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7 English Activity and Game Ideas for ESL Lessons

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Poppy is the author of "A Bard's Lament" and the Black Diamond series. She lives in Enoshima, Japan, with her husband and young son.

Here are visual, written, and oral games to make English lessons fun!

Here are visual, written, and oral games to make English lessons fun!

Make Learning English Interesting for ESL Students

Teaching English as a second language (ESL) is something millions of teachers do all over the world. The demand for the world's most widely-spoken language is as high as ever, and native speakers have the wonderful opportunity of traveling while teaching their native tongue.

To teach English effectively and in ways your students will enjoy, it is essential to use methods beyond simply working from a textbook or drilling. Activities and games are a great way to reinforce recently taught grammar or vocabulary, give your students a break from the books, and have fun.

Here are some ideas for games, warmers, coolers, and activities for your English lessons as well as how to play them. These ideas work best for teenage or adult group lessons, though some can be applied to private classes as well.

Here are ESL activity and game ideas for your English lesson:

  1. Class Information Game
  2. Categories Game
  3. Hangman or Mystery Sentence
  4. Shopping List
  5. Word Tennis
  6. Hot Seat
  7. Shiritori

1. Class Information Game

The Class Information Game is a terrific starter for brand new classes. It works best if your students don't know each other, but it'll also work if they do. This game practises grammar patterns such as "She/he is" and "Her/his."

How to Play

To play this game, you need:

  • A piece of paper.
  • A pen.
  • Counters to award points (optional; you can also write points on paper).

Ask everyone's name and write them down as a list. This is also a great way to learn your students' names! Add your own name at the bottom. Then, along the top, write several possible pieces of information such as birthday, favorite animal, favorite color, number of siblings, etc. Use the table below as a guide.

Make sure the information is relevant to everyone!

 BirthdayFavorite ColorFavorite AnimalPetsSiblings





































When you've filled the table with their information, make sure only you can see the paper. Then challenge the others to remember information about other people.

  • If someone correctly remembers someone else's information (for example, "Namiko's birthday is September 29th") award two points.
  • Encourage the students to say "Yes, that's right!" when their own correct information is said. Award one point when they remember to say it. This encourages the students to listen to what other students are saying.

If the game starts going slowly, give hints. For example, "What's Sai's favorite color?" or "Padma was born in winter, near Valentine's Day..."

The students will learn about each other as well as get plenty of speaking practice! Make sure everyone has successfully answered at least once. The person with the most points is the winner.

2. Categories

Categories is a fun way to practice vocabulary. You can adjust the rules slightly depending on your class's level. For example, fruit and vegetables can be changed to just "food" to make it easier.

How to Play

To play this game, you'll need:

  • A board and pen that everyone can see.
  • One piece of paper and writing utensil for each student.

For larger classes, split the students up into teams. If you have only a few students and their confidence and speaking levels are high, they can play individually.

Write several types of categories on the board in a row. You can use the table below to help you.




















You or your students choose one letter from the alphabet. The students have a few minutes (it's up to you, but around 3-5 minutes is best) to list as many words in each category as they can. Emphasize that they don't have to fill every single box; depending on the letter, there may be no words for certain categories.

When the time is up, ask the teams or students one at a time for an answer. If they got a correct word that none of the other teams got, they get a point. However, if another team got the same answer, they don't get a point. This encourages students to think of more obscure vocabulary.

When collecting answers, write them on the board so they can learn the correct spelling. However, don't take away points if they spelled it wrong themselves. If you're not sure whether an answer can be accepted or not (can "strawberry juice" be accepted in the "drinks" category?), ask the rest of the teams if it should be allowed.

The Categories Game is a lot of fun and your students may surprise you with the clever answers they come up with!

3. Hangman or Mystery Sentence

This classic paper game can also be used in the classroom. It can be enjoyed from a fairly low level. Just note that instead of drawing a hanging man (some cultures are potentially sensitive to the concept of suicide as a punishment), you can draw a cartoon character and simply erase a part of it when the class (who are all working as a team) guess the wrong letter. If you can't draw, a simple star, heart, or ice cream will do.

How to Play

For this game, you just need a board and pen/chalk. Decide your word or phrase (entire sentences are easier) and write one line for each letter. Leave a large space or a forward slash to represent a space between words.


Get your students to suggest letters that might appear in your mystery sentence. They can shout out or raise their hands, whatever you prefer.

If they say a letter that isn't in your mystery sentence, erase a little of the picture on the board. You can erase just a little of the picture if you're with a low-level class, or erase a lot of it to increase the pressure! It's also helpful to write down the letters that have already been guessed so you can keep track.

When the whole sentence has been guessed, the class "wins"!

