Monthly Archives: January 2015

Survival: The Shipwreck Game

Learning Aim

I use this game as an aid to encourage English conversation for both children and adults. The students can talk within their team, between teams and with the teacher.

It works best with English language proficiency levels of Intermediate (B2) and above.

It introduces new vocabulary about islands, the tropics and ships and seafaring.

In lower ability classes you can teach them future phrases like “I will search for…”  “I want to find…” or “I hope the boat does not sink“.


The situation – a shipwrecked survivor – seems to be familiar to all people. Many people know of Robinson Crusoe or the film Castaway.

Players seem to like working out survive strategies. It engages students and gets the class to think of imaginative solutions to problems.


The game is best if you divide the class into teams of 4 to 6.
Each turn a different team member is nominated to be the leader of the team. This person should lead the discussion and will take the decision for the team that turn.
Let all the teams discuss their next move. The teacher calls time and invites each leader to write down their “order” for the next turn.

At the end of the game, the teacher should invite each team to criticise the choices of the other team and speculate as to who would survive or be rescued.

Explaining the game – its mostly a shared story

I start the game by drawing a tropical island on the board and asking the class if they can name things they would typically find on such an island. I start by drawing a mountain and palm trees. After the class has exhausted their vocab I start to add things like coconut trees, banana trees, streams of fresh water, coral reefs, wild pigs and goats.

I then draw a sailing ship wrecked on the coast.

On the ship I draw “compartments” and I number them from the bow to the stern in descending order, starting at 8 or 7 down to 3. I do not explain these to the players.

I tell the class a story.

They are on the ship that has been shipwrecked and we are going to play a game called “survival”. I draw a stick figure on the shore and tell them that they have managed to get off the ship and they are alone and standing their in the pyjamas on the beach, and are wet, tired, thirsty, and hungry. Their ship is stuck on a reef and still afloat though it is taking in water through a hole in the bow of the ship.

I tell them that there are things on the ship that they might get that will help them to survive.

I divide them into teams. I ask the teams to discuss what item they want from the ship. I ask them to nominate a leader or spokesperson.


I do not use any rules for finding the item they require. What I do is to ask the player where they might expect to find the item they are searching for on the ship.

I want them to give a rationale, an explanation. Sometimes if they do not give a good enough reason – my judgement – I will let them find a lesser type of object. For example they often saw they want a gun. Unless they tell a good story about why the ship has rifles with lots of ammunition, I let them find a pistol and a few bullets.


Every time a player goes back onto the ship they risk making the ship unsteady and it might take on more water and possibly sink.
To simulate this I use a simple system called EDNA* (Ever Decreasing Number Allocation). This is a simple disaster modelling system. 
The target number is the largest uncrossed number in a ship’s compartment. The player rolls two dice.

  • If the sum of the dice is less than the target number then that compartment withstands the sea and does not flood. 
  • If the sum is equal or higher than the target number, then that compartment floods. 
  • If the sum is higher and a double, then two compartments flood.
When all compartments are flooded the ship sinks taking any unwary player down with them.
So long as the ship does not sink, the player always manage to collect the item they are searching for.

Sometimes if the players are being slow or cannot agree I warn them that the wind is picking up and the waves are tossing the ship about on the water and water is flooding into the ship. If they don’t get the hint, I make the leader roll the dice, and determine if the compartment floods. I do not allow them to collect anything. It rarely comes to this, but it does add to the excitement.


Using the image of the ship above as an example. 
The players have already gone to the ship to retrieve two items, an axe and something to make a fire with. On the last of those forays they have rolled an 8 or more, but not a double 4, 5 or 6, and one compartment in the bow has flooded. The compartment with 8 is now crossed off.
If they want to go on the boat to search for something else they will need to roll 2 – 6 to avoid flooding another compartment. On a roll of 7 to 12 one compartment will flood, if the roll is a double 4, 5  or 6, two compartments will flood.

Completed game

Below are two completed games, I played with Max (11) and Nico (8), two Italian boys who have recently started living in England and picking up English. We all took it in turns to draw on the paper.

The boys were good, and selected relevant things, like clothes, an axe, tinned food, a knife and matches. But both pushed their luck too far and went back to the nearly flooded ship and sank when the ship was overwhelmed by the sea.

Materials required

  • Two six sided dice
  • Pen and paper, or whiteboard and markers

Time required

This game can easily take an hour to play. It could be done as a quick 15 minute session.

You can vary the game duration by telling more elaborate stories or discussing some vocab in more detail.

Modelling a catastrophic event

*EDNA was invented by Graham Hockley. I first used it in 1990. It has been incorporated into a some game rules.

EDNA is a simple but effective method to model an unpredictable catastrophic event that becomes more likely as time passes. It does not degrade a situation, it models sudden and absolute change from one state into another state. The ship is afloat; the ship is sunk. The volcano is dormant; the volcano is erupting. There is no half-way degraded state.

The probabilities are:

Succeed         Fail
<8 = 58%        >=9 = 42%
<7 = 42%        >=8 = 58% 
<6 = 27%        >=7 = 73%   

<5 = 16%        >=6 = 84%

<4 = 11%        >=5 = 89%
<3 = 03%        >=4 = 97%

What are new skills to teach in the 21st Century

One brave blogger has attempted to list the skills they thought are the important ones for school children to have in the 21st Century.


They had broken their list into three parts:

  1. Totally new skills (did not exist pre-21st Century)
  2. Skills that existed in the past but are much more important now
  3. Skills that are always in demand but now have technology to help!

As I read the list I wondered about how these skills should be imparted? Should they be directly taught? For example tell them we are going learn touch typing and how to position the hands and which fingers are used on which keys. Or should we teach them via work? As them, for example, to write 200 words about their favourite film and the first person to finish gets to read it out.

For me any listing of 21st Century skills should be broken down into these parts:

  1. Best taught directly
  2. Best acquired by doing as part of other work
  3. Best a blend of both

And then it might become more apparent which skills a teacher should be concentrating on in designing lessons.

What’s a game for a teacher?

I came across this:

while many teachers say they are using digital games in the classroom, a lot of the time they just mean interactive activities or worksheets.”

With this example.

"For example, a recent study from A-GAMES, a research collaboration between New York 
University and the University of Michigan, last year surveyed 488 K-12 teachers, and 
found that “more than half of teachers (57 percent) use digital games weekly or more often in teaching.” That’s a pretty high adoption rate. But according to Millstone, “the most frequently used ‘games’ aren’t really games at all.” Teachers seem to label any 
interactive activity that happens on a laptop or a tablet a ‘game.’ The categories are unclear. To which activity does each buzzword refer? What counts as blended learning? 
What’s the difference between game-based learning and gamification?"

Teachers or administrators, who’s the real problem?

Like most debates agreeing on definitions is the starting point. Though at the moment I have a few questions first.

  • What is a game?
  • Do teachers define games differently when they use them in education?
  • Do the participants distinguish between playing a game for “fun” and playing a game in classroom?

I used games in teaching to the learners talking and thinking in English, in TEFL classes. My answer to the above three questions is that you have to remember to respect the players desire to have an outcome.

As the teacher I am not concerned or interested in who won the game, or how the players were ranked at the end of the game. I just want my lesson aims to be achieved. But if you have really engaged your learners – and this applies to adults as well as children – they will want to know their scores or at least what happened at the end. There is an need for immediate outcome: success, or failure. There is a need to compare each others achievement. They are competitive.

If “the thing you call a game” doesn’t provide

  1. an outcome – success or failure
  2. comparative performance – a ranking structure that is obvious to all participants
  3. the thrill of competition

It ain’t a game.