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5 of My Favorite English Games for ESL Students

The author has been an ESL teacher in both Canada and Asia for more than seven years.

Great games for ESL students

Great games for ESL students

ESL Games: Surefire Ways to Make Your Lessons More Fun

If you've ever taught English before, you have probably had this complaint (or have at the very least known someone who has received it before):

"Your class is too boring. The students want more activities/games!"

It happens to the best of us, so I'm going to share five proven activities that can be adjusted to work for almost any lesson. Every one of them emphasizes student talk-time, and they are all genuinely fun for both you and the students.

1. Mystery Theater

This one is great for the teacher. You get to sit back and watch some really original and wacky student-created plays! The trick is, don't tell them they will be acting anything out until the last minute.

Materials Needed

Just a whiteboard and some markers!

The Setup

You will need to write a list of genres (romance, comedy, horror, drama, and action, for example) in one corner of the board. Also on the board, you will have a list of a few questions. For example, I might ask students things like:

  • What are the tastiest foods?
  • What is scary?
  • What is something you would say to the person you love?
  • What are things you might find in the sky?
  • What kinds of things do people keep in their pockets?
  • What are boys' names?
  • What smells very bad?

You probably want to choose 3 to 5 questions to brainstorm as a class.

The Activity

  1. First, direct the students' attention to the questions written on the board. Conduct a class discussion about each, writing your students' answers on the board (clustered around the question). Have them brainstorm at least ten quick answers for each question.
  2. Then choose which question-and-answer the class likes best: This will be the word group you'll be working with.
  3. Assign each student to a small group of 2–6 students, depending the size of your class.
  4. Draw their attention to the genres you listed in the corner of the board, describe each one, then assign a different genre to each group.
  5. Okay, now it's time to explain that this game is all about creating role-plays. Every team must make and perform a role-play for the class in which they find a way to use every word that's clustered around the question at least once, in the genre they've been assigned!
  6. Give them 10-15 minutes to work in their groups and figure out just what the heck they are gonna say! After that, bring the class back together for presentations, and I promise you're going to see some very original, hilarious plays being acted out in English!

Note: A good teacher will give the class a clear example of how to do this. In other words, it's only fair that you do a role-play yourself. This will help your students understand the assignment and will also break the ice!

Mystery theater brainstorm—for each question, cluster at least ten of your students' answers on the board!

Mystery theater brainstorm—for each question, cluster at least ten of your students' answers on the board!

2. Dangerous Definitions

This one is based on the classic board game Balderdash, a game I always love playing with my friends, so I thought, why not find a way to bring it to the classroom?

Materials Needed

A list of very strange words and a pile of small papers for teams to write definitions on.

The Setup

Find about 20 words for which your students will have absolutely no clue what the definitions are. I'm not kidding: The weirder and more obscure the word, the more fun this game will be. You're not trying to teach these words; you're simply trying to get them to work together using English in a fun way.

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The Activity

  1. Divide the class into balanced teams of no more than four people. If you have a small class, playing individually is just as fun.
  2. Write the first word on the board. Tell them the part of speech it is if you want, but do not tell them the definition and don't let them use a dictionary.
  3. Ask each team to create a definition for this word and write it on one of the small pieces of paper provided. Tell them to do their best to make it sound as real and believable as possible.
  4. Once all teams are finished with their definitions, they hand the papers to you and you read each paper out loud to the class. You should also slip in the actual definition and read it out to the class. It's very important that you read all the papers the same way and give no clues as to which one is the correct definition.
  5. Once all the definitions have been read, the teams must decide which they think is the correct one. Once all the votes are in, you tally the scores like this:

If a team guesses the correct definition, give them 2 points.

If a team guesses a definition that was created by another team, give 1 point to the team that made up that definition.

See how it works? The object is to create a definition that seems so real it will trick the other teams into choosing it. It's fun for everyone and helps students think about words and their meanings in a different way. You'll all be surprised at how creative some of the student definitions are!

Balderdash—define words that sound like nonsense!

Balderdash—define words that sound like nonsense!

3. Original Origins

This is a really fun game if you have a creative class. It might not work so well for a class that hates to talk, but then again, this might just be the push they need to get going!

