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Teaching English to Adults with Gamification

Teaching English to Adults with Gamification

Gamification – the use of game mechanics in non-game situations – has recently become something of a buzzword in different industries. Even so, many trainers and educators disregard it as being too childish to use as a learning strategy for adults.

Naturally, we expect adults to have the maturity to engage fully in activities that ultimately benefit them – without needing to be enticed through play.

Whilst that is true, it’s important for us to make a distinction between game-based learning and gamification.

Game-based learning essentially means turning an activity into a game – in which the game has a beginning, a middle and an end. You’d expect to see a lot of game-based learning in an elementary school classroom. (See this Slideshare for a more thorough definition).

Gamification, on the other hand, means integrating features that are common to games, such as points, badges and challenges, in order to engage people in a process.

A gamified activity will likely have a serious aim – the game mechanics are there to make the journey towards that aim more compelling. In this respect, gamification is wholly appropriate for adults.

In fact, many of the experiences we take for granted integrate game mechanics. The social networking “like” system is an example of gamification. Amazon’s rating feature is an example of gamification. Other sites, from eBay to, heavily feature game mechanics to engage users.

Applying Gamification Techniques To Teaching Adults

Away from our computers and phones, gamification is everywhere – from airport frequent flyer lounges and fast-track lanes, to the supermarket vouchers we redeem when we go shopping.

Gamification has its uses in language teaching too, for students of all ages. Here are three ideas to help you integrate principles of gamification into your EFL classroom.

  1. Develop a points system

Awarding points or merits to young learners is a well-known teaching practice to reward students for good behaviour or hard work. Of course it’s not quite the same for adult learners, but points can still be effective in improving motivation levels.

The trick is to remember that points don’t always need to be points – they can be metaphors for points. For example, in the language learning app Busuu, points are presented as berries.

Points don’t always need to represent scores either. On Facebook, points are kudos markers – they are the number of friends you have, or they are number of likes you receive for a photo or post.

In the EFL classroom, points can be the number of words that are applied or understood, the number of class hours completed, the number of sentences written as homework, or the number of video views students receive for a school-wide YouTube project. In the Oxford Big Read, points are represented as the number of graded readers students consume and the number of words they read.

The important thing to keep in mind is that students’ point scores should be visible, and points should reward engagement and participation without alienating weaker linguists in the class.

Here is an example of an activity that features a point system:

The Topic Photo activity

Have a weekly activity in which 4 photos (printed from Google Images) are posted around the classroom. These photos could be themed around the topics covered in your coursebook unit.

Put students into 4 teams and keep a record of their team names on the board. Give each team a different colour pen.

Ensure that by each photo there is a piece of paper divided into four sections for the teams to write on.

Now instruct each team to stand by a photo. Give them 5 minutes to write as many English words as they can using the photo as inspiration.

Then, have the teams move to the next photo and read the words that the previous team has written. Give the teams five minutes to write some different words inspired by the new photo. Repeat the process until every team has brainstormed words for each photo.

Now spend some time asking each team to present the words all the teams have come up with for the photo they are standing by. Agree as a class which words should be crossed out, for example, if they are repetitions from a previous group, or if they are words not linked to the photo.

Now count the number of words each group has brainstormed for each photo and keep a record of the score on your whiteboard or on a poster.

Next time you do the activity, keep the same teams and maintain a cumulative score total.

This activity not only uses a point system to encourage team competition and motivation – it’s also a great way to get students moving about and energized. Use it as a warmer or as a review for the topics you are discussing in class.

  1. Introduce badges

Badges and certificates are appealing because they signify completion of a task and appeal to our desire to collect things. But they can be even more effective as symbols of status.

As a class, you can create status badges or certificates that will be available as rewards over the course of the semester. You can have some fun with this, and you don’t need to connect badges to language ability.

For example, you could have the following badges: “Sage”, “Funny guy”, “Dude”, “Parent”– make sure they are all positive and culturally appropriate for your students’ backgrounds and ages.

Design the badges yourself, or have each student in your class design a particular badge. Print out all the badges and laminate them.

At the end of each week, have the class vote on which students should receive badges, based on students’ performance over the course of the week. Then make an activity out of awarding the badges in a light-hearted ceremony at the end of class.

