Stuck for ideas? Here are some tried-and-tested ESL games for a compelling class! Most of these activities are easily adjustable for different levels, from kindergarten to high school. For younger learners, these can be used as the main components of your lesson. For older learners, these games are perfect for warm-ups and reviews.
Astronauts – The children can practise ‘up’, ‘down’, ‘left’ and ‘right’ by walking blindfolded around the classroom. The blindfolded student is the ‘astronaut’ and another student (on behalf of NASA, of course) should give directions to them. They should manoeuvre the astronaut around chairs and desks from one predetermined point in the classroom to another. Other students can be ‘aliens’, and use their bodies to create obstacles, for example, joining hands to create bridges for the astronaut to go under.
Bring Me… – Before class, put pictures around the room. Tell the students to bring you the picture you ask for. This game can be played with physical items, for example when teaching clothes, you can put clothes around the classroom and give the instruction, “Bring me a sock.” You can practise colours by placing pictures or objects of various colours around the classroom and giving the instruction, “Bring me something red”.
Word Relay – Whisper a word, phrase or sentence to the first student sitting in a row. They should whisper this word to the student behind them, and so on until the word reaches the final student in the row. This student comes to the front to write the word (or draw a picture representing it) on the blackboard. This can be played competitively where the fastest team with the correct word or picture is the winner.
How Do You Say ____ in English? – Students challenge another student in the class by throwing a ball to them. They should ask “How do you say (a Chinese word) in English?”. The student should reply with the English word. Once they have answered, they should throw the ball to another student and ask them another question.
- Person 1: How do you say “baba” in English?
- Person 2: Father. How do you say “mao” in English?
- Person 3: Cat. How do you say….
If the student answers incorrectly, or can’t answer within five seconds, they should sit down and stop playing.
This can also be played in teams as part of a competition, where every student left standing in each team represents one point.
Origami – Show students how to fold various paper animals such as a cat or a jumping frog. This is a good way to practise shape vocabulary such as ‘square’, ‘triangle’ and ‘rectangle’.
The Right Order – Choose, for example, seven students and give each student a card with a different day of the week on it. Ask them to put themselves in the right order by speaking English. It also works well to have an “extra” student with no card to be the leader and arrange the students. You can also ask them to organise themselves alphabetically or put the months of the year in the correct order. This can be a timed activity to encourage competition between teams.
Pictionary – Students are divided into two teams. The first person from each team comes to the front and draws a picture on the blackboard. The person sitting behind them should name the object or concept they have drawn. Everyone draws and guesses in turn. The winning team is the first team in which everyone has drawn and sat down.
Pictionary Pairs – Each student has a stack of small papers (this is a good use for small pieces of leftover scrap paper). One partner will draw quickly for one minute, while the other partner names what they are drawing. Each time they guess correctly, the person drawing should give them the paper. After one minute, the students switch and the other person will draw. The students should then switch partners several times for several more rounds of drawing. The winner is the person who has collected the most pieces of paper (and should tell the class in English what each drawing is).
Teacher Says/ Do as I Say, Not as I Do –Two variants of the childhood game ‘Simon Says’.
1) If you say, “Teacher says ‘touch your nose’”, then the students should touch their nose. However, if you only say “touch your nose”, they should not.
2) A more challenging variant is “Do as I Say, Not as I Do.” Firstly, the teacher should say “touch your nose”, while touching their own nose. After giving an order and performing a congruent action several times, the teacher should perform an incongruent action, for example, saying “touch your head” while touching their shoulders. The children should listen carefully and carry out the verbal instruction, not copy the teacher’s action.
What is the Same? Draw two columns on the blackboard. Draw a tick at the top of one, and a cross at the top of the other. The aim is to get the students to guess a concept you have in mind, for example, “something white”, “animals with four legs” or “words with five letters.” This concept is the relationship the words in the tick column have with each other.
Write the first word under the tick column. The students should start to guess related words, and use different words to test their hypotheses. (Ensure they don’t just start guessing the answer before testing their theories by only giving them three chances at the answer.)
The concept can be any property of the word itself or its referent, and difficulty should be adjusted as the students come to understand the game. Students should be invited to the front to allow the class to guess their own idea. This is a fantastic idea for developing logic and problem-solving while practising English vocabulary.
Odd-one-out – Present the class with four pictures. At first, there should be an obvious difference in one of the pictures, for example, show them three pictures of a cat and one of a dog. Ask the class which is different. Next, show three photos of cats along with one photo of a rabbit – ensure also that three of the animals are black and one is white. Three photos may contain one animal, and one photo may contain two animals. Eventually, the photos can be four almost random photos – the students will surprise you with the similarities and differences they are able to find.
