Knowing what you need to teach is one thing; knowing how to teach it is something else.
A good teacher is like a magician, capable of randomly producing things from up their sleeve to keep their audience attentive. Always be conscious of how you could lift a lesson with one of these games or tasks.
Sometimes students need to get away from their books and just use English for a specific purpose, and games such as some of these below add a competitive edge that gives students all the motivation they need.
This blog explains the various activities that can be used to engage with students. Think of these as some of the tools you need as a teacher, and be ready to adapt them as necessary for your classes. Some of these ideas may seem as though they are just designed as warmers at the start of the class, but they can easily be used in the main body of a lesson to check students are on-task, and to ensure they remain interested.
Warmers are an important part of a lesson. They aren’t just there to fill time while you figure out what page they’re on today. A simple warmer should be either used to review the previous lesson or set the scene for the day’s class. If done well, students become interested and are then easily led into the main task.
Here are some ideas for warmers, but if you find yourself with ten minutes of spare time at the end of a class, they’re just as good as time-fillers. There are hundreds of games and variations of games for teaching English, so try and find ways to adapt these ideas – or ignore them altogether and come up with your own.
Memory game – The teacher says: ‘I went to the market and bought a pig.’ The first student repeats and adds another object, and so on until someone forgets the order. Choose students at random to ensure they all have to memorise the list, and make sure they don’t write anything down. It’s impressive how far the list can go before someone trips up. A good way to remember is to link the different items through visual images, so if an elephant, car and apple are mentioned you think of an elephant squeezed into a car munching on an apple. As the teacher, it’s wise to write down the list so you don’t forget!
Verbs and adverb - Give students coloured paper strips. On one colour they write a verb and on the other an adverb. Put students in pairs or teams. Student A picks a verb and an adverb and acts it out. Student B guesses which of the words the student has chosen and is awarded a point for each correct one. Examples could include ‘walks nervously’, ‘swims crazily’, ‘talks quietly’, brushes his teeth carefully’. The teacher should model this first so students are clear what is required.
Initial letters – Give students a letter and tell them to write as many words starting with that letter. For higher level groups, make it verbs/adjectives/food/animals etc starting with that letter.
Colours – Give students a colour and tell them to write down as many objects that are this colour (blue hat, blue table, blue book don’t count).
Quick on the draw – Two teams. Show one student a word and tell him/her to draw it on the board. First team to guess the word gets a point. Examples: food, household objects, office objects, animals, verbs.
Snake game – give students a word and tell them to make a new word that starts with the last letter of the first word. Students continue to write as many as they can within a time limit. Example: egg, goose, elephant, teapot. For more action, use a small ball to throw between students and make this a speaking game. This ensures everyone is awake or they run the risk of a ball landing on their head. For advanced students limit the words to certain groups, such as sport or food.
Hangman - An old favourite and much-maligned by many, but it can still be a useful way to review vocabulary.
In the Mix – Write a long word on the board. Students then have to make as many words from it as possible. Example: spaghetti – it, past, get, hit.
Noughts and Crosses – (or tic tac toe) A great game that is hugely adaptable. Fill each square with a letter, which is the answer to a question. Two teams take turns to pick squares. It can also be used for grammar-based activities. For example, the teacher writes infinitive verbs in the squares and students must change them to the Present Continuous and put them in a sentence. To make it harder write ‘+’, ‘-‘ and ‘?’ next to each verb, to indicate you need a positive, negative or question form. Similar games work well for past and perfect tenses, as students often have trouble remembering irregular verbs.
Easy as ABC - Write the alphabet on the board. Pick a letter and a category and ask students to name something starting with that letter. Example, A and fruit – apple. B and verb – bring. With wide, open themes you can ask groups of students to find something to fit each letter, eg, food, countries or animals.
For more advanced student give a question for each letter, such as ‘three animals starting with A’, or five verbs starting with S’. Once students get the hang of it, they can ask each other (but they must be able to answer the question themselves or you’ll get lots of ’20 adverbs starting with X’).
Truth or Lies? - Give five statements, and say two of them are true. For an introductory lesson, it’s good to write about yourself; for other classes you could pose general statements. Students can ask questions to discover which they think are correct. Once completed, students can then write their own five sentences and quiz each other.
Spelling tennis – Two teams. The teacher shouts out a word and points at one student, who must say the first letter of the word. Point at a student from the other team, who must say the second letter, and so on. Model this first with an easy word such as ‘dog’ and they’ll understand far quicker than if you explain it. This can be a fun game and get rowdy, but there’s limited educational value so don’t play it for too long. As an alternative, bring a small ball in. Throw the ball to one student, who has to spell a word (1 point), translate it (1 point) and use it in a sentence (1 point). Note that pointing may be culturally insensitive in some countries, so you may want to say the students’ names.
