Friday, February 14, 2014

5 great ESL games for the elementary classroom


If you're brand new to the elementary world with no formal training, I think it's hard to find quality elementary activities and games for the ESL/EFL classroom.  For that reason, I want to share five elementary ESL/EFL games that have become my favorites during the first half of my teaching experience in Korea.  Why are these games/activities so great?

  • They're not specific to material, so you can use them with any unit
  • They're engaging
  • Students get speaking practice
  • Little to no set-up / prep involved

The grade levels I list below each game/activity are the grade levels I have successfully done these activities with. The games could very well work with older/younger grades, but I can't say so from personal experience.

Tic-Tac-Toe

Grades: 5/6

I've used Tic-Tac-Toe as a quick warm-up in both sixth and fifth grade classes now.  Students were not familiar with Tic-Tac-Toe, but it's quite similar to O-mok, a Korean game where you must get five in a row.  To play as a class, I split everyone into two teams (front three groups are X, back three groups are O).  One student from each group stands up and they play rock, paper, scissors to see which group goes first.

My Tic-Tac-Toe board is on powerpoint.  I have a picture in each of the squares, relating to their current unit.  When it's a team's turn, two students must stand up and make a dialog about the square they want.  Then, using power point's pen, I can draw an X or O right on the slide while the powerpoint is in presentation mode.

Tic Tac Toe ESL review game

The target language used in 6th grade for the Tic-Tac-Toe board above was:
S1: What do you want to be?
S2: I want to be a teacher.

The powerpoint doesn't take long to make, the students are way more engaged in Tic-Tac-Toe than in a quick flashcard review, and it's a great way to refresh before you start the day's lesson and learn new material.

Note: My co-teacher helped tell the kids that different students must volunteer each turn to say the dialogue (if you've gone once, you can't go again).  The last time I used this with the 6th graders, we had trouble getting volunteers.  We would have to wait until someone finally stood up, and then wait for a second person.

I've only played this with my 5th graders one time (different co-teacher).  When the first team was slow to have volunteers she began to quickly count "Five, four, three, two, one, zero!" (no pause between them!).  One time no one stood up before she got to zero, so that team lost their turn and the other team got to go again.  We always had volunteers after that.

Hidden Star

Grades: 3/4

I have only ever played this game with my third and fourth graders, and they like it.  I don't think it would necessarily hold the 5th/6th graders' attention, but then again I never know.  All you need are six picture flashcards and six magnet clips (or tape).  The fourth graders' textbook comes with a set of big flash cards for the teachers, so that's what we use.

Put all six flashcards on the board using the magnets (or whatever you have).  Everyone "goes to sleep" (heads down, eyes closed) while I draw a star on the chalkboard under one of the pictures.  My co-teacher watches for peeking students while I do this.  (Note: Many students try to peek, so I usually fake draw a star under one picture before I actually draw the star. It's funny then when most groups just so happen to pick the picture that you used to fake it.  There's upset chattering when it's revealed that no star lies under that picture, but they can't say why because they would have to admit peeking!).


Then everyone can "wake up".  I start with group number one.  All of the other groups ask them the target question (eg: What do you want?).  The group tells me their answer together, choosing one of the six pictures (eg: I want a black vest).  You could then write the group number next to the picture, but we have small, yellow magnetic numbers that work really well for this game.  Then everyone asks the target question to group number two.  After all six groups have chosen their picture (it's okay if multiple groups choose the same picture), begin to reveal what's behind the pictures.  I try to make this exciting for them, pausing before I reveal a picture that many groups have chosen, for example. The kids get really into it and are super bummed when there's no star beneath the picture, and likewise are overjoyed when they're right.

White Line Game

Grades: 4/5

My students' textbooks sometimes have flashcards in the back of their books for a particular unit.  This game was actually in the teacher's book for 5th grade, and I used it again with fourth graders because it's so simple and gets the kids speaking.

Students put their flashcards face up in a line on their desk, in any order.  All together the students ask me a question, using target language.  I give a response that corresponds to one of the flashcards, using a target expression.  If this card is on either end of their line, they can flip it over.  If it's somewhere in the middle of the line, they cannot turn it over.  The first person to have turned over all of their cards (aka made a white line) is the winner.

ESL elementary white line card game

After playing once or twice as a class, you can then have the students play in their small groups (the desks in our English room are set up in "pods" of 6 desks, with 4 - 6 students sitting at each group).  The small group then asks the target question to one student.  That student gives the target response (they can choose a card that's advantageous to them), and then it's the next student's turn.  This gives everyone a lot more talking time.

If it's their first time playing, the explanation, big group play, and small group play will take at least 15 minutes.

Around the World

Grades: 5/6

I've written about this game once before on this Elementary games and activities for English class post, but think it's worth including again here.  All you need to play are either a stack of flashcards or a powerpoint with a single vocabulary picture or word on each slide (depending on level and what skill you want to practice).  I've only used powerpoints so far for ESL/EFL Around The World (with a pointer, so I can walk around the room without being stuck clicking at the computer).

Everyone sits at their desks. The game begins on one end of the classroom when two students sitting next to each other stand up. The teacher then shows a slide (or flashcard) and the two students try to say the vocabulary word first. The "loser" would sit down and the "winner" stays standing and advances to the next desk. The student at the next desk stands up and the two students compete with another picture/flashcard. It's supposed to be a fast game. To win, you must have moved from your original seat, all the way around the classroom (world), back to your seat.

If a student has advanced halfway around the room and loses, he or she should sit down in the seat where they lost (not walk back to his/her original seat.)  I think it's a good review to use during a spare 10 minutes at the end of class every now and then.

Go Fish

Grades: 4-6

Although it's a common game in the USA, Go Fish is unknown here in Korea.  I'll only plan to play this game when there are sufficient flashcards included in the back of the students' textbook for that specific unit.  Creating, copying, and cutting out our own flashcards would be way too laborious, since so many are needed for Go Fish.  I choose the number of cards that each student begins with in their hands based on the number of flashcards in the book for that unit.

Rather than saying "Do you have ~?" we use the unit's target question. For example, "How do you say ~ in English?" was a sixth grade target phrase one unit that was used in Go Fish.  If the student has the requested card, they say "Here you are" as they hand it over.  If not, they say "I'm sorry, go fish."

It keeps the students' attention and makes everyone speak comfortably in small groups (not in front of the whole class).

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Unfortunately I can't use these five games every day next school year, so if you know of other quality elementary ESL games/activities, please share in the comments!
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