Games for Growing Language

by Katie Toppel

Games for Growing Language, a Guest Post by Katie Toppel

When I asked my fourth and fifth grade students to reflect on what they enjoyed the most from our ELD lessons this school year, the overwhelming answer was games! I was really pleased with this response because, even though my students were mostly focused on the fun factor, the games they’d played were also designed to provide them with opportunities for interaction, language and vocabulary practice, content concept review, and autonomy. Games are a great addition to lessons because they are highly engaging, and students may not even realize the extent of the academic benefit they are receiving. Additionally, Hammond (2015) champions “gameifying” lessons as one way to make them more culturally responsive because, in addition to getting the brain’s attention and requiring active processing, games also incorporate cultural tools found in oral traditions with elements like repetition, solving puzzles, and making connections between unrelated ideas.

Depending on the instructional goal, a wide variety of games can be used in the classroom to support students in practicing skills and content. Games are fun and can transform instructional targets (“work”) into play. But not all educational games are created equal, especially if the goal is to support language growth. Ideally, games incorporate practice of content knowledge while also supporting practice in some, if not all, of the language domains to facilitate content and language practice simultaneously.

What makes a good game?

When I incorporate games into my lesson plans, there are several considerations I make to ensure that my students will be engaged in purposeful language use.

1. Clear Purpose 

Content and language objectives, which align to state, local, or national standards, guide teaching and learning so that both teachers and students have a clear understanding of what will be learned and what language will be used to demonstrate content knowledge (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2017). Content and language objectives should be carefully crafted to keep a laser focus on the intended lesson outcomes, and as such, all of the components of a well-planned lesson should directly correlate to the objectives. Because instructional time is precious and “English learners are students who can least afford wasted instructional time” (Echevarria, 2018), games, too, must have a clear purpose that directly aligns to the lesson or unit objectives.  

2. Collaboration and Interdependence 

Sometimes when students play games together, their interactions are merely cooperation as opposed to true collaboration and interdependence. There is nothing wrong with games that provide opportunities to practice elements of cooperation such as taking turns and sharing materials. These are important skills that we want our students to have, and games are a great platform for honing these competencies, but we can kick games up a notch by carefully crafting games that challenge students to truly rely on each other and interact meaningfully. A few ways to ensure that students are collaborating and interacting with each other are partner accountability, barrier games, and information gaps.

Partner accountability: One student takes a turn (ideally including spoken output), and the player’s partner or a designated teammate responds by affirming, paraphrasing, or evaluating the answer. This ensures that the listening domain is included and that partners use their own content knowledge and language skills to process what their partners say. Consequently, there are no wasted minutes because both players are accountable during each turn. Sentence frames or scaffolds can be provided to remind partners to respond and guide partner responses.

Barrier games: Barrier games are great for promoting active listening because they involve placing a physical barrier, such as a file folder, between partners so they have to rely exclusively on what they heard. Partner A arranges one set of manipulatives, which could be pattern blocks, images, or cut-up sections of a text, in a specific way and describes the placement or order to Partner B. Partner B listens, and can ask clarifying questions, in order to recreate Partner A’s placement with their own set of the same manipulatives. Partners check their work by removing the barrier. 

Information gaps: In order to set the stage for true interdependence, tasks can involve an information gap. An information gap is when students each have different information that needs to be used collectively to complete the task. 

Disclaimer: A little friendly competition is usually fun and motivating; however, sometimes competition can cause stress and actually raise the affective filter if games are fast-paced or students don’t feel confident in the material being addressed. This is where we have to know our students in order to make the best choices around game play.

3. Speaking Practice

Fisher, Frey, and Rothenberg (2008) and Hammond (2015) affirm the importance integrating opportunities for students to be social in order to honor student’s communal orientation. “Put simply, talk, or oracy, is the foundation of literacy” (Fisher, Frey, & Rothenberg, 2008, p.8). Students learn and solidify learning by talking, which pairs ideally with collaborative tasks like games. However, even in the context of games, talk must be academically purposeful. Prior to playing games, teachers can model the expected language (i.e., complete sentences, target vocabulary, language structures) so students know what appropriate responses will sound like and understand that academic language is expected as opposed to casual, social language. Games provide an excellent platform for students to practice those academic and interactive oracy skills in a low-stress context that builds efficacy and independence in their language use.

4. Multiple Language Domains 

Games that require students to SWIRL (speak, write, interact, read, listen) offer opportunities to engage in all four language domains plus interact with one another. If reading and writing are not already part of games you use, try to tweak them to incorporate one or both! Incorporate writing by having students document some of their verbal responses, or write a brief reflection or opinion after playing. Add reading by giving written directions, sentence stems/frames, and/or word banks for students to use when they produce their oral responses. Or, have students trade what they wrote with someone else in order to read a classmate’s perspective. If a game could be played silently, require students to narrate their actions, explain their answers or their thinking out loud to their partner, and utilize a partner accountability job so active listening and interaction are part of every turn. 

5. Clear Directions, Meaningful Visuals, and Manipulatives

Planning comprehensible input for games helps maximize time engaged in content and language practice during play. Games need to have clear instructions (printed instructions are a great way to incorporate the reading domain) so students understand what to do and can get started quickly. Supplementary materials such as images and manipulatives also aid comprehension, support negotiation of meaning, and make games engaging. When my second graders were learning about penguins, I gathered images of penguins demonstrating many different verbs and printed the images in a small size to be the game cards students pulled and talked about. I also like to use a generic game board with dice and game pieces because students really enjoy interacting with those tools as they play. Any number of games can work with those materials, but they consistently provide a tactile experience, and they tie in numeracy skills as well!

Checklist for effective language development games:

  • Connect to content and language objectives
  • Require collaboration and interdependence
  • Involve speaking and use of target language
  • Incorporate multiple language domains
  • Utilize clear directions, meaningful visuals, and manipulatives

Whether you are using a game straight out of a box or creating your own from scratch, games can be a valuable way to incorporate so many important elements of language and can benefit students in so many ways. 



Echevarria, J. [Jana Echevarria]. (2018, May 13). How much should we “push” English learners? [Video File]. Retrieved from:
Echevarria, J., Vogt, M., & Short, D. (2017). Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP model (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Rothenberg, C. (2008). Content-area conversations: How to plan discussion-based lessons for diverse language learners. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Hammond, Z. (April 1, 2015). Cult of Pedagogy [blog post]. Retrieved from


6 thoughts on “Games for Growing Language

  1. I enjoyed reading your article Dr. Topple. I teach ELLs at the secondary level. I would be very interested if you have any video of you and your students playing games – such as the barrier game and information gap game that you mention in your article. I would love to see it in action.


  2. I love all the fun, engaging games that develop language and are tied to content and language objectives! Thanks for sharing, Katie!


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