Game On: 7 Brilliant Strategies for Teaching EAL to Children, Cleverly Adapted from Gaming

I’ve got to get to the final boss!

Why can’t I get past this level?

What does a person have to do to find their way through this maze?

Have you ever said these things to yourself, or perhaps shouted them at the screen, while playing video games?

If you like to play, whether it’s online gaming or with the latest game system at home, you know the beauty of cheat codes.

These semi-miraculous combinations of letters, numbers and directional indicators can be game changers when it comes to defeating the dragon, finding the treasure or blazing through a wall of zombies.

What if your young EAL students could get cheat codes when it comes to language learning?

If they could use something not-quite-miraculous to succeed in your class? If all they needed to reach the end was a little something extra you could give them?

If that were the case, of course you would give the cheat codes to them! Their success is your success.

Now, no teacher likes the word “cheat,” but that’s not really what you’re doing when you give your EAL children a little bit of an edge on learning. You’re actually equipping them with tools that will help them succeed in their language learning as well as in your class. You know, the metaphor only goes so far.

So check out these seven “cheat codes” that might make all the difference when it comes to your EAL students’ success.


7 Game-changing Strategies to Power Up Children in Your EAL Classroom

1. Unlimited Time

I’ll never forget the frustration I suffered watching the timer tick down from 999 to nothing in Mario Bros. for the Nintendo Entertainment System. The music even got faster in those last one hundred seconds, making my stress level jeopardize my jumps over rivers of lava to get to Princess Peach.

That all changed with the cheat code for unlimited time. My stress and panic stopped. I knew I would never again have to see little Mario simply jump up off his green tube to Neverland and drop down dead. I could have as much time as I needed.

Your EAL students will love your classroom equivalent cheat code. It’s simple, too, to equip them to make it all the way through the level: Give them more time.

Maybe you do this already, but I know the type-A teachers out there like myself cringe at the thought of making things unequal for all of our students. After all, some native English speakers struggle with completing tasks in the allotted time, too.

But time limits are an easy place to make some breathing room for your EAL students. It’s not unfair to give them more time to complete tasks, since they’ll be doing the content assignment as well as struggling through language challenges in the process. Let them work longer during class, give them time after school or give them a head start on your next in-class assignment to help them succeed.

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2. Special Combinations

Some people who didn’t grow up as part of the video game generation may think a special combination is something from a restaurant menu, but those of us who grew up with video games know special combinations can do amazing things when it comes to the moves and powers our characters exhibit.

When players know ahead of time that they need to hit up, up, down, left, down, button, up to get the fireballs flying, they can do that in the midst of their Street Fighter battles. Without the previous knowledge, the odds of hitting that combination are close to nil.

You can give your EAL students an equivalent heads up by giving them a preview of vocabulary they’ll encounter in a classroom activity.

The next time you plan on presenting a content lesson to your class, be it science, social studies, math or health, give your EAL students some of the key vocabulary words the day before and have them review those words for homework.

The next day when they sit through your lesson, they can spend more time focusing on the content you’re presenting rather than the vocabulary they’re just encountering.

3. Secret Extra Lives

How frustrating is it to know you need just one more life, one more heart, one more growth mushroom and you could defeat Bowser’s bratty kid, but you just can’t find it? You know it’s got to be hidden nearby because there’s no way anyone can battle the end guy without a little boost in constitution. They’re hidden in plain sight, and you need someone who knows the secret to let you in on where that extra life power is.

You’ve got secret power boosters hidden in plain sight that your young students could use to succeed. They’re no further than the ends of your arms and the front of your face. It’s body language.

Communicating with body language is like a hidden boost of power for your EAL learners. It doesn’t distract, doesn’t confuse and doesn’t even get noticed by your native English speakers. But it may mean the difference between comprehension and confusion for your EAL students.

Use body language when you talk. Let those facial expressions flow. Put together a set of movements you use consistently when giving directions such as take out your textbook, clear your desks or put these papers in your folder. When you do, you’ll power up your EAL students to succeed in the classroom.

4. Press Here to Save

There’s hardly anything more frustrating than getting almost all the way through a level and then having to turn off your game. Knowing the location of save spots can mean tons of time and trouble saved the next time you come back to your game. And though gamers around the world might argue the opposite, sometimes you really do just have to stop playing.

Your EAL students might not have their mothers yelling that dinner is ready in the next room, but sometimes they need to take a break from what’s going on in class. Their brains get overwhelmed speaking English all the time, and sometimes they just need a moment to reset.

Giving students the freedom to step away from their desks, to take a break, could make a difference in their focus and their frustration level in your classroom, which will have a direct influence on their success.

So let your EAL students know it’s okay to step away sometimes. You might want to have an area of your classroom where students can go when they need a timeout. A reading nook is a good place to designate. Then when students are feeling overwhelmed and need a little break, they have a place they can hit pause and you know they’ll be back on task as soon as they get a moment to reset.

5. Replay the Level

It’s often impossible to get all the things you need the first time though a level, no matter what game you’re playing. That’s why players often go back and repeat a level, looking for the one red coin they missed the last time they played it. How desperate would our situations be if we only had one shot to kill all those green pigs and score three stars for the level?

Your EAL students might have similar feelings when you do certain activities in class. Sometimes they just need another time through an activity or worksheet to glean everything they need to.

It’s okay to repeat activities in class. In fact, it’s a good thing. Even non-EAL students benefit from giving certain activities an encore. So when it’s time to review, try doing an activity you did earlier in the unit again.

If you have extra worksheets, put them in a common area so students can practice completing them during a free reading period. Or have crazy worksheet time and give every student a sheet from your extras collection. Then have students share their completed worksheet with a partner.

6. Use a Walkthrough

I’ll admit it. I really like a good walkthrough. In one of these detailed documents, you can read step-by-step instructions on how to approach and defeat any given game. Having one of these references handy might mean the difference between success and failure.

It’s important for your EAL students that you have the right references available for them, too. Keeping a classroom well stocked with dictionaries, thesauruses, grammar references, picture dictionaries and the like will give your students the tools they need to accomplish the task at hand.

Oxford Picture Dictionary (Monolingual English)

To stock up your shelves, consider adding the “Oxford Picture Dictionary,” “Roget’s Thesaurus,” “McGraw-Hill’s Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions,” an ESL verbs reference guide and this ESL pamphlet.

Like game playing, your EAL students can try and tackle tough tasks first on their own, but they can always go back to their handy references when they need to double check that they’re doing things right.

7. Fighting the Big Boss

You’ve made it through all the obstacles at this level and you’re ready to face the big boss at the end. But how does someone defeat a giant spider who spits babies out on top of you? You have to know the right moves, the right technique. Sometimes the direct approach of sword and shield is not the best one, but you need to know the special strategy for your final task to win the level.

Your assessments might feel that way to your EAL students. Sometimes understanding the test is just as challenging as understanding the content. Give your EAL students a better chance at success when it comes time for assessment.

Try bypassing language when you test how well your students have learned content. Have them draw out their answers or act them out rather than writing in sentences. Ask for bullet points rather than paragraphs.

Your non-EAL students will give you equally valuable feedback though nonverbal assessments as they would through written assignments, so go ahead and give everyone a new strategy for defeating the end guy. That way you isolate the content for your assessment and don’t tie it to language skills, too.


Video games have changed the way we play in the last fifty years, and with a few simple classroom “cheat codes,” you might change the outcome when it comes to your students’ English language learning game as well.

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