Spot the Difference – There are many free spot-the-difference activities for children online. Ask the students to give you one or two simple sentences explaining what is different. For example, the student may point and say: “Here is a fish. There is no fish.”
Draw the Tail on the Donkey – Draw a donkey (except for the tail) on the blackboard. Practise ‘up,’ ‘down’, ‘left’, and ‘right’ by asking pairs of students to draw the tail. One blindfolded student should listen to directions given by their partner, and try to draw an accurate tail.
Which is Missing? – Show the class some pictures on a PowerPoint of real objects. Delete a photo or remove one of the objects. Ask the class to tell you which is missing. This creates a more interesting alternative to drilling vocabulary and also practises memory skills.
Taboo – A classic ESL game. One student should come to the front of the class and use English to describe words (or pictures) on a card. Their team should try to guess as many words as possible within a set timeframe. Younger students may use actions and gestures too.
Charades – Teach actions along with vocabulary. Invite students to come to the front and perform an action for the class. The class should call out the correct vocabulary item. For older students, you may wish not to teach an action but allow their theatrical nature to take over! This not only drills vocabulary, but reminds students that gestures and body languages are fundamental tools to communicate when speaking English.
Bingo – Download or create unique bingo cards for your class (a good resource is https://www.kidscerts.com/bingo/create.html).
There are numerous variations of the Bingo game:
- Beginners can simply listen for a word such as “carrot”, and circle the correct square on their bingo card.
- Similarly, you can describe the vocabulary and ask the students to circle the correct items. For example, “This food is orange. It is long. It is a vegetable.”
- This can also be used as a speaking activity. Fill the bingo card with various pets, and instruct students to move around the room and ask each other: “Do you have a pet?” If the student answers that they have a dog, they can circle one of the ‘dog’ squares and should write that student’s English name on the tile.
The first person to get five squares in a row should raise their hand and shout “Bingo!” After checking they have the correct answers, the student can be given a sticker or other reward.
Bullseye – Students who answer a question correctly get a paper aeroplane to throw at a target on the board. This can be amended to fit any theme: for example, throw a snowball (balled up scrap paper) at a snowman during a topic on winter or Christmas, or a wet cloth at a witch on Halloween.
Board Erase – Draw pictures or write words on the board. Two students (generally representing different teams) race to erase the word or picture you say. Each erased word or picture is one point.
Treasure Hunt – Before class, hide some candy or another reward somewhere in the class. Hide clues around the room leading to the treasure. These should be riddles for the students to solve, for example: “I’m green and leafy. Some animals eat me.” The answer is “Plant”, so the student that solves the riddle should search the plants around the classroom, find the next clue and read it out loud. This continues until the treasure is found. Suitable for Grade 3 and up; clues can be amended for difficulty.
Drawing from Dictation – The teacher can use vocabulary the class has practised to dictate a picture. For example, body parts can be practised by drawing a monster. Tell the class: “He has seven eyes. He has eight arms…”
You can also teach nature vocabulary such as “trees”, “flowers”, “river”, “rainbow” and bring in number and colour vocabulary to draw a landscape. Tell the class, “There are three blue flowers. There are two pink flowers. There are four trees…”
For older or more advanced students, students can work in pairs to dictate pictures to each other, for example their family or their dream house.
You may wish to invite students to show their finished pictures using the projector, and ask questions to elicit English from the rest of the class such as “Do you like it?”, “Is it beautiful?” and “How many legs?”)
Which Classmate? – This works well to practise clothes (if the students are not in uniform) or describing people. One student comes to the front and thinks of a person in the class. The other students ask questions such as “Boy or girl?”, “Tall or short?” and “Do they wear glasses?” in order to guess which classmate the student has in mind.
Hotseat – Invite one student to come to the front and write a word on the blackboard behind them (or for added entertainment – gently stick a picture of the vocabulary item to the student’s forehead). The student should ask the class questions to guess the word, and the class should only answer “Yes” or “No”. With more advanced students, this can also be done competitively, with the lowest number of questions indicating the winner.
Dress Up – Bring in some old clothes. Allow students to dress each other up, using a sentence such as “Wear the t-shirt”. Students can get creative with outfits such as putting socks over their arms or trousers around their neck.
Bidding War – Divide the class into two teams. Ask each team to tell you how many words they can give you beginning with a particular letter. The teams can bid against each other, until one team wins the chance to play. This team must then give you the number of words they bet that they would able to give you – if they are unable to meet this number in the time allowed, a point is given to the other team.
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