15 Variations on Grammar Reversi

By Alex Case
Grammar Reversi is a game first described, I believe, in More Grammar Games by Paul Davis and Mario Rinvolucri and that I have used in almost every adult and teenage course I’ve had since discovering it. It is a variation of the game Othello, redesigned for language practice. The original game, Othello, is similar to […]

Grammar Reversi is a game first described, I believe, in More Grammar Games by Paul Davis and Mario Rinvolucri and that I have used in almost every adult and teenage course I’ve had since discovering it. It is a variation of the game Othello, redesigned for language practice. The original game, Othello, is similar to the traditional Japanese board game Go, with white and black pieces placed alternately on a square board and the person who has most pieces of their colour on the board at the end of the game winning. Rather than surrounding and then taking your partner’s pieces as in Go, however, in Othello you only have to have your pieces at both ends of a row of your partner’s pieces and you then turn the pieces that are your partner’s colour over (the pieces are white on one side and black on the other). For example, if there is a black piece and then a row of three white pieces and then the black player places a piece at the end of that row, they can turn over the three white pieces to change their colour and make the entire row of five pieces black. If at some point white has one piece at the end of that row of five blacks and then places a white at the other end, however, in the same way that whole row turns back to white. The fact that pieces can change many times from black to white and back again and that longer and longer rows of pieces can change as the game goes on makes Othello a very interesting tactical game where the apparent winner for most of the game can lose as the final piece is placed on the board.

Grammar Reversi has basically the same rules as Othello, but with an English word or phrase written on the black side and another English word or phrase written on the white side. Before the students can turn over the piece to make it their colour, they have to say what is on the other side. If when they turn over the card to check they find that they were correct, they “win” that piece and leave it turned over. If they were incorrect, they have to leave it at it was (as their partner’s colour). For example, if all the cards have opposites on, black has to say “boiling” to be able to successfully turn over the card that has “freezing” written on the white side. This is great game for things that students need lots of practice with, as they will be tested on each card between 4 and 20 times before the end of the game. Please note that as this is a memory game and you don’t want to have to judge every other thing they can come up with, the rule is that they must say exactly the words that are on the other side of the card in order to be able to turn it over- no points (!) for things that are “also correct”.

One part of the rules that students often get confused about and so is worth pointing out is that only the pieces between the piece that has just been put down and the ones that are there already can be changed and not the ones between ones that were already there, i.e. if when the colours of that row change that makes another row of white pieces somewhere else in the board also have black pieces at both ends, you don’t also change that other row. This is quite obvious when you think about it, as otherwise a single piece placed down late in the game could cause a domino effect of pieces changing back and forth for 30 minutes (if not forever). It is, nevertheless, a question that is likely to come up when you introduce the game.

The aim of this article is to add to the available descriptions of Grammar Reversi by looking at variations on how your students play it to suit your classes- to make it easier to play, easier to understand, easier to prepare, more challenging for high level students etc. Some of the variations also look at different ways of preparing the game. Other articles on TEFL.net will also explain how you can use this game and the variations given here for many different language points.

1. Play the real game first

This is not strictly a variation, but I find that classes that don’t know the game Othello (most!) gain from playing a quick game (or at least the beginnings of a game) of the non-English-teaching version before moving onto Grammar Reversi. You can add language to this stage by teaching them phrases like “It’s your turn”, “Turn the piece over” etc and by explaining the game to them orally or with written instructions before demonstrating.

2. Change board size

Othello works with boards of any size, even ones that have odd numbers of squares, as all the pieces have black on one side and white on the other as so don’t need to be given out at the beginning of the game, unlike chess or draughts. A small board (e.g. 5 by 5) will mean a quick game and that you won’t have to think up so many different playing cards, but 6 by 6 or 8 by 8 are more common. It might also be possible to play a smaller board with fewer cards the first time, and then make the challenge (both tactical and English language) greater the second (revision) time with a larger board with more pieces.

