Article written by Daniel Janssens, published by PRACTICAL ENGLISH TEACHING in MARCH 1989:

More grammar games
The educational value of grammar games has long been accepted by the teaching community. In this article, Daniel Janssens describes two new game-like activities to practise a variety of grammar points.

The Grammar Trivia game|The grammar race game


Mario Rinvolucri has underlined the real pedagogical value of grammar games (1);
· They are lively, involve students in thinking and communicating, not just drilling;
· They allow students to work in groups, and to show themselves (and the teacher!) how much/little grammar they know;
· They can be used diagnostically or as a means of revising grammar points;
· They can also be used as a more relaxed way of correcting written papers in class - but this demands of the teacher that they make a list of the more recurring and interesting common mistakes made by the students in their essays.
Grammar is central in learning another language and is one of the ways of mastering it. Thus the introduction of some sort of competitive element, a "pleasurable tension" (2), into traditional grammar exercises like the ones found in books (3) can turn a grammar practising activity into what Penny Ur would call a GLAGP - a game-like activity for grammar practice (2).
Two grammar games
Prompted by the constant preoccupation of teachers to find new and varied activities for the sake of interest and motivation, I devised two grammar games, inspired by family games such as Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit.
These two grammar games are complementary b that the first one deals with six key grammar points which need practising most in my classes, namely tenses, reported speech, passive, relatives, gerund-infinitive and phrasal verbs. The second one deals with more diffuse points such as since and for, some and any, the conditional, etc. Needless to say, the teacher can adapt this to suit his/her needs.
Both games can be played either in groups whose members compete against each other within the group, or in teams whose members collaborate to win against other teams.
The teacher can act as game keeper, referee: he/she gives the right answers, checks the answers given by the players, and so on; or he/she may want to rely on a system of self-assessment like the one suggested by Rinvolucri in Snakes and Ladders (1): in a team of four competing against each other, the three students who are not playing have to decide if the player's sentence is right or wrong; if all three, or two out of three, agree with the player, then he/she is right; if on the other hand they disagree with the player, he/she is wrong; all the decisions and "exercises" should be written down for correction after the game.

The Grammar Trivia game
1. The teacher needs to prepare a certain number of cards (see figure 1), allocating numbers to the categories.
2. Each player/team makes a score sheet and writes the numbers one-six down the page.
How to play:
1. To start, each player/team rolls the dice. The highest roller starts.
2. The teacher gives a card and the player/team reads the question corresponding to the dice number rolled and writes his/her answer on his/her sheet (or on the board).
3. The teacher checks if the answer is
the next player/team rolls the dice and attempts to answer the question corresponding to the number rolled.
4. If the player/team answered correctly he/she scores one point on his/ her score sheet next to the row number corresponding to the question number. If the question is answered incorrectly, the next team/player rolls the dice and attempts to answer the question corresponding to the number rolled.
5. If the question is answered correctly the player/team continues to roll the dice and answer questions. If a player/team answers six in a row, there is a two-point bonus added to the score.
6. The game ends when one player/ team scores in ail six rows. There is a two-point bonus for finishing first. The player/team with the highest score wins.

The grammar race game
1.The teacher needs to prepare two sets of cards: easy cards and harder ones. Examples of an easy card:

A. Add some or any: I like those roses; please give me…; what a pity there aren't... red ones!
B. Insert since or for: I haven't seen you ... three days.

Examples of a harder card:

A. Put the verb into the correct tense: Id rather you (pay) me now; suppose he (ask) me for the money tomorrow?
B. Complete: If I had known he was here,...

2. Make a grid like the following one on an OHP transparency, using different colours for the different players/teams:

Grid 1

You can make the grid any shape you want (round, hexagonal) and as big as you want, depending on the size of your class or the rime you want to devote to the game: the more squares, the more teams can play and the longer the game is.

How to play:
1. Each player/team throws the dice. The player/team with the highest number begins.
2. If you land on a square with the figure two on it you take an easy card. If you answer correctly you score two points; if you don't, you lose two points.
3. If you land on a square with the figure four on it you take a harder card. If you answer correctly you get four points but if your answer is not correct you lose four points.
4. If two players/teams land on the same square, the one that bas been caught up with has to return to his/her starting point without answering any questions.
5. The first player/team home (the start square) gets eight extra points.
6. The player/team with the maximum number of points wins.

