On a roll – EFL dice games

Another one of articles just published in English Teaching Professional, this time accompanied by an old blog post of mine in the TEFLtastic Classics series with stacks of photocopiable dice games.

Although it is fairly common to see dice in language classrooms, I would say that they are seriously underexploited – including, as I found out after brainstorming ideas for this article, by me!

The many ways to use dice in EFL classes

As well as the usual purpose of deciding how many squares a student can progress in a board game, the roll of a dice can decide:

  • What to do while on a particular square
  • What to roleplay and how to roleplay it
  • How many times to do something or how long for
  • What to ask and answer questions about
  • How to react to what is said
  • What reaction to try to get from another person
  • Which word, phrase, grammatical form, function, sentence, etc to use
  • What or who to speak about
  • What time to speak about
  • How to move your body or an object
  • What to draw or colour in
  • What kind of exam question to practise

There are examples of these below, including some which combine more than one of those ideas. To make all those uses possible, you might need fewer or more than the six options that a dice usually provides. For example, if you can’t think of six useful options when you are planning an activity, you can simply give the students four or five options and let them decide the other one(s) themselves, for example, “1 = complain, 2 = make a request, 3 = ask for information, 4 = change an order, and 5 or 6 = your own choice”. For even fewer options, you can combine the numbers, for example, “1 or 2 = roleplay an internal meeting, 3 or 4 = roleplay an outside meeting with someone you know, and 5 or 6 = roleplay a meeting with someone you’ve never met”. You can also combine the numbers further to make just two options, but in that case, flipping a coin is probably an easier and more fun option.

If you want more than six choices, you can ask the students to roll the dice twice and add the two numbers together, giving 11 possibilities. This messes up the usual statistical fairness of dice, because getting a total of two (only possible from 1+1) is half as likely as getting a score of 3 (from 1+2 or 2+1) and much less likely than getting a 7 (from 6+1, 1+6, 5+2, 2+5, etc). However, this can be a good thing if you assign things which need more practice to the numbers which are most likely to come up.

To keep the chances of getting each number the same and/or expand beyond 11 options, you can put all the possibilities in a grid. The students then roll the dice twice: once to decide which column and the second time to decide which row they should look at in order to find the right box. For example, if you can think of 36 useful roleplays, you can put them in a six by six grid, and throwing a 3 and then a 5 means having to do the roleplay in the fifth row of the third column. If you can’t think of 36 options, you can write “Free choice” in some of the boxes. You can also combine numbers here too, e.g. making a grid with three columns and three rows, giving nine options.

 

Modifying the dice

Another thing that you can do is to put words, phonemic symbols, etc actually on the sides of the dice in place of the numbers, using stickers or by cutting and sticking together a dice that already has the six things written on the sides (for which many formats are available online). However, if you are planning to use the dice in even half of the ways shown in this article, it is probably better to keep the normal numbered dice and put the options on a worksheet and/or the board each time. The only other set of dice that I often use is one with the numbers written as words (one, two, etc) rather than shown in dots or figures. This is really useful for number word recognition with young learners, for example by getting students to find something in the classroom of which there are a corresponding number (three chairs if they roll “three”, etc), maybe running, touching and counting them to add physical activity and more fun. Dice with number words can also be used for any other of the games described below.

 

How to use dice with EFL board games

I’m not a big fan of board games in which students do what the square they land on tells them and then a roll of a dice decides how many squares they move on, as it makes it look as if we don’t care at all about what they just said. A nice variation on this sort of game is for the other students to decide on a challenge for each of the sides of the dice, e.g. “1 = You didn’t print out your ticket, 2 = Your luggage is too heavy” etc. If they can’t think of six challenges to set their partner, the other numbers = “No problem”. The student lands on the square, rolls the dice, roleplays the situation while trying to sort out any problem associated with the number on the dice, and then can move that number of squares if the conversation was (some kind of) a success.

 

Roleplays with dice

Before students start a roleplay, they can use dice to decide:

  • Where they are (“1 = a post office, 2 = a clothes shop”, etc).
  • What they have to do (“1 or 2 = ask for directions, 3 or 4 = ask for the time, 5 or 6 = ask how to do something”).
  • Who they should pretend to be or talk to (“1 = a passer-by, 2 = a taxi driver, 3 = a police officer”, etc).
  • How they should (pretend to) communicate (“1 = face to face, 2 = Skype with video, 3 = telephone, 4 = online chat, 5 = answerphone messages, 6 = email or SMS”).
  • How many times something will be done (e.g. how many questions they should ask, how many ideas for times to meet will be politely rejected before they find a time when they are both available, or how many phone calls they will need to make before they finally get through to someone).
  • What to speak about (“1 = ask about the cost, 2 = ask about delivery”, etc).
  • What they should say (“1 = try to use ‘Shall we move on to …?’ naturally, 2 = use ‘Actually, before we move on …’” etc).
  • What they should try to get their partner to say (“1 = get their partner to say ‘That’s too bad’, 2 = make their partner say ‘Well, I’m not surprised’”, etc).

