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Learning English through play

Play is one of the things that comes most naturally to a child and that all children are inevitably good at. It is through play that children learn more about the world around them in a safe and controlled environment, whilst simultaneously developing the social skills that they so urgently need to become future active global citizens. Play allows children to practise interacting with others in order to respect the rules of the game they are playing. Furthermore, in the case of games that involve physical actions or movement, children are led to develop their physical coordination or psychomotor skills as they play a game. All in all, regardless of the nature of the game, games and play help to develop children’s concentration and memory skills. Carol Read considers that games can provide a sturdy bridge between the home and school environment. In the case of the EFL classroom Read stresses that, “through games and directed play (as opposed to free play), children can be given initial opportunities to recognise and respond to language non-verbally. They can also produce chunks of language, in contexts which require enjoyable repetition, and which draw them into using English in a natural and spontaneous way.” Thus, games and directed play are inevitably essential tools in any teacher’s toolkit.

In this blog post, we will be looking at various directed play opportunities and games that can be used to open students learning gates to reading in English and acquiring language in a natural stress-free manner. For practical organisational purposes, we will organise the post into three subsections. We will begin by suggestion a few fun directed play vocabulary activities that engage children and allow them to pick up and internalise the target language/vocabulary in the story they are going to read naturally and effortlessly. Next, we will move on to suggest how you can empower children and encourage them to create games for their peers about a story they have read. Finally, we will end by looking at how we can create creative learning opportunities that allow children to play whilst developing their imaginative and creative skills in order to create a learning product which they can share with others.

  1. Playing with vocabulary

    A great way to broaden children’s active vocabulary is to play vocabulary games. Flash card games are an all-time favourite in the YL classroom.

    a. Flashcard games:

    Go online www.ladybirdeducation.co.uk and quickly download the free flashcards for the reader that you are using. You are now ready to play some fun low preparation flashcard games like a Kim’s game, Spin the bottle or  Over and Under to name just a few. Kim’s game: Display the flashcards on the board. Point to and drill each word in the order they appear on the board. Remember to repeat the previous words before you drill a new word. When the children know the words, gradually turn a flashcard over. Repeat the memory drilling exercise until all the flashcards have been turned over and the children can remember the words by heart.

    Spin the bottle: Get the children to sit in a circle. Place the flashcards on the floor in a circle in the centre. Place a bottle in the centre of the flash cards. Spin the bottle and get the children to say the word that the bottle top is pointing to. Invite a child to come up and continue the game until each child has had a go.

    Over and under: Prepare two sets of flashcards. Divide and line the children in two teams. Give the child in front a flashcard. The child has to say the word and pass the flashcard over his/her head to the next child without turning back. The next child says the word and passes the flashcard through his/her legs to the next child. Repeat until the last child gets the flashcard. This child has to run up to you and say the word correctly and then go back to the front of the line. The first child to correctly say the word gets a point. The team with the highest number of points wins.

    For more ideas for flashcard games simply do a quick Google search.

    b. The Vocabulary fly squatter game:

    The Ladybird readers have a very colourful and appealing picture words page at the beginning of each reader to expose the children to the target vocabulary in the story and to guarantee a stress-free reading experience. On this page the children can listen to the audio, which can be downloaded free of charge at www.ladybirdeducation.co.uk in British or American English and learn how to correctly pronounce the target words from the outset. This page can then be used to play a fun vocabulary fly squatter game that involves the whole class and encourages children to memorise the target vocabulary on the page before they begin reading.


    1. Go online to www.ladybirdeducation.co.uk and unlock the reader you are reading so that you have access to the picture words page of the reader you are using.
    2. Divide the class into two teams. Choose a representative for each team to come up to the board and play the game.
    3. Choose a judge for each player. The judges’ role is to count the number of correct squats for each player.
    4. Project the picture words page that you have access to online (Step 1).

    Level 1: Anansi the Spider (Fiction)
    Level 3: Ice Worlds (Non-fiction BBC Earth)

    5. Give each child a fly squatter. Say a word and the children have to squat the image of the word you say. Repeat a few times. Then invite the class to help you and shout out words for the players to squat. Choose one word and repeat it so that the players know which word to squat. Keep the words flowing with the children’s help. Stress that the players should only squat the words that you say rather than the words that are being shouted out. Change players every so often to include as many children as possible in the game. To make the game more challenging gradually increase the speed that you say the words. The team with the highest score wins.

  2. Games that children create themselves:

    Teaching Young Learners implies teaching the whole child rather than simple teaching English. This means that one of our missions as teachers is to promote responsibility skills. An easy and creative way to do this is to challenge the children to make a reading word search for their class mates. To do this simply follow the following steps:

    1. Create a blank word search template of 12-16 by 12-16 squares.
    2. Below the word search create a list of 1-10 for the children to write 10 sentences from their reader: Ask the children to choose 10 words they like in their reader. In their notebooks, get them to write the sentence that this word appears in the reader and underline the word they liked in each sentence.
    3. Ask the children to hide the underlined words in their notebooks in the word search.
    4. Next, get the children to write the ten sentences in their notebooks in the space provided below the word search but to draw a blank line/space instead of writing the underlined word.
    5. When the word searches are ready, encourage the children to swop and solve each other’s word searches. You can also get the children to give each other feedback about the word searches they have solved by drawing a feedback smiley face in the right bottom hand corner.
  3. Directed play to create reading product: 

    A fun way to play with the story that the children have read is to role play it a few times with the flashcards. Then, you can challenge the children to move on to the next level and prepare a  play of the story, which you can download for free at: www.ladybirdeducation.co.uk. Once the children have rehearsed and are confident about their performance, create a theatre afternoon in which they perform their plays for other classes at school. Alternatively, transform the activity into an evening theatre performance for the children’s’ family and friend to experience the magic of reading and play in the classroom.  

    Level 2: Peppa Pig Playing Football (Fiction)

As Maria Montessori so clearly puts it: “Play is the work of the child.” So, why not begin the academic year by reading and playing away each and every day a game at a time? Glory, Glory, this is the end of today’s story!