6 fun games that promote Autonomy, Choice, and Engagement – my ACE concept

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Much has been discussed about ways of tapping into the 21st-century skills in the classroom. Sure we want our students to think critically and creatively, to communicate and to collaborate on different levels throughout the course. But it goes beyond that, don’t you agree? I couldn’t stop thinking about it after a brilliant talk given by Alberto Costa at the Braz-Tesol SIG Symposium in July. His session had quite a catchy and intriguing title: 21st Century Skills for Language Teachers – moving beyond the Four Cs. You can read a little about his and other’s sessions here. To make things short, he said that teachers are very likely to be more like project managers in the future. That means that we’ll need to be digital literates and offer our students resources for them to work on projects.

With that in mind, I came up with the ACE concept. I asked myself: What works best when people are working on projects? What are the characteristics that facilitate project building? As a result of this brainstorming experience (that probably took me 3 weeks), three words popped up in my brain: CHOICE, AUTONOMY, and ENGAGEMENT. They occurred to me in that order but, as you already know, I had to create an acronym to make it easier for you to grasp the concept. After all, I’m all about neuroscience. You can find my entries here. Remember my MAD concept? I could’ve stuck with CAE, the Cambridge certificate, but it didn’t ring the bell with the tone I wanted. I could’ve gone with ECA, which actually means something not that nice in Portuguese. ACE was the obvious choice.

Projects need autonomous and engaged people who make good choices. And by doing so they are able to achieve greatness. The teacher? As Alberto mentioned, the only thing we have to do is make sure our students stay on task and guide them when needed. A great way to do that is by creating (or copying) games. Games are fun, demand communication, collaboration and competition, require critical and creative thinking and, if you have more than one game, promote the ACE concept. The best part: different teams can be working on different skills with different games at different times. All you need to do is set up different working stations in the classroom. That’s exactly what I did. Allow me to explain what kinds of games I used:

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Mr. Trunk enjoyed the games

#1 Board Game 1 – Objective: to get to FINISH by rolling the dice and answering correctly the questions in the spaces. I adapted a template I got online and inserted the content I wanted my students to work with.

Examples: My CEFR-A1 group had a board game with ADVERBS OF FREQUENCY. My A2 group: HOW MANY vs HOW MUCH. My B1 group played a board game with QUESTION TAGS. My B2 group played a board game with different uses of LIKE.

PS: They used Mexican (Peso) and American (Dollar) coins to play. They really loved to see and touch a Mexican peso!

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#2 Board Game 2 – Element of choice here. They could choose which one to play. A1: PREPOSITIONS OF TIME; A2: THERE IS vs THERE ARE;

#3 Matching Cards Game – Objective: to randomly get two cards from two different decks, match them and make a sentence with the two words. To add some challenge, I asked them to roll the dice and to use the result as the number of words they’d need to form the sentence or the time that the action occurred.

Examples: My A1 group was dealing with ROUTINE, TIME, and FREQUENCY. They had to get a card with a PRONOUN or NAME (HE, I, Mr. Johnson, etc.) and a card with an action (GO, GET UP, FINISH SCHOOL, HAVE BREAKFAST, etc.). They had to roll the dices and use the result as the time: HE GETS UP AT 8:00. My B2 group had to get a card with a type of vacation (SPA RESORT, SAFARI, CRUISE, etc.) and another with an adjective (RELAXING, EXPENSIVE, EXCITING, etc.) The result they got from rolling the dices was the number of words their sentence had to contain. They had 1 minute to come up with the sentence.

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Julia, Camilla, Lorenzo, and Heitor, my lovely students, and Mr. Trunk!

#4 Post-it Memory Game – Objective: to find the matching words or expressions and make sentences with them. I used 10 post-its to cover the words I had written in pencil.

Examples: My A1 group had to match the ADVERBS OF FREQUENCY. My B2 had to match the following: DRUNK ON SENSATIONS, ROARING OF THE WATER, TO SLEEP THE SLEEP OF THE DEAD, QUIETNESS FELL ON US, TO CATCH ONE’S EYE. I asked them to use the dices to get a number to form a sentence as well.

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# 5 Dominoes with TIME EXPRESSIONS and PREPOSITIONS OF TIME – Objective: to match the end of the dominoes with their corresponding pair.

