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Books del Sur curates Latin America Spanish-language literature to support dual language curriculum.
Books del Sur curates Latin America Spanish-language literature to support dual language curriculum.
close up image of child's fingers on keyboard

Playing with Language: Using Games with ELLs

This article was originally published in the WIDA Focus on Technology Bulletin released October Close up photo of a child's fingers on a keyboard2014.  See the entire bulletin with more amazing articles at: . 


Educators and academics have described my ELL and bilingual students as having an opportunity gap and/or a lack of vocabulary. And as a bilingual person, I recognize that our classroom curriculum and resources are extremely culturally biased. In response, I employ a constructivist pedagogy where meaning is generated through the intersection of activities and experiences. My goal is to create a learning environment where my students can bring their own experiences to their learning, and connect to content and language development in ways that make sense to them.

After many years of being overwhelmed by this task and after many conversations with my colleagues, we concluded that our English Language Learners needed more of what our students of dominant learning culture were getting—opportunities to connect new content and language to activity in engaging and meaningful ways. One of our realizations was that incorporating virtual games in our instruction could be a powerful approach for doing this, by bridging content and language in situations where the use of language has immediate implications in their game world activities.

Virtual gaming supports “best practices for ELLs” because it provides them with concrete experiences similar to field trips and much deeper experiences than using objects and pictures, which is a traditional and more limited ESL best practice. In our school-wide survey where nearly half of our students are ELLs, we found that almost all students had favorite games or apps and most were games that took place in a virtual world.

Games were already a part of their kid culture. I was inspired to try using a virtual world game with my students to support both content learning and academic language development. I thought that by carefully selecting games that connect the life-worlds of our students with targeted language and learning goals, we would be able to support learning in more engaging and dynamic ways.

My first game-based learning attempt took place in my weekly 1-hour heterogeneous (ELLs and non-ELLs) technology class. Because our students are already comfortable in various game worlds, this eliminated our need for pre-teaching how to play games, and we could just start playing.  However, we wanted to ensure that the gameplay was actually developing vocabulary and understanding of concepts, so we paired it with explicit vocabulary instruction and small group discussions.

During a class period, I started with explicit instruction of game mechanics and vocabulary, students would play, and then we would discuss as a whole class. Based on that first year of gaming experience, I have come up with the following guidelines for structuring learning activities that incorporate games:

  • Structure play and discussions in smaller chunks.  Originally the gameplay lasted between 20-25 minutes, and this was too long. Often students were at very different parts of the game, so it was challenging to harness the game actions and vocabulary necessary during a discussion that kept the students’ attention.
  • Seamlessly incorporate games into classroom practice.  This led to more connected learning of the content as well as the ability to have smaller group discussions.  Because I only worked with the students weekly, the classroom teacher would extend the targeted language and conversations, and therefore had a better understanding of vocabulary needs.
  • While all students can play regardless of language level, knowledge of target content and language may be minimal without explicit instruction.  When our class played Citizen Science, a virtual world game, my newcomer student from Nepal could advance through the game until he was faced with an argument (the assessment activity within the game).  This is where I needed to scaffold the dialog through explicit instruction such as “this man” is a “limnologist”.
  • External supports and activity fit into my own ecology of games and help me expand the student ecology of games. I was able to maintain my sanity using a game in the classroom because I had a guide that included game dialogue and essential vocabulary.  Using these tools, our class created “cheat guides” which helped frontload key vocabulary that they would encounter during gameplay. When I tried to include other games in my teaching, like i-Civics: Win the Whitehouse, I was unable to manage it for my broad group of students, even though the content was strong. I found the deep dive tools for game content were important for me to support my students. In games without such tools, I became overwhelmed by capturing the dialogue using screenshots, and did not have enough prep time (or evenings) to tackle it to the depth needed. This is where teacher communities can be helpful in creating supports to use games for diverse student groups.

This past year, I incorporated virtual games into my instruction in a different way.  I used them during “intervention” time with ELL students.  I had a small group of students that I worked with daily for 30 minutes.  While pulled out from their regular classroom, I selected games and literacy activities related to the topics covered during reading, science, or social studies.  This model addressed the smaller chunks issue mentioned above.  I was able to meet the students’ needs better because I worked with them daily, I had a better handle on their academic skills, and our discussions allowed me to better assess the students content understanding. However, because it was a pull-out model, I had limited insight into how much this impacted their participation in the classwork related to the topic.

Next year, I’m looking forward to collaborating with classroom teachers so that I can bridge my two models.  It would be ideal for all the students to be playing the same game while pulling small groups of students for targeted vocabulary discussion, and connecting the big ideas to the content they are learning in their reading groups, science, or social studies class. It’s amazing to think about how much using games has helped me level the playing field for my students. I’m struck by a memory of my first year teaching in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I was introducing a new topic to my bilingual sixth-grade science students. The structured lesson plans stated that first I needed to build or connect with my students’ background. I assumed that since our school was less than 3 miles from Lake Michigan, my students would have the background of the lake. What seemed to be an obvious connection to prior knowledge proved to be otherwise in the life-worlds of some of my students.

While that was just the first of many hundreds, possibly thousands of false assumptions I’ve inadvertently made about my students’ background knowledge, my goal in teaching linguistically and culturally diverse students has been to find creative ways to level the playing field.  Over the years I’ve found that using games critically and carefully in my curriculum has helped me do just that.

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