Materials Needed

Absolutely none, although a whiteboard is helpful.

The Setup

Think of a few "deep" or difficult questions that most people can't really answer, things like, "Why is the sky blue?" "Which came first: The chicken or the egg?" or "Why do monkeys have tails?"

The Activity

Play in teams or individually, depending on what better suits your class. The purpose of the game is to answer the questions. Simple as that. The only rule is that the students can not give the actual answer to the question (if they know it)! They must create the most entertaining and original answer they can think of. The more outside-the-box they get, the better.

Give them about 15 minutes to work on their answers. Once the time is up, bring everyone back together and have students take turns presenting answers to the class. They get points for presentation, originality, and creativity. When everyone has finished presenting, you can either pick the winner yourself or have the class vote on who they thought created the best answer for each question.

It's a fun game and it really tests their English. Great for intermediate/advanced classes.

To Play the Game, You'll Need a List of Deep Questions

To Play the Game, You'll Need a List of Deep Questions

4. Sphere Selector

This one's an old favorite of mine. It's basically a quiz game with a twist that makes it even more enjoyable for the students.

Materials Needed

One soft ball (one that won't do any damage if thrown around a classroom), a whiteboard, and pre-made question cards.

The Setup

Before the lesson, prepare questions of varying difficulty in at least five categories. Categories I often use are:

  • Geography (questions about the world)
  • Grammar (they must correct a sentence)
  • Synonyms (they must provide a synonym for a word)
  • General knowledge (I just find odd facts on the Internet for this one)
  • Acting (you give the student a word or sentence, and they must act it out without making a sound for their team to guess)

You can design your own categories so you can manipulate the game however you wish, depending on the language and skill level that you want to target. You will need four questions per category, ranging in difficulty from easy to hard.

So once you have your questions ready, draw a jigsaw map on the board with five big pieces, and assign one of your categories to each piece. In the center of each space, write the name of the category, and surround it with the numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4.

The Activity

Divide the students into two teams, and give one team the ball to start with. They must throw the ball at the board to select a category. This makes it harder for them to pick the category they are comfortable with, and they have fun throwing the ball in the classroom.

Once they have a category selected, ask them how many points they will play for; they get to select a number from 1–4. 1 means an easy question, but only 1 point. 4 would be a very difficult question, and therefore you get 4 points for it.

If for some reason their team can't answer the question, or they get it wrong, the other team then gets a chance to steal the points if they can answer it correctly.

It's fun, and all you have to do is sit back and ask the questions. They enjoy throwing the ball and they get to talk with each other about what the correct answer is.

Of course, keep a running tally of the scores somewhere on the board, and at the end of class, you can declare who is the champion!

Fun games mean happy students! Here's one of my best classes from years back!

Fun games mean happy students! Here's one of my best classes from years back!

5. Ring of Fire

I saved the best for last. My students requested this game more often than any other game we ever played. It's based on the old drinking game "Ring of Fire," modified for the classroom.

Materials needed

A standard deck of playing cards, a whiteboard, 20–30 small slips of blank paper, and a bowl.

The Setup

Almost none! Place the bowl in the center of a table and spread the cards out, face down, in a circle around the bowl. On the whiteboard (or on a photocopied handout if a whiteboard isn't available) list the 12 cards (ace to king) and the actions associated with each card. (For more on what exactly those actions are, see below.)

The Activity

Before you start the game, hand every student two small slips of paper. Instruct them to write down two questions and to keep them secret! When they are finished, they need to fold up the papers and place them in the bowl on the table.

The students will take turns pulling a card. When it's their turn, they choose one and hold it up so the whole class can see it. Now here's the fun part. They must perform the action associated with that card, whatever it is!

Here are the actions I assign to cards and the penalties involved:

K: Ask anyone. (The person who draws the king must pull a random question from the bowl and pose it to any of their classmates.)

Q: Ask a girl. (Same as above, but the classmate must be a girl.)

J: Ask a boy. (Ditto, but a boy this time.)

