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Grammar games with students’ total physical involvement by Jerry Thekes

In this article, I will present the description of three grammar games, which will be described. By grammar game, I mean an entertaining activity involving learners in order for them to comfortably acquire the grammar point. I will try to argue for the importance of teaching grammar through fun.          

Constant explanation of grammar rules and decontextualizing grammar are quick ways for the teacher to demotivate their students and unfortunately a lot of non-native EFL teachers still fall into the comfortable trap of presenting grammar through rules, as they saw it done to them when they studied a foreign language. This fact is supported by Xiao-Yun (2010) who asserts that “traditional grammar teaching is often associated with the dry memorization of rules and the equally dry prospect of applying these rules in fill-in-the-blank, pattern practice, substitution transformation, and translation, which cause negative feelings”. Further support of this opinion comes from Krashen (1987), according to whom “language acquisition does not require extensive use of conscious grammatical rules, and does not require tedious drill.”

Throughout this article, I will use the terminology ‘grammar McNugget’, which will stand for the particular grammar points. This denomination comes from Thornbury (2010), who says that:

an enthusiasm for compartmentalization, inherited from grammars of classical languages, has given rise to the elaborate architecture of the so-called tense system – including such grammar McNuggets as the future-in-the-past, and the past perfect continuous, not to mention the conditionals, first, second and third – features of the language that have little or no linguistic, let alone psychological, reality.

As I give a description of games, I will indicate the grammar McNugget that the teacher is supposed to teach with that particular game. Thornbury’s notion of grammar McNugget is also supported by Michael Swan (1985, 76) who posits that:

the role of ‘grammar’ in language courses is often discussed as if ‘grammar’ were one homogeneous kind of thing. In fact, ‘grammar’ is an umbrella term for a large number of separate or loosely related language systems, which are so varied in nature that it is pointless to talk as if they should all be approached in the same way. How we integrate the teaching of structure and meaning will depend to a great extent on the particular language items involved.

The teaching of three grammar points, these loosely related language systems, will be presented in this article.

I believe grammar games such as the ones described here assure that the learners are entertained and get involved in acquiring the new grammar McNugget. Richard-Amato (1988) also supports the view of a relaxed classroom atmosphere by stating that “it appears that a lowered anxiety level is related to proficiency in the target language.” The ‘Scales’, the ‘Post-it tags’, and the ‘Swatch’ games – the ones described below – are a key to achieving a lowered anxiety level.

Making language teaching and the teaching of grammar game-like is of crucial importance so as to keep students interested and to create a relaxed atmosphere. Hadfield (1992) says that “affective activities aim to create a positive and supportive group atmosphere in a non-explicit way”. As it will be seen, the below-described grammar games are aimed at creating a positive and supportive atmosphere. The notion of making the lesson game-like is also asserted by Rinvolucri (1995, 5):

Grammar is perhaps so serious and central in learning another language that all ways should be searched for which will focus student energy on the task of mastering and internalizing it. One way of focusing this energy is through the release offered by games.

Games not only engage students’ interest in the TEFL classroom but they also keep them involved. As Rosenberg (2009, 10) asserts we should “focus on the students in the classroom, on keeping them involved, on having them doing and producing rather than passively receiving information”. By involving the students in grammar games, the teacher can achieve his/her goal of having the learners acquire the grammar McNugget taught in the particular lesson.

It is vital that the teacher will have the learners move and supply them with plenty of visual stimulus. Using visuals is an effective vehicle to entertain and de-stress them as they are acquiring certain grammatical skills. Wright and Haleem (1991) emphasize the need that students move in the classroom by stating that the physical manipulation of the lessons can contribute enormously to an understanding of sentence construction.  In both the ‘Post-it tags’ and the ‘Swatch’ game learners are physically manipulated. Teaching grammar in EFL lessons is important but not in spite of trying to be communicative but exactly because of it. I agree with Alexander (1994), who says that “in our eagerness to get our students to communicate, we frequently try to sweep grammar under the carpet… Grammar is being taught again not despite but because of the communicative revolution.” This statement is reinforced by Tarone and Yule (1996) who explanatorily say that “developing this grammatical competence, it should be remembered, is in many respects the major goal of large numbers of students who take courses in a second or foreign language. Moreover, it has never really been seriously suggested that any language learner can become proficient in a language without developing a certain level of grammatical competence”.

