ESL Games for Teachers: The 10 Best Games for ESL Teachers Abroad

best esl games
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One of the most rewarding jobs is being a teacher. Better still, being an English teacher and teaching English as a second language to kids in schools in a foreign country like Costa Rica, Korea, South America, Thailand, Japan, China, the Middle East, or Cambodia is even better for many adventurous people. For most developing countries, all a degree holder needs is a TEFL or TESOL certificate and then you need to get teaching experience under your belt.

Once you have had a teaching job for a year or two, you may have the opportunity to teach at an international school and earn a decent Western salary, along with free housing. You will find that in most developing countries, they are very hospitable people and teaching a foreign language in an ESL classroom is something that will stay with you forever, whether you only it for traveling experience or you develop your skills and teach for years by making a career out of it. One problem, however, is to know exactly what to teach in the classroom, especially when you lack teaching experience.

There are a wide variety of games to help teach English that can assist an ESL teacher when going over new or old topics, grammar, vocabulary, spelling, listening comprehension, speaking skills, reading skills, and writing skills, all while keeping the class actively engaged in the lesson. Games are good for practicing vocabulary and other skills learned in the lesson. You can always look at popular websites for games, such as ESL cafe sites like Dave ESL cafe, as well as Cambridge University Press, and Macmillan Heinemann. For now, here are some of the best games we can find to make studying fun and teaching interesting.

Ten of The Best Games for ESL Teachers Abroad:

1. Hangman

How to play the game:

  • Think of a word or a set of words such as a phrase and write the number of letters on the board using dashes to show many letters there are.
  • Ask the students to suggest a letter. If it appears in the word or phrase, then write the letter in all of the correct spaces. If the letter does not appear in the word, write the wrong letter off to the side and begin drawing an image of a hanging man. To make the game more child-friendly, you can draw a silly face or person and add features to the face or person for every wrong letter.
  • Continue until the students either guess the word correctly (the students win the game) or you complete the picture (the teacher wins the game).

Why should you use it? Good for lesson warm ups and cooling down, spelling, and vocabulary practice.

Who it is best suited for: All ages; specifically younger learners from elementary to high school level.

2. Pictionary

How to play the game:

  • Before the lesson begins or class starts, prepare a bag of vocabulary words.
  • Split the class into two teams and draw a line down the middle of the board or a large piece of paper.
  • ​Give one team member from each team a pen, dry erase marker, marker, or chalk and ask them to choose a word from the bag.
  • Tell the students to draw the word in the form of a picture on the board and ask their team to guess the word from the picture.
  • The first team to say the correct answer gets the point
  • The student who has completed the drawing should then nominate the next person to draw for their team.
  • Repeat the steps until all the vocabulary words are gone. Make sure you have enough vocabulary words so that each student gets to draw at least once.

Why should you use it? Vocabulary practice

Who it is best suited for: All Ages

3. Word Chain

How to play the game:

  • Get a soft toy, ball, or a soft die.
  • Have all of your students stand.
  • ​Pass the object around to each student giving them a letter.
  • ​The student should then give you a word that begins with that letter.
  • The student then passes the object back to you.
  • ​Pass the object to the next student in the class.
  • ​Take the last letter of the word the previous student gave.
  • Pass the object and give the next student that letter.
  • Repeat the steps until everyone in the class has had at least one or two turns.

Why should you use it? Vocabulary practice, speaking skills, listening skills, warm up for class.

Who it is best suited for: All Ages

4. Simon Says

How to play the game:

  • Stand in front of the class. You play as Simon for the whole game or you can designate a different student to play as Simon per each round of the game.
  • Do an action and say “Simon Says…” (action). The students must do the action.
  • ​Repeat the previous steps while choosing different actions, you can be as silly as you like and the sillier you are, the more the students will be engaged and enjoy the activity.
  • Then do an action, but this time say only the action and omit the phrase “Simon Says…”. Whoever does the action after you leave out the phrase then they must sit down.
  • The winner of the game is the last student standing.

Why should you use it? Verb and action word vocabulary practice, listening comprehension, and speaking skills. Very good for warming up a class and cooling down a class after learning a lesson.

Who it is best suited for: All ages; specifically younger learners.

5. Pass the Marker

How to play the game:

  • Divide the class into teams and then stand in lines. All should be standing and facing the board. For larger classes, you can have more lines, but no more than four lines/ teams is recommended due to space.
  • Say or point to a word on the board and say “Go!” or “Start!”
  • ​Each student says the given word, while at the same time passing it down the line.
  • The last student of each team should run up to the board to write the word and say the word.
  • ​Give a point to the first person to say the word correctly.
  • The students then go to the front of the line.
  • If a student doesn't say the word, send the marker back and have the students do it again or don't give their team a point.
  • Repeat the previous steps until time is called or a set point goal is reached.

