March 2016
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David Dodgson , British Council, Manama, Bahrain

Imagine the following scenario: You find yourself in a room with only one exit, an elevator door in the middle of the room. You soon discover that you need a key to open it. Looking around, you see an old painting, a sofa, a small table with a drawer, a large chest, a bookcase, and what appears to be a ventilation outlet with a grey box behind it. Where will you look first?

This is the scenario you find yourself in when playing the popular game app Can You Escape? Each level presents a different room, and you must interact with the objects around the room, find useful and hidden items, solve puzzles, and eventually discover a key, card, or code to open the door and escape. And then it starts all over again in a new room!

The game is simple yet addictive with challenging but short puzzles. It has spawned several sequels and many imitators. It has also become a regular feature in my ESL classroom. At first glance, it seems strange that such a game is used in the language classroom. It features very few words and, as an app, it is geared toward single-player use with no real need for interaction.

However, it is the apparent lack of language that makes it suitable for in-classroom use. Language in a game can actually be restrictive for ESL students, as they need to focus on comprehension of specific preprogrammed terms, which may be above their level. With few or no words, there is more space for language production and more flexibility to appeal to different learner levels. Interaction can also be encouraged with well-designed collaborative activities. The game merely offers a starting point to build a series of activities around.

Indeed, “Can You Escape?” is suitable for classroom use in many ways: It is a cross-platform app so it does not matter if your school has iPads, Androids, or a BYOD set-up; it is free to download; it is easy to get to grips with; and it has no content that may be considered inappropriate for use by children. Personally, I have used this app with ESL students aged 12–14, but the game is by no means restricted to young learners—it is challenging enough to engage teenagers, university students, and adult learners as well.

So, how can we use this game in an ESL setting? I will now share a few ideas I have used to get my students engaging with and producing English as they play. I will also highlight how the order of the activities helps the learners develop their thinking skills in line with Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy ("Revised Bloom's Taxonomy", n.d.).

Give Me a Hand

Idea: Attract the students’ interest by asking them to help you as you play through Level 1
Great for:
practicing language for giving advice, making suggestions, or, at a simpler level, giving instructions
Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy:
Remembering (recognizing) and Understanding (explaining, interpreting)

Young students often assume that their teachers are not up to speed when it comes to technology. I play to this a little when I first introduce the app in class by showing the game to them on my device and saying that I do not know how to compete the first level. I then invite advice and suggestions from them in order to complete the level. It is important not to let them take over the device so that the language keeps coming. After this, you should allow time for the students to play through the same level on their own devices. This is best done in pairs to encourage interaction.

Live Listening

Idea: Engage students in an intensive listening activity by talking them through a level
Great for: real-time listening for detail
Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy: Understanding (interpreting, exemplifying) and Applying (executing)

Before this activity, you will need to make a list of instructions for completing the next stage, adjusting the language according to the level and age of your class. Read out the instructions one at a time, making it clear that they must be followed exactly with no jumping ahead. Pause between each instruction to allow the learners to perform the actions on screen or ask clarification questions if necessary. This works very well as a live listening activity. The students must listen and respond to the instructions in real time, creating an intensive listening experience without them ever realizing it. After the level is completed, get the class to tell each instruction back to you as a way to focus on the language more actively.

Walking Through the Jumble

Idea: Give the students the solution but make them work to understand it
Great for: Reading comprehension and negotiation of meaning
Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy: Understanding (interpreting, exemplifying), Applying (executing), and Analyzing (organizing, attributing)

Again, you will need to prepare a list of instructions for your students before they attempt the relevant level. However, instead of giving the instructions to the students directly, give them out of sequence. The students must then play through the level and decide what order the instructions should be placed in. Of course, there may be more than one correct order, so it is a good idea to get different pairs to compare their answers after playing. This activity encourages the learners to analyze the actions they have taken in the game and compare them to the written instructions on the handout, again offering intensive receptive skills practice without them ever realizing it. Alternatively, the walkthrough guide could be incomplete or contain deliberate errors, encouraging the students to play through the level and complete the guide with the correct information.

Active Walkthroughs

Idea: Get students producing language to guide each other through a level
Great for: Processing and retelling visual information
Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy: Understanding (summarizing) and Evaluating (checking)

Having listened to and read through walkthrough guides, it is now time for your learners to be more active in their production of language. In the game or on YouTube, you will find video guides to each level. Like the game itself, these clips contain no language. They simply show the solutions to the puzzles in the level. Again, the learners work in pairs but they each have their own device. One watches the video and explains what to do while the other listens and follows the instructions. For the next level, they swap roles. After each level, ask the class to come up with an agreed set of instructions on the board, allowing for language analysis and error correction.

Learner Walkthroughs

Idea: Students produce their own guide to a level
Great for: Writing instructions and explanations
Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy: Creating (planning, producing) and Evaluating (checking, critiquing)

The final stage is for the learners to produce their own guides. Let them play through a level, noting down the steps they take as they do so. After they have finished playing, they then write out their own walkthrough guide. This can be adapted to different levels easily with lower levels writing a simple list of commands but higher levels being encouraged to be more descriptive by writing paragraphs. The guides can then be exchanged between groups and peer edited before producing a definitive class version. This could even be extended to the entire game (or one of the sequels) by asking different groups to produce guides for different levels, ultimately creating a guide to the entire game.

As stated at the beginning of this article, the lack of content language in a game like “Can You Escape?” allows for a great deal of language generation on the part of the learners. Through the activities outlined above, they are encouraged to focus on language and practice listening, reading, writing, and speaking as they play the game. The game itself offers a rich context to drive their comprehension and production of language forward. By trying to escape the room, we can raise the level of learning that takes place in it.


"Revised Bloom's Taxonomy" (n.d.) Retrieved from

David Dodgson has spent the last 16 years working in ESL classrooms in Europe and Africa. He believes personalizing the learning process is the key to success in the language classroom and has a strong interest in using and adapting authentic input for learners of all levels. You can learn more about his work at, a site dedicated to game-based learning.

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