The Internet TESL Journal

It's on the Cards: Adapting a Board-game Communicative Activity

Bob Gibson
bobg [at]
Free University Berlin

Many of you will know Friederike Klippel's 'Keep Talking' (Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers, 1984; ISBN 0 521 27871 6), a collection of 'communicative fluency activities' for the classroom. One of my favourite activities in the book is the 'Values Topics' board game, in which players take turns throwing the dice and talking about the topic specified in the squares on which they land.

One feature of this game about which I'm ambivalent, however, is the fact that players are able to see beforehand all the topics they might have to talk about. Certainly, this can be advantageous. On an affective level, weaker or less confident students have a chance to prepare what they're going to say. In psycholinguistic terms, the availability of topics can pre-activate appropriate schemata and lexical resources.

Equally, though, there are drawbacks to the board game format. For one thing, you may want to discourage preparation of possible turn topics, especially as this often takes place at the expense of actually listening to what other players have to say.

What's more, the game as it stands is a major activity which requires a big chunk of classroom time. You can cut the game short, of course, but students seldom take kindly to any curtailment--especially if they've invested serious effort in planning what to say about upcoming topics!

One way around both these problems is to turn the board game into a card game. The topics are put onto separate cards which are shuffled and placed face-down on the desk. Players take the topmost card, and when they have said their piece the card is returned to the bottom of the pile. Players don't know which topics will come up, thus preserving something of the excitement but cutting out preparation. If you've ever looked for an authentic context for your students to practise 'hesitation' expressions ('ummm...'; 'aaah...';'let me see...') then this is ideal.

The time required for the game can easily be controlled by limiting the number of cards available. Even if you have to stop a card game part-way, however, the disappointment factor seems to be much less than with the board game version.

Another advantage is that cards are easier to produce than boards. You can thus have students work in more and smaller groups--which of course maximises each player's talking time.

You can inject as much or as little organisation into producing cards as you choose. For example, you may find it helpful to colour-code cards with topics such as 'Tell us about the different jobs you've had' or 'Tell us about what's in your bedroom', which target tenses and prepositions. As well as making it easier for you to make up balanced sets of cards, colour-coding offers players a hint that they should pay attention to a particular aspect of their language.

As I regularly use 'Tell us...' cards as a warm-up activity (or in evening classes where students are not always punctual), I need to keep the range of topics fresh. I've found it useful to give each card an identifying number, as this allows me to keep track of which cards have been used. I can then recycle particular topics and add new ones, as well as weed out topics which don't seem to work well or are inappropriate to a particular group.

Taken over from Klippel's original board game is the idea of making a proportion of cards 'free' topics, in which either the speaker or her/his fellow players decide the topic. In some situations you may prefer to hand out blank cards onto which students write their topics (Remember to edit out inappropriate suggestions!) before the game begins, as this cuts out any first-language haggling over what the 'free' topic should be.

Technical notes: You might be surprised at the thickness of card which will go through a photocopier, and using heavier material will of course make your card-sets last longer. In many places you can even buy A4 sheets of pre-perforated 'business cards', and photocopying your master pages onto these lets you prepare card-sets very quickly indeed.

Moving a 'Values Topics' type board game onto individual cards lets you fit the activity into smaller slots of time, and encourages spontaneous student speech. Next time you're looking for a flexible 'warmer' or 'filler' activity, why not give it a try?


Examples of 'Tell Us About' Cards

Here are some suggestions for card topics. Keep in mind that when you can create cards that you can recycle topics, grammar points and vocabulary which came up in lessons.

Tell us about...

The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. II, No. 4, April 1996