“I really want to be bored witless,” said no student, ever.
“I hope my students’ eyes glaze over in class,” said no teacher, ever.
Learning is a serious business. But that doesn’t mean students shouldn’t have fun while doing it. In fact, playing games increases motivation by helping students relax, open up, and get out of their heads while learning. And remember: Unless you’re teaching open heart surgery, sky-diving, or how to safely direct a space mission back to Earth, you can be sure that play is an entirely appropriate addition to your classroom!
Like you, your students have come to class carrying baggage from their day. While their class time with you is just one component of their lives, it’s very likely an important one for them professionally and personally. Despite what great Aunt Sylvie may think, play time in class is not “wasted” time. Quite the contrary, games are perfect for practicing vocabulary and targeting grammar; thus increasing camaraderie through light competition, boosting energy levels, reducing stress, promoting problem-solving, and buying more focused lesson time later in the hour. While it’s clear that children and beginners shine brighter when playing, it’s also true that adults and advanced learners enjoy competition and lighter moments in class. This is not to say that you should convert your class into a permanent playpen, rather, that the addition of moments of play give contrast in class and allows students of all learning types to thrive. The following are eleven classic games that can be adapted to suit different skill levels.
Divide students into groups and give each a budget of, say, 100€ of mythical money. Explain that they are going to bet their money to try to win more (establish a minimum bet). Write an incorrect sentence on the board, adapting the gravity of the error for your class’s level, and ask each group to identify the error, write it down, and make a bet. The groups who identify the error win, while those who didn’t, lose their bet. Repeat several times.
2. Pictionary, charades, and celebrity heads
Always classic, these games are super versatile, let students practice specific vocabulary and expressions, and have the added bonus of encouraging a gleeful sort of atmosphere. Create a stack of words, phrases, concepts, or historical figures that your class has recently studied and try to mix levels amongst teams. You might like to experiment with playing as a whole class (where half competes against the other half) or in smaller groups with time limits.
This is a great way to get students speaking and practice your unit’s vocabulary. In Taboo, one student must communicate a concept or word to their partner without using a specific list of related words. For example, they must make their partner say “forest”, yet they are not allowed to use the words “tree,” “woods,” “Sherwood,” or “Black”. Once their partner says the word, the students switch roles.
4. Twenty objects
Put 20 objects on a table and give students a minute to memorize them. Cover the objects with a cloth and ask the students to write down as many as they can remember. You might choose to use objects related to your current module of study or that are connected in some other way.
Put up a simple table on the whiteboard with a different category in each column, for example: United States presidents, rivers, fruit, movie titles, boy’s names, emotions, animals, cities. (Alter the categories for difficulty according to your class’s level.) Randomly select a letter of the alphabet. Now, within a time limit groups or pairs of students must identify one example per category. The first group to correctly do so wins.
This classic game is often forgotten and can easily be adapted to suit your class’s needs. Besides classic bingo, you might create play boards where students cross off pictures, antonyms, synonyms, or T1 words.
7. Tongue twisters
Tongue twisters are great for lightening the mood, as an ice-breaker, or way to begin each class. Search for more difficult phrases for advanced classes – you’ll see that it’s a rare student who doesn’t crack a smile! Start with this quirky list of tongue twisters – some easy peasy, some very twisted!
8. A twist on Twister
Put a twist on Twister by hiding colored discs with words, phrases, expressions, and target language written on them. Students must scramble to find them with a time limit. Add to the challenge by hiding scrambled messages, texts with grammatical errors, or descriptions that need to be corrected or put together.
9. “First to the front” and “Have you ever?”
This is a winner with kids and adults alike. Students start in a line at the back of the classroom and take one step forward for each question they answer correctly, sentence finished, or word guessed. The first to the front wins. You can also play a version of “Have you ever?” where students take a step forward for each thing they have done. (“Have you ever been to Africa, seen a dolphin, stayed awake all night, failed an exam, broken something valuable, etc.”)
10. I messed up
In this activity, advanced students tell stories of their mistakes with language in the “real world.” (Perhaps they used a word incorrectly and accidentally said something rude, received a completely incorrect meal when ordering, or just couldn’t for the life of them understand their native speaker in-laws.) Telling these stories creates a humorous atmosphere and encourages lightheartedness and self-reflection in learning.
Upper intermediate to advanced students will get a kick out of inventing definitions for uncommon words found at random in a dictionary. Each group reads out three definitions for a bizarre or obscure word and the rest of the class votes on which they think is correct. Points are scored for fooling your classmates with a made up definition – or for silliness and originality.