Skip navigation

Category Archives: games

By Dick Tibbetts – Macau University, Macau, China

It might be worth considering what Scrabble can teach and what Scrabblers can learn.

Players can learn vocabulary from their peers and peers have to define words when challenged. I’d ban dictionaries for finding words and use something reputable like the advanced learners dic. as an authority for judging.

Scrabble games with NS are used to aid spelling but this isn’t so useful with Chinese learners because they learn the spelling before they learn pronunciation and before they are truly familiar with meaning and usage. NS who can’t spell often have a wide vocabulary and Scrabble gives them an incentive to hone their spelling.

Scrabble can give practice in the function of challeng- ing and querying:
“Hey, I’ve never seen that before.”
“I don’t think that’s in the dictionary”
These qualified challenges are useful subtleties in the art of argument.

Scrabble gives learners opportunities to use some of the meta-language of dictionaries in a natural situation. They can challenge by saying “That’s a loan word/archaic/slang etc.” I’m not sure how useful this is but it is there and it does happen.

(Photo: 45 college students, working in teams, playing Scrabble in Guangzhou, China. The board is projected onto a screen. Photo by Dave Kees)


>By Dick Tibbetts – University of Macau, Macau, China

Make sure the learners know the language learning objective(s) of the game but there is a bigger problem here that may negate even this approach.

The problem is that the institution does not really value spoken English and does not value the teacher of spoken English. Consequently, the learners don’t either. You therefore need to use motivating forces from outside the educational institution and this is not easy. Games fit the bill but in this environment even the fun of the game can work against you.

You want the learner to directly experience the benefits of being able to speak English. If there are none for these learners. If there are none and you are teaching the branch of ESP known as ENPP, English for No Particular Purpose then you are on a limb. You might get some hooked on chatting to visiting foreigners, if there are any, and you might get some to engage in voice chat on the web, if they have the equipment. Some might be motivated by interesting discussions and some by the status of starring in a debate, though the latter can only benefit a few. I have, on occasion, offered money to the best student for a task completion, praised the winner to the skies and then, with an innocent smile, admit I lied about the money. It got enthusiastic participation and a big laugh but you can only wave your 100 Yuan about once.

In short there is no one answer to the problem. Varied activities, some games, some tasks, some hard study work, some activities that relate to the world outside seems to be the best approach to hook as many differently motivations as possible.

[Photo: Students playing the “Alibi” game. “Where were you last night at 9:00?”]

>Here are some ideas for do-it-yourself games with Scrabble letters. You can find a set of Scrabble letters here.

By “Peg” Margaret Orleans – Japan

Boggle – Have students draw sixteen (or twenty-five) random letters and place them in a 4 x 4 (or 5 x 5) square. Give them a reasonable length of time to write down all the words of three or more letters they can find. All letters must be connected horizontally, vertically, or diagonally in order; no letter may be repeated within a single word. After the lists have been made. Have students in each group read them aloud. Duplicated words are crossed out and the remaining words are scored: three letters, 1 point; four letters, 2 points; five letters, 3 points; six letters, 5 points; seven letters or more, 10 points.

Guggenheim – Have students suggest five categories (Countries, Fruit, Animals, Movie Titles, and Months, for example). Then draw five random letters (no duplicates). On a five by five grid, students write one word/phrase for each category beginning with each letter. Give a time limit (5 minutes is usually reasonable if the categories are appropriate). Have groups share answers. Scoring: word spelled with wrong initial letter (r/l confusion, for example), -1 point; word in wrong language, -5 points; correct word given by more than one student, +1 point; unique correct word, +5 points.

Last Word – Have cards with categories (or let students suggest them). For example, Green Things, Bodies of Water, Cold Things, Things in a Stationery Shop, Pizza Toppings, etc. Students choose a random letter, and turn over a category card. Everyone begins on a signal, calling out words in the category that begin with the letter each has chosen. The teacher calls when time is up (variable time limits, from 15 seconds to 2 minutes). The player who called the last correct answer wins the round.

