5 Games For Teaching English On The Road

June 13, 2011 at 10:23 pm | Posted in MatadorU, teaching | Leave a comment

I’ve been an ESL teacher for nearly four years and all my students – from complete beginners to advanced business classes – enjoy games. You may not be an ESL teacher, but you could still find yourself teaching English while travelling. Perhaps you’re volunteering in a village school or you want to help your host family improve their language skills. Maybe you just have a long time to wait at the bus station and a friendly local who wants to practice English with you.

I’ve used all of these games effectively in my ESL classroom, but I’ve also used them while traveling. All of them require minimum preparation and materials; playing cards, dice, some paper and a pencil. They can be played in pairs, in small groups or in larger groups (divided into teams where a person from each team takes a turn). The games are aimed at giving lots of speaking practice and, more importantly, they’re fun.

1. War

This is a very simple card game, which can be adapted for many language points.

How to adapt it for practicing English:

Assign each colour, suit or number a different language point. Players must use that language before the next person takes their turn. An example for a lower-level might be hearts = ‘like’, diamonds = ‘don’t like’, spades = ‘love’ and clubs = ‘hate’.  They can say a sentence about their own or their friends’/family’s preferences or even ask a question to the other players, such as “Do you like cats?” (and it’s also a fun way to get to know one another). For a higher-level you could assign red for ‘passive’ and black for ‘active’. If they turn over a red card they need to say a passive sentence; a black card requires an active sentence.

2. Go Fish

This one works really well for drilling yes/no questions and short answers.

How to adapt it for practicing English:

As with the above game, assign card numbers with different language points. One of my favourites is to use it for countable/uncountable nouns: 2 = an apple, 3 = water etc. Instead of asking, “Do you have a two/three?”, the player will ask “Do you have an apple/any water?”. You could even make your own deck of cards by writing or drawing the vocabulary on slips of paper, instead of using actual playing cards. Another way is to use verbs. For instance, 2 = play, 3 = eat etc. Players then ask questions like “Can you play guitar?” or “Do you eat breakfast at 8am?”. The response would be “Yes, I can” or “No, I can’t”, according to whether they have that card (not according to their true answers to these questions).

3. Connect 4

You don’t need an actual Connect 4 game for this. Just a grid drawn on paper will do; in effect, like a giant tic-tac-toe game.

How to adapt it for practicing English:

In each square of the grid, write a vocabulary word or grammar point. If the player wants that square, they need to say a sentence using the vocabulary or correct grammar before they can place their mark there. Keep playing the game until all the squares are used up and then see who has the most lines of 4. I’ve found this works really well if you let the players choose some of the vocabulary themselves; they feel more confident with familiar words they know how to use and they can sometimes surprise you with unusual words that they know.

4. Battleships

Like Connect 4, all you need is a grid drawn on paper.

How to adapt it for practicing English:

Instead of letters and numbers, write parts of sentences or questions. In the below example you can see that for square A1, the player needs to say “How much is the bus to Oxford?”, and for square B1 they say “When does the bus to Oxford leave?”.  The focus is on the question form, not the answer. A simpler version to practice sentences could use pronouns instead of letters and verbs instead of numbers (“He is reading a book”). Or activities instead of letters and times instead of numbers (“I go to school at 9 o’clock”).

5. Boardgames and Dice

Any simple boardgame will do, or you could draw your own. If you don’t have any, just use the dice by themselves and play like in War with the highest number winning.

How to adapt it for practicing English:

Like with the card games, you assign the numbers on the dice with different vocabulary or grammar points. Roll the die, say a sentence and move your piece along the board. If you’re playing without a board, then players should keep a tally of who wins each round. I’ve also combined this game with homemade flashcards (little scraps of paper with words written on them). When the player rolls the die, they also take a flashcard and have to use that word in their sentence. This is really popular when I make the numbers on the die correspond to the names of the players, so they get to say sentences about each other. For example, 5 = John and the flashcard is ‘giraffe’. There are lots of sentence combinations, which can suit different language abilities; “John has a giraffe”, “John cooked a giraffe for dinner”, “John is as tall as a giraffe” etc.

Of course, all these games work equally well if you want to learn any language. A little help from a native speaker to correct your mistakes, and you’ve got a fun way to practice the local lingo whilst on the road.


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