Games for large unruly classes

Should games always have a pedagogical value? No.

Inspired by an old Ajarn Forum sticky thread of the same name, here are some games that I've developed or repurposed over the years.

Some of these appear in different versions and with different names on Dave's ESL Café, but most of those were designed for smaller classes in countries like South Korea and Japan and don't work very well with larger groups in Southeast Asia.

Should games always have a pedagogical value? No. Especially not the ones that you use as energy burners and to get students' brains working in English at the start of a class. Games can also be rewards for good work. No English? No game!

For older students, first of all show them your wares and then let them tell you which their favourites are. Volume and enthusiasm will dictate which games are the most popular with younger students.

Generally, I split large classes into two teams. This gives every student the chance to be or at least feel a part of something and it encourages an often ruthless atmosphere of competition where students are firmly focused on using their English.

Let the class choose their own team names or give them funny ones yourself.

The first team to reach three points games:

Students are NOT allowed to write or use dictionaries during this game. Write a theme word, i.e. jobs or an individual letter on the board. Each team must shout out a new word. The first team to repeat a word is out and the other team is awarded a point. The next round then moves onto a different theme or letter.

This is great for reviewing new vocabulary, tenses and Q&A. Write two identical words or sentences [as blanks] on the board, one for each team. Each team calls out a letter in turn. Just play it like normal hangman. The first team to guess the word or sentence is awarded a point. Students will only ever reach hangman in this game if you give them something they've never seen before. It's fun to write up just three blanks with a new M5/6 level class though because first they'll go through all of the vowels, then they'll go through common consonants. They usually lose because the word is KFC!

The first team to reach ten points games:

Place two chairs at the front of the class facing away from the board. Have one student from each team volunteer to come and sit down. Write a word up on the board. The teams can then use gestures and language to help the two students guess what the word. This is great for reviewing opposites. Teams must not say the actual word or speak their first language. The first student to guess the word wins the point and then two more volunteers are selected. This game goes down a storm in SE Asian classrooms.

Write the alphabet, using upper- and lowercase letters, across the board. Pick two volunteers one from each team and then pronounce a phonic sound. The students then have to race to slap the letters associated with it and say a word that begins or ends with it. The winner receives a point for doing so. Keep selecting different students to take a turn. This is one of the best ways that I've found of teaching young learners and beginners the phonic alphabet.

This is good for reinforcing new vocabulary. Choose eight words and write them up on the board and on eight pieces of paper. Flip a coin or play 1, 2, 3 to see which team goes first. Hold up your pieces of paper so that students can't see the words and ask them which one you are currently looking at. Each team gets three guesses. If they guess correctly they get two points otherwise the other team is given one point. Then it's the other teams turn. Keep shuffling your pieces of paper.

This can be anything, i.e. "What am I?" [mime an animal or a job], "What am I eating? [give verbal clues and gestures], "Where am I?" [give descriptions of surroundings and what you can see], "Who am I?" [give descriptions of famous people, superheroes or even class members], etc.

5. THIS IS...
Make up a fictional character and give details about their name, age, country, likes and dislikes etc. Then play true or false, i.e. "She lives in Vietnam". If there's one game that gets a class to be quiet, this is it because if they don't listen they can't win.

Choose a theme, i.e. food, and write this up in a bubble in the centre of the board. Draw a line out from the bubble and write an example word, i.e. ‘hot dog' and then have students populate the rest of the bubble with words that they call out. Get the students to stand up and turn around and wipe one word from the board and then call out "What's missing?" The first team to say what word is missing wins the point.

Games that don't involve any points:

For first graders you need to start the minimum number of letters at three, for all other levels you can start at five. Write up one word at the top left of the board, i.e. ‘chair'. Teams take it turns to call out a single word that begins with the last letter, i.e. ‘rabbit'. Word must meet or exceed the minimum number of letters but not end with ‘y' because it limits the game. Students can use plurals to meet the minimum but they are not allowed to repeat words. As you start a new line on the board, increase the minimum by one letter. When a team gets stumped, begin a countdown from ten. The first team to be get to zero is out. I had a great fourth grade class once that could go up to a minimum of twelve letters [eight lines] and an advanced class that could go to thirteen. I have always found this game to be very popular in SE Asia.

Plan out two small dungeons on a piece of paper, say 4 x 4 or 5 x 5 squares and populate each ‘room' with things to do, find, interact with or fight. Write up the maps on the board as well as basic commands, i.e. Go_____ [north, east, south or west] / Look / Get the_____ / Use the_____ / Talk to the_____, Eat the_____, etc. Flip a coin or play 1, 2, 3 to see which team goes first and then have teams take turns to move their way around the dungeons one turn at a time. Each team starts in the top left hand box and the objective is to reach ‘home' in the bottom right hand box. The game doesn't have to have fantasy or horror themes either. I've created maps of home towns, fun parks, movies and cartoons. This game really captures the imagination of second to sixth graders, so use yours when designing maps for it.

More Geoff Richards articles


Some great ones in there. Funnily I had come up with three of those games myself in my teaching time.

By Rob Gall, Buriram (6 months ago)

Your Dungeons and Dragons game is a great idea and it works very well!

By John Bishop, Thailand (2 years ago)

Great info Geoff, and I took many notes. However, I was left wanting to hear more about your 'Dungeons and Dragons' game. You didn't go into detail about how you play the game, and so I have since designed my own version.

By Philip Bennison, Thailand (4 years ago)

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