PDQ – It is normally a card game. The dealer turns over three tiles in a row. Each round starts out with a different set of 3 letters. Be the first to shout out a word that contains those letters in order from left to right, or right to left, and you’ll win the tiles. For example, if the letters are PNA, you could shout PiNbAll, PiNeApple, or PheNomenAl. You could also yell ANteloPe, ANticiPate, or ANthroPology. If two players call out words at the same time, the longer word wins. If players agree that no word can be formed, another three tiles are placed on top of the previous three. The winner of each round keeps the tiles. Whoever hass the most tiless at the end of the game is the WNR!

Here are a few games that you can’t play with Scrabble letters unless you put several sets together:

Word Ladders – (as Lewis Carroll called it) or Word Gold (as Vladimir Nobokov) referred to it.

You have to look some of these up on the Internet or work some out yourself to set as puzzles for the students and once they get the idea, they can create some of their own to challenge your and/or their classmates. The game involves choosing two words of the same length and generally opposite of each other. You move from one word to the other by changing one letter at a time, making sure that you always have an actual word. For example, you can move from LASS to MALE in the following steps:

Word Mastermind – Students play this in pairs. One thinks of a five-letter word in which no letter is repeated. (If playing with tiles, the player selects the tiles while the other player closes her eyes, and keeps the word covered or turned face-down.) The partner then attempts to duplicate the target word by guessing five-letter words (also without duplicated letters). After each guess, the first player indicates with an X each letter that is in the target word in the same position and with an O each letter that is in the target word, but not in the same position.

You can see why this is easier to play with paper and pencil–or just mentally.

For example, the partner guesses
BREAD and the score is XOOO

Of course, it usually takes a lot more guesses.

Before and After – Students find this game amazing when I demonstrate it to a class. I tell one student to think of any English word he/she likes and I will guess it.
Then I guess a word and the student tells me if my guess is before or after his/her word in the dictionary. With students who have a vocabulary of 1000 words or so, you can generally arrive at their word in about ten guesses.

After one demonstration, students can pair off and play. It’s good alphabetization practice and spelling review.

“Peg” Margaret Orleans – Japan

[These are games you can buy or make.]

1. Would You Rather

Draw one of the 40 questions cards and read one of the five questions on it aloud. Choose how you would answer the question and secretly put the answer chip (1 or 2) in your fist. Each player guesses your answer, after which you reveal your answer by showing the chip. Each correct guesser gets one card. Discard the card you played. Play moves clockwise. If that player doesn’t have a card, he/she draws one. The winner is the first player with five cards.

(In version 2 of the rules, the player reading the card tries to guess how the group will answer the question. If he/she guesses correctly, he/she wins the card. This version calls for more discussion of the question.)

Sample questions:

Would you rather go to a party with (1) a terrible haircut or (2) extremely out-of-fashion clothes? Would you rather lose (1) your memory or (2) your vision? Would you rather (1) travel the world or (2) build your dream house? Would you rather (1) call an important client by the wong name or (2) blank on your fiancee’s parents’ names when you are introducing them to your parents? Would you rather (1) have a mouse run up your pant leg or (2) have a wasp get caught inside your shirt?


Here’s the description from the website:

“Hoopla is the outrageously fun game where every second counts, with two or more players rallying together to beat the clock. There are four categories of question cards: Cloodle (drawing, similar to Pictionary), Tongue-Tied (giving alliteration clues to a single word), Soundstage >(charades), and Tweener (giving clues in the form “it’s bigger than but >smaller than,” using two objects that imply the answer). If the players >manage to work through the requisite number of cards in fifteen minutes, >the game is won by all.

“This game takes five minutes to learn and just 20 minutes to play. Includes: 280 Hoopla cards, a countdown timer, a ten-sided Cranium die, and a Hoopla pad and pencil.”

I think with students I would just give them the Tweener and Tongue-Tied options, though all four ways of giving clues will generate a lot of guessing. I like that the game is played cooperatively.