3. Use the same cards more than once

If the language on the cards is particularly challenging for the students, if some of the cards have things that they particularly need to remember (e.g. typical mistakes or things likely to come up in the exam), or if you couldn’t think of enough examples to fill in the whole board, you can have one or more cards repeated. For example, in a pack of cards practising the irregular Simple Past you could choose to have two cards with “give” on the white side and “gave” on the black side. This will mean that they can sometimes just find the other identical card elsewhere on the board to find out the answer and there might be some protests about that being unfair, but I find saying “Lucky you!” and maybe pointing out the other person will probably be able to do the same thing later in the game is enough to get them used to it.

4. Must be able to change some pieces, or not

A rule of the game Othello I didn’t mention in the introduction is that the place where you put your piece down must be adjacent to one of the pieces that are already on the board and must mean that some pieces change to your colour. This makes the game much more interesting and tactical than it would be otherwise, as the corner squares are positions of strength and so people have to carefully plan how to get their pieces into them. It is also possible to get your opponent into a position where they can’t put any pieces down and so you can take two goes in a row. It also makes the game more fun, because it means that all the moves will result in pieces turning over. In the English teaching version, this means that every go will also test the language. The main reason for not introducing this rule at the beginning of the article is the same as the reason for perhaps deciding not to introduce it during the explanation of the game- there are so many rules already that introducing more might make it overwhelming. If you decide not to have this one in the original list of rules, you then need to decide what you will do if the students ask about it- will you tell the rule as described here, or will you just let them put their pieces anywhere? I tend not to mention this rule until asked, but insist on them doing it if it does come up (sometimes the students play that way anyway because they don’t know the best tactics and think changing as many pieces as possible with each move is important- it isn’t!)

5. Allow/ disallow diagonals

Another question I am often asked sooner or later by students playing this game (because, again, I usually choose not to confuse them with it at the opening stages of the lesson), is whether the same rules apply for having two whites at the ends of a diagonal row of black pieces as apply for vertical and horizontal rows. In the original Othello, diagonals do indeed work the same way as vertical and horizontal rows, but the game works perfectly well without if you choose to get them playing that way.

6. Can continue if you make a mistake or not

The rules of the original game of Othello give you no help on the third question that tends to come up, and if I remember correctly neither does the description in More Grammar Games. If a student can change a row of four pieces but makes a mistake guessing what is on the other side of the first card, can they try the next piece anyway, or do they have to stop? I tend to let them continue, as it gives them more language practice for each go in the game. You will need to decide your policy on this before introducing the game.

7. No board

Making a playing board for the game is fairly straightforward- use the same grid as you used to make the playing cards but blank, giving them a grid of square or rectangular boxes that are the same size and shape as the playing pieces. The only negative thing about giving out these simple and minimalist playing boards is that it can seem like a chronic waste of paper. One option is to laminate some boards and make sure every pack of cards you make match those boards. A simpler one is just to get students playing on the table without any board. This changes the rules somewhat, as there are no limits and therefore no corner squares to think about, and the lack of props makes good explanation and demonstration even more important, but it also saves paper (and hence the trees!)

8. Double sized photocopies

Now that the rules of the game are finally sorted out (phew!), the next thing to worry about is how to make the playing cards. Theoretically the easiest way to produce multiple sets every time you want to use the same set of cards is to have the whole pack on one double sided piece of paper that can then be photocopied double sided to double sided and then cut out in squares. In practice, though, it can take quite a lot of preparation, fiddling around and fine tuning of lining things up. The first stage is to make two worksheets, one for each side of the cards, with an identically sized grid in each one. The one on the right should have the grid shaded in grey (to represent black, but so you can still see the writing). The boxes should then be filled in as a mirror image of each other, i.e. with the back of the top right hand white card (e.g. “small”) being the top left hand black card (e.g. “tiny”, if you are doing gradable and limiting adjectives). If you are really lucky, when you print these two pieces of paper out and then photocopy them as a double sided copy they will already line up (you can tell this by holding it up to the light and checking that the grids are over each other). If so, you can happily double-sided photocopy away, and then cut along the lines on either side (as they are in the same place). If not, you will need to cut the grids out, line them up vary carefully in the centre of their respective sheets of A4 paper and try again. See below for ways of getting round this.

