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

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Running Dictation

Level: Elementary, Intermediate, Advanced.

Skills: speaking and writing.

Topic: vocabulary and grammar.

Materials: paper (lively music - kept in low volume -  is welcome).

Time: 5 to 25 minutes.

It's an oldie, but it still promises (and delivers!) lots of fun. Divide the class into groups of 3 to 4 students, or pairs for small classes. Write a sentence on a piece of paper for each team and stick this piece of paper somewhere out of the classroom (but not so far from it). Take care on placing the different pieces of paper away from each other, so as not to cause unnecessary clashes between the teams. One member from each team goes out and tries to remember their sentence. This student returns to their group and dictates the sentence while team members write it down. First team to finish correctly gets a point. Change words/sentences and switch the students who go out to read the sentences.

Make each team's paper different so students don't simply listen to other teams. The students who dictate are not allowed to take their paper, write down anything, or yell across the room. They are allowed to return to where the piece of paper is to look at it as many times as they like. It's very effective when you use words from class to reinforce learned vocabulary and grammar structures.

Use pictures for children who can't spell and have them draw the picture instead of writing the words. Use multiple sentences for more advanced students, place sentences in the vicinity of room and have each group member do one each. Groups then have to put the sentences into the right order before turning in the paper.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


Level: Intermediate and Advanced.

Skills: writing.

Topic: vocabulary.

Materials: sheets of paper and pencils (or pens).

Time: 10 to 20 minutes.

The objective of this favourite game of mine is to think of words that start and end with letters determined by one word written forwards and backwards. Did it sound complicated? But it is not!

First, you choose a word of at least four letters (usually six or more), which each student writes in a column down the left-hand side of their paper. Then they write the same word in reverse down the right-hand side of the paper. Students have to fill in words which start and end with the resulting letters. The students, however, cannot use the given word as the first word in their lists (for instance, if you give the word 'English', the students cannot use it).

The winner is either the student who fills in all the spaces first; the student who finishes within a set time; or (better!) the student with the highest amount of points obtained. To count the points, each used letter is counted as one point.

Let's suppose you chose ´Horses' as the word. The winning student could have written the word like this:

             Total:      41 points!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Back Writing

Level: Elementary, Intermediate and Advance.

Skills: writing.

Topic: vocabulary.

Materials: a list of words you want the students to review.

Time: 10 to 20 minutes.

This activity is really engaging and fun. The tickling sensation provided by the tracing the message (word or sentence) on the back of the students gets them laughing and motivates them more acutely than simply asking them to remember previous vocabulary. Having students write on each other's back is a good way to stimulate the sense of touch (good for kinesthetic students!) in the lesson and further involves the student. This game is systematically used in my classes as a warmer, but you can bring it up anytime during your lesson.

First, divide the class into two groups and have both groups stand in team lines facing the board. Give the first person of each group a board marker. Teach the students that a tap on one's own shoulder means 'repeat' and a nod means 'OK, I understood'. Also, tell them that no verbal communication is allowed. If any member of each group is heard speaking or murmuring, the opposing group will be given a point.

Then, move to the end of the line, calling the last students of each group to see the message you have previously prepared (again, it can be a sentence or just a word). Next, students pass the message to the front of the line by tracing the message on the back of the person in front of them. Remind students of the two commands for repeating or accepting the message. When the message reaches the first person in line, they write it on the board. The group who finishes first and correctly earns a point. Draw student's attention to the importance of being fast and accurate at the same time. When the round is finished, have the first person go to the end of the line to change writers and show a second word. The game can end when every member of both groups had the chance to start writing on their partners' back or at any given time (depending on your choices; longer lines make the game harder but shorter lines allows for more opportunity to have everyone be the writer).

Variation for younger students: 
Have students sit in a circle for a smaller class or make team lines for a larger class. Choose a letter or word from current study and have children trace it in the air together. Next, have students trace the letter onto the back of the person in front of them. Observe the students and correct where necessary. Repeat using new letters. Use words or sentences for higher levels, as presented above. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Extreme Situations

Level: Advanced.

Skills: writing and speaking.

Topic: vocabulary and grammar.

Materials: paper sheets (with some information on them), pen & pencil.

Time: 10 to 30 minutes.

The point of these games (yes, there are at least two variations of it!) is to make difficult questions involving choosing a course of action in extreme situations. Usually these situations will involve feelings, prejudices, ethics, etc. Aimed at advanced groups, there is much scope for role-play here. This activity is suitable for classes of mature students rather than young schoolchildren; and in order to work it has to be taken fairly seriously. No particular language preparation is needed, beyond a check that the information sheets are thoroughly understood. 

Variation 1: Sahara Desert Safari
Give one slip of paper with a job (psychologist, writer, farmer, nurse, massage therapist, priest, lawyer, police officer, singer, fortune teller [more jobs can be included if the class has more than ten students]) written on the top of it to each student, and ask them to write down a short description about him/herself, e.g. 
  • if female/male;
  • name; 
  • age; 
  • the length of time in the work field; 
  • some of his/her good and bad characteristics; 
  • good and bad habits. 
Give them 5 minutes to complete the task. Don't forget to check the students' understanding of what they have to do, and help and monitor as necessary. 

