The Calculator Game

Brian Perry, Nagoya University



  • Key Words: Fluency, Technology-assisted language learning
  • Learner English Level: Intermediate to Advanced
  • Learner Maturity Level: Jr./Sr. High School and above
  • Preparation Time: 1 hour or less
  • Activity Time: one class period or less

It can be frustrating for language teachers to set up a classroom speaking activity, such as a discussion or role play, only to find that the resultant language is slow, stilted and subject to frequent pauses. Because students tend to be self-conscious and wary of making mistakes, the flow of speech is often interrupted by the mental pre-checking of an intended utterance, sometimes confirming it with a dictionary or a neighbor. Clearly this is unnatural. Native speakers produce utterances while ignoring errors. Like the overused metaphor of driving a car: a beginner is always thinking about what pedals to press, what signals to make next, how fast to drive etc.--actions which come naturally to an experienced driver. Wouldn't it be desirable if we could find an activity that overcomes our students' fear of making mistakes and encourages them to speak without having to think continually and consciously about what they are saying?

With this in mind I would like to describe an oral activity which I call the "calculator game". Students take turns being "the solver" who has to calculate a long multiplication problem. For example:

X 684

A second student is assigned the responsibility of timing the solver; another is given a pocket calculator to check the answer. After the start signal is given, the solver must try to calculate the answer as fast as possible. Meanwhile, the others in the group must try and slow him or her down by asking questions in English which must also be answered in English (no Japanese allowed). After each student has had a turn at calculating a slightly different sum, albeit with the same degree of difficulty, the student with the fastest time is declared the winner. To encourage accuracy, the solution is checked by the student with the calculator. For each incorrect digit in the answer, a penalty of 30 seconds is added to the time.


It is clearly in the interest of the other students to slow the solver down as much as possible. They soon realize that to do this they must fire as many questions as possible at the solver, and they must also ask questions that may confuse him or her, such as those that require numbers in the answer. For example, what is your telephone number? Or, when is your birthday?

This is an activity that rarely fails. Students are soon rapidly asking questions. More importantly, the solver has to answer while at the same time furiously trying to compute the calculation. In short, there is no time to think or worry about making a mistake, and the students get practice in communication that focuses on what they want to say, rather than how to say it.