Keep a record of the badges awarded and the current “status” of each student. Then in subsequent classes, you can task your students to live up to their status – for example, have the “funny guy” prepare a joke in English as homework, or have your “sage” prepare an appropriate proverb for the next class.

This activity will encourage students to come to class better prepared and to do homework, so they can articulate themselves better in class.

  1. Give regular positive feedback

All game mechanics centre around feedback loops. A feedback loop is the process where someone engages in a task and then receives positive feedback for completing the task, creating a sense of gratification, encouraging the person to engage in the next task.

Points, badges, levels of increasing challenge – these gamification features are all based on feedback loops.

Game-based apps incorporate regular feedback loops to keep players engaged. They have points and badges, but they also build feedback loops into the general user experience.

For example, in the Candy Crush app, combining a sequence of sweets to create a special stripy or spotted sweet is a feedback loop. In Angry Birds, knocking your bird into a block of wood that falls to crush a pig – that’s a feedback loop.

One can find feedback loops in the real world. For example, when we manage to get a point across in a discussion, when people cheer us on while we are running in a race, or when an activity we have worked on garners the boss’s praise.

So how can you apply feedback loops to your teaching?

One simple way is to regularly praise your students. You may already do this, but if it doesn’t come naturally it’s easy to fall out of the habit. Regular praise results in effective feedback loops.

Think of ways to make praise a more distinct feature of your class – as it will create a dynamic in which students strive for a sense of status in the group.

For example, every time a student applies a sentence or a word correctly, praise her and make a memento of the exchange by writing the sentence that she has correctly articulated on the whiteboard for other students to benefit from.

Think about consistent language you use to praise students, so you can create levels of feedback depending on the achievement – from a basic “Well done!” to a rare “Fantastic!”

If you’re feeling particularly eccentric, have a bell to ring or other motivating sound effect to play during pairwork activities as you are monitoring groups.

These are all examples of gamification. Other features include levels that unlock, quests, challenges, and staged “onboarding” to challenging activities.

Can you think of any class activities that apply these game mechanics?

Or are there any other activities you use in class that integrate the ideas behind points, badges, and certificates?

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4 Responses


    Gamification at its heart reflects the reality that we are all drawn to games, of one kind or the other. Not because we are after accolades or points but because we all like to be challenged. Challenged in ways that we can rise to, not of the other kind. We look for AND gain belief in ourselves by knowing that we can "do", not because others tells us we can. Of course we don't mind being told or being recognised as having achieved! :-) However, I believe we get distracted from the core of why games are attractive if we think that the externals are what we need to focus on or understand. The beauty of good games are that they work at the level we are at. We never succeed in a game that is too hard for us, and we will give away a game that is consistently too easy for us. At the heart we want to challenge ourselves. So in classrooms, I believe that teachers can improve the outcomes in their classes by providing "activities" (that may be called games at one level) whereby learners can test them every opportunity to come out on top....with the kinds of activities that result in skill and confidence improvement. Kato Lomb suggestion that " Grammar is learned through language, not language through grammar" provides us with ideas to get learners to engage in carefully designed language experiences from which they can learn grammar. THAT is a great game! :-) A little more on this topic ...


  • Pete Pun

    I like the badges idea, sounds funny, I'll use that. 'Gamification' seems like yet another pointless term dreamed up to try and intellectualise something rather simple though. I always find this with TEFL/TESOL and it's part of the reason why I won't pay thousands of pounds to do a Masters in it. It's full of jargon that is just common sense. A distinction between 'game-based learning' and 'gamification' is rather loose, but maybe it is necessary. However, I do like the practical ideas you mentioned so I shouldn't come across as an anti-gamifier!


  • Shaun Crowley

    Hi Andrew, thanks for your comment. I agree that good games should offer the right amount of challenge... This connects to the notion of "flow" - that feeling of being "in the zone", and not aware of the passing of time. To achieve a state of flow the level of challenge in an activity has to reflect the ability of the player. The same is true in the language learning classroom.


  • Shaun Crowley

    Hi Pete, I agree, the world of TESOL is getting bogged down with buzzwords around concepts that have existed for years. That said, I do believe that we can learn from the mechanics of games in EFL contexts.