Part 1 of Oscar Recio Coll’s Why Board Games? Oscar is a school teacher in Asturias (a region in northwest Spain) where he uses board games in his teaching of English as a foreign language.  

Why Board Games? – Part One 

by Oscar Recio Coll

As a school teacher and after using board and roleplaying games as teaching tools since 2002-2003 I can tell how games have a positive effect on the learning process.

As EFL (English as a foreign language) teacher I used games as a way to introduce something that usually we, the teachers, forget to present: Why we need to learn and why the content-dexterity-knowledge is useful. Yep…we, I’m 42, learnt “because the teacher said it” and that was all…but the lack of a goal (apart from passing a test) put the whole focus away from the real core of learning: understanding and be able to see the connection with something that can be useful out of the school environment.

Just think about how you experienced your learning process when you’ve been at school…aha, I can see your faces…exactly…you learned “by Faith”. And “by Faith” I mean because the teacher said that was important and families and you-the student- didn’t need anything else…well…maybe understanding how the content is used away from the context of the classroom would have been important to make you a bit more motivated, don’t you think so?

Let’s think about something like…mmmm…. algorithms for example (if you are a Math teacher please, “don’t kill the messenger”). I’m sure that probably your teacher didn’t tell you WHY and HOW such content like Algorithms was important for your everyday life, how they were used and why even when you won’t be using them at your Secondary school years it’s a knowledge so important you can’t run away from it because it’s ingrained in computers, Google maps or something like Pokemon Go. Presenting a fact where the knowledge is applied makes the student understand WHY this content is part of his/her school curriculum. A knowledge which is far beyond his/her actual application when being a Secondary student is present on a daily basis even when he/she isn’t aware of its presence and impact. It happens a lot, right? Well, at least when I was a student happened a lot. Connections between real life and school were quite unusual…only when practicing a language…Just a few teachers presented the connections to “reality” of their subjects…

Another example: Syntax…yes, I know…but surely you will see that knowing how a text is “build” will change drastically the way you understand it and maybe could reflect the way you are going to react to it. Think about the legal language or just when you need to make a complaint letter, asking for a Tax refund or sorting out the “gaps” of a contract that could make you sign the wrong conditions for a job. Suddenly the knowing and understanding of a “boring” knowledge acquires an importance that reflects the use and goal of learning far beyond the “passing of a test”.

Using Haunt the House in EFL class

Games ALWAYS present the goal of learning “things”. When you are playing any kind of game the rules, background in which is set, the mechanics that enable the game to progress and move forward are presented so clearly that players understand why, how and when apply the rules, the knowledge and dynamics needed to play and, this is important, why LEARNING certain skills, knowledge, and mechanics will make them win, progress, be successful or be able to face any other challenge they will need to overcome. Games are powerful tools for teaching, not THE tools but certainly a fantastic tool to evidence how and why you need “something” to move forward.

As I mentioned I teach EFL and I try hard to remember my student years and how was my experience through all my Primary, Secondary and University…the path was long and I can assure that only 10-15% of the teachers I’ve had told us WHY and HOW the knowledge and skills they tried to teach could be applied on our future jobs as teachers or in everyday life…or as citizens!! I can teach long vocabulary lists to my students…they need to know vocabulary…it’s essential. Knowing words will make them easier to interact with the context in which they will be living, especially if you are living far away from your country. And yes, teaching the supermarket items, classroom stuff, family, how to tell the time, asking politely how to go from place A to place B and so on are basic things they will need but…but…well…some of them are far away from really needing that knowledge in the near future and I need them to get involved in something like NEEDING to use the language. Imagine teaching grammar structures…they need to find a real, practical and useful way to see grammar as a must and not only as a “fill in the blanks” task.

My basic principles and first steps are using board games: communicative requirements are easily absorbed and used. The vocabulary and grammar structures are, normally, far beyond the usual level presented on the official curriculum set by the Education Departments for the level in which I use them but they don’t care and they understand WHY they need a foreign language. If they are not using the foreign language there’s no way to interact with the game…and I can tell you something: they WANT to play…oh yes, they really want to play.

When you present a board game your students have never seen before using a foreign language their brains “accept” the fact the game can’t be played using another language…and that’s what you are looking for…the vocabulary needed to play that game plants its seeds and will be growing through the different sessions and establishing communicative structures thanks to the interaction of the 4 skills: Reading (rules), Listening and Speaking (social interaction) and even Writing if the games ask for it or maybe because the game is “asking” for “new rules” or an “expansion”.

Of course, …I know…we, the teachers, will be designing and making the needed adaptations to make it meaningful for our group and for the criteria in which we need to frame the using of games as teaching tools. Games are fantastic tools to dynamize contents…and yes, when you link contents to games the evaluation also will be appearing. Games can be used as an evaluation tool.

Another advantage is the more games they’ll be playing the more vocabulary they will interiorize and the stronger their communicative structures will be. Games offer other strong points we need to emphasize: practice, mistake and test anxiety management. A game session is offering a chance to use what you know, make mistakes, “failing” or “epic failing” becoming as a part of the game experience and, very important, have fun…so you’ll be willing to play again to become a better or more competent player or just to try to do it better because you want to achieve the goal the game is asking you to fulfill.

How students manage mistakes is absolutely vital, how they face and address frustration, following and breaking the rules and how the other players oversee the applications of them. These elements are the core of a playing environment and how players evolve and learn through games.

As Einstein said: “Learning is an experience. Everything else is just information”.


Readers can find Oscar on Twitter @OscarRecioCollPart 2 of Oscars’ Why Board Games, can be found by clicking here: