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  • Writer's pictureDiana Nazaryan

Games and Activities to Make ESL Classes with Young Learners Fun

Why games?

Following the best traditions of backing up your actions we will begin with the discussion of the rationale behind using certain games and activities in ESL classes.

1. Games are the natural way for the children to study the world around them. Hence, rather than using games as a dessert, i.e. "First we will do this activity, then we will play a game", try to make it an inseparable part of your lesson.

2. Many of the suggested games follow the TPR (Total Physical Response) approach, thus, supporting all learning styles and increasing the productivity of your teaching.

3. Research has shown that emotional connotation improves your chances of remembering information. What better way to experience positive emotions than to play games?!

We will now dive into some of the games that can be used to make each and every of your lessons fun.

The Ball Game

It is sometimes hard to believe what difference a small soft squashy ball with a bell inside can make. It is used to accompany the interaction between the teacher and the students and facilitate the learning process.

Use the ball game for the active start of the lesson and to revise everyday phrases/structures. The way I do it is buy standing in the middle of the room, shaking the ball and singing: "Ball game, ball game, ball game" (choose any happy music to your liking). At this clue all the children form a circle around me. Notice that I do not waste time giving lengthy boring instructions, such as: "Now we are going to play the ball game. You should stand around me. I will ask you questions and throw you the ball". All I do is stand in the position, look excited, ring the bell and sing the song. The thought in children's heads at this, hopefully, is: "Wow! Something exciting is about to happen!"

Once I have the children around me, I model the answer and throw the ball to one of the students: "My name's Diana. What's your name?". Once the ball is in a child's hands I help them form and pronounce the answer correctly. The ball is then thrown back to the teacher and the next question is addressed to someone else: "I've got long brown hair and big brown eyes. What about you?".

Remember that practice makes perfect. Ideally, this game should be repeated at the beginning of each lesson. As you progress, the list of the questions grows. You may even use the game to revise tenses: "My mum drinks coffee every morning. And yours?", "I went to the park yesterday. What about you?". As the students become more confident with the game, ask one of them to be the "teacher", i.e. ask the questions. Alternatively, the person who answers the question can then throw it to someone else and ask the next question.

Another useful application of the ball is helping students learn and pronounce words and structures they find challenging. Imagine, your students to say "pencil sharpener". It may be too long for them and they might not be able to pronounce all the syllables properly. Add to this the fact that they do not read in English yet, which deprives you of the opportunity to write the word on the board. One way to overcome the challenge is to pronounce the word syllable by syllable and with each one throw the ball to the student back and forth: pen (throw the ball to the student) cil (the student throws it back to you) shar (throw the ball to the student) pe(the student throws it back to you) ner (throw the ball to the student). Try it several times and witness miracles happen.

NB I use the ball game with my teenage and adult students as well. Imagine you are studying a new vocabulary. You have matched the words with the definitions but now want to make sure the information has sunk in. One way to do this is to use the words in a meaningful context. Before they are able to do so, though, you want to make sure they actually remember the words. To reach this goal, I give them time to study the word list. After this I say the definition and through the ball, a student then catches the ball, says the word and throws it back to me. As with children, you may choose someone to be a 'teacher' instead of you. In order to earn this 'privilege', the student should be able to answer all your questions correctly, i.e. know all the words.

As for adults, New English File has got a list of questions at the end of each Workbook section. I ask the question and throw the ball to them, then help them form a correct answer. You can also start with them asking you the questions, so they see how it should be done. Alternatively, you can tell them to ask each other.


Most of the modern coursebooks have accompanying flashcards. If the ones that you are using are an exception or you cannot afford them, simply print your own ones. It might be a good idea to laminate them as they are going to be used a lot and will soon wear off.

The possibilities that a simple pack of flashcards can grant are countless. Some of them are:

* Card game

Hold the flashcards as a fan of cards with the images facing you and the plain side of the cards towards the students. Ask them to pick one card each and say what they see on it. If they say the word, they keep the card; if not, they put it back. If you want to make it more competitive, you may count the cards at the end of the game and see who has more. In case you want it to be less competitive, allow the students to keep the cards but make sure they say the word.

I have recently come up with a new game. Students seat around the table. You hand out an equal number of cards. In turns, they look at their cards, name one and put it on the table. At the end of the round all cards are 'out'. If someone can't say a card, they collect all the ones from the table. Whenever someone says all their cards, they are out. The game continues until only one person with cards is left.