 

The students can also roll the dice during the roleplay, for example to decide if they should strongly agree, weakly agree, be completely neutral, weakly disagree, strongly disagree or give their own real opinion to each suggestion in roleplay meetings.

 

Other speaking activities with dice

Using dice to decide what reactions the students should try to get from a partner also works really well in single exchanges. For example, if they (secretly) roll a 3 and that number matches “No, I didn’t” on a worksheet, they can ask “Did you go to Paris yesterday?” to try to get that reaction, or they can pretend to sneeze if they roll the number that matches “Bless you!”

Other kinds of communication that work well with dice include discussion questions (giving opinions on social issues, etc) and personal questions. The dice can decide what topic on a worksheet they should talk about or what questions they should ask each other.

There is also a task which is more challenging to set up and play, but which is well worth it. In this variation, the number on the dice decides the level of difficulty of the topic or question. If a student rolls a 1, their partner should ask them about a nice easy topic that we often discuss with strangers, such as the weather; but if they roll a 6, they should ask them about really tricky or even taboo things like money or their love life. The other numbers represent all the other levels of difficulty in between those two extremes. This activity naturally leads on to discussion of cultural differences in conversation topics.

 

TPR activities with dice

As mentioned above, the number on the dice can decide what students should touch and count, e.g. touching the windows in the class if a 2 comes up and there are (exactly) two windows there. In addition, the sides of the dice can mean colours or objects that the students should touch, for example “1 = blue” or “1 = the floor”. You can also combine the colours and numbers, e.g. the students have to run and touch the red curtains if “5 = red” and “4 = curtains” and those numbers come up when they roll the dice twice. The students should make sure that they don’t move at all if nothing with that description is in the classroom (like the game “Simon Says”). All of these games can also be played with students throwing paper aeroplanes, pointing, etc, rather than running and touching, or touching flashcards (around the classroom or on desks between students) instead of real objects.

For more advanced classes who still like to move around, the sides of the dice can represent first letters or first sounds of things that they should touch, or stress patterns of the names of things that they should point at.

Perhaps the most common thing to put on sides of the dice, other than numbers, is prepositions of position like “on”, “under” and “in”. You can do a TPR activity with just these single words by getting the students to race to put two things in that position with respect to each other each time the dice is rolled. This is easiest if the students use the same two things each time, e.g. putting a pencil on, under, in, next to, in front of or behind their head, depending on which number comes up. This is even more fun if you ask them to leave the thing balancing there after putting it in the right place. You can also change the thing that is put into position each time by making a table with the three columns representing the first object, the preposition and the second object, meaning that three rolls of the dice can make them “Put your book in your sock”, “Put your finger under the window”, etc.

A typical TPR activity that can also be used in adult classes is miming actions, adjectives, and so on. With this, too, a dice can select single words (“jump”, etc) or sentences (“I’m cold”, etc). If the words on the board or worksheet are chosen very carefully, you can also add a throw of the dice to decide if the students should mime a positive or negative sentence (“I can + swim” versus “I can’t + swim”; “I want to + eat it” versus “I don’t want to + eat it”, etc). This can be done as a race to act out the right thing or with one person miming and other people shouting out the sentence as soon as they know what that person is doing.

 

Drawing and colouring activities with dice

The guessing and racing games just mentioned can also be played with the students drawing rather than miming, and this allows for a greater range of possible verbs, subjects, objects, etc (e.g. “The elephant + hasn’t got + legs”).

Students who have less language and/or have problems drawing can be given a worksheet with a picture on it to colour in. They then throw the dice twice to decide on which object in the picture they will colour in and what colour it will be, e.g. that the table should be blue. I generally find that colouring in takes up more time than it is worth, but a nice variation is to get the students to pretend to colour things in, for example taking pens with the caps still on and pretending to colour the classroom curtains red if that comes up on the dice and they aren’t already that colour.

 

Exam practice with dice

Using dice in exam preparation classes not only provides a break from routine, but is also a nice way of getting the students to put themselves into the examiners’ heads by trying to come up with their own possible questions. For example, both Cambridge FCE and IELTS have a limited number of common topics and a mix of questions about the present, past and future in Speaking Part One, all of which can be selected by rolling a dice. The students then try to make questions using the topic and tense indicated by the dice.

 

Alternatives to dice

Perhaps the biggest negative point about dice is the chance of forgetting to bring them to class and, therefore, completely ruining your lesson plan! However, there are ways around this, including using special functions on some IWB software or websites such as http://www.random.org/dice/. You can also replace dice with coins, something that at least one person in class is bound to have in their pocket. Click on the TEFLtastic Classics tag below for an article on that.

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