Losing With Word Games

It’s January 2022 and Wordle— also in German, French and Spanish— has become the ninth stage of COVID. And to nobody’s surprise, Wordle has gotten some good Twitter press by language teachers who advocate for its use. This happens every few years: a word game shows up, and people love it.

Varied word games’ common threads include the use of fine visual perception, logic and target-language knowledge to find words. Word games include Hangman, Wordle, crossword puzzles, word searches, acrostics and so forth.
So, today’s question: Should I use word games in my language classroom?

My answer: Generally, no. And why not?

Well, first principles: language is acquired only by processing comprehended input in a communicative context. And a communicative context is a situation where meaning is created, negotiated and/or exchanged for a given purpose. Meaning is something non-linguistic: enjoying a story, gathering information, evaluating information, etc.

So, what are the problems with word games?

First, you have know the word you are looking for. For example, in Hangman or Wordle, we might get to this: __ R __ L L. If you have lots of English, you will make some guesses such as troll, droll, trill, drill and so on. If you are a learner of English, you will be blindly throwing letters in there, hoping for a hit, and if you get it, you probably won’t know the word’s meaning.

Second, you are not processing meaning with these games. You can find words in a word search, Hangman game or Wordle simply by using logic, visual recognition and guesswork. When Wordle tells you that your __ R _ L L guess, DRILL, is correct, yaaay! you won, and you don’t have to know what “drill” means.

Third, Wordle, Hangman and acrostics are hard in additional languages. I can solve any English Wordle in three lines. Spanish, French and German Wordles completely kick my ass…and I have way more of those languages than do most learners in high school or college.

Textbook publishers sell the wordgame parts of their books & workbooks by arguing that eg “trying to remember French words will help kids acquire them.” Now, there is research from conscious learning domains which says something like, if you practice recalling something, you will remember it better (this is why eg flashcards work). But this is not true for language acquisition. The language version of this is, the more often you process a word in a communicative context (ie hear/read it), the more likely you are to remember it.

Acrostics are especially stupid. If you can see the word, you circle it. Again, you can do this without attending to meaning. I’m reminded of Sudoku. When I saw my first Sudoku, I first figured out what to do (basically if X is here, then Y cannot be, rinse and repeat), which was interesting. Actually doing a Sudoku involves almost zero brain: follow the procedure and you get there. Basically, if a computer can generate it, it’s boring to do.

If you want to play games in the TL, here are two suggestions which involve zero prep, are fun, and involve processing meaning.

1. Grab the pen. After you read/create a story, or do anything, get the kids in pairs, put a pen between members of each pair, and say either a true or a false TL statement about your reading, story etc aloud. If they agree, they have to grab the pen. They get a point for grabbing the pen first, but they lose a point if they grab the pen when the statement is false. This game seems ridiculous but kids love it.

2. Who Am I Describing? Divide the class into 2-6 teams. Make a TL statement about anyone in the class, or any character in the story, or somebody famous, etc. EG: this girl rides a motorcyle or this boy really likes ballet. The first person who puts up their hand sand says you are describing ____ gets a point for their team. You can make this simple– I have played this on Day One after our first story– or complex, by eg lying about people.

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