Simple and Classic ESL Games

The games on this page are excruciatingly simple, time-tested ways of injecting fun into a class with young learners.

More great games like this in our ESL games book: The Great ESL Games Compendium!

Words in Words -This is a good time killer, when you have 10 minutes left at the end of the class and need to do something fun. Break the kids into teams and write a vocabulary word (the longer the better) on the board. Then give the kids 2 or three minutes to write as many words as they can, using only the letters in the word on the board. After the time is up, review their words. I usually give one point for each word. (The first time, they will inevitably miss words such as "a" or "I", and make sure to point this out and hear their groans.)


Word Chain (known as "the dragon's tail" in Chinese) - This is an excruciatingly simple game that can be played in classes that are very young or quite advanced. To play, the teacher first says a word (such as "apple").  The next student must then say a word that begins with the last letter of apple, such as egg.  The last letter in egg is G, so the next student must say a word that begins with G, and so on, and so on, and so on. A typical string of words looks something like this:

apple - egg - ghost - table - eat - take - eleven - night - two

You can simply take turns, going around the room, or have them stand in a circle and sit down if they are wrong. Also, I sometimes have them play in two teams: I write 1 - 10 on the board for each team, and they make a line at the back of the room and take turns, one at a time for each team, running to the front to write ONE WORD.  The first team to finish wins, and gets a frilly super stamp or whatever floats their boat.

It's important to stress, however, that they cannot repeat the same word twice.  Otherwise they may end up in one of these ESL Cartesian loops: elephant - table - elephant - table - elephant - table - elephant - table - elephant - table...

To make this game more interesting and challenging for more advanced students: limit words to a certain category, to force them to think and be more creative.  Examples of useful (and tested) categories include: nouns, verbs, adjectives, English names, animals, foods, drinks, something big, something small, something noisy, something ugly, etc.


The Alphabet Game / The A-Z Game - This is very similar to the Word Chain game, above, but with a slight change, if you've worn out the Word Chain game (as I tend to do). In this game, students take turn saying words beginning with the successive letters in the alphabet. So the first student says a word that begins with A, and the second student says a word that begins with B, the third student C, then D, E, F, and so on.  A normal string of words looks something like this:

apple - banana - cat - dog - elephant - find - go - house...etc.


To make this game more interesting and challenging for more advanced students: make them say only nouns, or verbs, or adjectives, or plural nouns, things you can eat, or some other category that you come up with (as with the Word Chain game). Also, to really make them moan and whine, you can require that, in order to get a point, they must both say a word with the correct letter AND identify the part of speech (noun, verb, or adjective). To make them truly explode with exasperation, demand that they say a noun AND a verb AND an adjective for each letter, and give them a point for each one they can say successfully.


Typhoon - This is a stickyball game that younger kids tend to enjoy a lot. First, separate the class into two teams. Then draw a big grid on the board (4x4 should be fine). Ask each student a question (spell a word, say a sentence, answer a question, or whatever). If they answer correctly, they can choose a square on the board and draw a boat for their team (assign each team a certain color boat to draw). Then do the same for the next team, and keep going until every square on the board has a boat in it.  Then...


It's time for the typhoon.  Each team gets a certain number of chances to throw the stickyball - this is the "typhoon."  If the stickyball hits a boat, that boat is "sunk," and you erase it from the board.  (When the student - Vicky, for example - comes up to throw, yell, 'Oh no! Typhoon Vicky! No school; everyone go home!' and the kids go nuts.) So team A tries to hit all of team B's boats, and vice versa.  You can let everyone throw if you want. When the throwing is done, count the boats; the team with the most wins. It's not the most educational of games, but it's a nice break from the tediousness of class, and elementary kids like it a lot.


20 Questions - This is a standard kid's game, and you can tweak the rules however you like. You are a person, or perhaps a place or a thing, and the students must ask you questions to find out who or what you are. But you can only say the words "yes" or "no" (So the question, "What are you?" is unacceptable, because you can not answer it with a simple "yes" or "no"). As I usually already have my teams divided into two teams, I simply let them take turns and I award two points for a "yes" answer, one point for a "no" answer, and 5 points for a correct guess.


I Spy - I often play this with the younger kids, although I change the name to "I See Something..."  You start by standing in the front, choosing something in the room, and saying, "I See Something...Red (or blue or small or round or whatever)." The kids then take turns asking, "Is it the ____?" When one kid guesses right, he or she can come to the front and say, "I See Something..."


Tic Tac Toe - An obvious game that can be used to reinforce anything and everything.  Oddly, the kids don't get too sick of it.


Hangman - Another obvious game that kids seem to have a high tolerance for.  I mean, "for which kids seem to have a high tolerance."

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