Larry Ferlazzo

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Using Video Games To Promote English Language Development

                                                                                     By Larry Ferlazzo


(Published in the January, 2008 issue of

Technology and Learning Educator’s 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 been written about the supposed benefits, and 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.  I’ve written a previous article in Techlearning ( about my favorite sites for these kinds 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 are free and online, and do not require any downloading (which is problematic for school computers).  Two, they have no sexual content and, if there is any violence, in my judgment it’s at a level appropriate for teenagers.  Lastly, the games 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.  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 Bonte Room 1(  and Bonte Room 2(      I have links to these games, and to many others I use in other genres, on my website under the “Word Games” section ( .

Adventure games are similar in many ways to Escape The Room, except there are often other characters you can “talk” with 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) can be simple, like Phantasy Quest (,  or sophisticated (for example, 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 (and others) alone, the benefits are increased immeasurably when students work in partners figuring out how to solve these “puzzles.”  All 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 they have different native languages, which I try to arrange when people are divided).  In reality, during the course of these computer lab visits, everybody ends of 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 (though that might relate to the fact that the last time I played a video game 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 online games ( . 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 is read, 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 use 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 (, 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 fairly easily design more ambitious games such as Game Maker ( , Quest (  and Scratch ( .  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 ones 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.

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