Sample clues:

It’s taller than King Kong but shorter than the World Trade Towers. It’s younger than New York City but older than the movie _Sleepless in Seattle_. (The Empire State Building)

Memphis, movie star, Mama’s boy, My Baby Left Me (Elvis Presley)

Obviously many of the target words rely on the knowledge of American history and culture, so I will need to select carefully which cards to give them and/or make new cards for things they are more familiar with.


You can download the official rules of the game from this site:

Basically, the point of the game is to guess other players’ preferences by choosing from the cards in your hand. If the Whoozit ranks your card highest, you get more points. Students tend to express surprise about some of the choices and ask follow-up questions.

Cards list both activities and objects (including lots of foods): walking the dog, bananas, game shows, science fiction, pickup trucks, jigsaw puzzles, fishing, hot dogs, broccoli, high heels, surfing, and flannel pajamas, to name a few.

With games like these, I generally ask students to make their own cards (and then use those cards with a similar group of students). You could ask students to write five favorite activities, five favorite objects, five favorite foods, and one thing they dislike in each category, for example.

>By Margaret “Peg” Orleans – China

Some games that students with very little vocabulary may be able to play and enjoy:

1. A Visit to Grandma

Students sit in circles of four to six. The first one starts with a pattern sentence like, “I’m going to visit my grandmother. In my bag I will take” and names an item (no matter how ridiculous–no need for it actually to fit in a suitcase) that begins with the letter A. The second student repeats what the first has said, adding an item that begins with the letter B, and so on around the circle and through the alphabet. (Lots of chance to practice pronunciation and listening, but students have some control since they are choosing words they understand.)

2. Dictionary Before and After

Working in pairs, one student chooses any English word she knows. The partner attempts to identify it by guessing words. After each guess, the student who has chosen the word responds with before (meaning “My word comes before your word in the dictionary) or after. One demonstration before the whole class in which you guess a student’s work is usually enough for everyone
to catch on.

3. Be Write Back

Students form equally-numbered teams of about seven to ten people apiece. They line up Indian file and the last person on each team is given a slip of paper on which is written a four- or five-letter word. At the start signal, these students silently trace the word on the back of the student in front of them with their forefingers. Those students can request a repetition, if necessary. When they understand (or think they understand) what the word is, they trace it on the back of the person in front of them, and so on, until the first students race to write the word on the blackboard. (Nice change of pace for tactile learners.)

4. Tillie Williams

Maybe they won’t have enough vocabulary to be able to join in when they catch on, but even the youngest of my students like this game. When I have to fill in at the last minute for a junior high teacher, I generally play this game. I begin by describing a fictitious friend named Tillie Williams, who has very strong likes and dislikes. I tell students when they understand Tillie, they should join in. Often half the class will be in on the trick, while the other half will still be baffled, but everyone can be playing actively. For example, Tillie likes swimming pools but hates lakes. She likes yellow but not orange. She’ll eat apples, but not bananas. She plays tennis, but not badminton. You should frequenly repeat a refrain like, “Her name is Tillie Williams. She may be a little odd, but she’s not very strange.” (The trick, of course, is that she likes only things with double letters.) The clues offered above were all generated by students, once they had caught on. I try to save those with easy words for students, but Japanese has the advantage of thousands of loan words from English, so that I can use fairly high-level words that I know students will understand. You may not have that advantage with Chinese students.

Anyway, I hope some of these are useful activities for giving students a chance to speak up and feel some success with English.

>By Betty Lee – Shengda College, Zhengzhou, Henan, China

There is a game called Celebrity Heads – or something like that. In its original form the names of famous people are used and the object is to discover which celebrity you are. It is usually used by teachers as an end-of-year activity. I have used a modified version of it in all sorts of classes – maths, science,… even oral English in China.

Normally you have 3 students at the front facing the class – I think it is preferable to have seats for them.

Someone writes a word on the board behind each student. They are not to see the word.

The first student now asks the class a question requiring a “yes” or “no” answer. If the class answers “yes” the student may ask another question but if they answer “no” then the next of the 3 students may ask a question.

