Ajarn Street

Teachers playing games in class

Is it a case of too much monkeying around?

Some years ago, I applied for a job in Phuket as a full-time English teacher of the staff of a very well-known hotel. 

I prepared diligently for my demonstration lesson (it was about plurals, if I remember correctly) and it went as smooth as silk. I had a great rapport with the adult students who attended and they really responded well to everything. 

The manager in charge of training was a fellow-Australian and as we walked back to his office after the conclusion of the lesson I was expecting him to simply say, "When can you start?"

No games?

We sat back down at his desk and he began by telling me how great my lesson had been and how it was exactly the kind of lesson he thought a teacher of my experience would have given (I had taught at a few other hotels before). "But why," he asked, "were there no games?"

I distinctly remember looking at his face for any signs that he was joking but unfortunately I saw none. 

I replied that I did not think that it was appropriate to play games with adults in a hotel environment and that it was better to spend time concentrating on improving their English skills instead. "Oh, but Thai people love playing games!" was his reply. 

He then gave me a lecture on all the ways that I could have made my lesson more fun by playing games with the adults.

I had taught adults before in the language centre that I worked at but had never played games with them, nor had I felt it necessary to do so. And none of my students had ever complained to anyone that my lessons were dull.

A teacher, not a clown

By this stage I wanted to leave as quickly as possible and considered for the first time in my life to walk out of an interview. Instead, I sat there poker-faced until the manager had quite finished and waited for the mandatory handshake and the "I'll be in touch" before leaving. 

I never heard from him again.

I remember riding back to my apartment wondering if there was something wrong with me but I was determined not to change my principles just because I came up against a bloke who had a different attitude towards Thai learners than I did. 

I firmly believed then (and still do now) that games definitely have their place in an English language classroom but only under specific conditions and for certain students.

Simply because we are English teachers does not, I believe, mean that we immediately become entertainers or clowns when we work in Thailand merely because Thai language learners "love playing games". A more cynical argument could be that Thai students also love sleeping in class, so should we get them all to do that as well?

Are science and maths teachers expected to play games when they teach? Why is it so necessary for English teachers to do so? 

Is it simply because we are able to and English classes lend themselves to playing games or because we are thought of as somehow less qualified to teach compared to our maths and science counterparts?

A time and a place

I do play games in my Mattayom classes but only under certain circumstances. 

I would much rather devote precious time in class teaching or showing students something new that they don't know or are not in a position to wonder about, such as why there is British English and American English or why there are so many French words in the English language.

To me, playing games just because Thai people are fun loving (and there's nothing wrong with that) is simply accepting the Thai way of teaching, which seems to be to prevent the students from thinking at all costs and to extinguish any curiosity in the process. But, as I said, I do sometimes play games.

I have had success with "20 questions" (because it forces the students to ask questions, for one thing) and it is useful for reinforcing ‘do/does' and ‘is' questions, which students very rarely think about. It's also interesting to find a student who knows someone famous other than Michael Jackson and Steve Jobs!

I also play "Hangman" using my laptop with the projector, which has animations and sound. I do not allow the students to call out letters but put the letter in a sentence, such as "D as in Food", where they must use correct pronunciation or I pretend not to understand them. These are two examples.

I don't have a problem playing games in class but I draw the line at using them in order to keep the students happy and smiling and awake. 

If I have already earned their respect they should be alert and wanting to learn and I like to think that I can do this in an interesting way without having to treat them like little children (which already happens in so many of their other classes) by playing games.

Games can reinforce what has been taught earlier in a lesson and can be used as a filler or as a reward for good work. But to expect foreign English teachers to spend the majority of their time entertaining students, especially adults, is, to me, just not right.

Tony Mitchell


I think it depends on your definition of 'game'. Is a cocktail party-type exercise a game or an activity? The bottom line for me is what proportion of the classtime is student talk time and how much is teacher talk?
Situations where students talk to each other and the teacher circulates to encourage and monitor are best.

By Rob Harris, New Zealand (6th June 2019)

I thought the article raises a really important point. Most English kids don't play games to learn their own language, though it might happen? English kids going to France to live, take 6 - 12 months to assimilate enough language to join mainstream classes in State Education? Furthermore look at how many countries have been teaching language like English for ten years or more without any reasonable success given the time involved?

The point here is that games can be an easy way out for a teacher but how relevant are games to real learning, rather than perhaps, if they are relevant, reinforcing what has already been learned. Teachers need to evaluate this for themselves and whether they want to teach or to just take the money and have a nice time. (There is a point in between too?)

By Shay, Spain (22nd May 2018)

Ha, ha, Tony, look at all the detractors coming out of the woodwork. You must have hit a sensitive spot.

Just wanted to point out to you a couple more salient facts to make you feel better. It is basically a bit of argument to the effect that the reaction to your integrity will depend greatly on the pond in which you swim.

Thailand offers an abysmal teaching salary, and there is virtually nothing in place in the way of hiring standards. For example, a decent foreign language institute in a developed country would prefer you to be bilingual; possess qualifications in the field of education, and specifically English language education; to be published in the field and/or possessed of a quality teaching portfolio (which includes a consistent record of positive faculty and student evaluations); and to be generally an erudite and eloquent person. In many institutions the full set of attributes is required. (Should I mention also not faintly smelling of whiskey and tobacco, having just a little vitality, and wearing an ironed shirt?)

In Thailand you just walk in the door. There are many unqualified, inexperienced, and - because a teaching visa is one way to stay in Thailand to live a debauched lifestyle, and because teaching is one way for foreigners to actually legally make a living, if they married a Thai wife or something - embittered (because they do not really want to teach, and because it never works out too well for them) so-called 'educators' frequenting this moat.

Of course games are their raison d'etre, for reasons mentioned by myself and Phil already. Of course to challenge their perspective will give rise to attempts to shout you down, on whatever grounds they can rustle up (yawn). Including personal attacks to the effect that you are 'puffed up', anti-intellectualism is a common response, because they find such solidarity in the bottom of their bucket. Many Thais will support them too, for obvious reasons.

Mate, in any decent context, I can absolutely assure you, your reservations about games and copying are the order of the day. When you tire of the people dragging Thailand down dragging you down, just apply for a job somewhere where the hirer and firer actually has a higher degree in English language education, and you will find everyone around you singing to a very different tune. The Thais will wise up, they are getting smarter all the time.

I guess this is where we have to listen to whatever indignant support people who have been cast in a negative light by this page always trot out in favour of reneging on academic standards (double yawn). So glad I do not have to meet them.

By Chris, Somewhere (2nd December 2013)

If a potential employer has already said that he expects you to use games in the classroom then you'd better do it.

Too many teachers come here taking themselves and their puffed up sense of importance way too seriously.

I'd say that playing games in the classroom are an essential part of the learning process for almost every type of student in Thailand.

So why don't we play games in science and math. you ask?

Lots of reasons... both science and math are structured and logically progressive subjects that can more easily be learned through simply paying attention. Simply put: these subjects don't lend themselves well to classroom games.

English, on the other hand, is fraught with difficulties and inconsistencies that clever game playing scenarios can often resolve.

They also offer light relief after a period of intense study.

I think you'd better get with the program, here in Thailand... lighten up and start doing things the way your employers want yo to do them, rather than how you think they should be done.

That is, if you want to keep your job... and most of all, your sanity!

By Mark Newman, LOS (1st December 2013)

Children learn language from the playground. Teachers who come to Thailand to be 'serious' about grammar lectures would be better off staying in their home countries. If you want to be employed, you must accept that the 'sanook' factor is an undeniable part of Thai culture in education and work.

By Guy, Bkk (29th November 2013)

You can teach the way your employer wants, or you can find a new job.

By Jack, Back at home :) (27th November 2013)

I really like your articles Tony. I reckon you cut straight to some very important issues. And I like Phil's response here too.

This is something I have thought about much myself. The line between games and activities is recognized in theory to be a blurred one. Papers have been written about this. Although it is easy to give examples that sit at the poles.

For my own part, games are fine as long as they conform to the principles of course design. That is, they are the right kind of task, or activity, if they are the best way to expedite the learning of the targeted skill or knowledge, in the context of the curriculum and setting.

