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Blog post Part of special issue: The playful academic

Positioning ‘play’ purposefully in the adult language learning classroom

Rebecca Hooker, University of Exeter

Times are tough for university students and teachers alike in this pandemic world. ‘Play’ could offer an easy antidote to the soulnessness of digital overload. Incorporating ‘fun’ and ‘play’ might also enhance mere knowledge transfer. This blog considers the use of ‘language play’ as an appropriate methodology in the adult English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) classroom (Hooker, 2007). It also outlines some of the implications of ‘playful’ interventions in the teaching of academic skills to international university students.   

Incorporating ‘play’ effectively into the adult language learning classroom requires careful consideration of its different permutations, and students’ individual preferences and learning styles. Teaching diverse cohorts of non-native English speakers – such as refugees or PhD students – requires going beyond a teaching approach that merely focuses on functional transaction and reference (Block, 2003), in order to develop effective language learning and academic literacy. Although there are clearly rules and moves for different genres of interaction, at the heart of any successful communication lies both a story and connection between human beings.  

Key research on the value of play in curricula has tended to focus on the development of social and emotional learning of school-age children – for instance, large-scale outcome-based projects (see for example Jones, 2018–2021). However, some research (Lucardie, 2014) asserts that paying more attention to the affective dimension of adults’ learning experiences is equally valuable and effective. Significant links were found between experiencing classroom ‘fun’ and ‘enjoyment’ and a perceived sense of increased wellbeing. Other studies (Hooker, 2012) suggest that there are multiple benefits to be gained for older foreign language learners rehearsing in a playful and relaxed environment in the imagined reality of their target language, such as in a pretend Italian restaurant.  

However, such benefits are not just confined to non-accredited or informal learning. Getting adult students to play or experiment in a safe, low-stakes setting can be greatly beneficial as a rehearsal in a supportive and ‘less-threatening environment’ (Hooker & Heard, 2018, p. 6) for when the communicative stakes are higher in real-life situations. Playful activities such as team travel quizzes or jazz chants can help to develop the transferable ‘soft skills’ necessary for addressing formal ‘hard tasks’, such as assessment. Soft skills may include resilience, critical thinking, teamwork or problem-solving skills.

‘Getting adult students to play or experiment in a safe, low-stakes setting can be greatly beneficial as a rehearsal in a supportive and ‘less-threatening environment’ for when the communicative stakes are higher in real-life situations.’

Finding playful solutions suitable for everyone is challenging. Some learners prefer the rules and systems (ludus) offered by competition and sport, and others a more improvised and joyful approach (paedia) using activities such as drama, humour and wordplay in the classroom (Cook, 2000, p. 115). However, although students might enjoy a classroom game app, such as the quiz app Kahoot!® (for spot-checking understanding) ‘to refresh and have some fun’, the lack of deeper information ‘can cause confusion’ (Hooker & Heard, 2020, p. 93). As such, balance is clearly needed between playful interventions and more traditional methodologies.

Using an appropriate playful pedagogy in the adult language learning classroom also depends on sound needs analysis, particularly within the constraints of new online teaching contexts. However, Claxton (2002, p. 335) offers a most fitting summary of the value of play and the power of ‘soft thinking’.

‘Play enables the familiar scenarios and scripts of the brainscape to be distilled into a more flexible network of concepts and skills. Those who see play, whether in children or adults, as a diversion from learning proper, or a lightweight version of it, simply don’t understand its special function – it enables the human mind to enrich from within.’


Block, D. (2003). The social turn in second language acquisition. Edinburgh University Press.

Claxton, G. (2001). Wise up. Learning to live the learning life. Network Educational Press.

Cook, G. (2000). Language play. Oxford University Press.

Hooker, R., & Heard, F. (2020). Matching students’ and teachers’ expectations in blended learning [Conference session]. 53rd International Association for Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL) Conference, Liverpool.

Hooker, R., & Heard, F. (2018). Developing ‘soft’ transferable skills to achieve ‘hard’ targets through cultural and community engagement: A case study. InForm, 18.

Hooker, R (2012). Benefits of learning a foreign language in later life: A study of the perceptions of older British adults. The International Journal of Education and Ageing, 2(2).

Hooker, R. (2007). The effects of age upon second language learning: An exploration
from the learner’s perspective of the extent to which age relates to effective
mediation in the language classroom [Unpublished master’s 
dissertation]. University of Exeter.

Jones, S. (2018–2021). Social and emotional learning in schools. Metrowest Community Healthcare Foundation.

Lucardie, D. (2014). The impact of fun and enjoyment on adult’s learning. Procedia and Behavioural Sciences, 142, 439–446.