:

  1. Pre teach the new and target language.
  2. Download and get help from HOW TO PLAY XYZ videos. You can find lots of them on YOUTUBE. Professionals usually instruct games better and language learners find them easier to follow.
  3. Never try heavy strategy games unless students know how to play them in their L1.

(Happy to answer your questions hameddd83@yahoo.com or leave comments below.)

Written by Hamed Lorestani for TEFL.net April 2019
Hamed has studied English Literature and is a CELTA holder teacher with over a decade of experience. You can contact him via email at hameddd83@yahoo.com or on Instagram hamed_lorestani.

27 Comments

  • Rana says:

    Dear hamed
    The very first session I participate in your game classes was the first time I could completely communicate with other learners whom I didn’t know. This is kind of abnormal for me as an introvert. That was the time in which I truly understand the magic of board games for both having fun and learning not only English but also expanding life skills. Hope you nothing but the best and success.

  • Hamed lorestani says:

    Dear Sharon

    Why dont u watch some online lessons and it about pros and cons of those lesson. Just simply dont repeat their mistakes and focus on the strong suits.

  • sharon says:

    I am planning on teaching online and am looking for information and ideas teaching online.
    Thanks for any feedback offered.
    Kind Regards
    Sharon

  • Nafiseh says:

    I can not forget the session I’ve participated in as an observer and also player. It was really innovative, breathtaking and brilliant. The significant point that should be deemed is, learning and delighting happen simultaneously. Wish you all the best dear hamed. I’m looking forward to attending your classes again and learn more

  • Hamed lorestani says:

    Dear Nima

    Career wise and professionally talking, I cannot think of another friend who has encouraged me as much as u did. You understand the pain as if you wore my shoes and walked the same path with me. Yeah… being different is hard and making a change harder.

    To answer your questions I should say that just supplying the games could be costly. The other resource u need is a game instructing video, a good lesson plan and off u go.

    To answer another one I should say that again that heavy strategy games are off my list. The more simple the instruction the better. I go for easy one myself such as DIXIT which we played several times together.

    As you know, I ran some sessions at ALEF institute last year and the article is based on the feedback I collected there.

    Proud of having you in my closest friends list.

  • Hamed lorestani says:

    Dear Aida

    I am proud to be a friend of yours. You know that tjanls to you, we shared a lot of gaming time together so I owe you what I have experienced.

  • Hamed lorestani says:

    Dear Farnaz

    Just checked your comment…. have been so kind to me as always. Feel flattered… dear Farnaz, if u really like the idea and as I know that u r proficient in teaching kids, I can introduce u some games kids will love.

  • Nima Afshar says:

    I am really gratified to see your achievement and improvement, you deserve respect and recognition.
    we have different aspects we need to consider:the majority of head teachers and supervisors resist changing the primary, secondary and even university education. It doesn’t seem impossible that a creative person like YOU( HAMED AZIIZAM)can endure such pain!!!!in addition,I think one of the most challenging obstacle you face is that you need to Explain to learners exactly why you are playing and how it will benefit them.
    As a strong advocate of the considered use of games in language teaching, here are the four
    points:
    1. Have you really thought about the planning and organization of your game?
    2. How complex are the rules of the game?
    3. What resources do you need to invest in the game?

    Thanks ever so much for being patient and taking the time.

  • Farnaz says:

    Since game-based learning has been defined and applied as a very useful approach recently, the article is highly advantageous to read.
    • Games has already been applied and used in so many classes as a particular way of educational process. however the article refers to the board games and …. which encourage social skills and cope with nomophobia. In addition, street talks and real life languages are the most difficult ones to teach in any classes which may become much more feasible and helpful by a hand of game.
    But as the author ( as I call Mr. lorestani the great) mentioned consistent observations and monitoring is inevitable. Moreover it may not be applicable for all sorts of age groups.
    Overall I came up with a great number of ideas for my next session. Cant wait to use it in my class. A million thanks for sharing this brilliant article.

  • Hamed lorestani says:

    Dear Bente

    I just added a few game titles. Generally it is more fun if you play with a larger number of players but for 2, SPLENDOR would be a good choice.

  • Hamed lorestani says:

    Dear Neda

    I have always looked up to you as a mentor. So happy to be approved by you dear mate.

    Dear Hesam

    Good to know what kind of games you are into. Next time I’ll add some war game titles.

    Thank u so much dear Ida and Travat.

  • Taravat says:

    It’s a great method!
    You can learn and enjoy at the same time!

  • Aida says:

    It was a nice experience for me and I enjoyed and learned a lot I’m really proud of you🙏🙏

  • Hesam says:

    Its a very good article . personally i prefer the games that we could fight in them (symbolically of course )and have a serious competition . in this case i guess its helps more to learning new language cause you cant think and talk and you must be fast .

  • Bente says:

    Can you reccommend any good board games for one-on-one tutoring?

  • Neda says:

    Dear Hamed, what you are doing is awesome as an aid. I really enjoy it personally to the point that it would not deviate the class and as much as it is absolutely educational to the last minute of the game. Wish you all the best and I bet all students experience wonderful moments playing and learning

  • Hamed lorestani says:

    Dear Mina

    Thank you so much for the comment mate. Glad to see you like my thoughts.

  • Hamed lorestani says:

    Dear Mehdi

    Bro… your comment is even stronger than the article itself. I feel flattered. Hope to have the chance to play new games together.

  • Hamed lorestani says:

    Dear Ana & Arsalan

    Thank u very much pals.
    Looking forward to seeing you and thanking u more.

  • Mina says:

    In a word It Rocks ! Actually it’s fun and learning at the same time. Every single session of class can be a new challenge for students and it makes them attend class eagerly.

  • Hamed lorestani says:

    Dear Ali

    Thank u so much for your invaluable comment. I’m sure it is your concern to teach more interesting classes as well. Wish we would have the chance to play together so I can use your feedbacks even more.

  • Hamed lorestani says:

    Dear Tina
    Thanks for the comment. Generally and as the name introduces, all board and card games that gather people together ,usually at a table, are called tabletop games. This includes classic playing cards and of course chess. Shortly, I will add some names to this article that are worth playing the first.

  • Ali Rafiee says:

    It sounds like such a great idea! Personally I go for any kind of material which makes a language learning course more exciting and different as long as it is comprehensive and didactic in as many skills as possible.
    This innovative idea seems to lack writing and reading skills but could be very fit for those who are interested in merely improving their listening and specially speaking skills.
    Moreover, the instructor needs to think of ways to include those missing words and expressions that games might be deprived of. I don’t know how yet but this needs to be considered I believe.
    Yes, you have mentioned in the very first paragraph that the main focus is on speaking abilities so it’s a creative method as part of the class in a language course of study.

  • Mehdi samiee says:

    I have attended some of these boardgame classes myself and found them entertaining and educating.
    One of the best methods to encourage shy students to participate in speaking skills and learning to listen subconsciously.
    Dear Hamed, every boardgame class you approached us (the students) with a different perspective and plan and i have had so much fun while learning.
    You covered every skill a student needs in those classes.
    Thanks for the article.

  • Arsalan says:

    It’s great.
    A class full of vitality

  • Anna Jam says:

    This method worked on my son. It’s great! I think he has made remarkable progress! My daughter wants to try it too.

  • Tina May says:

    This is an interesting article (thanks!) but I’m trying to understand just what are “tabletop games”. You mention board games but don’t tabletop games go further than that? I mean isn’t chess a tabletop game? So can we define them? And maybe a few more examples?

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TEFL.net : TEFL Articles : Methods : Tabletop Games as Teaching Aids