For example, if we are setting out to give students an introduction to the meaning of key words they will require in a listening activity, many kinds of games meet that definition. Some I use myself at university include, after we do the 'match words to meaning' bookwork in the course book, getting someone to act out the meaning of a word, or draw a picture on the board. Other students guess which word it is.

Or maybe I make teams, and cover up some interesting image showing the meaning of the word with some dissolving segments on a PPT slide, which I can use to expose the image one small piece at a time. They can compete to guess which word it is for a point. A slow wipe from left to right equally does the job.

But when you renege on systematic, structured, research-driven methods of instruction; and skip the more energy intensive skills like reading, and writing, and dictionary work, and serious thinking and discussion; and skip essential but perhaps less compelling topics - when you renege on the development of higher order, critical thinking skills, or those in the upper echelons of Bloom's taxonomy, and on the development of students' abilities to produce the 'long turn' - in favour of exclusively sing-alongs, and inane games, offered as an unstructured hotpotch of activities (the kind of things hastily swapped by inexperienced or incompetent teachers ten minutes before lessons in the staffroom in lieu of using a reputable text)...well, then we are in the inexcusably shallow end of the intellectual pool. Welcome to the world of 'edutainment'.

Many educators in developing countries lack sufficient grasp of the rationale of contemporary language teaching pedagogy, as I mentioned in another comment here recently, to be able to get students who are very unwilling and unable to engage with decent methods of education to embrace them. Their only resort is to use magic tricks, clown suits and puffs of smoke to give their classrooms some semblance of normality by having students at least look their way. This is why they are so besotted with dumb-ass games. It was a national ethos in Korea, for example, until very recently - they are wising up now - that the 'best' way to teach was with games. Sure - if you want the students to end up brainless.

They do not know how to get the students involved in serious, or more cognitively demanding and energy intensive, but ultimately more fruitful types of learning in a way that culminates in student appreciation of genuine development of their intellects. Fat chance, 55, of getting them to admit to it, or of them appreciating someone who can, because in the same kinds of cultures you find these people educators are not inclined to be self-critical.

Keep up the good work, old cheese, I look forward to reading further.

By Chris, Somewhere (27th November 2013)

"Studies show almost every language student retains knowledge better by learning it through playing games. Only someone who isn’t a fully qualified teacher would think otherwise. Unfortunately, that’s most ‘teachers’ in Thailand"

Are those comments aimed at the blog writer because if you go back and read it again, you'll see that he does play games in the classroom - just not all the time and not as a way of keeping students happy (otherwise known as 'winging it')

By philip, (27th November 2013)

Studies show almost every language student retains knowledge better by learning it through playing games. Only someone who isn't a fully qualified teacher would think otherwise. Unfortunately, that's most 'teachers' in Thailand.

By rachel, (27th November 2013)

Good topic Tony.

I was taught very early on in my teaching career never to refer to games as 'games' - they're 'language learning activities'. If you've got a classroom full of students bouncing up and down on a Friday afternoon, all shouting "teacher play game! teacher play game!", you're building a rod for your own back.

It's even worse for the teacher who mainly teaches adult students because I've seen 'teacher plays too many games" written on many a student feedback form. Had the teacher told the class "Ok everyone, lets have a language learning activity to supplement and reinforce what we've learned today" (or words to that effect) a completely different scenario would have unfolded.

Whenever I've taught at private language schools, there has always been a well-thumbed copy of '101 Communication Games' (or something similar) in the teacher resources box. And out of those 101 games, ooops sorry - language learning activities, there would always be half a dozen gems that would go down well with any class. However, books like 101 Communication Games are often the last-ditch crutch for the weary, hungover teacher who never bothers to prepare and is just 'going through the motions'

I agree with much of what you say in your article. Just because an interviewer bemoans the fact that you didn't play any games, doesn't make them right and you wrong. In fact, it would probably be a good indication that you should just walk away from the job offer.

And yes, games should NOT be used just to keep students happy. I totally agree. There's a time and a place for them.

By philip, (27th November 2013)

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