our everyday life

ESL Problem-Solving Games

by Shelley McKinley

A balanced approach to life has always been described as eight hours of rest, eight hours of work, and eight hours of play. Games typically occur during play time, but that seems to be changing. According to a report submitted to the “Education Resources Information Center” in March 2012, a game can capture a person’s attention, reduce stress, and promote fast-paced problem solving. Therefore, play time may actually serve as the best time for language acquisition among English as a Second Language (ESL) learners of all ages.

Problem Solving Just Got Exciting

According to a study in the “Journal of Educational Computing Research” published in July 2011, problem solving is a 21st century skill that requires people to enter into new settings and rapidly and efficiently figure out what has to be learned or done. While textbooks and lectures can address problem solving in isolation, the traditional approach does not give ESL learners opportunities for application of the skill. Games are an alternative approach that can fill the gap. The basic components of any game are rules, competition and fun, which creates a sense of urgency and prompts the learner to action.

Humorously Using a New Language

Building on the basic components, problem solving games are appropriate at every stage of life. The report submitted to the “Education Resources Information Center” in March 2012, described a game called “What Would You Do If?” which requires elementary ESL learners to randomly pick one hypothetical question and one unrelated answer. The learner has to bridge the question to the answer using their imagination, problem-solving skills, and their newly acquired vocabulary in a certain amount of time. While humorous, the English language learner is inferring and creating narratives. This is a simple example of gaming, but the level of complexity should fit the learners’ language level and age.

Games for Digital Natives

As age and language levels increase, the complexity of the game should also increase and may involve technology. Most adolescents, whether ESL or not, are digital natives and are accustomed to using software or the Internet for recreational purposes. Therefore, technology-based problem solving games are appropriate for early adolescents and adults. The previously mentioned study published in the “Journal of Educational Computing Research” in July 2011, described software for middle school students to play the role of a researcher charged with discovering the nature and cause of an infectious disease outbreak. Through simulation, students make inferences and experience emotions while applying their knowledge of microbiology. This type of experience is especially beneficial to ESL learners because it provides an opportunity to use vocabulary specialized to the scientific field. According to findings published in “Multicultural Education” in January 2011, ESL learners require assistance in developing specific content vocabulary in their second language to be successful in school and work.

Game On!

Well known games can be adapted for problem solving.

When considering games, why reinvent the wheel? Popular games and game shows can easily be adapted for ESL problem solving. Everyone already knows the rules and can jump right in! Games like Balderdash and Scrabble are good for developing general vocabulary, and Jeopardy is useful for content. A case study published in the “International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology” in November 2010, compared two groups of introductory statistics classes. One class used the rules in "Deal or No Deal" to learn about expected value and the necessary calculations. The class used traditional methods. When given the written exam, more students that played the game passed than students that did not. According to the study, the game provided an instructional avenue that removed the fear factor and provided real-time problem solving.

About the Author

Shelley McKinley has experience as a principal, assistant principal, science teacher and central office administrator. She began writing education-related articles in 2011 and was referenced in the Journal of the National Association for Alternative Certification in 2012. McKinley holds a Doctor of Education in curriculum and instruction from Texas Southern University.

Photo Credits

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