(1) in Grammar Games, Cambridge University Press
(2) How is a game like a GLALL? By Penny Ur, P.E.T. March 1986) pp.15-16
(3) For example, English Grammar in Use, by Raymond Murphy, Cambridge University Press, 1985/1987.



How is a game like a GLALL?

Against games|GLALLs vs games|Making a GLALL|Examples|Conclusions

Penny Ur doesn’t like using games in class but she does like using GLALLs. Here she describes what they are and how you can make some of your own to use with your students.

I am not, in principle, in favour of the use of games in language learning. In order to explain this rather puritanical-sounding statement, let me begin by defining what a game is. A game, then, may be defined as an activity:

1.  which is done for recreation, pleasure or fun (that is, with no utilitarian purpose);

2.  which usually has a clear objective;

3.  which is rule-governed;

4.  which involves the performance of an active task;

5.  which is enjoyable because of some kind of pleasurable tension or entertainment.        

Against games

Given this definition, why am I against the use of games in language learning?  Basically because the language lesson, as I see it, is a serious goal oriented activity, whereas the game is essentially pleasurable ‘time out’, and there is a fundamental conflict of interests between the two. The main purpose of a lesson is to learn, not to have fun (and this attitude, I maintain, is as appropriate for children’s classes as for adults’). But there is no reason, of course, why this learning should not be extremely interesting and stimulating in itself. I am totally against the idea, implicit in many course books for children, that language learning is a solemn, boring and unpleasant process that needs to be cheered and livened up by playing games. The actual experience of learning is potentially one of the most exciting there is - as is teach-ing: the successful lesson is one in which this excitement is felt and shared by teacher and learners. Classroom procedures may be interesting, amusing even emotional (in the positive sense) without losing their sense of purpose.

Then there is the educational aspect. If the teacher presents something as a game’ then he/she is implicitly transmitting the message ‘this is not a serious activity, I do not expect you (the students) to relate to it as ‘real’ learning; and the ultimate effect of frequent use of games is a devaluing of he language-learn mg process itself as a worth while endeavour, and of the students as responsible earners. Children as well as adults, in my experience, come to English lessons with a clear goal-oriented approach, and have the right to be treated with respect as serious students; if they are regularly told to play games, then the clear implication is that the teacher does not see them as such.

GLALLs vs games

However, if we take out of my original definition of game the words ‘for recreation, pleasure or fun (that is, not for utilitarian purposes)’, and leave only the characteristic features of having a clear objective, rules, an active task, pleasurable tension and/or entertainment, then we are left with something which while not itself a true game is the kind of game-like classroom activity at once learning-productive and enjoy-able of which I heartily approve: the game-like activity for language learning (hence GLALL for short).

The main difference between a GLALL and a game is that a GLALL is not seen as ‘playing’ but as a classroom exercise, and is presented as such to the class, its learning objective being clear from the beginning to teacher and students alike. In other words, the most important thing about a GLALL is the learning value, whereas with a game it is having fun. The GLALL, technically, is a ‘routine’ language-practice procedure, with game-like features added on. These features have various functions:

1.  to make the language use more purposeful (‘clear objective’) and therefore often more communicative and authentic-feeling;

2.  to make the activity more enjoy-able (‘pleasurable tension, entertainment’) and hence motivate students to participate;

3.  to define limits on what may or may not he done in the activity (‘rule base’) so that students have a clear idea what they have to do and why.

(The last factor, it is true, occurs in non-GLALL procedures as well, but in these the rules are arbitrary, whereas in a GLALL they are clearly and logically linked to the end objective and the enjoyment, and therefore more readily observed.)

Making a GLALL

One common example of a CLALL is any kind of guessing, whose learning purpose, obviously, is to practise question forms and vocabulary. The teacher and students are aware of this purpose at the same time as they are aware of the game-like objective of finding out what the thing to-be-guessed is. Other examples include: task-centred discussions for oral fluency practice (1); disentangling jumbled stories for reading and writing practice (2); ‘Bingo’ for vocabulary practice (3).

A game, then, may be transformed into a GLALL simply through a transfer of emphasis on the part of the teacher. He/she relates to it as a serious teaching/learning procedure, Stresses the production of accurate or acceptable language, and plays down the ‘frivolity’ while exploiting to the full the enjoyment and excitement produced by the game-like elements. But perhaps a more useful question to consider is: how may an ordinary routine classroom exercise be transformed into a GLALL?