As it will be seen, pictures play a vital role in the described grammar games. A number of TEFL professionals have called for the use of pictures as a powerful source in the elicitation process. By elicitation, I mean that the teacher prompts and motivates the learners to create meaningful acts of speech. Mumford (2008, 40) for example affirms that “all teachers have access to pictures, however, and these can be a quick and easy way to bring other places and other people into the class. With imagination, pictures can be an extremely flexible resource.” This statement rhymes well with Ur (1991) who posits that: “it is very much easier to concentrate on thinking about something if you can see that something, or at least see some depicted or symbolic representation of it. Learners…who are asked to discuss or listen to something without any visual focus often find their attention wandering.” With lively grammar games, I am trying to avoid students’ attention wandering. The grammar games in the article involve a lot of visuals and realia. Mumford’s and Ur’s arguments are reinforced by Wright, Betteridge and Buckby (2009) who posit that games with pictures involve the learners. They also find visualization important when grammar is presented and taught to EFL learners.

Making language teaching and the teaching of grammar game-like is of crucial importance so as to keep students interested and to create a relaxed atmosphere. Franciosi (2010, 1) also argues for the need of making TEFL classrooms more game-like. Hadfield says that “affective activities aim to create a positive and supportive group atmosphere in a non-explicit way” (Hadfield 1992). As it will be seen, the below-described grammar games are aimed at creating a positive and supportive atmosphere. The notion of making the lesson game-like is also asserted by Rinvolucri (1995): “Games are often associated with fun. Games can lower anxiety, thus making the acquisition of input more likely. They are highly motivating, relevant, interesting and comprehensible.” Games not only engage students’ interest in the TEFL classroom but they also keep them involved. Richards (1987) also condemns the explicit way of grammar teaching as he declares that “focus on grammar in itself is not a valid approach to the development of language proficiency…grammatical skills are thus seen as a component of language proficiency rather than as an end in itself.”

Now the three games are presented and their procedures are described.



Grammar McNugget: comparative adjectives

Level: elementary

Material: pictures, slips of cards, a balance scale, bluetack


Prior to the lesson, the teacher puts a set of scales onto one of the tables. This set needs to be a balance scale and not a digital one. Previously, the teacher has prepared for the lesson with pairs of pictures of objects and people to be easily compared, for example a rocket and a snail; a giant and a dwarf; Mont Blanc and a hill, etc. They have also had to choose adjectives for the students to use, as they will have to compare two things or persons. These adjectives are ’fast’, ’big’, ’high’, etc and are printed on slips of paper.

Before the activity starts, the teacher engages the learners with an easy but necessary game. Two envelopes are stuck on the wall with bluetack. On one envelope there is a picture of a snake, on the other, there is that of a baby shoe. The snake illustrates long, multi-syllabic adjectives whereas the baby shoe denotes short, monosyllabic adjectives. The teacher divides the class into two groups and randomly gives them adjectives on slips of papers such as ‘fat’, ‘interesting’, heavy’, etc. The groups have to decide whether the adjective is long or short and correspondingly place the slips of paper into either of the envelopes.

Once it is done, the teacher presents how these adjectives have to be used in the comparative form by saying sample sentences. Following this presentation, everybody in the class is given pictures of objects and people. They are then instructed to find a matching pair from the pile of pictures that are put on one of the tables in the classroom. The student that has the picture of a Ferrari for example needs to find that of an old Lada.

When every student has a set of two pictures to be compared, the teacher presents the activity. They stick a slip of paper with an adjective written on it in the middle of the scales and they put one picture into one pan of the scales and another into the other pan. What the students see now is for example the adjective ‘fast’ stuck on the scales and an image of a rocket in the left pan and that of a snail in the right pan. The teacher deliberately pushes down the left pan so as to indicate the difference and says: ‘A rocket is faster than a snail.’

Having done this presentation, the teacher has the students take turns in sticking one adjective on the scales and putting two images into the two pans. An example could be ‘giant’, ‘dwarf’, ‘tall’. The student has to stick ‘tall’ on the balance scales and put the two images into either of the pans, then push down the one with the giant in it and produce the sentence: ‘The giant is taller than the dwarf’. Thus the teacher uses the balance scales in order  for the students’ associative skill to be exploited. This way as I have cited earlier, Rinvolucri’s (1995) aim of releasing stress offered through games is achieved.



Post-it tags

Grammar McNugget: going to

Level: elementary

Material: post it tags


Before the lesson, the teacher sticks post-it tags onto each chair and table in the room. On the tags a lot of things to do are written such as ‘fax to the bank’, ‘email the safety manager’, ‘book a restaurant table for a meeting’, etc. The teacher has to make sure there are a plenty of these tags.

Prior to the activity, the teacher presents how the ‘going to’ future is formed by saying example sentences: ‘I am going to send a fax to the bank’, ‘I’m going to email the safety manager’ etc. After the presentation, the teacher tells the class that the classroom is an office of a medium-size company and the post-it tags are reminders for the staff (the students) to take care of assignments and tasks.

