Free Online Games Develop ESL Students' Language Skills

from Educators' eZine

You have to collect all the crystal to win.
You need to collect the flag to win.
You have to collect all four crystals to win.
You have to eat all the crystals then you win.

What in the world are these very recent immigrants in my high school ESL class writing about?

They are giving instructions on how to play online video games they designed in minutes on Sploder, a free website where students can quickly create a game, play others that have been designed by their peers in the class, write online comments about what they thought of them, and discuss their experiences with each other.

This is just one way I use online video games with my students as a language development activity. Books, dissertations, and scholarly papers have discussed the supposed benefits, and also the negative consequences, that video games offer our young people today. I don't pretend to understand all that is written about the topic, nor do I read much of it. I'm just always interested in exploring new ways to engage students in English language learning activities that are easy to maneuver, engaging to do, and promote face-to-face conversation.

There are many online games that offer educational activities. In my earlier article for this site, entitled "Playing Around: Favorite Educational Games Site", I wrote about my favorite sites for these types of games.

This article, however, for the most part will talk about using the means of playing free online video games that are primarily designed for entertainment purposes towards an end of English-language development.

The online games that I use with my students fall into several categories – escape the room, adventure, choose your own adventure, and hidden object. However, not all games that are labeled with those descriptions provide good language development experiences, and I have additional criteria. One, they must be both free and online but not require any downloading, as this can be problematic for school computers. Two, they must have no sexual content and, if there is any violence, in my judgment it's at a level appropriate for teenagers. Lastly, the games must have a fair amount of English text shown and, ideally, spoken in the course of the game.

In Escape the Room games, players have to….escape a room, obviously! Players virtually role-play being locked in a room, building, or house, and have to "point-and-click" on various objects to identify and collect clues they can use to escape. These are good vehicles in which to develop vocabulary. For example, clicking on a chair might result in a dialogue box saying, "This is a chair. It looks old." Some of these games include: The Bonte Room 1 and The Bonte Room 2 . I have links to these games, and to many others in other genres, on my website under "Word Games & Video Games".

Adventure games are similar in many ways to Escape The Room, except there are often other characters with whom to "talk" and the locales range from cities to Pacific islands. Again, you generally have to collect clues or "objects" that you can use to reach the end of the game. These kinds of games, all accessible to English Language Learners, may be simple, like Phantasy Quest, or sophisticated. How sophisticated? Well, The Sancho's Island is a game based on Cervantes' Don Quixote and Kafkamesto, believe it or not, follows the life of Franz Kafka. Some adventure games are bilingual. For example, the Esklavos series has English text and Spanish audio.

Even though some English language development can occur when students play these kinds of games alone, the benefits are increased immeasurably when students work as partners figuring out how to solve these "puzzles." All of these games have step-by-step instructions available on how to "beat" them, called "walkthroughs." I provide copies of these walkthroughs to each pair, and they read the English directions, read what comes up on the screen, and speak together in English – assuming their native languages are different, something I try to arrange for when pairing-up students. In reality, during the course of these computer lab visits, everybody ends up helping everybody else. Developing this kind of "community of learners" is central to our classroom life as well as our time in the computer lab.

I certainly wouldn't be able to reach the end of any of these games without walkthroughs, probably because the last video game I played for entertainment was Pong! Sometimes, though, students have been able to write their own walkthroughs. I'm also looking forward to next year trying out a brand-new free-and-easy web application called Screencast-O-Matic that will allow students to create their own screencast, with audio, playing the game and saying the walkthrough. These screencasts will then be hosted on the site and available to others. They're basically audio-narrated tours of what people see on the computer screen, and are generally used for computer tutorials.

Choose Your Own Adventure games are narratives that periodically stop the action to enable the player to make a choice of what happens next, similar in many ways to the Goosebumps books. These kinds of games can be just for fun, like Ghost Motel where ghosts and other strange characters live, or can be designed to teach. The Negotiator, for example, helps teach the player how to constructively resolve conflicts. There are several uses of this kind of game to teach history, too. National Geographic's Lewis and Clark Adventure put players into the mindset of a member of that expedition.

In Hidden Object games, players identify….hidden objects. These are similar to the popular "I Spy" books, and are good for vocabulary development. These games include Hide and Secret and Scholastic's I Spy. Scholastic's games are particularly good since they also have audio.

Another genre of games is called Interactive Fiction or Text Adventure. These games are typically all text. A short scenario appears, and then the player types out simple commands – walk south, talk, etc. Then the results appear on the screen in text, and the player once again has to decide what to do next. It's like a Choose Your Own Adventure game without the visual support and the player has to actually write the choices. Zork is a well-know text adventure. This kind of game is primarily workable for only advanced English Language Learners, though there are a few Interactive Fiction hybrids that show animation as well as text, such as Peasant's Quest.

A problem may arise with accessing some of these games because of school district content filters. I have two primary ways to solve that problem. The opening credits of a game usually identify the name of the original game developer. If the district filter is blocking the game site that I found hosting the game, I can often locate the developer's home site, which is, more often than not, available through the filter and generally also has the game. The other way, of course, is just asking the district's tech department to unblock the site.

I locate these games through several sites that regularly review new online video games. These include Jay Is Games, Escape The Room, and Channel 4 Adventure Games. Jay Is Games offers a good selection of games with thoughtful commentary. Escape the Room provides large quantities of games. But I find Channel 4 to have the best new games that fit my criteria consistently. I regularly review appropriate games for English Language Learners in my blog, Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day for Teaching ELL, ESL, and EFL, as well.

In addition to playing games, students can create online video games. I began the article giving examples from Sploder. There are not free browser-based applications to create more sophisticated ones online….yet. But with the Web 2.0 explosion, I'm sure that will change in the near future. There are a number of software programs you can download for free or minimal cost that can be used to design, fairly easily, more ambitious games; three such are Game Maker, Quest, and Scratch. To be honest, however, that just requires too much effort on my part for what I hope to accomplish.

And what do I hope to accomplish? My goals are simple. I want one more tool in my toolbox that I can use now and then to help English Language Learners develop their English skills. And in a way they can use technology to not just create a relationship with the computer screen, but also develop and deepen the relationships they have with each other.

For additional ideas on how to use video games for English language development, readers should review the article "Adapting Online Computer Games To The Online EFL Classroom" by Graham Stanley and Kyle Mawer, two ESL teachers who have experimented in this field.

Larry Ferlazzo teaches English and Social Studies to English Language Learners at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California. He is the Grand Prize winner of the 2007 International Reading Association Presidential Award for Reading and Technology.