How do I structure play to support language learning?

‘Supporting English Language Learners’ EAL Conference
1st April 2017
'EAL Teaching through the Learning Village' - Implementation course, London 27th Sept
‘EAL Teaching through the Learning Village’ – Implementation course, London 27th Sept
22nd May 2017

How do I structure play to support language learning?

Author: Gemma Fanning, EAL Specialist

Play is a crucial part of language development and ideas for play and games are an essential part of any teacher’s toolkit. One of the most informal and obvious contexts for language development for children takes place in the playground (Pinter, 2006). Here, children will often pick up everyday language from their peers – and this can be a vital part of their learning. Pinter explains that when a child moves to a new country, after the initial ‘silent phase’, they will start to pick up phrases, conversation language and so-called ‘playground language’ fairly quickly. With this in mind, it is worth considering how to structure play, both in the playground and the classroom. Langer da Ramirez (2017) explains that games and fun activities help children feel excited on an effective level, as they are enjoyable and rewarding, allowing for language to be acquired on both a cognitive and developmental level.

Perhaps one of the first things to consider is what is a game and when it should be used in the classroom setting. Martin (1995) explains that any activity chosen should be fun, whilst giving the child an opportunity to practise the target language in a relaxed and enjoyable way. Playing games takes very little preparation; however, the following materials are an ideas part of any teacher’s toolkit:

  • dice
  • mini-whiteboards
  • pictures
  • word or sentence cards
  • counters
  • number cards.

There are various ways to play different games: some will be competitive, while others will be more co-operative, with teams or pairs having to work together to reach a goal.

When considering how to use games within the language classroom, consider some of the following questions during your planning:

  • What is the target language I want the students to use?
  • Is this game age-appropriate? (i.e., is it suitable for the students’ cognitive ability?)
  • Is the purpose of the game to focus on fluency or accuracy?
  • What skill do I want this game to focus on: reading, writing, speaking or listening?
  • Is this game suitable for the level of the student?
  • What materials and classroom organisation do I need to consider?
  • Is this a quiet game that settles the learners or an active game to liven them up?

Once you have determined this, you will need to consider how to form your groups or teams. This is also an opportunity for your learners to be able to work with all their classmates throughout the year. The table below shows some simple activities you can use to form groups for your classes.

Name Straws – for forming pairs
Procedure 1. The teacher holds a group of straws and the learners each take one straw out. The straws have all been cut to different lengths.
2. Once the learners have taken their straws, they need to match their straw with a person who has the same length. The learners will then work with that partner.
Resource Straws, cut into different lengths


Name Numbering

1. Give each learner a number, until half of the class have one and then start again from number one.
2. Tell the learners to all match up, e.g. “If you’re number one, find the other number one”, etc.

Resource None


Name Height
Procedure 1. As the learners to stand in height order.
2. Select pairings/groupings from the line.
Resource None


Name Names in a cup

1. Put all the learners’ names in a cup – an easy way to do this is to write their names on wooden coffee-stirrer sticks.
2. Pull the sticks out and form your groups.

NB. Coffee-stirrer sticks with questions on them also make a good tool for asking learners questions at random.

Resource Coffee-stirrer Sticks

Adapted from Young Learners Resource Books for Teachers.



De Ramirez, Lori Langer. The Imperative of Play in the Language Classroom. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Jan. 2017.

Mertin, Patricia, 2013. Breaking Through the Language Barrier: Effective Strategies for Teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) Students in Secondary School Mainstream CL (World Class Schools Series). Edition. John Catt Educational

Phillips, Sarah, (1999). Young Learners – Resource books for Teachers. Oxford University Press, Oxford

Pinter, Annamaria (2006). Teaching Young Language Learners. Oxford University Press, Oxford

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