Gamification in English language teaching: more than child's play

Ever feel like your students are stultifying, bored and demotivated? Maybe it’s not the subject, but your teaching.

Competing for the splintered attentions of our learners has never been harder. It has now become a chronic situation, familiar to all teachers when struggling to motivate learners. There is now a generation of children who have never known a world without videogames, mobiles and the internet. The demographics of the workforce now mean that those retiring are being replaced with people who grew up with these things (age 18-40). We now routinely divide our attention among many things simultaneously.

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Traditional methods of education no longer work because they are designed for students to be fundamentally passive. They focus on drilling learners on certain narrow processes, before testing them on what learners can remember of what they were told. Often tests don’t take into account the variable factors that can affect the outcome of the test; learning styles, ages and abilities, student performance on a particular day, if students got enough sleep the night before, or whether they ate before they took the test. And when teachers are standing up and teaching for 6-7 hours, all day, every day, it becomes all too easy for them to fall back on teaching literally by the book, in order to achieve goals set by schools.

Rigidly sticking to the textbook, delivering teacher-centred lessons with little consideration of learning styles and student experiences, and testing learners only on what they can remember all result in education of the poorest kind.

The truth is simple. Students don’t need more textbooks. No amount of textbooks or classroom time will help if students are not engaged or motivated. When education is boring, there is no engagement happening. Essentially, no learning happens.

What learners need now are effective and interactive experiences that will stimulate their learning, and skills that help them deal with different kinds of real-world situations. They need to be actively engaged in the learning process. This is where game-based learning enters the picture.

What is gamification, or game-based learning?

Gamification, game-based learning or play-based learning refers to a type of game play with clear and defined learning outcomes. It means employing well-designed digital and non-digital games to stimulate learners’ language, critical-thinking and problem-solving abilities. It includes elements of games or play into the learning environment to boost engagement and participation.

What it is not

A bunch of kids sitting around while the teacher hands them a game to play. Not all games are created equal. Teachers should consider the structure of the gaming experience; Are the learning outcomes are clear? Could it leave learners frustrated or bored? 

Why is it beneficial?

At its core, all learning environments should encourage active and critical learning, not passive learning. Game based learning provides this ideal environment. The best games are those that actively engage learners, so that they experience the pleasure of exploring and understanding a new system.

Well-designed games, played in a variety of ways, using different media and platforms, can pierce distractions and engage learners in a way that few other methods can. Games can take the form of word play, language play, narrative and role play, as well as digital platforms.

Gamification can be used at nearly all ages and language levels – from those acquiring literacy skills, practising listening and speaking skills, to enhancing critical thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as developing digital literacy skills (collectively known as 21st century skills).

The beauty of play in the learning environment is that learners develop autonomy quickly and can self-correct easily, with a minimum of emotional stress. There is a clear path of progression and learners can learn at their own pace.

How do I incorporate play-based elements into my English language lessons?

As with any new approach, there are certain factors to consider:

1. Learner engagement

Students’ motivation determines everything, meaning it directs how and what they do, as well as how long they can sustain their learning. The first thing to do is start a discussion about gamification, asking them their favourite games, what devices they use, how often they play, how they balance gaming with other activities out of school. Show an interest in what they say and utilise the information to help you plan your play-based lessons. Keep them involved in this process. Ask them to create a list of games they play or would like to play, before identifying which ones have learning potential, and would be suitable for the classroom (age appropriacy and devices used). Digital game tools are becoming increasingly accessible and many are free or very cost-effective, and there are many to choose from.

2. Ask others

Ask your colleagues. Those interested in game-based learning would probably love to share ideas and advice. Make sure you keep school administration and parents in the loop to avoid any misunderstandings, particularly of the difference between ‘playing’ and ‘learning’.

3. Classroom management

Don’t assume learners will know what to do, or take the work seriously. So explain and be clear about what the rules for usage are. Remind learners that they are still in class and they are there to learn. Playing games is strictly for home. Explain that tasks will be set, just as in any class, and completion of these tasks is expected.  There's not real need to use the word game at all, really.  Students will soon cotton on to what it happening.

4. Structure your lesson accordingly

When we plan a listening task, perhaps using a video or a listening clip, we structure our lessons to think about how the listening might link to the current topic, or wider curriculum goals. We might plan our lesson by setting context first, followed by pre-listening, during-listening and post-listening tasks to encourage maximum productive use of the target language from our learners. So too must we plan game-based lessons accordingly.  Make sure there is a clear context for using games in the lesson.

Remember, the game is not the teacher, it is just an activity to facilitate learning. As such game play should not be assessed, but how learning transfers from the game experience to the curriculum can be.

5. Step back

Don’t intervene when students are figuring something out unless they really need help. It’s all part of the gaming experience in understanding games as systems.

Some more ways to use game-based learning in your lessons

Digital games can be excellent sources for authentic texts in your classroom.  Some depend on decisions of the player to tell the story, similar to the Choose Your Own Adventure series from the 1980s. Some use the hero’s journey (e.g. Harry Potter, Allegiant, The Hunger Games, How to Train Your Dragon) to explore themes and practise skills.


  • Never Alone is based on an Alaskan Native folktale
  • Journey is an interactive parable, an anonymous online adventure to experience a person’s life passage and their intersections with others.
  • Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, an award-winning adventure game that relies on cooperative play

Digital games are also excellent catalysts for collaborative work and sharing experiences.  In 2015, on an iCivics panel at the International Society for Technology in Education conference, Benjamin Stokes compared the experience of playing games to taking a class on a field trip. With a field trip, expectations are given first so students are aware, before they are given freedom to explore. Back in the classroom, facilitate connections to the curriculum through discussion.

Minecraft is an excellent world-building game that gives further meaning to topics like habitat, environment, and history. One teacher at Edutopia uses Minecraft as a way for students to explore the difficulties of setting a colony (like Jamestown) in a hostile environment. Students understand the dangers of settling new worlds because they have experienced them. 

But game-based learning doesn't always have to be digital.  Non-digital Games can be an excellent way to practise skills.  Many games have no text and can be exploited in a variety of more ‘traditional’ ways, such as live listening tasks, running dictations, jumping off points for creative writing or story-telling. Dave Gatrell’s lesson ideas for Samorost are a gentle start for those teachers who will recognise more conventional ESL tasks as a way of getting to grips with GBL. 

Features of Effective GBL Activities

Teachers should consider the following when planning to use games in the classroom:

  • Having clear linguistic aims in lesson planning
  • Ensuring lots of student interaction and productive chatter
  • Allowing elements of student autonomy as they create and adapt rules to solve problems
  • Giving feedback on language at multiple points in the lesson
  • Allowing multiple opportunities to attempt the game
  • Moving away from dominant competitive play

Want to find out more?

Check out Dave Gatrell’s site ‘Digital Alternatives’, a great GBL site for ESOL teachers. Dave is an ESOL teacher and game-based learning developer based in Hong Kong. Another good site is Dave Dodgson’s ELT Sandbox, which is chockful of great ideas and articles.

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About the Author

Sharon Maloney

Sharon has worked as Director of Studies for English for Asia and a teacher trainer on the Trinity CertTESOL course. She has over 14 years of teaching and teacher training experience in TESOL. Sharon specialises in teaching young learners and creating material for teachers and students, as well as running professional development workshops for local teachers of young learners in Hong Kong and Macao. Her qualifications include a BA, Trinity CertTESOL, Cambridge Post-Graduate DELTA, and MA TESOL.

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