The answer is, of course, by injecting the clear objective, pleasurable tension, etc. And this is very easy to do, with a little imagination. Many GLALLs are surprisingly simple, involving little or no extra preparation, but merely the addition of such elements as a slightly unusual or piquant task, the production of interesting or amusing meaning, a race against a time-limit, and so on.


1.         Is and are

Sentences with ”is and are” are a problem for speakers of languages such as Arabic which do not possess corresponding items. You can practise them by doing transformation or slot-filling exercises (boring); or you can ask the class to describe a picture using sentences with is and are (better). Or you can make the picture-description exercise into a GLALL by telling them they have to produce 20 correct is/are sentences about the picture within one minute. By adding a clear objective (getting to 20) and the tension of doing it within a time limit, the whole activity becomes a GLALL, is more motivating, and tends to produce more language practice. Also, of course, the open-endedness of the activity means that students are free to produce original utterances, often humorous and unexpected, that add to the entertainment value, and provide opportunities for the expression of individual personalities. The next step, as suggested in an article of mine in P.E.T. last year (4), is to divide the class into groups. Give each group a picture and ask them to produce as many is/are sentences as they can in two minutes. This can be done as a group competition (again, a game-like element).

2.            Comparatives

One example of a routine exercise on the comparison of adjectives is a series of items like:

A  car, a jet plane (fast, slow) in response to which the student has to produce sentences like The jet plane is faster than the car or The car is slower than the jet plane. The more imaginative teacher gives only the items car and jet plane and invites students to make their own comparisons. One way of making this exercise into a GLALL is by giving the class things to compare that have nothing to do with one another, like an elephant and a potato. The students then have to tax their imaginations to find points of comparison, the objective is more interesting and the results often entertaining. Another possibility: the teacher writes up on the blackboard seven or eight nouns round a theme scattered in a rough circle, for example:

steak    water       macaroni    sugar   bread   yoghurt    curry   eggs                                

The students are then asked to compare any one item on the board with any other. The comparison is recorded by a line drawn by the teacher to link the two; the aim is to join each item with all the others, or with as many of them as possible. As a follow-up, for extra practice, the teacher indicates any one of the lines and asks the students to recall what the comparison was.

3.            Writing descriptions

We all know the essay titles like ‘My best friend’, ‘A familiar scene’, ‘My ideal husband/wife/holiday’ etc., intended to elicit descriptive prose at various levels. Our students do need this sort of thing, if only because many of them will have to do it in their final exams. How do you make this into a GLALL? Very simply. You ask the students to substitute a pre-decided word such as ‘thingummy’ or ‘coffee-pot’ for whatever it is they are describing; their purpose in writing is to describe it so accurately and vividly that when you (the teacher) read it, you will be able to guess what the ‘thingummy or ‘coffee-pot’ is. This is a sort of challenge the teacher’ activity which students enjoy, while at the same time it is clearly conducive to the production of careful writing. The resulting essays, incidentally, are far more interesting for you to read than most student compositions, since you too have some kind of non-linguistic objective and pleasurable tension: will you guess the answer?


There are endless examples of GLALLs, but I hope I have said enough here to make it clear what their value is and how they may be designed; using as a Clearly aetme the limits on what may or may not he done in an activity base either ‘real’ games or routine class-room exercises. As a postscript I would like to make a reservation about my rather sweeping opening statement. It is true that I am against games, in general, in language learning, though I hope I have made it clear that I do not see the learning process as the joyless experience that that statement might seem to imply. At the same time, I would agree that there is a place for ‘real’ games in language learning (every good principle has its exceptions), just as there is a place for routine, form-based ‘boring’ language exercises, and I certainly use both types of procedure in my own teaching ... but not very often. Most of my teaching and, I believe, my students’ learning, is done through serious practice activities made more effective and enjoyable through the injection of some game-like features as described here.

Penny Ur has been teaching English for seventeen years, mostly to children and adolescents. She has written two books: Discussions that Work and Teaching Listening Comprehension (both Cambridge University Press). She is at present working on a book on the communicative teaching of grammar.


(1)    See, for example, my own book Discussions that work (Cambridge University Press, 1981), and Friederike Klippel’s Keep Talking (Cambridge University Press, 1984).
(2)     For this and other story-based GLALLs see Mario Rinvolucri and John Morgan’s Once Upon a Time (Cambridge University Press, 1983).
(3)    Many excellent GLALLS of this kind can be found in games books such as those reviewed in P.E.T. 5:1 (September 1984).
(4) 'Getting younger learners to talk', in PET 4:4, 5:1, 5:2 (September and December 1984, March 1985)