Tried and tested (and approved!) games and activities to help English learning.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Hot Seat

Level: Elementary, Intermediate, Advanced.

Skills: speaking.

Topic: vocabulary.

Materials: none.

Time: 10 to 20 minutes.

This is a good way to review vocabulary and create some healthy competition in your classes. All you need is a list of vocabulary the students have been studying; or, even if you want to introduce a new topic, words that they should know can also be used. You can use this game in classes with four to about fourteen students (more than this number is not feasible for the amount of time required). 

Choose a number of words that you want the class to revise (e.g. gerunds). Divide the class in half and have the two groups select a name for their team; write the names on the board. Place a chair for each group in front of the board facing the class (so that students sitting on them will have their backs to the board). To start the game, ask one student from each team to be a volunteer and have him/her to sit in the "hot seat" in front of his/her team. Next, write one of the words on the board and have the students try to elicit the word from their teammate (who is not allowed to turn around to see the word on the board). They can mime (my favourite) or explain the words (using English), but they cannot write, spell or do anything else that might be considered cheating (if students get truly stuck on a word, I tell them the first letter – in rare cases, even the second letter). Whichever student in the "hot seat" guesses the word first earns a point for his/her team. Repeat the activity with the other words, choosing a different student (to sit in the chair) each time.

For intermediate and advanced levels, sentences, and not only words, can be used. The student in the "hot seat" must say the exact sentence that is behind him/her. 

This game can really cause some excitement, so make sure you won't be disturbing other classes being held near yours. As an added incentive, I sometimes bring in chocolate candies to give to students when they discover 'their' word/sentence really fast.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Fizz, Boing, Bounce

Level: Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced.

Skills: listening and speaking.

Topic: warmer.

Materials: none.

Time: 5 to 10 minutes.

A warming-up game aimed at focusing students' attention. Sit the students in a circle. Tell them they have to pass an imaginary (invisible) ball to each other (it's a nice touch if you hold the ball in your hands, pretending it is there). Every time they pass the ball, they have to say 'fizz'. If they fold one of their arms, with their fist clenched (show it to the students, as if you were defending yourself from an attack), they say 'boing', and they change the direction of the imaginary ball, rebounding it to the previous student. If they say 'bounce' (make the gesture of a bump, as in volleyball games), they skip one person (it doesn't change direction, but the imaginary ball goes over someone's head, to the next student). 

The student who commits a mistake while moving the ball (saying the wrong command or not following the previous student's command appropriately, for example) must make a brief speech (one-minute talks are very appropriate) about a topic you determine (examples include their last holiday, their favourite foods, what they are planning to do next weekend, or any other suitable themes, depending on their level).

Monday, October 24, 2011

Party Time

Level: Elementary, Intermediate, Advanced.

Skills: writing and speaking.

Topic: vocabulary.

Materials: none (lively music is a nice touch, tough!)

Time: 10 to 20 minutes.

Brainstorm adjectives of character (shy, generous, etc) and write as many as students can think of on the board. Then tell each student to choose one of the adjectives of character from the board. Explain to students that they are all at a party, and that they must mingle and chat to each other in the role of their character adjective. Explain that they must pretend to have that character, but that they must never say what the adjective is. 

Have students write the name of each student in the class on a piece of paper. Tell them to start mingling, and explain that they should try to speak to everyone and identify the character adjective they are representing. When they think they know what adjective the person they are speaking to is trying to express, they should write it next to their name and move on to speak to someone else. At the end of the game, tell students to sit down and then call out the name of each person in the class and ask students to say the adjective they thought that person was trying to represent.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Relative Clause Clues

Level: Intermediate and Advanced.

Skills: writing.

Topic: grammar.

Materials: none.

Time: 5 to 10 minutes.

This is one of my favorite TEFL games for practicing defining relative clauses. Write a list of definitions for four or five nouns. Choose nouns with the same first letter. Give the students the clues, and they must decide - in pairs, groups, or as a whole class - what the original nouns were, and the shared initial letter.

An example for an advanced ESL lesson might be: "A novel which tells the story of a zombie private eye," "The god of the sea who gave his name to a large planet," "The country where hobbits have been seen."

The answers, of course, being 'N.' Necropolis (written by Tim Waggoner), Neptune and New Zealand. Much easier examples should be given when teaching English to kids. "An animal that gives us milk," "A bird we eat that cannot fly," for example [cow & chicken].

After you have demonstrated the activity, the students can write their own examples in pairs. With lower level classes, you can give a list of nouns for them to define. This also makes a good homework activity which can then be read out for guessing, as a warmer in the following class.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Level: Intermediate and Advance.

Skills: speaking.

Topic: vocabulary.

Materials: prompt cards with words written on them.

Time: 10 to 30 minutes (sometimes longer).

This is one of my favourite TEFL games, because besides being fun, it helps reinforce and teach vocabulary. It is definitely a hoot!

First, prepare a list of words you want students to use. Normally, I use the words they have learnt in previous levels (Elementary words for Intermediate, Intermediate words for Advanced). Examples include: sun, teacher, elephant, today, yes, bicycle, swim, banana, skin, comedy, sofa, island, coffee and shoulder. In fact, any word can be used in this game!

Divide the class into two teams. Then, using paper, rock, scissors or selecting randomly, one member of the first team to the front of the class. He/she has to try to describe/define to the class the word at the top of the card, without using any of the five forbidden words (that's the origin of the name of this game, the "taboo" words) listed on the card. Should the student say one of the words listed, you stop him/her and give the point to the opposite team. The describer may only use speech to describe to the class; gestures, sounds (e.g. barking), drawings or spelling (or translation!) are not allowed. While the describer is talking, the class may make as many guesses as they want with no penalties for wrong guesses.

Example, for the word sun the forbidden words would be hot, day, sky, star, and moon. Student describes it as "it's something that is in space, and around which our planet revolves". So far so good. But if the student adds: "... only visible during the day...", you should stop him/her, allowing a point to the other group.

Allow a minute or two for the first student, and then bring a student from the second team to the front.  Every time a team guesses correctly, they get the correspondent card. Continue until you run out of cards. The group with most cards wins.

Extension: get the teams to make their own cards for a second round of the game, using recently learned words.

Variation, with no material involved: select a student and ask him to come up to the board. Turn the student so that his/her back is facing the board. Write the keyword on the board. Underneath the keyword, write three other words which are also "taboo". This means that the students cannot say these three sub keywords either and they cannot make any actions to help the student with his/her back to the board.

When you say "start!", the first team will get two minutes to help the student guess the keyword. If any of the students say any of the Taboo words, his/her team cannot win a point. But if the student with his back turned to the board says the keyword, his/her team will get one point. After the team gets the point or time runs out, the teams will switch positions. 

Friday, October 14, 2011


Level: Intermediate and Advanced.

Skills: writing and speaking.

Topic: vocabulary.

Materials: pencil and paper.

Time: 10 minutes.

The students are provided with pencil and paper. Each student selects the name of some animal, fish, or bird, and mixes the letters so as to spell other words. For instance, if one chooses elephant, the words might be "pent heal"; if monkey, "no key m"," while gorilla may be "lag roil".

Allow some minutes for the students make the "muddle". No letter can be used twice, and words must be formed. Then clap your hands and each student in turn reads his "muddle" to the rest of the class, who guess what his chosen word is.

Each puzzle is carefully timed. The one whose puzzle takes longest to guess is the winner; therefore, each person must mix the letters as much as possible.

Sides may be chosen if preferred, with students taking turn alternately, and the side which has taken the least time to guess the puzzles is the victorious side.

You can substitute animal names for food names, nationalities, clothes, personality adjectives, etc. I have tried with all those vocabulary categories, with teenage and adult classes, and it definitely works!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Level: Elementary and Intermediate.

Skills: speaking.

Topic: vocabulary (numbers).

Materials: none.

Time: 5 to 10 minutes.

Have your group of students sit around in a circle. A student starts by saying the number "1". The next person (the person sitting to the left or right, choose an initial direction) says "2", then the next person says "3", and so on and so forth. When someone gets to the number "7", that's when the fun begins. Whenever you get to the number "7" or a multiple of "7" (ex. 7,14,21,28,35, etc) or any number that has a "7" in it (ex. 17, 27, 37, etc.), that person must say Buzz (or Bazzinga!, that's what some students of mine have been calling it). Whenever someone says Buzz when they're supposed to on a "7" number, then you switch directions. That means if your group was counting in a clockwise direction, then you switch to counter-clockwise after Buzz is said.

If there is a mistake, start over at "1" with the next student in line. The student who has made the mistake is out of the game.

Once it is going well and the group has reached 50 or so, stop them and add 'Bizz' to the game (or Boing!, if you are using Bazzinga!). Now, substitute 'Bizz' for 5 (for example, 1, 2, 3, 4, Bizz, 6, Buzz, 8, 9, Bizz, 11, 12, 13, Buzz, Bizz, 16, Buzz, 18, 19, Bizz, Buzz, 22, ...). If the number is a multiple of 5 and 7, or has 5 and 7 in it, like 35 or 57 or 70 or 75, say 'BizzBuzz'!

Try for a group record or reaching 100 (one of my classes got to 200!). Eliminate students who make mistakes until only one champion is left.