When students have finished writing, start the speaking part. Each student introduces his/her character in one minute. Then tell them they are in a Safari in Sahara Desert, in two Jeeps [or more, depending on the size of the class]. There is a problem with one of the Jeeps: it has broken down and cannot be fixed. Five people will have to remain where the Jeep is, while the other five will go back to the camp, trying to get some help. Ask the students: 'Why do you deserve to be on the Jeep that is going back to the camp?' Students have to be creative/logical/convincing in 2 minutes, telling the rest of the class their reasons. While they are speaking, write on the board the jobs and when the last student speak, they take turns to vote who doesn’t deserve to be on the Jeep.

Variation 2: Escape From The Island
Tell students they are on a deserted island. There is a motor boat and they are the only one who knows how to drive it. It is up to them to decide which people of the following people you are going to take with you in the boat. There is space for only them (individually) and 3 more people. Here they are:
  • a prostitute who gives 30% of her fees to help homeless children;
  • a drug addict who writes magnificent pop songs;
  • a dying old man who was a caring and lovely clown on a TV show;
  • a doctor convicted of malpractice who is a staunch father and husband;
  • a child pornographer who is a spiritual leader of a church that helps millions of people;
  • a convicted criminal who is the most talented sculpter of his generation;
  • a corrupt politician who has created a working system to help the poor and the needy.
(Note: You should adjust the list to suit the students in your class. Delete some if you find them offensive. Add others that you think would generate good discussion.)

In this variation, students have to be grouped in pairs, then in fours, then in eights, until the whole class agree on who are going to escape the island with them.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

V.A.M.P. (Vegetable, Animal, Mineral or Person)

Level: Elementary, Intermediate, Advanced.

Skills: speaking and listening.

Topic: warmer using previously taught vocabulary.

Materials: none.

Time: 10 to 20 minutes.

When the number of students is large, this game affords much amusement. One student is sent out of the room. While he / she is gone, the students decide upon some object or person which he / she is to guess. He  / she is then called in, and asks each one a question. 

The answers to the questions must be either "Yes" or "No," and a forfeit must be paid if any other answer is given. 

Suppose the object chosen is a piece of coal in the fireplace. The student will begin by finding out whether the object chosen is of the animal, vegetable, or mineral kingdom; thus the following questions may be asked: "Is it a mineral?" "Yes." "Is it hard?" "Yes." "Is it very valuable?" "No." "Is it bright and shiny?" "Yes." "Is it gold?" "No." "Silver?" "No." "Is it in this room?" "Yes." "Is it black?" "Yes." "Is it a piece of coal?" "Yes." 

The correct object being guessed, another student is sent out and the game continues. If not, this same student is sent out again.

If any student answers other thing but "Yes" or "No", this student will be part of the group of guessers and sent out of the room.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Change Places If...

Level: Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced.

Skills: listening.

Topic: vocabulary.

Materials: none.

Time: 10 to 15 minutes.

This is a great activity to get students moving about and practice some vocabulary or sentence structures. I have used this game not only as a warming-up activity, but also as a memory enhancer for recently presented vocabulary.

Start with students in a closed circle, with the teacher standing in the middle to begin the game. There should always be one less chair than participants. 

Depending on what you want to revise the teacher says, “Change places if … (Example) you’re wearing trainers.” All students who are wearing trainers must stand up, and move to another chair and the teacher should sit on one of the recently vacated seats. The person left without a seat stays in the middle and gives the next command, and so it goes on. 

Adapt for higher levels with commands such as, “Change places if … you went to the cinema last weekend”, or “Change places if you … would like to have less homework.” Young learners can get very excited with this game so make it clear from the beginning that pushing other students out of chairs and similar behaviour is not going to be tolerated! Be careful to incorporate this activity in the class at an appropriate time. It is a definitely a ‘warmer’ as opposed to a ‘cooler’ and may be better at the end of a class.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Who (or What) Am I?

Level: Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced.

Skills: writing and speaking.

Topic: vocabulary.

Materials: Post-It slips (pens & pencils).

Time: 10 to 15 minutes.

Hand in Post-It slips to students. Ask them to write a name of a person, an animal, fruit (or food), a country, an object (or whatever item of vocabulary they’ve already known) on it, taking care not to show what’s written to anyone. When they’ve done it, ask them to choose a friend in the classroom and stick the Post-It on his/her forehead. 

When everyone has a Post-It stuck on his or her foreheads, they move around class asking each other questions in order to find who (or what) they are, e.g., “am I a bird?”, “am I a famous?”, “am I small?”. The person who’s been asked can just answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’. If the student discovers who (or what) he or she is, he or she can take the Post-It off their foreheads and sit again. The last student standing must pay a forfeit.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Sight Unseen

Level: Intermediate and Advanced.

Type of activity: speaking (and drawing).

Materials: pictures (realia, if you will), pencil and paper.

Time: 5 to 20 minutes.

Organise the class into pairs. Give each pair a sheet of paper and pencil. The chairs must be arranged side by side, but facing in opposite directions, so the one who is to draw may not see the object his partner has. Then give Student As pictures (who will keep them secret, so Student Bs could not see them) who will describe the scene in the picture for Student Bs, who must draw it, from the description given. Afterwards, give Student Bs pictures, and reverse the roles.

After both students in each pair have finished describing and drawing, collect the drawings and the pictures, arrange them side by side, and ask the whole class to decide by vote which drawing is most like the picture it represents.

I used this game with students who claimed they could not draw at all, but later revealed to be quite good artists themselves. Besides being a good activity to revise certain vocabulary areas (prepositions, mainly), it also prepares students for the tasks of some international exams (KET, PET, FCE, etc.).