TESOL Convention 2015: ‘Gamification of your language learning course’ by Steven Carruthers by


The session started with (surprise, surprise!) a game. It was a classic bingo. The presenter read numbers and whoever got five in a row first had to shout bingo. This went on for a couple of minutes before we did some reflection.

gamification 1

The motivation was definitely very high. Without realising, we were all really focused on the task. If we were students, we would have also been practising both listening and identifying the target language, which in this case was numbers. However, there was one serious drawback. The game was very teacher-centred and there was no interaction between participants, who didn’t get a chance to practise actually saying the numbers.

This was solved with a very simple tweak. We now had to turn to the person next to us and work with them. We asked each other: ‘Do you have… (e.g. 3.476)?’ If our partner had the number, we could circle it. It continued until the first person got 5 in a row.

This time, apart from very high motivation also present in the initial task, the room was buzzing with conversations. Admittedly, they weren’t the most elaborate ones, but students would have not only practised receptive, but also productive skills. If we add some functional language to the mix:

  • Sorry, I didn’t catch that.
  • Could you say that again, please?
  • Do you mean e.g. 9835?

it will make the conversations even more productive and meaningful.

But what is gamification, anyway?

It refers to the use of game design and game mechanics in non-game contexts, e.g. English class. Its aim is to guide learners towards autonomy, mastery and purpose.

One of the crucial points raised was that when we consider using games in our classes, we need to carefully analyse what the Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) are, and how we can build these into the game. You can read more about SLOs here.

This is the basic route for writing SLOs Steven Carruthers suggested in his presentation:

gamification 3

Considering SLOs can help us determine what exactly we would like learners to achieve, how they should go about it and how we will know they have achieved the goals. In other words, we should think about:

  • game mechanics
  • goals
  • participation
  • obstacles
  • support
  • point structure
  • strategy
  • language level
  • achievement

Thinking carefully about SLOs can also help us give more concise and precise instructions. In the photo below, you can see how a very vague statement has been turned into a very specific one using the ABCs of SLOs:

gamification 4

So why bother gamifying your English language learning course? Well, some studies indicate that having a gamified structure in which students achieved badges for completing SLOs increased completion of modules. Also, even mundane tasks can be more engaging if gamified.

Interestingly, motivation and engagement are triggered by anticipation of achievement. That is, when we can almost see the finish line, when the goal is within our reach, we are much more likely to make that final push to reach it. However, too often we focus on the gap not the goal, i.e. this is how much you still don’t know; which is a rather negative way of looking at things and can thus be demotivating. On the other hand, if we were to focus on the outcomes, students are more likely to get there.

Finally, Steven showed us how taking SLOs into consideration, we can move away from a traditional grading system (top left hand corner) to one based on a achievable and relevant outcomes (bottom right hand corner) – he teaches academic listening skills:

gamification 5


Do you use games with your students? Do you incorporate SLOs? What does your grading strategy look like?

Would love to hear from you. And don’t forget to follow the blog on the right hand side to receive new posts regularly by email.



3 thoughts on “TESOL Convention 2015: ‘Gamification of your language learning course’ by Steven Carruthers by

  1. Hello! I’m a teacher in Mexico. I’d like to congratulate on this fabulous lecture / talk you gave. I found it really interesting. I’d like to ask for your help. I struggle a lot with planning my class in terms of not knowing which games I can use to lead towards the outcome. Can you recommend some bibliography I can read please? The games I’ve my learners to play are not interesting for them: bingo, nought and crosses, find someone who.

  2. Great series of posts about the convention!
    I don’t use games as often as I’d like with my students. I teach mostly one to one, so there are fewer options. I should definitely try to use games more often though.

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