In stores today, there are many games made for native speakers that are effective in the ESL classroom. One of the most popular games to use with your ESL students is Scrabble. Most people know that Scrabble is a game where the players make up words using preprinted tiles. They score points based on the letters they use and where they place the word on the board. Ultimately, the player with the highest score at the end of the game is the winner. This game is useful for ESL students because it builds their vocabularies in a fun way. If you allow your students to use an English dictionary, they will learn words as they search for plays on the board. More often, you, the native speaker, will play a word that they are not familiar with without even trying. In this case, your students will usually ask the meaning of the word which you should then explain to them.
Catchphrase is another good game that you can buy to play with your students. The object of the game is to not get caught on your turn when the buzzer goes off. If you ever played hot potato when you were a child, this is similar. The way you pass on the display is by getting the rest of the players to say the word that the display gives you. You can pass to another word if the word is too hard of you don’t know the meaning of it, but there are no restrictions in the words you can use to get the other players to guess, so there should be some word each student can describe. For example, if your word was “farm” you might say, “a place where they grow vegetables for money.” The rest of the players can shout out answers at any time. Once one of them gets the word correct, the player taking his turn passes the display on to the next person. The newer versions of Catchphrase are electronic, so there are no pieces to change or lose. This game will also increase the vocabulary of your students as they play though they may not want to stop to ask for a definition when they are trying to pass the display to the next student.
Several games you can play with your class require little to no preparation. Charades and Pictionary are both good for reviewing vocabulary with your class. For both games, divide your class into two teams. One person from each team will play at the same time as the other. Give each player a word, usually one from a vocabulary list you have already taught with a previous unit. In charades, each player must act out the word for his team without using any words. While he acts out the target word, his team should watch him and guess at the answer. The first team who correctly guesses the word scores a point. Pictionary is similar except that instead of acting out a word, the player must draw a picture of it on the white board. She cannot use numbers, letters or symbols in her drawing. Again both teams guess at the answer, and the team that guesses correctly scores a point. Continue until you have reviewed all your vocabulary words or until one team has reached a set amount of points to win the game.
Twenty questions is another game that requires no preparation though it is not as lively as the previous games. In twenty questions, one player thinks of an object. The rest of the class then asks yes/no questions to try to narrow down what the object is. They may ask, “Is it an animal? Is it smaller than a breadbox? Does it live under water?” After each question, the player answers either yes or no. Based on those answers, the class must strategically develop a course of questioning. If the class can guess the object within the twenty-question limit, the class wins. If the class cannot guess the object, the player wins. You can then choose another player to select an object for the class to guess. If you want to make sure all your students get practice asking and answering questions, divide your class into pairs and have each pair play against each other. Though it is an old-fashioned game, twenty questions is very useful for reviewing question grammar and getting in speaking practice.
Make Your Own Games
When you have the time or inclination, these games take some prep work but usually only the first time you use them, and you can use them any time you teach the lesson in the future. Icebreaker tumbling blocks is good for more advanced students and takes more physical skills than the other games mentioned here. Purchase a set of stacking blocks (like Jenga though any brand will do) and gather several icebreaker questions. Then take a permanent marker and write one icebreaker question on each block. You can use questions like, “Do you prefer a hug or a kiss? What is your earliest memory? Do you write with pen or pencil? What is the last song you purchased from i-tunes?” These or any other questions will work. Then as each person takes his turn, he must pull a block from the bottom of the tower (the top two rows are off limits), answer the question and then place the block on the top of the tower. Play continues around the table until someone knocks the tower down. Your students will enjoy learning more about each other and find the game itself exciting. No one will want to make the tower fall!
A simple game that you can use with any vocabulary list is the memory game. In this game, a set of cards is arranged on a table face down and each player may turn over two cards on her turn. If the cards are a matching pair, she may keep them and then turn over two more cards. If they do not match, she must turn them back over and try to remember where each of the cards is located for her next turn. If you are using this game with beginning students, you can have one card from each pair have the vocabulary word and the other a picture of the object. For more advanced students, have the word on one card and the definition on another. You can also make matching pairs with either synonyms or antonyms depending on the skills of your students and your goals in teaching. If you provide your students with index cards, they can even make the pairs themselves. You can then compile all the cards your students have made and use them together as one set. With this game, you will need a relatively large playing area, but you can use the cards any time you teach the same material in the future. You can also change it up a little and use the same matching pairs to play Go Fish for some variety.
Playing games in the ESL classroom is always fun and a nice change of pace from the normal daily routine.
You can use any of these games to fit in with a unit you are teaching or just use them to break up the semester. Your students will enjoy themselves as they increase their vocabularies and laugh with their classmates.