ESL Games and Linguistic Outcomes


For second language instructors, ESL games and linguistic outcomes go together like bread and butter. ESL games are a fantastic way for instructors to incorporate visual, kinesthetic, and musical strategies into the classroom. Games are also a fabulous way to develop the intrinsic motivation in students that second language acquisition requires.

Multiple Intelligence Theory: How We Learn

The theory of multiple intelligence is based on the idea that we all learn differently. The organization Literacy Works has identified eight intelligences:

  • Language (linguistic)
  • Spatial (kinesthetic)
  • Logic/math (kinesthetic)
  • Body movement (kinesthetic)
  • Musical (interpersonal)
  • Social (interpersonal)
  • Self (intrapersonal)
  • Nature (naturalist)

Depending on their intelligence type, students engage in the act of learning in different ways. ESL games are an excellent way to tap into the many different intelligence types that exist in the ESL classroom.


Intrinsic Motivation Theory: Why We Learn

Creating intrinsic motivation in students is a critically important component of successful ESL instruction. The theory of intrinsic motivation is based on the notion that students need to be driven by internal needs or desires to efficiently and effectively learn a new language. Because of the complex nature of second language acquisition, intrinsic motivation for students in the ESL classroom is of paramount importance.

Meeting Basic Living Needs

The most successful way humans acquire a second language is through immersion. When people are in an environment where the only way for them to meet their basic living needs (getting directions, buying food, arranging shelter, etc.) is by speaking a non-native language, a natural exigency is present in them to learn how to communicate in that language. There is a real-world need that speaks to the instinctive part of the human brain that is concerned with survival. This need fuels second language acquisition more successfully than any other motivation.

Creating this type of real-world need in the ESL classroom is neither practical nor ethical. What must replace it is in intrinsic motivation driven by the student's desire to learn the second language. For students, the ESL classroom is often hard to distinguish from the larger totality of the academic experience. Learning English, for many students, is no more desirable a pursuit than learning calculus or social studies or economics.


Games Provide Intrinsic Motivation

ESL games are fantastic ways to facilitate intrinsic motivation in students. The only difference between a game and a quiz, in many respects, is the negative association students have towards the concept of the quiz.

Games, however, connote a different meaning. Games are fun. When students are actively engaged in activities that they enjoy, they have a natural, intrinsic motivation to:

  • Master the task
  • Win the game
  • Achieve the intended linguistic outcomes the game is designed to address

In this way, games are a natural way to bypass the apathy in students that is crippling to second language acquisition and to generate a natural, enthusiastic, exigency for learning.

Ideas for ESL Games

Make sure that all games you introduce have clear linguistic outcomes. If students clearly understand what they are expected to accomplish when playing a game, a healthy and productive level of competition naturally develops in the classroom.

  • Listening Exercises: Have students identify a certain grammatical structure in a reading. For example, if the linguistic outcome is to develop proficiency in identifying prepositional phrases, have students count how many prepositional phrases they can identify in a short reading. Read the selection twice and have students compete to see who can name the correct amount of prepositional phrases. This game would be beneficial for auditory learners.
  • Reading Exercises: The linguistic outcome could be phonetic with this exercise. Pick a reading where a certain phoneme that is challenging to students is reoccurring. Toss a ball to one student and have her or him begin reading. After they read a sentence, they throw to ball to another student who continues the reading. Develop a range of light-hearted punishments for students who make mistakes. For example, if anyone makes a mistake they have to stand up. If they make another mistake, they have to stand on one leg. If they make another mistake, they can only throw and catch the ball with one hand. These kinds of games are good for kinesthetic learners.
  • Sing a Song: Songs are a fantastic way to practice language, and they are always fun. Pick a song that the class likes, perhaps a popular song on the radio, and learn it. Sing along with the CD, or, for the musically inclined, play it on piano or guitar. These types of exercises would benefit musical intelligence types.