Example: My A1 group had some dominoes with CHRISTMAS – AT or MY BIRTHDAY – IN and so on. They had to play dominoes matching the correct parts.

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Ana Beatriz plays dominoes agains Nicole. They are CEFR-A1

#6 Computer game – Objective: to follow the instructions and beat your opponent (as in every other game!)

Examples: My A1 group played these two cool games about PREPOSITIONS OF TIME on the British Council for Kids page. My A2 group played these about COUNTABLE and UNCOUNTABLE NOUNS.

What I learned:

1. I enjoyed making the dice, the memory games, and the cards. It was super fun! Mental Note: Next time, get your students to make the dice, André!

2. Collaboration went through the roof! Everyone became a supervisor, facilitator, and moderator. They wanted to win but, above all, they wanted to win right. A lot of fair play going on. They helped each other comply with the rules.

3. Autonomy gave them a sense of achievement. I wrote most of the instructions for the games and only modeled when they were confused (mainly lower levels). They felt that they were really learning and having fun at the same time. And I didn’t explain the new content. They had 10 minutes to figure out by themselves and 7 to ask me questions about it. I didn’t underestimate them and they appreciated my attitude. Most of them got the content really fast. Some got it later when playing the games. Respect their timing and be there to help them.

4. Teacher Talking Time (TTT) went so down under it almost fell on New Zealand. I spoke when spoken to. I helped when they needed me. They not only talked about the game, but they started doing what regular people do when they play games: THEY HAD CONVERSATIONS!

5. Being able to choose which game to play first made a difference. Students are tired of being told what to do and having just one way to go. Choice is huge in learning. If you don’t believe me, take this inspiring TED Talk as reference:


6. I can definitely use this format to work with Project-Based Learning (PBL). This weekend I intend to plan what each of my groups will work with throughout the semester (based on the choices they gave me in these two first weeks) and I’ll do something very similar next week to get them to start working on their projects.

Here’s a video with my explanation of the games:

Here’s a link to a folder with some of the games:


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Júlia and Diego writing sentences with Question Tags. They’re CEFR-B1

Do you think you can do something similar in your classes? Any suggestions or comments? Well, I realize many of us still have this mindset that not speaking, explaining the content, and getting students to do endless lists of activities isn’t teaching. Rather than teaching like that, why don’t we facilitate their own learning? Remember what Alberto taught me. Be more like a project manager! That means letting them do a lot of the work on their own and collaborating with peers without us telling them to do it. I’m sure that if you practice this new mindset, you’ll eventually ACE it! Got it? 🙂

And, even though I agree with my good friend Alberto Costa when he says we need to become digital literates, I also believe we can master the craft of making paper dice, board games and whatever we can think of. To quote another teacher (and new friend) who inspires me:

That’s technology at its best!! Computers and the Internet, despite being very helpful, are not the only solutions available… I myself love the old and effective slip of paper. Way to go!

OPREA, HENRICK. Facebook Comment. 2017

Looking forward to getting your comments!

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See HAPPINESS written on the wall? That’s what we were feeling!

7 thoughts on “6 fun games that promote Autonomy, Choice, and Engagement – my ACE concept”

  1. Good going, André.

    How long did it take you to prepare the materials?

    Were the activities aimed at revising language content specifically?

    Would you do the same with more task-based or function-based games?

    1. Hey, Stephan. Thanks for the comment.

      It took me about an hour and a half to prepare everything for 3 groups. The objective was to revise the first unit of this semester. Since I’m an adept of neuroscience-based tips, I always refer to as much of the content as possible using a concept called spaced repetition. It basically assumes that learning doesn’t take place during or after a lesson but over a longer period, which means we have to allow our students to “play” with the content at different moments throughout the month. I would certainly incorporate this highly student-centered type of experience in more task-based activities. As a matter of fact, to be quite honest, the more project based the better. I like the fact that when students are given the drive and proper materials they will fly solo or in teams and generate much more meaningful learning experiences. The big question is how to adapt our extremely book-bound, content-oriented, test-driven classes into something more Waldorfian or Montessorian when parents and coordinators will emphasize numerical results be them as tests or homework. When I figure out the answer, I promise to share it with you.

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