9. Paste and cut each one

If you have tried to make playing cards in the way mentioned above but haven’t managed to get both sides of the photocopy lined up, just photocopy as many sheets of the black (or grey) and white sides as you need packs of cards. Then cut each sheet so that there is just the grid with no blank white around the edge of it. Glue one black grid to the back of one white one, making sure that the whole sheet is properly glued (otherwise some pieces will fall apart at the cutting stage). Then cut it into squares along the divisions in the grid, and there you have a pack of cards. I ended up doing this last week as I had the originals for packs of cards that I’d prepared when I first discovered this game many years ago and my time management wasn’t so good. The variation below is why I never need to do that with my newer packs of cards, but actually this method didn’t take as long as I’d thought it would.

10. Photocopy in one table

The version I eventually came up with after many years of squinting at photocopies through lights and gluing my fingers together was to make just one table with the white side and black side of each card next to each other, e.g. the top left box in the grid is “Give me a coffee” and the box to its right is “Can I have a coffee please?” (if you are practicing polite and impolite language), then the next two boxes to the right are the two sides of the next card, etc. After photocopying, cut up the worksheet so that one pieces has the black and white sides next to each other (like a domino). Fold that piece of paper, and there is a perfect Grammar Reversi playing piece (putting a little glue in the middle if it won’t stay folded). Can’t believe it took me so many years to come up with such a simple idea…

11. Students prepare the cards

Whichever way you decide to make the cards, if you leave one side blank you can get the students to come up with something to put on there and to write it on to be passed to another group to play with. This is a good extra practice stage even with simple language like “hot” and “cold”, but is much more interesting and challenging if students need to use some creativity as well, e.g. coming up with the an indirect way of “I want to go to the toilet” for the practice of indirect polite speech or euphemisms.

12. Work in teams

A nice variation for students who enjoy working in larger groups, students who are good at learning from each other (or need teaching how to), or with weaker students who will find the game difficult on their own is to have people working in groups of four made up of two teams of two.

13. Let them memorize it

Another way of helping them out is to give them a few minutes either at the beginning of the game or when it is clear they are getting stuck to have a look at both sides of all the cards and try and memorize them.

14. Do written exercise with the same questions

A similar way of helping them out is to get them doing a written exercise that is basically the game with gaps (e.g. “Write these sentences in the Passive”, if your cards have the passive on one side and the active voice of the other) with exactly the same sentences. The game is then further practice so that they can never forget what they just learnt during the written exercise- not usually the case with written exercises, I am sure you will agree! Alternatively, you can give the written exercise at the end of the game so that they can marvel at how easy they find it- especially good for exam classes where feelings of ease and fun are not common.

15. Just do it in a row

I’ve saved the best variation for last in this article. You can save messing around with boards, make the rules easier to explain and make the pieces easier to prepare by getting them doing basically the same game but in just one long row. Prepare similar cards to those explained above, but without worrying about the size or shape and without needing to have different colours on each side. The students place these in one long column or row along the table, and take turns trying to guess or remember what is on the other side of the cards, starting at the bottom or left hand side of the row. Every time they make a mistake, they have to stop and play passes to someone else in their group. The winner is the first person to reach the other end of the row without making any mistakes- more challenging than it sounds as they have to start at the very first card each and every time and so the final winning attempt involves getting every single card right from beginning to end. If they get stuck you can let them spend some time memorizing (as in variation 13 above), or let them all work together cooperatively as a “final push” to get the whole lot done.

Written by Alex Case for Teflnet February 2009
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers
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