5 must-know ESL games, activities for TEFL teachers

Whether you’re just starting in the TEFL world or have been a teacher for many years, having a stockpile of fun and enjoyable activities is an essential tool for every teacher.

Research has recently shown that most of the world’s teenage and younger students are becoming more and more sleep-deprived. This can lead to a waning attention span, a lack of concentration, and students becoming more prone to distractions.

These ESL games, activities are an excellent way to bring energy into lessons, and a method for students to use their language in an engaging and, often creative way. They can be shortened or extended to suit your class’ needs and rely on collaboration; allowing students to work together towards a common goal.

Here are some minimal-prep activities that can be used to revise previously learnt language or introduce new vocabulary and grammar into the classroom.

1) Back to the board

A simple ESL activity which takes no time to set up.

  • Divide the class into two large groups, team A and team B.
  • Let students choose a volunteer from each group to come and sit at the front of the class, with their back to the board.
  • Write a topic-related word or phrase on the board.
  • Each team must then describe it to their representative at the front, to guess.
  • The first person to guess correctly wins their team a point.
  • However, the word on the board cannot be mentioned in any of its forms.
  • To adapt this activity to become more student-centred, choose a student to come and write on the board.

This activity can be adapted to suit any topic and works well as a warmer activity at the beginning of the lesson, or a review task at the end.

2) Stop the bus

All you need is a board and some paper for the students.

  • Divide the class into small groups of three or four and draw a 5×5 grid on the board.
  • Have students copy the grid. Write 4 categories in the top row of your grid – these can be topics you want to revise or elicit students’ existing knowledge.
  • Ask a student for any letter of the alphabet, for example, ‘S’.
  • Students must think of one word for each category, beginning with the given letter. No phones or dictionaries should be used.
  • Once a team has completed a row, get them to shout – “stop” – and read their answers aloud.
  • If another team has the same answer, they don’t get any points. If they have a different answer to the other groups, they receive a point.
  • Only the first team to stop can take points.

This activity can often become very competitive!

3) Pass the sentence

A teamwork activity that requires some classroom space and 5 minutes of preparation before the lesson.

  • Before the class, cut up to six strips of paper, three strips for each group.
  • On each piece, write a sentence using the target language you want to practise. Divide the class into two large groups and have them line up in two rows, one student behind another, facing the front of the room.
  • Give a board pen to the student at the front of each line, and one of the sentences to the students at the back.
  • Students must remember the sentence and whisper it to the student in front of them, who then passes this sentence forward again, and so on until the sentence reaches the front.
  • That person must then write it on the board, without help from their teammates. Award points to the team that completes the task the fastest and write their sentence most like the original.

To add a challenge to this activity, play background music to provide a more authentic listening experience.

4) Tic-tac vocab

A well-known game used to revise the target language.

  • Draw a 3×3 grid onto the board and divide the class into two teams – one X and one O.
  • Fill the grid with the language you want to review, for example, past tenses.
  • In one square you could write past simple, the next past continuous and so on until all the squares are filled.
  • Have team X choose a square. They must then write 1 to 3 sentences, depending on the level of the class, using that grammar or language point.
  • If the team is unable to do this in the allocated time, it passes to the next team to try.
  • If they get it right, the square becomes theirs. Students must occupy three squares in a row to win the game.

This activity can be easily adapted to suit your preferred length of time.

5) Taboo

A fast-paced speaking activity.

This activity requires a small amount of preparation before the lesson.

  • Write up a list of 30 – 40 topic-related words or phrases that you’ve covered over your course. Alternatively, you can use these ready-made Taboo cards.
  • Divide the class into two large groups and choose just one student to come to the front.
  • Hand the student the taboo cards, either cut-up or on a sheet of paper.
  • Set a time of 3 minutes for the student to describe the words to the class.
  • Either team can guess to win points. Once the three minutes are up, have the student choose someone else to come and describe.
  • Take it in turns until there are no more words left. The winning team is the group with the most points at the end.

Alternatively, you can get each team to write a set of words for the other group, and vice versa.

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Conclusion: Hopefully, these hassle-free ESL games, activities will ease the stress and worries teachers face at some stage during lesson planning. Whether for an icebreaker, a warmer or a filler activity, all these tasks are sure to engage and challenge your students, allowing them to practise their English in an authentic and motivating way.

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This article was originally published on October 7, 2019 and was last updated on November 14, 2020.

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