Continue in this manner until the first person guesses the word on the board behind them. You may continue until each guesses their word or finish then.

Reward the winner by having them write the next 3 words down or have each student who has just been “in” write the new word for the person to take their seat.

There are some skills to be learnt about choosing “good” words and also about how to ask the questions.

It lends itself well to learning new vocabulary.

My college students only had one session with it but really enjoyed themselves.

>By Joseph Lee

There is an old word board game called Probe, made by Parker Brothers. I don’t know if it is available in stores now. The game is for max of four players, eight if two sets are used. Each player has a stripboard of 12 spaces. Using alphabets on cards, each player forms a word and puts them in the right order hidden (upside down) on the strip. Each space has a different number of points. The players then try to guess the others’ words in turn. Each time a letter is guessed right, the guessing player would get the number of points of the space of the letter. That letter will stay exposed. The player who guesses correctly the word gets a lot of points. I came across this game not too long ago and have not used in any ESL context, so I don’t know how useful it is. But I would think it might be fun to give it a try.

>By E. Snader

My students, sophomore English majors, enjoy TABOO. We make the rules fit the level they are at. If they are very low, they use the words provided on the card. In a class, we divide the group into three teams and become competitive. In my home, as many students as want to can join our circle and participate. The fun is in learning new words, not in keeping score for them.

The UNGAME is another card game I use sometimes when they run out of topics to talk about.

In smaller groups or with partners , SCATTERGORIES can be lots of fun.

I have 180 students and only teach them every other week. I have two afternnoons a week when they can come to my home to play games, talk, or ask questions. This is often a fun time to play word games and develop language skills in a small group.

>By Eve Ross – Beijing Institute of Machinery, China

When I created my syllabus at the beginning of the term, I wrote down that I’d do a lesson on “embarrassing moments” today. I don’t know what kind of brain spasm caused me to forget that the face issue would probably interfere with the free exchange of personally embarrassing experiences. So this morning I hurriedly tried to come up with a way to have discussions on this topic without students having to talk about themselves. The answer: make up stories about embarrassing moments.

I made six strips of paper, and on each one I wrote the first sentence of a story. I divided students into six groups, and gave each group one story strip. Each person in the group must take a turn saying the next sentence in the story. The end of the story must be “he/she was embarrassed.” When the story is finished, the groups rotate story strips and do another. I alternated male/female characters in the stories so that students could practice he/she. Here are the sentences I used:

– Once there was a girl who wanted to be beautiful…
– Once there was a boy who wanted to play basketball like Michael Jordan…
– Once there was a girl who had two boyfriends at the same time…
– Once there was a boy who wanted to get married…
– Once there was a girl who wanted a certain boy to love her…
– Once there was a boy who wanted to become rich…

>Eve Ross – Beijing Institute of Machinery, China

I’ve been having good success teaching circumlocution with riddles. I start out with one of my own:

“What is small, round, green, and has tiny hairs all over it?”

When students have made a few guesses, I pull a tennis ball out of my bag.

Then it’s the students’ turn to create their own riddles. I tell them to start with “What is…” and use adjectives. They shouldn’t use their dictionaries to look up words they don’t know because after they’ve created the riddle, they’re going to tell it to everyone in the class. And their riddle won’t be interesting if they use English words that their classmates don’t know. It’s okay if the answer is a Chinese word that they don’t know how to say in English.

Students DO NOT WRITE their riddles (I didn’t make that clear to the students the first time, and they started answering each others’ riddles by exchanging papers, reading the riddle, and writing their answer…Hello! ORAL English, please!).

However, students should keep a written count of how many of their classmates answer correctly/incorrectly. This is a fun way to keep track of how many classmates one has left to tell the riddle to, as well as to see whose riddle is the most difficult.

A couple riddles my students came up with:

1. What is small and red, but not round? You can eat it.
2. What is full when it works and empty when it rests?


(1. strawberry 2. shoes)