10: Ask your teacher! (This is dangerous! They love it, of course, but once they catch on to the game, they will start slipping dangerous questions in there, hoping to catch you, i.e. which student in the class do you think is the most attractive?)

9: Bunny ears! (Everyone must make bunny ears with their fingers. The last person to do so must select and answer a question.)

8: Words. (You choose a topic: The students must go in a circle naming new vocabulary for that topic. The first one who can't say a new word has to answer a question. For example: For the topic of fruit... Apple! Banana! Orange! Carrot! Oops! The person who said "carrot" has to answer a question!)

7: Pick again.

6: Touch your nose! (Like bunny ears, except students must now touch their noses with both fingers to avoid answering the question.)

5: Answer one question.

4: Ask the person on your left.

3: Ask the person on your right.

2: Answer two questions. (Ouch! The person who picked this has to answer two questions in front of the class.)

A: Free card. (The student got lucky; she doesn't have to ask or answer any questions.)

Note: This is just an example of a setup I use for intermediate university-level classes. You can adjust the actions and penalties however you want to suit the topic or grammar point you would like to work on. Students love this game: They get to talk and act silly, and the suspense of waiting to see which card will be picked is really intense!

More Activities and Games . . .

If you liked these and want more, be sure to check out 3 More Great English Games for Adults!

© 2010 TheWatchman


Sophie on June 07, 2019:

Thanks so much for sharing! These are all wonderful and fun games my students are sure to enjoy!

WIlliam on March 31, 2019:

Thank you so much, these games are very fun and my students appreciate them a lot!

Jen on December 01, 2018:

Wow! Finally some original, fun and useful games for my students. We are so tired of the same-o-same-o. Thank you!

Armenuhi Margaryan on August 29, 2018:

Everything is great.Thank you for sharing.If you have any new ideas please send me by this e- mail. Thank you!!!!!!

Vincent on June 29, 2018:

The first i play is mystery theater bit maybe its awsome

Catherine K on May 22, 2018:

I loved the games, they're awesome! Thank you!

MrViola on May 07, 2018:

I just wanna say THANK YOU, I loved every game, have you ever played the 5 second rule with your students? they love it.

daryle martin on May 07, 2018:

Peace/blessings! I teach Oral English at a university in China. My students are slightly past beginners but not yet intermediate. Today I implemented the " Mystery Theater" for the first time. It went fantastic. The creativity in their stories was awesome! Thanks so much!!!

TeacherJavier on April 18, 2018:

First of all, thank you for sharing these amusing games. I have a question though, referring to the game "ring of fire" what if the students answers or asks the questions wrongly or correctly? Is there any reward, punishment or points system?

Thanks in advance

Carol on April 11, 2018:

Thanks for these game suggestions. I used Hot Seat today!

Zhelaniye on April 05, 2018:

Thanks a lot for sharing! We did the mystery theater game and it was SO fun!

Some1 on March 22, 2018:

Terrible games, definitely not worth the red

TR on December 27, 2017:

This is amazing, so helpful. Thanks a million

Cherry on December 10, 2017:

I love all your games. Thanks for sharing!

Mary on November 30, 2017:

I definitely loved that!

Surefire and entertaining indeed, and thanks so much for sharing)

brayan on November 21, 2017:

help me in english plis

Scott on November 11, 2017:

Great ideas. Thank you so much!

Zoe on July 04, 2017:

Super helpful and fun! Thank you so much!

Marc on June 20, 2017:

Ring of fire was so fun! My students ask for it every class now!

Pfox on June 06, 2017:

I´m playing ring of fire tomorrow!!!! Mystery Theater was awesome last month!! Thank you, thank you :)

webrife on June 06, 2017:

This is a very good article. thank you so much sir

Melissa on May 25, 2017:

I can't wait to use ring of fire in my classroom next week!!!!

Neu Mark on May 08, 2017:

Really great ideas! Thank you so much!

Margaret Hurdlik on March 01, 2017:

Great ideas! We are developing a new oral communication skills course, and I can see using games like this on a regular basis. Thank you!

