Talk, Read, Sing, Write, Play

Use Board Gaming to Affirm English Language Learning and Welcome All Literacy Levels

The following is a guest post by Annabelle Blackman.

You may be looking at the title, thinking, “Hmmmmm, I’ve heard that before . . . ” Talk, Read, Sing, Write, Play or variations of it have been around for several years now. It’s part of the Every Child Ready to Read Initiative, which is centered on building early literacy skills in kids under 5 years old.

But it doesn’t end there. What’s the Family Gamers motto? “Play Games with Your Kids.” Andrew and Anitra have multiple blogs and podcasts on the value behind playing games with your kids. If you’re a regular reader or listener, you don’t have to be convinced of the Social Emotional benefits that come from gaming together.

But what if a family is not comfortable with speaking or reading English? How are they welcomed to your table? How do games fit in their life?

Family playing Bugs in the Kitchen

As a children’s librarian, I’m immersed in methodology and practice around early childhood development, learning and literacy. I also happen to work in a very diverse area in the San Francisco East Bay. We serve families of a variety of social classes and a wide range of English language fluency. This dynamic has uniquely affected my approach to family gaming. 

At any moment, I can be facilitating an activity with a group in which half the kids present are comfortable speaking bilingual in English and Spanish, and the other half speak monolingually in English, Spanish, Mayan Mam, Arabic, Farsi, Cantonese or Vietnamese. The caregivers present may have varying levels of comfort with English, from completely fluent, to Spanglish, to none at all. And this is just spoken language! 

Just because an individual can speak comfortably in a language does not mean they can read at a similar level. Considering all these variables can be mind boggling. And yet, library staff all over our country are trying their best to select, design, and implement programs that will be fun for all. Here are a few ways I’ve made family game programs work for my community. 

Language-Independent Games

Many ELL (English Language Learner) caregivers assume that in order for their child to learn English, they can no longer read aloud to their child in their home language. This is not true!

All reading is good. Building literacy for a child in their home language will continue to build the blocks for English language literacy. It may take a little longer for the English language skills to come, but it will be stronger because of the caregiver’s efforts.

Just as all reading is good, so is all playing, talking, writing, etc. It’s all about language and preparing a child’s mind to learn. When running gaming events, I always ask or try to gauge what language a family is comfortable gaming in. When I can, I provide games that can also be played independent of language. Being able to play in the language one feels most comfortable in removes a major barrier. 

Here are a few examples:

Animal Act: Like charades but better. Roll the die and move, then act, sing, mime or guess the action or animal shown on the card you draw.  (Editor’s note: from the makers of Silly Street)

Sequence for Kids: Everyone knows Tic-Tac-Toe. Draw a card, put a chip on the animal. Get 4 in a row. One can play to learn the English names of animals, or simply match the pictures and name their animals in the language they are most comfortable in.

Rhino Hero: A group can run with this once they understand the icons and corresponding actions.

Go Go Gelato: One of my favorite ice breaker games for young kids or a family with a wide range of ages. Match the design on the card, whoever is first wins a card. First to 5 wins. Families with young kids can use the items for simple logic and matching exercise without any time keeping or competition. (Editor’s note: Dr. Eureka also fits this niche, but ice cream is more fun.)

What about reading?

Although some of these games include text, they can also be played just by looking at the images on the gameboard or cards, once someone explains their meanings. I spend a lot of time combing reviews for images of actual components, before I consider a game for library programming. 

But Annabelle, how do you teach these if the written instructions or available videos are in English?!?! This is my personal limitation. Older kids can navigate looking up a video online, but when a family shows up, you want to get them playing ASAP.

To get around my lack of language skills, I choose games that fit the following criteria:

  • Spanish is commonly spoken in my community, so if I can teach a game with my limited Spanish speaking skills, it’s ideal.
  • Or games that I can teach to an English speaking child, who I will then observe teach to their family. (This takes more time, is a little bit like Telephone, and is why I choose games that can be taught in 5 minutes or less).
  • Or if we do not share a common language at all, I will choose a game that is easy for me to show how to play.

One of my programming librarian dreams is to have a team of multilingual multimedia loving teen volunteers. We would love to have them create How-to-play videos for the games we play in the library, but until then, this is what I have to work with.


Scaffolding strategies are common in education. When teaching games I first teach a simplified version, and then slowly introduce additional rules until a child or family can play the game as a whole. This technique works best for games that are short, or that involve multiple rounds. 

Example: With Otrio, I may say to a hesitant family with a very young child, “It’s just like tic-tac-toe.” They sit, play and when they finish, I’m not too far away. Then I can I suggest enhancements. “You know, you can also play like this for a harder game”. This allows me to introduce the full rules of three in a row, from big to small, in any direction, or nested in the concentric circles.

Otrio - four colors

For families that have only played Connect 4 and Candyland, modern hobby games can be a lot.  But for ELL families who are also new to gaming, there is a ton of new vocabulary being introduced in a short amount of time.

Otrio is a simple game, but explaining it can introduce English terms that may not be familiar: horizontal, vertical, diagonal, within, concentric, etc. Scaffolding helps build confidence. People can learn a few new terms, play a quick round, gain confidence and be ready for a new, more challenging round with new vocabulary and information. 

House Rules

Unlimited house rules might feel scandalous. My goal for inclusive family game programs is for families to interact in new ways and have unplugged fun together. If we have to alter the rules a bit to fit this end goal, that’s fine with me.

With intergenerational gaming this is a must. What to do if a family shows up with kids age 3, 5, and 13 years and wants to play with their caregiver as well? Changing winning conditions for the younger kids will do wonders for keeping everyone engaged at the table.

Adults playing Hedbanz, pointing at a whiteboard with the words: binder, wear, animal
Hedbanz in the English Conversation Club

Hedbanz is a popular game with families in my library. We’ve had success using it as an ice breaker in our English Conversation Club too (pictured above). 

A common house rule we use is allowing the guesser the option to receive clues from each player, rather than just asking yes-no questions. This allows for players to participate even if they are not as comfortable speaking conversational English.

Competition vs. Co-Op

One of my favorite games to whip out for a group of tweens is Dungeon Mayhem, a quick battle card game. Although it should only take 10-15 min at most, I once witnessed a family play it for almost an hour. Why? Because they “did not want to do mean stuff to each other.”

Adorable? Yes! Conducive to a fun game day for all? No.

My go-to game was actually causing this family a bit of anxiety.

Competition can also get in the way of learning how to play, since one has to immediately think strategically of how to win.

Sometimes, I’ll teach a game as a co-op to give folks the time to get comfortable with the components, the vocab and the mechanics the first time. Then I’ll introduce the competitive rules.

Dexterity games are good for this! Play a game like Suspend with everyone working together to hang as many wires as possible.

Suspend game - bent wires hanging together

When my child was small we’d play “teamwork way” with Magic Labyrinth and Enchanted Forest, working together to collect a set amount of treasures. If you can figure out how to house rule a competitive game into a co-operative one, that will give you far more options.

Peaceable Kingdom makes great family co-op games that are often language independent. I’ve had success with Mole Rats in Space, Race to the Treasure, and Feed the Woozle. (Editor’s note: we also love Gnomes at Night.)

Children playing Mole Rats in Space
Mole Rats in Space

Gaming for Literacy and for Fun

Gaming together as a family builds literacy skills as well as social and emotional learning. Armed with games that are language independent, prepared to teach in whatever language is most helpful, you can help families in your community learn the joys of gaming, too.

Thanks to Annabelle Blackman for this post. Stay tuned for more on gaming for learning English.