Why Use Digital Class Games in Teaching ESL?

Dec 22nd, 2016 | By | Category: In the Classroom
Print Friendly
Christine So

Christine So


—From neuroscience we know now that arousing emotions increases memory. Dopamine, that neurochemical released when people laugh—or do drugs—is the key. John Medina, director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University, writes, “Emotionally arousing events tend to be better remembered than neutral events. … When the brain detects an emotionally charged event, the amygdala releases dopamine into the system … dopamine greatly aids memory and information processing” (2008, pp. 79-81).

Students’ engagement and recall can be improved by the use of emotionally stimulating digital games. Games are not extraneous entertainment but a means of enhancing students’ recall of words and concepts we teach. We’ve all heard teachers lament, “But we covered that in class!” How we cover material and the number of emotionally stimulating events involved in presentation and practice affect engagement and recall.

Kahoot! Socrative, Quizizz, Quizbreak, and many more: These are multiplayer games that let entire classrooms play together using any device with an Internet connection. Teachers write questions or use hundreds of games made by other instructors on their topic. Students use their real names or pseudonyms. Players can share a device in teams or play alone. Many quiz games generate reports for the instructor, aiding in formative assessment and planning for future lessons.

It’s a win-win for both students and teachers who take the time to create or use already-made digital class games. Educational games for smartphones and tablets provide intense engagement and instant feedback. The fast pace, interaction, and competition produce focus. The players’ reward is the instant feedback on their mastery. Even when feedback shows players have not mastered all concepts, the instantaneous feedback and the low-stakes practice environment make it a positive experience. Compare that with doing a book exercise for homework Tuesday night and not hearing the answers until it’s reviewed on Thursday.

Part of an instructor’s needs assessment should include assessing the age and electronic backgrounds of those she’ll teach. We must consider how their brains have been wired from two decades of instant feedback and interactivity by growing up being able to “google” answers to any question, getting immediate text replies from friends, and years of playing video games. Today’s digital natives have less patience for classroom lectures and book exercises than their earlier counterparts. They grew up getting and giving instant feedback in lives spent tapping screens, texting instant replies, and playing video games.

In every class are students who choose not to do homework or sleep in class. Each time I’ve used multiplayer digital games in ESL classes, I have not had a single student refuse to participate. Compare that with a whole-class game of charades in which one person is talking and 10 are engaged in guessing while three are doing homework for another class or glancing at their messages. Similarly, when a class is in a computer lab doing online exercises individually, there is not the same engagement. In the whole-class game, every second counts and every separate question gives a chance for instant reward. Students don’t muddle through 12 questions and then see a score.

Via electronic educational games, skills are honed, perseverance is rewarded, and knowledge is both a necessary skill and a prize. Video games for fun, particularly games of the violent kind, have rightly come under scrutiny, but the essence of what any engaging, challenging, fast-paced electronic game does is not entirely bad. Peter Gray, PhD from Boston College, points out that video games are games of skill, like chess, and such games require “skill in which success depends on perseverance, intelligence, practice, and learning, not chance” (Gray, 2012, para. 11).

We know that pleasurable experiences cause us to want to repeat that pleasurable experience. If getting the right answer in a fast-paced digital class game is accompanied by a slight rush of dopamine, then that is a reward students will want to repeat. When a class game is well structured, moving from easy to more advanced questions, just as video games allow a player to advance to higher levels, players feel their fast thinking and improved knowledge is a reward in itself. When people play a video game repeatedly they have to learn what they did wrong if they want to improve their score. Students won’t likely become addicts to digital learning games, but they may show up to class and participate more. The repetitive nature of games focused on one set of vocabulary words, one grammar focus, or one reading’s main ideas makes better recall unavoidable.

Last spring I spent 10 minutes every other day playing Kahoot in class to practice identifying the part of speech of current vocabulary. The scores on the students’ subsequent chapter test were better than their previous chapter test scores. They were also better than scores from students the prior quarter who hadn’t played the game as a method of practicing the concept. The game group fared better on the vocabulary section of words we practiced using the digital part-of-speech game. Previously, cloze paragraphs had caused many to fail tests since they chose verbs where only nouns could go and vice versa.

Engage all your students, provide repeated exposure to vocabulary, and increase recall. See Ferlazzo’s list (2014) of multiplayer educational game apps listed in my references. I waited years to try them, but now I can’t imagine not using them.

Christine So is an instructor in the American Language Program at California State University, East Bay in Hayward.


Ferlazzo, L. (2014, February 26). The “all-time” best online learning games. Larry Ferlazzo’s websites of the day. Retrieved from http://larryferlazzo.edublogs.org/2014/02/26/the-all-time-best-online-learning-games/

Gray, P. (2012, February 2). Video game addiction: Does it occur? If so, why?  Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201202/video-game-addiction-does-it-occur-if-so-why?page=2

Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules.  Seattle, WA: Pear Press.


More in In the Classroom

Comments are closed.