Digital Age Teaching and Learning

Games for ESL Students

Games for ESL Students

Using games for ESL students is an essential part of every language teacher’s toolkit. Regardless of the age of your students, games are always a popular choice for lessons. Moreover, since they are so popular, finding a variety of games for ESL students is rather easy—a simple google search will yield thousands of results. Whatever the level or needs, there’s guaranteed to be games for ESL students to practice them.

But, with so many games available, how do you decide which ones are best? This is what to look for as well as some of the must-know games for ESL students.

Features of Good Games for ESL Students

Good games for ESL students should require participation from the teacher and students—especially if you’re teaching a private lesson. This doesn’t mean that you have to compete with your students, but you should be active rather than watching the students play. Without participation, rather look at other games for ESL students.

Next, the game should be connected to the content that you’ve been teaching. In other words, games for ESL students need to provide gap analysis rather than mere entertainment. This allows you to determine the students’ understanding and mastery of the lesson content.

Finally, games for ESL students must be fun! If the students don’t find a game fun, they won’t be invested in it.

Essential Games for ESL Students

  1. What’s the question? 

Appropriate for any level, “What’s the question?” is a game to practice listening and speaking by reviewing question forms that you’ve already covered in lessons

Divide your students into two teams and explain the game, which is based on Jeopardy. Use a few examples of answers to prompt students to provide the question to these answers. Remember to emphasize that students must phrase the question correctly—it is, after all, the purpose of the game. This means that they must use the right word order and question words.

Once students understand the game, have one from each team come to the front of the class. Giving them a bell or buzzer to press when answering the question can add to the fun. Read an answer to question and ask them, “What’s the question?” The first student to answer correctly scores a point then a new set of students compete.

  1. Describing People’s Appearance and Characteristics

This is one of the easier games for ESL students who are pre-intermediate or intermediate level. It focuses on speaking, listening and adjectives as well as basic body parts. The results are hilarious regardless of who is described, but it works best when the students all know the person who is being described.

Give one piece of paper to each student. One student stands in front of the class and describes a person of their choice. The rest of the class must then draw the person as they’re described. When they’re finished their drawings, the student at the front of the room reveals the name of the person they described—who often looks nothing like the drawings that each student shows the class.

As a follow up to the drawings, students can ask questions about the person described. This allows them to practice basic question forms as well as for the answering student to be creative. 

  1. Sentence Race 

This is probably one of the most popular vocabulary review games for ESL students. It’s great for any level and especially for big classes.

Make a list of the vocabulary that you want to review. You will need to create two copies of each word. On small pieces of paper, write words from your vocabulary list. Make sure that you have two identical sets.

In the lesson, divide the students into two teams and hand out the words that you have written on the small pieces of paper. Each student must have a word and the teams should have identical words.

Call out a word randomly. The students in each team who have that word run to the board to write a sentence (of their own creation) using the word. The student who writes a correct sentence gets a point for their team.

  1. Tongue Twister Races

Many games for ESL students focus on speaking and listening, but tongue twister races is a great way for students to focus on the clarity of their pronunciation while practicing fluency. It’s also great fun!

Choose an English tongue twister that is an appropriate level for your students or has particular sounds that you want your students to practice. You can also shorten the tongue twister and give them just a line or two.

As a class, practice the tongue twister in phrases as you model it and the students repeat. Then practice it in longer phrases until the students have the rhythm right. Give them time to practice the tongue twister individually, emphasizing that the speed is up to them—the clarity of the pronunciation is what’s important.

When students are ready, divide them into as many teams as you want. One team stands up and the person in front begins. If the student says the tongue twister clearly, they sit down and the next student starts. The goal is to have everyone say the tongue twister clearly as fast as they can manage it. The team with the fastest time wins. 

Games, Games and More Games for ESL Students

There are so many more game options that it’s possible to fill a book—several, in fact, as many teachers already have. Any popular games, whether they were originally intended for language practice or not can become games for ESL students to practice target language or simply to review what they already know.

Other favorite games for ESL students include:

  • Find a Person Who
  • Hot Seat
  • Hangman
  • Simon Says
  • Word Jumble Race
  • Connect Four
  • Song Lyric Mash Up
  • What’s my problem?
  • Two Truths and a Lie
  • Broken Telephone

Feel free to share your favorite games for ESL students with other teachers by commenting on this article.