Ajarn Street

‘Sanook’, games and the Thai EFL classroom

Should teachers be entertainers?

Thailand is described as "the land of smiles". The Thai smile is an intriguing and beguiling concept to the uninitiated and has been the subject of countless articles. Undoubtedly linked to this is the Thai fascination with ‘sanook'.

The Thai word, "sanook" roughly translates as ‘fun' but in truth, it means much more to that to Thais. It is a deep-rooted cultural value that has great importance in everyday Thai life.
Throw in some of the finest cuisine the world has to offer, a balmy sub-tropical climate, beautiful landscapes and it is not hard to see why Thailand is still such a popular destination for EFL teachers.

One would think that the Thais' love of ‘sanook' would make the EFL classroom an inviting place for new EFL teachers but one thing that I sometimes hear teachers say here is, "The school just wants me to play games with the kids!" As far as problems in the classroom go, on the face of it, this appears like a very trifling one. However, for a newbie teacher wanting to impart knowledge and language skills to her or his students, the situation can be frustrating.

It can be, in no small part, down to a breakdown in communication with teacher and school (which is one reason why it is useful to have a school coordinator who can communicate effectively with both the school in Thai and the teacher in English. The school is not asking the teacher to be an entertainer in the classroom. Most likely, they are asking the teacher to have activities that the students view as games which improve their acquisition of language.

Why do schools ask teachers to teach using games?

There is a strong body of evidence to suggest that games are effective for learning so there is a very good reason why schools might want their EFL teachers to incorporate them into their teaching. Below are just a couple of the reasons that are given by academics:

1)Games present material in an engaging way
-The more intense and interesting the material is, the more likely it is to be retained. Games that engage learners through effective use of visuals, audio and storyline are more engaging.

2)Games encourage ‘rewards' and ‘mastery'
-Rewards are crucial for motivation but if players receive rewards too frequently without sufficient challenge, the motivation decreases. However, players (learners) are driven to repeatedly practice in games until mastery is achieved. The point at which mastery is achieved is not fixed. This adds an element of randomness to when the reward (mastery of the game) is earned which in turn, increases motivation.

What games can I use in the EFL classroom?

Any good TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) course will look at a variety of games to use in the EFL (English as a foreign language) classroom and there are some great resources online too. However, there is an aspect of EFL teaching that is overlooked by resources that you might come across online and this is suitable games for kindergarten (students aged between approximately three years old to five years old) EFL classes.

EFL is taught all around the world but Thailand is one of only a few countries where there is a focus on it from a very young age. Children as young as 3 years old will study EFL with a foreign teacher. This is one of the reasons why effective TEFL courses in Thailand will look at equipping their trainees with skills to teach EFL to kindergarten learners.

Having looked at how games are an effective tool for learning, it is also important to see how we might fit them in to a structured lesson. 

The PPP methodology for teaching English as a foreign language

PPP is a well-established methodology for teaching English as a foreign language and I shall borrow from a previous article (the full text along with some videos showing the methodology in action can be found here to give an overview of what it entails.

"The PPP method could be characterized as a common-sense approach to teaching as it consists of 3 stages that most people who have learnt how to do anything will be familiar with.
The first stage is the presentation of an aspect of language in a context that students are familiar with, much the same way that a swimming instructor would demonstrate a stroke outside the pool to beginners.

The second stage is practice, where students will be given an activity that gives them plenty of opportunities to practice the new aspect of language and become familiar with it whilst receiving limited and appropriate assistance from the teacher. To continue with the analogy, the swimming instructor allowing the children to rehearse the stroke in the pool whilst being close enough to give any support required and plenty of encouragement.

The final stage is production where the students will use the language in context, in an activity set up by the teacher who will be giving minimal assistance, like the swimming instructor allowing his young charges to take their first few tentative strokes on their own."

Kindergarten EFL

I encourage our trainees to use the same methodology in the kindergarten classroom. Below, are a couple of examples of production stage activities that encourage students to use the language they have acquired during the lesson independently.

Most importantly, the kids see the activities as games and ‘sanook', if you like.