Students are put in pairs; one member of the pair is the superior, the other is an employee at the company. The superior member has to ask questions to the employee as to what they are going to do. The employee-student has to pick a post-it tag and answer the question.

As Ur (1991) has argued for the need of the students seeing the thing they are concentrating on. In this activity they not only see it but are physically involved as well.


Grammar McNugget: telling the time in correct English

Level: beginner

Material: 1-12 numbers on pieces of paper, pictures of a short and a long hand of the watch


As an engaging activity the teacher presents the way of telling the time in English with the help of a toy clock. The below-described ‘Swatch’ game follows this presentation in order for the students to be activated in telling the time.

The teacher puts the numbers from 1 to 12 printed on A4 papers in a round shape in a formation equivalent to that on a watch or clock. Two students are given the roles of being the hands of the watch. The teacher sticks the picture of a short hand on one of the students and sticks that of a long hand on another. The learners stand in the middle initially. Then they are instructed to move inside the circle as they wish.

They have three seconds to do that. After this period of time, the teacher tells them to stop. Wherever they stand they always show a particular time, which one student has to tell. If the ‘short hand’ student stands with the pointer pointing at three and the ‘long hand’ student points at 10 minutes then it is 10 minutes past 3. It is a physically involving activity and students enjoy it very much. As Rosenberg (2009) has argued, the learners are again physically involved in learning the new structure.


In the first section of this paper I have tried to find assertions, views and notions supporting the concept of the importance of teaching grammar through games. I have cited Krashen, who contemns the conscious teaching of grammar rules. I have also used Swan’s view, according to whom grammar is only an umbrella term and every point has to be approached in a different way when teaching them is at issue. I have found Thronbury’s notion of grammar inevitable in this article. Through the description of three grammar McNuggets I have intended to prove that teaching grammar with fun and games is crucial in the facilitating process of teaching the EFL learners. The ‘Scales’ game has been aimed at showing that any type of realia can be used for the sake of transferring a message to make it comprehensible. The ‘Post-it tags’ game has been targeted at showing that students acquire grammar easier once they are in motion. The purpose of ‘Swatch’ game has been to substantiate that the kinesthetic intelligence of the learners can be exploited.




Alexander, Louis (1994) ‘Grammar in the Classroom’ in Bower, R; (Ed) Applied Linguistics and Language Teaching. London: British Council

Franciosi, Stephan J. (2010) ‘Making ESL/TEFL Classroom Activities More Game-Like.’ The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XVI, No. 2, February/2010  pp.1-5

Hadfield, Jill (1992) Classroom Dynamics. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Krashen, Stephen (1987) Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. New Jersey: Prentice Hall

Krashen, Stephen D. (1982) Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. New York: Pergamon

Mumford, Simon (2008) ‘Picture This!’ Modern English Teacher Vol 17 No 2 pp. 40-42

Rinvolucri, Mario (1995) Grammar Game. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Richards, Jack C. (1987) The Context of Language Teaching Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Richard-Amato, Patricia. 1988. Making it Happen. New York: Longman 

Rinvolucri, Mario (1995) Grammar Games. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Rosenberg, Rick (2009)  ’Tools for Activating Materials and Tasks in the English Language Classroom’  English Teaching Forum Number 4 2009 pp. 2-11

Swan, Michael (1985) ‘A Critical Look at the Communicative Approach.’ ELT Journal Volume 39/2 April 1985 pp. 76-87

Tarone, Elaine; Yule, George. ( 1996) Focus on the Language Learner Oxford: Oxford University Press

Thornbury, Scott  (2010) ‘G is for Grammar MacNugget.’ Cited from http://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2010/09/18/g-is-for-grammar-mcnuggets/

Ur, Penny (1991) Grammar Practice Activities A Practical Guide for Teachers Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Wright, Andrew; Haleem, Safia (1991)Visuals for the Language Classroom. London: Longman

Wright, Andrew; Betteridge, David; Buckby, Michael (2009) Games for Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Xiao-Yun, Yan (2010) ‘Interactive grammar teaching’ Modern English Teacher Volume 17No. 3 p 34-37

Author’s Bio:
Jerry Istvan Thekes has an M.Ed. TESOL from the University of Szeged in English, an M.A. in Italian linguistics and a B.A. in TESOL from Southwest Baptist University (Bolivar, Missouri, USA). He has his TEFL Certificate from TEFL International Barcelona and is currently doing his PhD in Applied Linguistics. His teaching and teacher-trainer experience spans 10 years in Hungary. He has been teaching, training teachers, developing course material and writing course-books for IFF Language Academy in Hungary for a decade. His fields of interest include teaching grammar, second language acquisition and the history of language teaching methodology.

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