Let ‘Hangman’ Hang

To start off with, let me just say that I have never ever liked ‘Hangman’. You know, the game where you have guess the word(s) by calling out letters of the alphabet before the man is hung up on a scaffold. It is not because the act of hanging runs contrary to my political sensibilities but because I have never found it particularly exciting or interesting as a game. Just as some people, I am sure, do not particularly enjoy a game of noughts and crosses (or tic-tac-toe in the US).

So, I want to take this opportunity to move beyond my personal feelings about Hangman and relate the game to its pervasive appearance in English language classrooms. In so doing, I hope that a more serious point about matching aims and activities can be made.

Because ‘Hangman’ is ubiquitous, isn’t it? I don’t know how many times I have had to endure a game of Hangman whilst observing lessons. However, I know it is a lot.

The teacher draws seven dashes across the white board, and you and the students know what is coming. The students then spend a few minutes randomly shouting out different letters of the alphabet and words which might or might not have seven letters, usually all at the same time. Not all of the learners, mind you, because it seems that not all students seem to particularly enjoy the game either. After a few minutes of this, one of the students will manage to get her voice heard above the hullabaloo and shout out the correct answer. Failing this, the teacher will obviously decide that this is no longer fun anymore and complete the gaps herself.

So, what is the point? And this is a question I always ask teachers in post-lessons discussions. More often than not, the answer is ‘to introduce the topic of the lesson’. And this may be the case. The topic is clearly established. However, there must be more efficient ways of setting the topic of a lesson, like just writing ‘clothes’ across the board. Some people also try to justify Hangman by stating that it somehow activates students’ schemata about the topic. Well, it doesn’t. The only thing it might activate in students are the letters of the alphabet and maybe the retrieval of vocabulary items. Surely, if we wanted to activate the learners’ schemata about a topic then wouldn’t it be better to give them a number of clothing items and get them to say what they have in common i.e they are all items of clothing?

Going beyond whether or not Hangman is a ‘fun’ game and the learners enjoy playing it (both debatable to say the least), the only language learning objective I can fathom for playing Hangman is to get students to practice producing the letters of the alphabet. And interestingly enough, this aim is very rarely given by teachers who get their students to play Hangman.

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Dominic Walters

I am CELTA and DELTA qualified and have an MA in Educational Psychology. I have been teaching English since 1991, working in Brazil, Republic of Ireland, Spain, Portugual, Egypt and the UK. I am a DELTA, ICELT, CELTA, FTBE assessor and tutor as well as a CELTA online course tutor. I am also an examiner for the Cambridge, IELTS, Trinity exams.

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