I have used this game to study the irregular verbs with my teenage students. Instead of the image, the Armenian word was written on the card. The students had to say all three forms and place the card on the table.

* Bring me

Ask the students to put the flashcards all over the classroom or do so yourself. The image side of the cards should be visible. Once this is done, sit on the chair/floor or remain standing. The important thing about your pose is that your hand should be stretched and ready to receive "the gift". Getting into the position say: "Bring me the chair, please". The children should then go and bring the card with the chair and place it on your hands. If you want to make the process less messy and chaotic you can ask a specific student to bring the card: "Anna, bring me the chair, please".

An additional thing I do is closing my eyes. This puts me into a vulnerable position and shows that I trust them. We have already discussed what this does for building a rapport. Be prepared for your students to place random objects or even their hands on your palms. When the latter happens I kiss their hands and they become really excited. If you choose to close your eyes, when you open them and see that the right card is on your hands, show excitement and praise the student. If it is the wrong one, say: "Sorry, this isn't the chair. Bring me the chair, please!" and wait until the student finds the required item. * Point to the I have learned this chant from a colleague of mine. It helps you revise several topics at the same time: colours, chosen vocabulary and directions. To prepare for the game place the flashcards around the room so the objects on them are clearly visible. Alternatively, you may show the flashcards to the students one by one. The person who names the object right can take it and place wherever they want. Once the flashcards are placed, say the following text accompanying it with the appropriate movements: Point to the chair! Point to the paper! Point to the crayon! Point to the table! Clap right, clap left, Clap up, clap down. Turn around... And touch something green! You can change the name of the objects and the colours. The rest remains unchanged. When your students become confident enough, you can assign one of them to be the instructor.


This is a universal game I have learned from Mrs Sona Saakyan the founder of Music Lingua in Moscow, Russia. It can be used to practice everything from letters, to vocabulary, to grammar. It follows the rules of the classic game. Instead of the X and O, however, the differentiation between the players may be achieved by simply choosing different colours.

If you are learning the graphemes and want your students to practice their writing skills, hand out each a marker, pencil or a chalk and ask them to try and fill a line with the letters. The same can be done with vocabulary.

If your students are not literate yet, try the following version. Divide the class into two groups. Each group takes turns to be either an X or an O. Place flashcards in the squares and ask children to name the flashcards in turns. Groups strategically choose squares to fill in a line. Again, you may choose to be as soft or strict as you wish. In the former case, help them say the word right and accept the answer even if they are mistaken at first. In the latter case, if the group says the word wrong, the square remains untouched and the next group may try their luck with it.

As your students become older and learn tenses you may write clues in the squares, e.g. she/write/every day, and ask them to make correct sentences. You might also want to ask them to turn those into interrogative and negative forms. You may also write so called helping words, e.g. yesterday, now, usually, and ask them to make sentences in the right tense.

I have recently used this to practice mixed conditionals, past perfect simple, past perfect continuous and past perfect passive. To do so, I simply wrote the questions from their end-of-unit test in the squares and asked them to say the right form. The game was played in teams. Teammates were allowed to help and teach each other up to the moment when it was their turn to speak. If they said the word right, they could place either an x or an o in the appropriate spot. At the end, I also asked them to say all the sentences on the board right. They did this one by one and when everyone in the group had done so, they earned the right to have an extra tea party.


Not unlike games, songs are an integral part of a happy childhood. In addition, rhyming words and accompanying music facilitates memorization. Research has shown that students should be exposed to a lexical item in various contexts up to 17 times for them to remember it. Although I believe my students are smarter than that, the fact is that vocabulary and other language items need to be repeated multiple times. Now imagine simply asking your students to repeat something in contrast with teaching them a song they will, hopefully, like and keep singing as they leave your classroom. Which one seems a more efficient and fun way of learning?

To enhance the teaching potential of songs, use TPR, meaning you should accompany the song with corresponding movements, gestures and flashcard exposures. It is easy and obvious when you learn actions, such as stand up, sit down, etc. However, you should also remember to do it with other less obvious lyrics as well. Be creative, come up with your own ideas on how certain things can be shown and ask your students to help you. Remember, it does not matter whether you or your students have a beautiful voice and are proficient singers. The important thing is that you keep in mind the benefits of singing and have fun.

In addition to vocabulary, songs help your students memorise structures, improve their listening skills and pronunciation. We have songs at almost all levels and with all age groups and try to make the most of them. The textbooks also provide meaningful exercises, such as gap-fill tasks.

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