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In this article I'll point out a few good ESL games and a few not so good games that are popular. I'll also tell you how to play several of them too. All of them are relatively popular, however all of them are not especially educational, engaging or exciting. At the end of this article I'll share some links to the best games and activities.

Here's game number one.




This is a great game that works well with almost all levels of learners. To play this game:

  1. First divide your class into two or more groups (more for larger classes).
  2. Place one chair (one for each group) in front of the room facing the class. So if you have two groups then you'll have two chairs in front facing the class.
  3. Have a student from each group come forward and sit in those chairs.
  4. The teacher then writes a word on the board (which is behind the two students), so that the rest of the class can see.
  5. The groups have to give the students sitting in the chairs a clue to the word that is written on the board without actually saying it. They can say synonyms, antonyms or other words associated with it.
  6. The students sitting in front have to guess the word. If you like you can give the team who guesses first a plus one and then have another set of students come forward to sit and do it again.

This game works well for reviewing vocabulary. It's usually a pretty exciting game and it's educational value is high.

2. Chinese Whispers (Watch it)

Young learners+

This is a good game that students will enjoy.

  1. To play this game you'll need your students to sit in proximity to one another. If they are not already, you can have them stand or sit in a line.
  2. Whisper a sentence from your lesson into one students ear.
  3. That student whispers it to the student next to him. And then that student listens and repeats it to the next student and so on down the line.
  4. The last student in line says what was whispered to him.

This can be funny as they won't always get it correct. If they say the wrong sentence you can make them go back to the first person in line and do it again until correct. This can be done in a single line for less than say 10 students. Or you can divide the class into teams/lines and give them each a sentence (a different one is better) and then award a point to the fastest team to say it correctly.

If they try to cheat make them go back to the first person in line. You then can rotate the students and have the last student in line come to the front. I'd say this game for sentences/Q&A is pretty good and can be used relatively frequently. Although any game used to often will bore the kids and you.

3. Sticky Ball

Kindergarten-3rd or 4th grade

This game can be fun, but it is not very efficient. Time can be wasted having students getting up to throw the sticky ball. A sticky ball is about the size of a tennis ball, it's usually bright colored and has little suction cups on it, so when you throw it, it sticks to the board. I found this game to be especially popular in Taiwan, where every school I ever visited had a sticky ball on hand. However, in Korea I was hard pressed to come across a sticky ball. I think this game can be fun and stimulating when used occasionally.

  1. First you'll have to draw a picture on the board. It could be drawn just like a dart board, where you separate the circle into pieces of different values. Or (even more fun) you could have the students come up and draw a face on the board. Call on one student at a time to come up and draw a nose and another an ear and so on.
  2. Then give each part of the face and the area surrounding the face a value like + or -1, + or -5, + or -10, etc.
  3. Separate your class into two teams or more for 20 plus students.
  4. Ask a question to one student from each team.
  5. Have the student who was the first to answer it correctly come up and throw the ball.
  6. Then you'll add or subtract those points from where the ball sticks to from his total team score.
  7. Continue.

It's important that you first show them how to throw the ball and if they throw it carelessly then you could make their team lose a turn or you could deduct points from their team.

4. Bingo

Bingo is popular, but so is McDonald's. I never found it especially educational, efficient or stimulating. I think I played this game one time in my years teaching English abroad. I am not sure why, but Bingo reminds me of old ladies. Next game.

5. Hangman

This game is very popular, however, I never saw much student interest in it or it having much of an educational value. It's a game that's usually used for vocabulary. Usually a few kids will get into it while a number of others will just sit and passively watch.

Funny enough some teachers in Japan that I interviewed were apparently banned from playing hangman. That's right, banned. If you use this game it should be used infrequently for just a few minutes at a time. There are a lot better games out there. I used it occasionally, when for example, someone left the classroom to get something. Or for a single student or two who might have finished their work before the others.

There are the five most popular ESL games for teaching English abroad. Some games work well as just games, although they do not work especially well as educational games. There can be a time to use those games, however for the most part you'll want to use games that stimulate and educate your students.

What makes a game popular? Social influence is a factor. Two of the ones here that are popular were games that I was familiar with growing up. I think that's the reason why they are popular. It's not because they are especially good. They were just games that transferred from teacher's backgrounds to teaching ESL.

I'd like to point out what makes a game "good". Good games have these traits:

  1. They are efficient. That means little time is wasted setting up, playing the game or getting other students involved.
  2. They are fun. If the game is not fun to some extent then the students will not be interested.
  3. They are educational. The point is to learn English. Is the game actually teaching them or letting them practice?
  4. They incorporate multiple language skills like speaking, listening, writing or reading.

"The Best Games & Activities"

I'll save the best for last. As mentioned before here are "The 13 Best ESL Games". Or you might want to see "Classroom activities that require NO PREP". And if you like how-to videos that are "short and to the point" you could just go here and find activities for warm-up, vocab, sentences, Q&A, teaching numbers, songs, etc.