Target talk

9th May 2003 at 01:00
From battleships to blockbusters, games get language flowing from key stage 3 up, says Elaine Pratt

How do you ensure a class of 34 pupils stays on task during a speaking pairwork activity? Our department has worked extensively with Anna Bartrum, senior lecturer at St Martin's College, Lancaster University, in the use of games to motivate our pupils. All pupils seem to respond positively, and boys in particular enjoy the competitive element.

Pupils need a purpose of their own for an activity. This is where the game format comes in. I may be practising word order in the perfect tense after a time phrase, but they are simply trying to beat their partner. Everyone gains from the process. The same game formats can be used effectively at key stages 3, 4 and 5, by varying the complexity of the language.

"Battleships" is ideal for drilling a new tense or construction, and can be created using any sentence halves that work together. My pupils are familiar with the format now: they need to know how many "Schiffe" to colour in and away they go - 10 minutes non-stop of rattling off good sentences results in a confidence in the new material and familiarity with the word order. Anyone who dares to try to numberletter the columns (and I've only had it happen twice) soon desists when deprived of the game and given the sentences to copy out instead. The pupils much prefer playing the game.

Another excellent game for establishing new sentence structures and showing pupils how to put together sentences is "Mastermind". This requires an OHT of about four interchangeable sentence parts. I use a whiteboard, writing a sentence from the various elements available. Pupils start to guess the sentence. I tell them how many segments are correct (zwei richtig, drei richtig, alle falsch). By a process of elimination they can work out my sentence. I then give out the whiteboards and they play the game in pairs.

Once again, this produces 10 minutes of non-stop language and they don't stray from the activity. The games have an in-built discipline.

"Blockbusters" is ideal for practising a particular construction or for an end-of-topic plenary session. I have the grid on an OHT and two colours of "covers" for the two teams. All I have to do is overlay the content of the blocks from the simplest (pictures of town buildings) and most boringly traditional (sentences in the imperfect) to the most challenging (talking for one minute on aspects of a recent A-level topic). I love to see teams hotly debating the answer and make it a rule that each team member must answer once, so everyone joins in. Pupils can choose any block and enjoy tactical blocking.

KS4 pupils also enjoy "covered text". This is ideal for the end of a topic and counts as both reading and speaking practice. The words of a text on an OHT are covered using sticky notes. It starts as a brainstorming session based on the title, but as the words are revealed (teams take turns to guess) it becomes a reading activity too.

In response to questionnaires to find out which activities allowed pupils to learn best, the overwhelming majority said games. Anything where pupils have to guess or beat an opponent holds their interest and makes them feel like winners . My latest addition is 15 sets of the Hasbro game Guess Who? which uses cards with faces on them. I can't wait to practise descriptions with the pupils. "Hat er einen Bart? TrAgt sie eine Brille..."

Elaine Pratt is head of languages at Keswick School, Cumbria Email:

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