6 Favorite Grammar Games for the Foreign Language Classroom
Do you remember playing games as a child? Of course you do!
Did you realize that you were actively learning while you were playing?
You were learning to count, to reason, to develop strategies, to negotiate, to debate and argue, to make decisions, to think critically.
Even when you were thinking to yourself, you were still developing skills in your first language!
If playing games is so beneficial for initial language acquisition, why not use them in the foreign language classroom?
Why Teach and Learn Grammar with Games?
It’s the rare gem of a teacher who can make a grammar lecture interesting, but with limited class time, it’s more important to get your students speaking! They can read grammar explanations at home and you can spot check to ensure that they have learned the basics—old-school grammar drills still do have a purpose! Then you can move on to grammar games to reinforce what they have learned.
Ever thought of giving your students language data, sitting back and watching them try to figure the rules out for themselves? Don’t! Not all students want to be linguists, so why spend valuable class time on such an activity when you can get your students speaking at the outset? Do something tried and true: playing grammar games is a great way to getting your students to speak!
Grammar outside of context is difficult to remember and hard to master. By designing games where students are able to utilize what they have learned, they establish linguistic patterns for later use.
Just as teachers have their own styles, students have their own preferred learning style and know which is most effective for them. Grammar games provide a variety of input types, auditory, visual, total physical response to name but three, that allow students to learn in a style most effective for them.
Thinking creatively is thinking critically. Grammar games give students the opportunity to be creative. They will start testing their limits, playing with words, negotiating meanings, plotting strategy—all the skills that they will need to use in the real world when they’re using the language or listening to it in real media.
Mastering these skills in a foreign language helps students work in their first language.
When students are being drilled in class, they are sometimes self-conscious about speaking and making mistakes. When playing a grammar game, students get so wrapped up in the moment that this self-consciousness goes away. They speak more freely. You listen and assess what they truly understand and are able to use.
How Can Grammar Games Remain Educational?
Playing games in the language classroom should have a specific pedagogical purpose and a specific outcome. Games are not something you should use because you are tired or you want to entertain your students.
Games will help to reinforce student responsibility. No student wants to be left out of playing a game, and no one wants to be the person making the same mistakes over and over again. If students are required to be familiar with the grammar before arriving to class, the learning environment playing games creates—wanting to win—will ensure that students do their reading!
A teacher’s job is to teach, but you should try to allow students to help each other in teachable moments before jumping in to explain every point. This will encourage them to help each other outside of game situations and, let’s face it, when you actively explain something, you understand it much better than when you internalize it passively.
If you use non-confidential information from your students in some of your games, you will allow them not only to learn the language but also about each other. This will help to create positive bonds in class and bring your students closer together.
Everyone wants prizes for winning a game, and the language classroom isn’t any different, but make it a prize related to the target language. Give candy, postcards, stickers. This will allow you to introduce cultural artifacts into the class—and “culture” is one of the Cs we must teach—as well as introduce the vocabulary words for these prizes.
6 Grammar Games for the Language Classroom
1. Pictionary Plus
Who hasn’t played Pictionary? One person will draw a picture and everyone else, all at once, will scream out what they think the answer is. When someone gets the answer correct, they take a turn to draw, and the game continues until the vocabulary is exhausted.
While this is a great activity to master vocabulary, we can modify it to turn it into a grammar game!
Consider a language, such as Russian, German or Latin, which is heavily inflected, with separate endings for masculine, feminine, neuter and plural nouns and adjectives. This is often a hard concept for students to grasp at the beginning of their studies, unless they have studied another such language. So, let’s turn Pictionary into an opportunity to practice these endings.
Divide the class into two or three groups, depending on class size. Have a list of vocabulary words you wish them to practice. Ask one person from each team to come forward, show them the word and have them all draw simultaneously. This adds excitement to the game, as well as increases kinetic activity, because a group can guess the word from another group’s picture. Once one team has guessed correctly they receive one point, and then we shift into grammar practice for another point.
Let’s say the word is car, машина in Russian. The students are then required to create the following dialogue that practices feminine endings:
Что это? What is this?
Это машина. It’s a car.
Где машина? Where is the car?
Вот она. Here it is.
Чья это машина? Whose car is it?
Это моя машина. It’s my [other variants possible] car.
Какая это машина? What kind of car is it?
Это новая машина. It’s a new [other variants possible] car.
In this way, students practice their inflectional endings, drill them in a creative way and establish grammatical patterns that are useful.
The sooner students master their endings, the more quickly they will master the language! This grammar game is one way to do that.
2. Whose Line Is It Anyway?
There was a wonderful British comedic game show, later brought to America by Drew Carey, called “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”
One of the games they played, for which the entire show was named, was to take random sentences written by members of the audience, give them to the teams of contestants, read the sentence at a random moment and then improvise the rest from there.
We can redesign this activity for the foreign language classroom.
Let’s say you’re toward the end of the chapter about food. Ideally, you will want your students to create dialogues indicative of real-life situations using the vocabulary and structures they have learned in that chapter. The content of these dialogues ends up being fairly predictable, so let’s add a twist.
IKEA sells note pads that look like dialogue bubbles. Buy a set (or create your own homemade ones) and write in some sentences or questions that you would like your students to work into their dialogues, fold them up and number them so you can direct your students to use them, but remember: They can only see and use them at the moment you indicate.
For example, one line could be, “I want to go to the circus,” which should be used after the other student has asked: “Where do you want to go?” in the situation of deciding where to go to eat. Both students will be momentarily shocked by that statement, but after they recover, one will have to ask “Why?” and the other will have to try to explain how the circus relates to getting food to eat. Maybe they love the hot dogs at the circus!