Jeanne Niedermeyer on February 23, 2017:

I am so excited. I have been going to Hungary for the past 10 years in the summer to teach conversational English and the gospel. These games are fresh, exciting, and motivational for my teens. I can't wait for July to come and use these games. Thank you, Thank you. Jeanne

Nhi on February 22, 2017:

Thanks a lot! Such useful activities x

Alex on January 30, 2017:

Love ring of fire! Thanks for the suggestion!

Marta on November 15, 2016:

Thank you for the ideas. Which website did you use for creating the word clouds?

Hella Dudes on October 31, 2016:

Sphere Selector was awesome! 15 minutes of prep and 90 minutes of fun in the class. Thanks!

flor paola murillo ayala on October 06, 2016:

Loved every game thanks!!!

Lindsey on September 05, 2016:

Wow this list of games is awesome and so much different from the same old games everyone already knows! Thank you so much for posting!

Me AND my students appreciate it!


Elena on August 09, 2016:

I am really impressed! These games are different from the ones usually suggested for ESL classroom and I love them!

Miriam on November 25, 2015:

Great fun, interesting games - thanks for posting!!

Steff on August 06, 2015:

I only know Ring of Fire as a drinking game.

Never thought of using it in the classroom.


Thank you

ross on July 08, 2015:

thanks for your great game ideas!

Maroon on February 15, 2015:

Ring of Fire game is cool, i want to use it.

Celia on October 21, 2014:

Perfect! Thank you.

Rizwan Awan on August 27, 2014:

All 5 are very interesting. I'll apply in the class onward tomorrow and will

show my experience.

wix on April 09, 2014:

great ideas.... thanks for posting them.... and ignore the people who are nitpicking between your & you're - some fellow teachers are so annoying!!

Lensi Archuleta from Palembang on February 18, 2014:

That's very useful information. thank you so much. would you mind giving further information or the other references about sphere selector games? I'm really interested with this stuff and if you don't mind I'm gonna make it as my thesis title for improving speaking.

Matt on February 09, 2014:

great games thanks a lot.

You do need to learn the difference between your and you're though if YOU'RE an English teacher.

Ronan on November 25, 2013:

Great stuff! May the Spaghetti Monster bless your creativity:)

Josephine on November 22, 2013:

This was really helpful!

Can't wait to get started..Thanks for sharing!!


TheWatchman (author) from Traveling! Asia-Canada on October 07, 2013:

and to be fair, not really going to lose sleep over grammar/spelling mistakes. The purpose is to give teachers fun games they can use in the class, nothing more, nothing less.

TheWatchman (author) from Traveling! Asia-Canada on October 07, 2013:

thanks for all the feedback, to be honest i wrote it in a hurry when i just joined hubpages years ago, didn't even really edit it! will make corrections now, and post some more hubs regarding games for the classroom!

Eric on October 05, 2013:

Thanks a lot ! you're a life saver

I can pretty much use all of them but ring of fire is the best.

just changed 7 to " make an animal sound " also changed 6 to " sing a quick song 1 min. limit"

and also 9 to " whistle a song " to make it more fun

thank you again

P.S ignore that nerd "Ian" we all make mistakes :-)

LOLA on September 23, 2013:

Thanks for posting this. I have to prepare my class and I didn't know what to do... ♥

mary on May 20, 2013:

thank you, you've saved me! :) love every single one of them!

bobfletcher on May 02, 2013:

big thank you for these, i have been trying to think of a way to use ring of fire without drinking...these are all great thank you.

asela nuwan on October 29, 2012:

thanks , i'm really happy about this effort i'm a IT lecture i can do this games in my class

moroccan teacher on June 07, 2012:

thank you so much you saved my day i had to prepare something for my class


Gina on March 08, 2012:

That's awesome! Really-really. Thx

Ian on February 14, 2012:

Great ideas, but please use "you're" instead of "your" where appropriate in the text.. it's very irritating from an English language site!

Di from Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. on March 26, 2010:

Sounds like some games I could use. I could use a whiteboard here in China - but still I guess the old blackboard and chalk will work OK. Gee I wish they'd get white boards.

Sa Toya from England on February 12, 2010:

Wow I never knew any of these apart from Ring of Fire!

Really good suggestions her...lurve them :)

Hope your score stays should!

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