4. Shopping List

This is an excellent warmer for smaller groups (up to 10 students). You can also play this if you're teaching one-to-one. It's another way of practicing and retaining vocabulary, as well as how to list things (saying "A, B, and C" instead of "A and B and C.")

Start with a clause. Depending on the topic and your language focus, this could entail different things. Here are some suggestions.

  • "I went to the shops and bought..." (clothes, accessories, household items)
  • "I went to the zoo and saw..." (animals)
  • "I went on vacation and (did)..." (activities, verbs)
  • "I went to the supermarket and bought..." (food and drink)

Start by using the clause yourself and adding an item. For example, "I went to the shops and bought a t-shirt." The students take turns continuing the sentence, remembering the item you said and adding their own. The results are something like this.

  • Teacher: I went to the shops and bought a t-shirt.
  • Student 1: I went to the shops and bought a t-shirt and a purse.
  • Student 2: I went to the shops and bought a t-shirt, a purse, and an umbrella.
  • Student 3: I went to the shops and bought a t-shirt, a purse, an umbrella, and a pair of shoes.

The students will have great fun helping each other remember the things on the list and helps their vocabulary, pronunciation, and the ability to list things in English. Always be overlooking as they're speaking, ready to catch mistakes so you can reinforce difficult aspects to the whole class.

Shopping List is a great way to start up or end a lesson!

5. Word Tennis

This is a quick game that can be played at the beginning of your lesson to get everyone thinking or at the end if you have a couple of minutes to spare.

How to Play

For Word Tennis, you just need a board that all of the students can see. Divide the class into two teams.

Write a category on the board. Here are some ideas.

  • Countries
  • Vegetables
  • Fruit
  • Sports
  • Countries
  • Drinks
  • Animals
  • Body parts
  • Clothes

Each team has to say a word in the category, one after the other. If someone says a word that doesn't fit in the category or repeats, the other team gets a point.

It's important to be fast with this game to keep it moving! Allow five seconds each to answer and be ready to spot a repeated word. You can record points with counters or by writing them on the board.

This is another great vocabulary game and the students can really sometimes take you by surprise with their knowledge!


6. Hot Seat or 20 Questions

Hot Seat practices adjectives, as well as questions and answers. For small classes, one person at a time will work, and teams will work for larger classes.

How to Play

For this game, you just need a board and pen. Select a student or team to stand outside or at the other side of the room with their hands over their ears. The rest of the class decides on a word (a noun) for the student to guess.

For larger classes, you can write the word on the board so that they don't forget what it is. Get the student or team who are guessing to come back, standing or sitting with their back facing the board. Write the word above their head.

They then have to ask questions to try and guess the word. The questions must only have yes/no answers. For example, "Does it live in the ocean?" is fine whereas "Where does it live?" is not.

Depending on the students' level, you can choose a variety of nouns for this game. Lower-level classes will get by with animals or basic household items, whereas very high-level students can be challenged with abstract nouns or concepts.

7. Shiritori

This word game can be played quickly by speaking, or you can take longer with it with higher-level groups. This guide will explain both ways.

How to Play (Quick Version)

Similarly to Word Tennis, this game is completely oral. Choose any English word and start with it. The other team or student says a word beginning with the last letter of the previous word. For example, if you said "English," they have to come up with a word beginning with H.

Go back and forth until someone repeats a word or they take too long to answer. A point is rewarded to the other team.

How to Play (Long Version)

If you have some time on your hands and want a challenge for your students, you can make this a written game. You'll need a board and at least two pieces of chalk or markers.

Divide the class into two teams, or two students (though this game is better with groups). Divide the board with a straight line and write a word at the top of each section (make sure they end in different letters). After you start the timer, the students have to take turns in their teams to write a chain of words following the last-letter rule. After the time is up (around 3-5 minutes is fine depending on the class size), get them to sit down.

Count all of the words they've written down and award a point for a correct word with the right spelling. Don't give a point for repeated words, unintelligible scribbles, or wrong spellings.

If you really want to challenge them, ask the teams to come up with a story using as many of their words as possible. The story can be as silly as they like as long as they use the words they wrote. After that, you can count up their points again with the vocabulary items they managed to use in their story.


Games and activities keep your students on their toes, encourage them to use speed and creativity to come up with the answers, and give them encouragement when they win a game. These games are best for junior high school and above and most are best with groups, but feel free to adjust them to fit your own classes. If English is fun, they'll enjoy it much more!

© 2019 Poppy


Poppy (author) from Enoshima, Japan on February 07, 2019:

Indeed! Most of them can also be enjoyed by native speakers.

Liz Westwood from UK on February 07, 2019:

Hangman is a popular and easy to play game, but the others are new to me. Games are a great idea to encourage group participation.