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Using gamification to promote boys’ enjoyment of English

When travelling the length and breadth of the UK to deliver courses for Creative Education I always introduce the concept of gamification as a means of raising attainment by increased pupil engagement in English. It is a topic that I find really inspires delegates not least because this “cutting edge” technique is something teachers have been using for decades.

That font of all student knowledge, Wikipedia, defines gamification thusly:

Gamification is the use of game thinking and game mechanics in non-game contexts to engage users in solving problems and increase users’ contributions. Gamification has been studied and applied in several domains, with some of the main purposes being to engage (improve user engagement, physical exercise, return on investment, flow, data quality, timeliness), teach (in classrooms, the public or at work), entertain (enjoyment, fan loyalty), measure (for recruiting and employee evaluation), and to improve the perceived ease of use of information systems.

Decipher the buzz-words and the language of business and the essentials of gamification reveal themselves: make a game of it and they’ll engage, attain flow and learn more.gamification-in-english

It seems that I have been using gamification in my classroom for most of my career; I was using gamification before it became a “thing”. In my lessons I soon discovered that anything that could be posited as a game – or had an element of gentle competition and challenge – would encourage more engagement from boys in particular. Gamification is one of the few things you can try in the classroom that results in the boys leading and the girls enthusiastically following.

Enough of the waffle and blowing my own trumpet, here’s three ways you can use gamification to increase boys’ engagement in your lessons.

Just a minute
Using as my model the long-running Radio 4 programme (yes, I have now gotten to the age where Radio 4 is my channel of choice), students have to talk about a topic for one minute without hesitation, deviation or repetition. The rules are simple and it’s a great starter activity for small groups that can be used to recap prior learning. If hesitation, deviation or repetition is spotted by another student they can challenge and, if the challenge is upheld by the teacher, that student takes the remaining time to talk on the given topic.

Never again will you see students so intently listening to each other and willingly revising a previous topic, waiting for their turn. You can keep a running score from lesson to lesson and have a bonus round for your plenary.

The Mariner’s Travels
For this activity I’m using an example from my teaching of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner but you can use any substantial narrative poem to generate the same ideas.

Let’s face it, pre 21st Century narrative poetry is not going to excite the average Key Stage 3 class, let alone the boys. However, by using this idea, not only will you inspire several pieces of work from your class but also everyone of them will know the poem well by the end of it.

The premise is simple: the class, in groups of four or five, have been tasked with the job of creating a game for a well-known company based on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The brief is that the game should be suitable for ages 12 and over, teach the plot of the poem by following the journey of the Mariner and test the students’ knowledge of its socio-historical context. The finished game should come with instructions and a TV advert (role-play or phone-shot video uploaded to the VLE / Moodle). Once all games are finished the students can spend time playing each other’s offerings and write a review of their favourite.

I am always surprised by the ambition of most students who go beyond the sugar paper, felt-tip pens and glue provided by me by harvesting cardboard, scraps of material and so forth from home. Once again, this element of competition, a desire to be the best, drives boys in particular to extend their learning beyond their target levels.

Read the World
For this activity you need a large map of The World, passport sized photographs of the students (easily printed from SIMs) and lengths of string or wool. The object of the project is to encourage the wider reading of fiction and can be used from Year 7 up to Year 13. Here’s my score card for Key Stage 3:

  • An additional book by the author of the class reader = 3 inches
  • A volume of poetry = 3 inches
  • A challenging novel or short story collection = 2 inches
  • A play = 2 inches
  • Pre- 21st Century texts = add an inch

The object of the game is to get as far around the world as possible by reading. Reading progress needs to be monitored by you and can take the form of a viva, a book review a blog entry, a video presentation or anything else you feel is adventurous and fun.

So there you have it. In a nutshell, gamification is something we should all make time for because it’s challenging, boy friendly, student-centred, mostly independent of the teacher and (dare I say it?) fun! If you’d like to learn more, join me on a Creative Education course focused on raising attainment in English; gamification is one of my passions and I guarantee that gamification will be explored during the course of the day.

Found this post useful? Explore gamification further and other teaching ideas to help raise attainment in our 1 day English courses:
Maximising Progress by Differentiating in English
Developing Writing Skills of Less Confident Pupils
Raising the Performance of the Low Ability English Learner
Converting Ds to Cs in GCSE English – Effective In-Class Interventions


Written by Jon Scargill
Jon taught English, Drama and Media Studies in a range of secondary schools for 22 years. A Head of English for 12 years, examiner and PGCE lecturer, Jon has held several positions within middle and senior leadership. Leaving full-time teaching in 2013 Jon is now a freelance Educational Consultant, trainer, writer and webmaster who keeps his skills up to date through occasional Supply Teaching. A survivor of five Ofsted inspections, Jon was rated Outstanding for his teaching over 12 consecutive years.

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