Good for reviewing cardinal numbers, this game could also be used for ordinal numbers, keeping the same rules. Most of my classes simply love this game and although it could seem a bit challenging at first, the more you play it with your students the more they (and you) will enjoy it.

Variations: instead of 5 and 7, you can pick 3 and 5 as the 'buzz' numbers, making this game more agile.

Monday, October 10, 2011


Level: Intermediate and Advanced.

Skills: writing (some speaking).

Topic: vocabulary.

Materials: pencil and paper.

Time: 20 to 30 minutes (sometimes longer).

This game is a variation of Animal, Country, Job..., which I have already described. A word of about six letters is chosen, either at random or (more preferably) from the pages of a book (you could select a word to the topic you are going to start talking about, as a lead-in, for example), but it should contain no letter more than once. I usually pick up a word which is the kernel of the topic students are going to see (tourism, leisure, working, country, school, etc.).

Students suggest a category (animals, towns, objects, book titles, etc.) and write them down the left-hand side of their paper. If your class has more than eight students, have them agree on a number of categories. Then, and only then, present the letters of the chosen word, making them writing it along the top of their grid. Next, they try, for each category, to write words that start with the letters of the chosen word (on top). Here, it is not a matter of who finishes first, but who completes the most columns with right words. A time limit is set, and a student scores two points for each word that no other student has written (or, if preferred, one point for each of the players who has not written that word). Misspelled and utterly wrong words suffer a one point penalty.

Variation: For each category students think of an appropriate item that begins with the letter at the top of the column. Then they think of an item from that category that ends with the letter at the top of the column.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

I'm hosting a party and I'm bringing...

Level: Intermediate and Advanced.

Skills: speaking.

Topic: vocabulary.

Materials: none.

Time: 10 to 15 minutes.

For this game, you will need the collaboration of a student. This is because you will have to tip him on how to play it, in order to make the game more fun. It works best with students who are not the 'teacher's pet' or even the brightest ones in class; an 'average joe' will do fine. Call this student aside, before class, and tell him/her the 'trick' of the game: you are going to start the game by saying "I'm hosting a party and I'm bringing [an object/a person]", with this object or person starting with the first letter of your name. So, as an example, my name is Fabrício so I will say: "I'm hosting a party and I'm bringing some figs". (Check if the student got it, because I had some funny, but not so productive, experiences with absent-minded students). 

When in class, get the game going by stating your sentence (perhaps you should write the first stem of the sentence on board to ease the memorization process of visual-based students): "I'm hosting a party and I'm bringing [something]." Point to the first student, not necessarily the one who you talked to previously, and ask him/her to repeat the sentence up to the part where he/she has to select what he/she wants to bring, adding his/her own idea. If the object/person selected starts with the same letter of their names, students can come to your party, then you say: "Yes, you can come to my party! Welcome!". Otherwise, simply say: "No, you can't come to my party, I'm sorry!". Do not explain the rules yet and continue the game, pointing to another student. 

When all students have spoken, go back to the first one, repeating the procedure, ensuring that students understood the rules. It may happen that, by sheer luck, a student says the right word but still does not have the grasp of the rule. Play continues until all students but one (or two, if you think it is taking too long) gets the rule figured out. Then, ask a student (but the one you talked to first) to explain the rule to the class.

Variation: this game can be played with a different rule each time (only the final letters of your chosen words, words with double letters, snippets of songs, etc.).

Special thanks to fellow teacher Arthur Parente, who kindly taught me this game. 

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Spelling Bound

Level: Elementary, Intermediate, Advanced.

Skills: writing.

Topic: spelling.

Materials: none.

Time: 10 to 20 minutes.

Spelling games are always useful, no matter what level the students are. In this game, students work in pairs to spell words on the board as fast as they can in competition with other pairs of students. Both students in each pair need a whiteboard marker. The two students link left arms (so one student will be facing the whiteboard and one student will be facing the class). 

Call out a word to be spelled and the student facing the board writes the first letter of the word on the board. Subsequently, the pair must spin so that the second student can write. Each student can only write one letter, and just one letter. If students wish to correct the letter that their partner has written, they can erase it and replace it, but then must spin. So, they take turns writing a letter then spinning so that the other student can write. Students cannot talk to each other or tell their partner what to write. 

It's best if you match up left-handed students with left-handed students and right-handed students with right-handed students as much as possible.

You can make it harder by saying that if a mistake is made and recognised the student who recognises the error can erase the incorrect letter, but cannot add another letter, and by saying that both students must take their turn to write. If you have a large whiteboard, you can have 3 or 4 pairs of students at the board at once (I have tried it once, and although a bit messy, it worked pretty well). With a tiny whiteboard, one pair at a time, but time how long it takes  possibly by having the rest of the class counting out loud in English! And, it must be legible  feel free to be mean if letters are not clear!