Spin the bottle 

I imagine that many of you have played a game like this before but in a slightly more adult setting. The aim of the game in a kindergarten EFL class is to have a student spin a bottle in the middle as other students are arranged in a semi-circle around them and the teacher. The bottle will stop spinning and will point to a flashcard or prop that represents an item of vocabulary that has been taught in the lesson. It could be as simple as a ‘banana' in a lesson on ‘fruits', for example. The student in the middle will be encouraged by the teacher to name the item of vocabulary as will the whole class after that.

Very young learners will lack very advanced motor-skills and it will be a challenge for them to spin the bottle correctly and it can be a lot of fun for them to master this. The material is presented in an engaging way and they feel supported in the activity by both the teacher and their peers who will want to help them identify the item of vocabulary.

The dice game

Young learners would struggle to roll small dice so why not give them a great big dice to roll! You could use a cardboard box that you might find at a grocery store or a supermarket. Have colourful flashcards stuck to each side of the box that represent the vocabulary taught in the lesson. Students roll the dice and have to identify the item of vocabulary that is on the side that lands ‘face-up'.

Unlike the ‘spin the bottle' described above, young learners do not have much difficulty in throwing the dice in this game! Rather, they enjoy the many different ways they can throw it immensely! The challenge for them here is often to throw it in such a way that it lands on the item of vocabulary that they want to identify but this is obviously largely controlled by the laws of probability.

The games described above work well for our trainees in the teaching practices that they have on their 4-week course with us here. This is because they are relatively easy to manage which is important as they will not have met their students before they teach their lesson at one of the local schools that we go to.

When teaching in the real world, you can design more dynamic games that involve a lot more movement for your students as you will have had the benefit of teaching them over a long period of time and will have developed more of a rapport with them.

Years ago when people were looking to teach EFL abroad, they would have been looking at jobs in language schools across the world teaching adults. The landscape is very different now so if designing and playing games with very young learners whilst teaching them EFL sounds like it might be your cup of tea, then teaching in Thailand might be right up your street.

Shouvik Mukherjee TEFL trainer, SEE TEFL, Chiang Mai, Thailand


I agree and disagree. When you work at schools with an IEP, EP or adv. English course, you gotta be serious and firm like the Thai teachers. If you are a fun teacher with these types of students, you CAN BE viewed as a teacher who doesn't really care about teaching and the students won't take you seriously. Meanwhile, at other schools with students who have been learning "How are you?" since kindergarten and still don't quite understand what it means, playing games are crucial for the learning process. The truth is that few people care about English in Thailand. This country has the strongest tourism industry despite having the lowest proficiency of English in ASEAN according to a 2015 EF study. Mix that in with the fact that students cannot fail a class = LOW to NO motivate to learn English. So you must play games or the students and the teacher will be bored out of their mind. Any thoughts on this?

By Teacher Ken, Ayutthaya (21st March 2018)

I taught Nursery and Year 1 in the UK. Games are the best way to teach young children anything. My Thai children enjoy "Find the ice-cream", which has upper case letters on cones, and lower case on the ice-cream, and they are required to put the two together correctly, and all my children have enjoyed "Feed the penguin", where the child correctly pronounces the phoneme on the paper fish before putting it in the hole in the box which corresponds to the penguin's mouth. These 'games' are never referred to as 'matching upper case and lower case letters' or 'phoneme recognition' practices.

This does not only apply in Phonics or TEFL, I remember playing 'shop' in primary school in the Sixties. We paired up with another pupil and took turns being the shopkeeper and the customer, it was never referred to as 'addition and subtraction practice' or 'learning about decimal currency' (we played with "new money" ) and it was only when I underwent my teacher training that I fully understood why we were allowed to 'play'.

By Norman, Thailand (30th September 2017)


You're trying to reason with and use logic with a man who's gone 'Apocalypse Now' in Thailand. Read his replies and he's always trying to shut people down from being adults and trying to have a discussion about something they've experienced and enjoy talking about. Any criticism of the education system is always met with being accused of being arrogant and acting culturally superior. Sadly, they're not met with any reason or any real discussion.

I've had good and bad experiences of the schools here. Working for a good school with a good boss will leave you with good experiences. As is my case now. I've worked for bad schools, too. But I'd never tell anyone that their experience is wrong. That's theirs and no one gets to tell them how to feel about it.

Don't like the school you work for? Move to a new school. There are good schools out there. Treat your job interview as you interviewing them too. If you get the vibe that the boss or person interviewing you is a deceitful and disingenuous prick, move on. So many schools out there who badly need teachers. The ball is slowly but surely going deeper into the teacher's court now. So deep that you might meet Colonel Kurtz camouflaged and retreated in the middle.

