Games in English Language Teaching – Definitions and Types

Definitions of language games

gamesMany famous linguistics researchers provide several descriptions of games. Before introducing the final interpretation of language games, we will define some ideas and concepts of games.

Hadfield’s definition of Games (1998, p.4)

Define language games based on comparison with the term “games” in general. We can define games as:  “Activities with rules, a goal, and an element of fun.”

Careful evaluation of games:

  • emphasize the relaxing purpose combining with helpful tasks,
  • strict and detailed guidelines,
  • reasonable objectives so that students are possible to follow and achieve.

Greenall’s definition of games (1990, p. 6)

“A game is used whenever there is an element of competition between individual students or team in a language activity.”

In the study, Greenall (1990) further emphasizes the significant effects of games. Games can increase reasonable chances for students to cooperate.  The learning environment provided by games is friendly.

Games help students to learn to cooperate

Along with learning new language items, students also learn to collaborate with their peers or their team. They are willing to study new things instead of uncooperative attitude in learning or doing the tasks. Students also directly compete or fully cooperate during the time the games take place.

In general, many researchers describe a game as:

  • An organized activity involving properties and a particular task or objective and a set of rules
  • The purposes of entertainment, cooperation, competition and communication between players by spoken or written language

(Rixon, 1981; Hadfield, 1990; Hadfield, 1998, Greenall, 1990)

Types of language games

Different writers have different classifications of games. According to McCallum (1980), there are seven classifications of games:

  • Vocabulary games
  • Number games
  • Structure games
  • Spelling games
  • Conservation games
  • Writing games
  • Role-play
  • Dramatics

These kinds of games focus on language skills and components. A teacher who understands games in this way is much more likely to choose games that are suitable for a particular purpose. The purpose of this study is to enhance students’ vocabulary. The language games selected in this study are necessary to focus on the vocabulary field.

Unlike McCallum, Greenall (1990, p. 11) classifies games into eight groups according to their functions and techniques in a different way:

  • Do-it-yourself simulation: It is an activity in which the students play themselves in a situation which he/she has either experienced or can at least relate to in some way.
  • Role-play: Students are required to react following the identity or the role marked on the card. Then develop the character with improvised dialogue in either an everyday situation or a clearly defined setting.
  • Describing: A simple situation in which one person has a particular item of information that he/she can only reveal by:
    • drawing
    • mime
    • roundabout description,
    • Yes/No answer to questions put by the others.
  • Matching pairs: Divide words, pictures, lines of dialogue, etc., into more than two parts and then shuffle. One part is given to each of the students who must then find his/her partner.
  • Jigsaw: It is similar to Matching Pairs. Divide words, pictures, and lines of dialog into more than two parts. The students have to work to match them together.
  • Logical sequences: This technique is similar to  Jigsaw, but for materials such as strip cartoons,  song lyrics, or proverbs. The components can be reconstructed in the correct and logical order.
  • Board games: The teacher thinks of a situation, which involves some sequence of events. Then asks students to think of several favorable and unfavorable events that might occur as the players proceed.
  • Discussion: Activities can be a springboard for discussion or questionnaires.

Eight sections according to each family type

Wright, Betteridge, and Buckby (2006) divide games into eight sections according to each family type. The family name is often a verb summarizing the essential way, which engages learners in the game. The authors state that games can take one of the following forms:

  • Care and share: Learners feel comfortable in those games when sharing personal information with other learners.
  • Do: move, mine, draw, obey: The learner is expected to do something non-verbally in response to a read or a heard text.
  • Identify: discriminate, guess, speculate: The learner is tested to recognize something hard to distinguish about something, and then contrasted with the certainties.
  • Describe: The learner is tested to depict something to an alternate learner, by talking or composing. The other learner can do something objectively or subjectively, conveying his or her sentiments and affiliations.
  • Connect: compare, match, group: The learner is challenged to connect, examine, match, or group various items of information.  The items can be pictures or texts. He or she uses language to describe or comment on the pairs of data.
  • Order: The learner is challenged to put various bits of information into a hierarchy of quality and importance, subjectively or objectively. Or to put texts, pictures, objects, into a development sequence.
  • Remember: The learner tries to remember something and then communicate what he or she has retained
  • Create: The learner is challenged or invited to make a story, write a poem, or produce some other kind of material using their imagination.

In another way, Hadfield (1998) divides games into categories:

  • Linguistics games: The goal of the games is linguistics accuracy, for example, producing a correct structure or remembering right words,
  • Communicative games: Carry out activities like drawing maps or matching pictures by using language. Rixon (1981, p. 22) classifies games into two main groups based on correctness and communication effectiveness. They are code-control games and communication games.
  • Code-control games: In these games, players have to produce language correctly or prove that they have made a correct interpretation of a particular piece of language. Repeating a limited range of language makes games similar in their functions to drills. As with a drill, the other students express opinions about the correctness of responses. The teacher plays a vital role in leading or controlling these games. The teacher also is the person who decides to award for correct answers and refuses incorrect ones.
  • Communication games: These games mainly focus on communication but not absolute correctness. “Firstly, the language that is too distorted by mistakes will fail to communicate anything. Secondly, the range of language needs in many of these games can be limited so that students are repeating structures any time” (p. 27).


This article covers the two main areas of games use in language teaching. The different definitions of games by various researchers and types of games that can be employed in ESL/EFL classrooms. We hope that these two aspects can somehow help teachers of English have a thorough understanding of games to use them effectively.

For preschool and early childhood learning, please refer to the article on Phonic resources for teachers and parents.

Elementary Communication GamesResources for teaching using games

Elementary Communication Games by Jill Hadfield

Intermediate Communication Games by Jill Hadfield

Advanced Communication Games by Jill Hadfield


Lan Luu


  1. Games have always helped me accelerate the learning process. In high school I did really well in foreign language. My teacher was really big on repetition. But he also gave us games to play. One was to perform a skit in the language. That became a lot of fun. There were flash card games, like who could remember something the fastest. 

    This is a little bit unrelated, but it is an example of how great games can be for learning. I started playing a video game online. It has about 800 complex and unique characters. Within a matter of months I have pretty much everything about every character memorized. Part of that is because games put you in the moment. Also they can help with pattern recognition. Thanks!

    • Role-playing games are effective in the classroom.  An example is games involving students assuming a role and gathering information from other participants who hold information.

  2. Games sound like an awesome way to teach English. You have quite a few examples of types of games. I know in most training or classes I’ve been in, the games are the most memorable part. They make it fun! They also provoke the mind by engaging more learning styles. Great info. 

    • Agreed.  Language Teaching is evolving and games are a big part of that evolution

  3. This is a very interesting topic you have discussed here. While I was teaching communication skills to some adult groups, I had to use some games too to better the students understanding. I made use of some communication games most of which included some discourse depending on their level of understanding. This language students showed great improvements after the games. They basically had fun while learning. Its a great post here. Best regards!

    • Hi Henderson.  The article is an introduction to the topic.  We have many more articles to write for beginner to advanced level games.

  4. Good and informative post I would say! I think games to be a great way to learn English or any other language. It’s a more entertaining and attracting way to learn in my opinion. In my childhood, these kinds of language/ teaching games were very rare if even exist. It’s great to see there are persons like you offering help for teachers to use these more effective ways. 
    Kind regards -Jesse

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