One or two given lines for each student will be enough for this game, and it requires the teacher to be both very creative and to pay very close attention to what is going on. The payoff will be amazing: You don’t know where the students will go with their dialogues after they use the sentences or questions you give them, so this will be a truly spontaneous and creative activity!
Students will be required to think on their feet and change course midstream in their dialogues. There will be some laughter, some mistakes and perhaps some embarrassment over them, but in the course of a purposely-designed silly situation, all that won’t matter. What will matter is that they have played with the language, understood the language and used the grammar naturally, often without realizing it. That’s the hallmark of a well-designed grammar game.
3. Simon Says
You played “Simon Says” growing up, didn’t you? You tried to trick your brother, sister or friends into touching their head when you didn’t say “Simon says!”
The game is perfect in a foreign language classroom for drilling body parts, just as it was for learning them in your first language, but we can turn it from a vocabulary game into a grammar game!
Again, consider those languages that are heavily inflected. While English imperatives are not different from other verbal forms (I read, you read, read!), that is not true for other languages. Let’s turn “Simon Says” into an opportunity to practice forming these imperative forms.
Select a number of verbs for which it is relatively easy to do or imitate the activity (read, write, sing, swim, fly, kick, jump are a few that come to mind). Write each on a card. Ask one student to come to the front of the room, draw a card and proceed to say (or not say): “Simon says jump!” The added catch here is that, even if the command is understood and Simon does “say,” students should not perform the activity if the imperative is not properly formed.
If the imperative is properly formed, then all tricked students sit down, and “Simon” continues until all students have been eliminated. However, if “Simon” does not form the imperative correctly, then “Simon” sits down and a new “Simon” comes to the front of the room.
Continue until you run out of cards.
This games gives students a fun way to practice commands and ensures that they will work on learning to form them. No one wants to be the “Simon” who can’t form the command he or she is trying to give.
4. Find Someone Who…
Remember all that information you gathered from your students the first day of class? You asked them their hometown, other languages they know, places they have lived and traveled, likes and dislikes. Why not turn this information into a grammar game that will also let them get to know each other?
Use the information to write up about 20 implied questions in English. For example:
Find someone who speaks Italian.
Find someone who has lived in Indiana.
Find someone who likes pizza.
Make sure you write questions they are able to form in the language you are teaching. Of course you should also ensure that there is someone in class who meets the criteria of the question. Just for fun, you can toss in a couple about yourself so the students are encouraged to engage you as well.
The game consists of two steps: First, each student asks in the target language a maximum of 2 or 3 questions of another student, depending on class size, before moving on to the next student. The student must answer in a complete sentence. Second, gather the class together, having a student ask “Who speaks Italian?” and letting another student answer this question, again in a complete sentence.
By the end of the activity, for those languages that have inflected verb forms, you have practiced three or four (of generally six) forms: I, you (singular/familiar and/or plural/polite), and who/he/she, maybe even they for those questions that have multiple answers:
In pairs: “Do you speak Italian?” “Yes, I speak Italian.”
As a class: “Who speaks Italian?” “John speaks Italian.” or “John and Mary speak Italian.”
Students actively conjugate verbs in context in a way they will remember for future use.
5. Word Scramble
Students who take foreign languages might not be future professional linguists, but they do love to play with the language. You will find that they often love puzzles that allow them to do exactly this!
You can give them this opportunity through a traditional word scramble, again with a twist.
Write a sentence, break down the words into their basic forms, cut the words apart, give piles of words to each group of students and let them form a sentence out of them.
For a heavily inflected language, such as Russian or German, give all nouns and adjectives in their nominative form and all verbs in their infinitive form. This way you have a more complex game, where students not only have to manage the semantics of the words you give them but also determine the correct grammatical form(s) as they piece their sentence back together. You can specify whether the verbs should be in the present, past or future tense, but even better: Insert an adverb that clues the students in to the tense.
In this way, they have to take dictionary forms and make complete sentences, using all of their combined knowledge. It is the very essence of thinking critically.
6. Mad Libs Rub Out and Replace
“Rub out and replace” is a very traditional grammar game. Let’s make it more exciting by starting with a round of Mad Libs.
If you don’t remember playing Mad Libs in the summer growing up, the concept is simple. You start with a paragraph on a certain topic, minus some words. One of your friends goes through the blanks telling you what kind of word is missing (noun, color, action verb, past-tense verb, number) and you pick a random word in that category to fill in the blank. Your friend then reads through the paragraph, using your chosen words, and you all have a good laugh, as the result is generally pretty absurd.
Let’s try a variation of this in the foreign language classroom. You, as the instructor, will write up a paragraph on the chapter theme, minus some key words. You will, as in the traditional game, ask for certain word forms (Accusative-case noun, third-person plural verb) and you will read the result to the class. After, however, you will project the completed version of the story to the entire class, whereupon the students in groups will them rub out the words that are particularly absurd—sometimes, completely by accident, a word choice actually works out!—and come up with a new, logical story.
In this way, the students have come up with grammatically accurate forms outside of context and then negotiated with their peers grammatically and semantically accurate word forms in the final version.
I hope you enjoyed these twists on some traditional games and find them useful in your teaching. Feel free to play around with the rules yourselves, and if you find something that works better, I would love to hear about it!
Jonathan Ludwig has 25 years of foreign language teaching experience. He has successfully directed language programs, taught and mentored current and future teachers, and is always looking for new and exciting ways to engage and educate his students.