Touch game – Two teams. Pick two students from each team to stand up. Give them an order, such as ‘touch your nose’, ‘hold up three pens’ and award a point to the fastest. To make things interesting, try ‘give me 10 dollars’ or ‘touch that tree outside’. This can get pretty noisy, so it’s a good one to play at the end of a lesson.
Taboo – Give one student a word which he/she has to explain to the class. Give them two other associated words which they are not allowed to use. Obviously, you can make this as simple or as complex as you wish. It’s an ideal way to force students to use improvisational techniques to achieve their goal. For instance, the word could be ‘beach’ and the taboo words may be ‘sea’ and ‘sand’. The student could say something along the lines of ‘this is a place we go to at the weekend to relax. It’s hot and you can lie on the warm, golden floor’.
Mimes – write a word on a slip of paper and show it to one student, who must then act it out. First team to guess wins a point (examples: sad, happy, wet, angry, laugh).
Spelling race – Two teams. Select a student from each team, who are then handed a marker pen and stand near the board. Say a word and the first student to correctly write the word on the board wins a point. For advanced students, make them write it in a sentence. Try to keep this for small classes, as with bigger numbers too many students are left with nothing to do.
Categories – Write a category on the board, such as music genres, footballers, England, Things in the Sea. Then write associated words, with spaces for each letter. Students guess the answers and can ask questions if they are stuck. Here’s an example: England 1) _ _ _ _ _ (queen), 2) _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ (football), 3 _ _ _ _ / _ _ _ / _ _ _ _ _ (fish and chips). The teacher will need to give clues throughout, so there’s a strong listening element to this game.
Scategories - Write several subjects on the board, going across horizontally: animal, film, food, drink, boys’ name, and then have a student pick a letter. Write the letter to the left of the first subject. Students then work on their own to find words for each category that start with the given letter. For example: B – animal (bat), food, (banana) colour, (brown) city (Boston). Some teachers call this game ‘stop the bus!’ as this is what students have to call out when they’ve finished. We’ve no idea why.
Mobile phone - Two phones – fastest student to text a given word gets a point. Schools often ban phones so this may be better for adult classes (be sure they turn them to silent once finished!)
20 questions – The teacher thinks of an object/person/place and students have 20 questions to figure out what it is. It may be an old parlour game, but it forces students to ask yes/no questions, and you’d be amazed at how they’re able to guess the most obscure things.
Countdown – Choose four random numbers 1-10 and then four numbers from 10, 25, 50 and 100. Pick a three digit number then ask students to get the number. Make sure they explain in English. Review ‘add, multiply, divide, subtract’ before you start! You can also do this with letters if you divide up vowels and consonants, then ask students to make words from them.
Sentence change - Say a sentence then change one part of it. Students have to say the new sentence. For example: ‘He works in Madrid twice a week.’ Teacher: ‘you – Student: ‘You work in Madrid twice a week.’ This is a substitution game that can be used to test all kinds of tenses. Write down the words you want to focus on beforehand, as it can be tricky to think of new ones off the cuff.
Apples and Bananas – good with smaller classes. Students stand in a circle and have to count in sequence. However, if the number is a multiple of 7 they must say ‘banana’. If the number is a multiple of 5 they must say ‘apple’. For example: ‘1, 2, 3, 4, apple, 6, banana…8, 9, apple, 11, 12, 13, banana, apple, 16…’. Those who get it wrong are out and have to sit down. Continue playing until you get a winner.
Bingo – This is a good listening game. Tell students to each write a 4x4 grid in their books. Then show a selection of vocabulary on the board. Students chose 16 of these words to write in their grid. The teacher then randomly calls out the words and the first student to get a line of four wins. Or you could just do it the traditional way and use numbers.
Adverbs/adjectives - Two teams write lists of five adjectives and five adverbs. They then swap lists. One team has to act out the others words using one adjective and one adverb, while the other team has to try and say which of their words they are miming. For example: 'he is running quickly', ‘he is laughing crazily’.
Where is it? - Send one student outside then hide an object in the classroom. The student returns and one other student from his team has to give directions to find it. This works well if you’re teaching prepositions of place.
Word Association: Say a word and the next student has to say any word linked to it - football - Arsenal - London - Big Ben - clock. See how long they can continue without hesitating or repeating a word.
Blockbuster – Draw a grid of letters on the board. Each letter represents the first part of an answer. Each team takes turns to pick a letter and the teacher asks the corresponding question. The aim is to create a link from one side to the other. Try and come up with questions based on a topic your class has been studying or on a general theme.
- Above blog adapted from 'Teaching English' (How to Teach English as a Second Language)
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