By Lewis, Bangkok (26th September 2017)


The proof is in the pudding as they say. Take a look around Thailand and at the general level of English ability. Nowhere did I see Toms post refer to Thai culture as bad, He just pointed out the key pitfalls which I can say I also encountered in the 4 years I taught (wasted) in Thailand. I would honestly like to know the positive stereotypes of Thai students in terms of their attitude to learning outside of things related to their own impenetrable culture.

Smiling, Being kind and generally respectful are wonderful things but the undercurrent of "we don't need to do this anyway but the Thai way" reigns supreme. Don't worry, I have already taken your advice and moved on from TEFL in Thailand long ago.

By Dan, Moved on (22nd September 2017)

An interesting article which makes a number of good points; and it is agreed quality education and enjoyment are not mutually exclusive concepts.

While I can’t say I enjoyed Tom’s rant filled with a bunch of overused and negative stereotypes of Thais. He did make it very clear he believes in the simplistic notion he and his culture are “good” and Thais and their culture are “bad.” If Tom is currently an English teacher in Thailand, it is strongly suggested he examine his other options for making a livelihood.

By Jack, Not where I was (21st September 2017)

Games? People around the world study English. I, myself, am from a Central European Country. I learned English at school from good teachers, good textbooks and great school TV.

Today I am a 99% near-native speaker. The English proficiency level in places like Scandinavia, The Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, etc., is very high among the populace. This is NOT because students at school learn foreign languages via games, but because of a great educational system, good resources, conversational practice, and critical thinking.

The lack of resources at schools in Thailand (no good textbooks, no paper for the teacher: "Oh teacher, you don't need paper.", broken and outdated equipment, etc., but also the lack of good teachers (Thai English teachers, teaching the language for decades, but hardly able to string together a meaningful sentence, or communicate with foreigners!), and nonexistence of any critical thinking, are the reason why students in Thailand don't have a chance to learn English!

Add to that the attitude: "No need English.", and you get an idea why people in much poorer countries (e.g. Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar) are better at English than Thai kids who study the language from kindergarten on!

Oh yes, in case you wondered, with a TOEIC of 980 points, at what age I started learning English: I started learning the language at the tender age of 13!

By Tom, Bangkok (19th September 2017)

The article and the quote provided clearly states students should be presented language in a context they are familiar with. It in no way suggests that the language itself should be familiar. Context in language learning is huge, it allows learners to piece together their own understanding without full comprehension of everything their teacher is saying. In a classroom of elementary learners this becomes even more important. This is without question where a 3ps methodology would be most effective. More control is needed from the teacher, learners are not adept enough to become exploratory in their learning.

Sometimes it pays to be more mindful when offering critique of what I felt was a well written, useful and interesting article.

By KC, Bangkok (19th September 2017)

Steve C.

Although 'context' and 'content' both contain 7 letters and begin with the letter 'c', they do have separate meanings.

Gone for good, Where ever i want

'Play' was an intrinsic part of how you, when you were kindergarten age, mastered your first language and the world around you. It is Nature's teacher.

In addition, a quick Google of the word 'sanook' will tell you that it doesn't mean 'interesting'. One result - but there are hundreds more:


By John, Chiang Mai (19th September 2017)

"The first stage is the presentation of an aspect of language in a context that students are familiar with, "

How are the students taught anything if you only ever present language they are familiar with?

Where and when are you introducing new things?

By Steve C, bangkok (18th September 2017)

Mastery has nothing to do with remembering. IF you want deep knowledge you make mistakes. Play does not give that mastery because rules are applied and therefore problem solving limited.

Sanook does not mean fun. It means interesting. Understanding your world and questioning it is how you educate.

Those that must play games are doing so as a fun way to rote learn, Increase competition and generally make the slower students feel left out.

Please educate and not institutionalize these kids. Passing a test does not mean you are educated. It just means you have done what you were told. My example would be all the people that paid huge amounts of money for a degree only to find they will never be much more than a debt slave.

and for the second time "Sanook actually means interesting". a very old fashioned idea but still the basis of education and life in general.

By Gone for good, Where ever i want (18th September 2017)

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