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Ten Student-Centered Games for the ESL Classroom

Why play games in the ESL classroom? An obvious answer is that games are fun, and children learn better when they're having fun! That's true, and that's a great reason to play games. You might also think that games are a good way to practice/reinforce language patterns already introduced by a teacher. That's also true!

More importantly, I'd like to argue, games can be used to achieve the following objectives:

(1) Foster student curiosity about new words and patterns;

(2) Encourage students to infer language patterns;

(3) Provide students agency over their English language education.

Next I'll provide a list of ten of my favorite ESL games with a focus on these three objectives. These games can be adapted for any level of student age three and up.

Flashcard games

Many, many games are possible with flashcards alone, for example:

* Touch (slap) game

* What's missing?

* Card hide-and-seek

I have hundreds if not thousands of flashcards, mostly made from pictures I printed out and laminated. I firmly believe in showing children a variety of pictures illustrating the same word/concept so they can intuit the relationship that unifies a word concept.

To take a simple example, consider the word "dog." In a lesson to very young learners first encountering the word "dog," I like to show them pictures of several different kinds and colors of dogs doing different things (e.g. sitting, jumping, sleeping). I might throw in a stuffed dog or a dog puppet as well :-) The different pictures of "dogs" encourage students to be curious about new expressions such as "white dog" or "spotted dog," even if that's not the exact target language for the lesson. Changing the role of the teacher and student (for example, asking a student to tell other students or the teacher which flashcards to touch) provides them space and agency to try out these new expressions.

Throw the Ball at the White Board

This is a super easy game to set up if you have a large magnetic white board. Stick pictures up on the white board with magnets and ask students to throw the ball at the board and make a sentence with the vocabulary they hit. This game can also be used to encourage children to infer prepositions. What should a student who barely misses the flashcard say? How about "over the xxx" or "by the xxx"? Some children will be curious about how to express these relationships in English and either ask the teacher for a translation or possibly infer (on their own) how to do that.


Bowling is great for teaching any concept that involves numbers. I've been using it recently to teach not only "How are you? / I'm xxx years old," but also (indirectly) adding and subtracting. I let students bowl three or four times and pretend they're as old as the sum of all their rolls. It's also possible to stack bowling pins on flashcards and have students make a sentence with the bowling pins they knock over. The sky is the limit with bowling. Buy a cheap bowling set online and get creative!

Ring toss

Ring toss, similar to bowling, can be used to teach numbers or vocabulary. Honestly this game is pretty adaptable to almost any concept. Require a student to ask or answer a question before throwing the ring, for example. Curious students will also ask start trying to make expressions such as "throw" and "toss" and "I missed!" or "I got it!" which the teacher can introduce during the game.

Hot Potato

The traditional approach to hot-potato is teacher-centered, as students are encouraged merely to repeat or mimic teacher-taught vocabulary as they pass the ball or object ("hot potato") around. While this can be a helpful strategy for teaching young children essential vocabulary, students can also be given agency to make up their own questions and answers within certain teacher-created boundaries.

Advanced elementary school students can ask and answer questions such as:

Where do you want to go? / What do you want to do?

In a lesson I recently taught, students came up with some wacky answers, such as, "I want to go to outer space." They didn't know the word for "outer space" but asked me how to say the Japanese word in English. I hope through this experience they naturally become curious about other words they want to express in English and seek that vocabulary from me or another source.

Hangman/Spelling Game

I don't call this game "hangman" because the image of a man hanging by his neck is pretty gruesome. I call it the spelling game. It's a great way to teach children phonics. Let's say I want children to learn the "ir" sound. I might take target vocabulary from the day (e.g. "first" and "third") and combine these with a word or words they already know (e.g. "bird") and try the spelling game with these words. I would let them guess at (and make mistakes) in the spelling of "first" until they realize that the "ir" sound is made by the letters "i" and "r." Next, I might try "third" or "bird" and wait for them to guess the letters correctly.

Dance, stop, pose

In this game, the teacher lets students dance (move) freely until calling out "stop" and the name of a yoga pose (or vocabulary word to act out). Here students are granted agency to move freely and then express the target vocabulary/pose in whatever way makes sense to them. It's fun to play this game with not only pre-taught poses but also new ones for which they can make up their own poses.


I like to play this game with pictures or words instead of the traditional "B-5" calling style. There are several online Bingo card generators handy for creating Bingo cards with the lesson's target language. Here's an example:

In any give game, I usually offer a mix of old and new vocabulary. It's a fun game for instructing new vocabulary without going through the traditional teacher-led drill-repeat routine.


In this game, the teacher lines up flashcards in front of a box (the basket), and a student makes sentences with the words as they progress to the front of the line, where they attempt to score a basket. As with ring toss, students often become curious about expressing "throw" and "toss" as well as "I missed" and "I got it" in English.

Rock, paper, scissors line

This is another game that can be played with only flashcards and two or more students. I include it as a separate game because it usually takes up a little more class time than "What's missing?" and "Touch/slap." Make a line on the floor with the flashcards and have students stand at opposite ends of the line. Require them to make a sentence with each flashcard on the floor until they meet in the center, where they must win a rock-paper-scissors battle to move on to the next card. The loser, meanwhile, has to go back to the starting place. It's fun to sneak new vocabulary (not yet taught) into the game so that students have to ask the teacher, or ideally another student, "How do I say this?"

Above all, I believe games are a fun, "safe" way for students to encounter the feeling that they don't know something - and the joy of overcoming that through learning. This joy, I hope, inspires children to be curious agents in their English language education throughout their lifetime.

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