Why should you use it? Speaking skills, vocabulary practice, listening comprehension, spelling.

Who it is best suited for: All Ages

6. Tongue Twisters

How to play the game:

  • Create a few different tongue twisters using whatever phonics you are teaching the students for that day.
  • Write the tongue twisters on the board or give them to each student on a printout.
  • ​After you have written them on the board, select a student from the class.
  • Say a sound, not the letters. Example: 'RI', 'SL', 'KN' 'MN'.
  • ​Have the student circle the words that contain those letters in the list of tongue twisters.
  • Have the students practice saying the tongue twisters to help them pronounce the sounds.

Why should you use it? Good for helping those struggling with pronunciation and speaking skills.

Who it is best suited for: All Ages

7. Dictionary

How to play the game:

  • Divide the class into groups of five or more depending on how large the class is. If the class is small, then you can play as one group.
  • Give each group a packet of sticky notes or index cards and a large dictionary. You can make your own vocabulary list for the class to use.
  • ​For each of the groups select a leader and a judge. The leader finds a word in the dictionary or in the provided vocabulary list and then writes the correct definition of the word on a sticky note. The leader spells the word out loud, and everyone except the judge will write the word down.
  • The other players make up a definition of their own for each given word and then they write them on sticky notes as well. They can come up with a silly definition or try to guess the correct definition. They can also try to fool the judge with a definition that sounds convincing.
  • The leader collects all of the definitions from the other players and hands them over to the judge. The judge then reads each definition out loud.
  • ​After reading all the definitions, the judge decides which definition they think is the most correct.
  • The leader identifies which answer is correct by reading the dictionary definition of the given word.
  • ​If the judge picks the leader’s answer, then the leader gets a piece of candy or another token of reward. If the judge picks another player’s answer, then the player gets the candy, token or reward.

Why should you use it? Helps students learn definitions and vocabulary words, speaking skills, listening comprehension, and reading skills and also benefits the shy students in the class by giving them a chance to lead/ interact with others.

Who it is best suited for: All ages; specifically for kids or adults who are shy.

8. 20 Questions

How to play the game:

  • Make your own set of topic cards or print out topic cards relevant to your lesson. Topics can be about family, animals, people, places, actions, events, etc.
  • Place the class in small groups or if the class is small, you can play together. Make sure each player has a piece of paper to record their points.
  • ​Put the topic cards face down in a pile on a table, chair, or desk at the front of the classroom and put a pen or marker and piece of paper next to the pile.
  • Select a student or ask for a student to volunteer to be the topic holder. This student then takes the top card and thinks of something relevant to the card's topic. After writing this on the piece of paper provided, they then state the topic. To break the ice, you can be the first topic holder to set the example of how the game is played.
  • ​Players begin by asking 'Yes' or 'No' questions. If the question is grammatically correct, this player then earns a point and the topic holder answers it. If the question is not grammatically correct, another player may try to ask the same question correctly. If correct, this player earns a point. If it is still not correct, ask the question again yourself and have the topic holder answer it. If the topic holder isn't sure of the answer, they can say 'I don't know.'
  • If any of the players think they know what the topic holder is thinking of, they can politely say so. If it is not the correct answer, the topic holder earns one point and the game continues. If it is the correct answer, the player guessing earns three points and becomes the next topic holder. This player then picks up the next topic card and the game continues with a new topic.
  • If no one has guessed what the topic holder is thinking of after twenty questions have been asked, then the topic holder states what it is and earns one point. Another student is selected or volunteers to be the next topic holder.
  • The first student or students to reach the set point goal wins the game.

Why should you use it? ESL games help students practice grammar, speaking skills, listening comprehension, and vocabulary.

Who it is best suited for: All Ages

9. Directions Game

How to play the game:

  • Draw a map on the board or large piece of paper. If you are not artistically inclined, you can always print maps and hand them out to each student.
  • Teach directions such as go/turn left, go/turn right, go up, go down, go straight ahead, opposite of…, between the…, beside the…, etc.
  • ​Put the students in small groups if the class is large. If the class is small, you can play as one group or two small groups.
  • Give directions and then ask the groups where you are on the map.
  • ​Ask for directions to get to a selected place on the map.
  • The team or student that answers the most questions correctly wins the game.

Why should you use it? Teaches students how to navigate, listening comprehension, asking questions, practicing vocabulary, speaking skills, and reading skills.

Who it is best suited for: All Ages

10. Essay Writing

  • Give a set of questions or a topic to write about.
  • Have a daily journal topic for the students to write about.
  • ​Have students write a story.
  • Have students write letters to each other or an imaginary pen pal.
  • ​Have students write about a fun or happy memory to share with the class.
  • Have students make up sentences or silly sentences to read aloud. This is best for younger learners who don't have a broad vocabulary.

Why should you use it? Helps with writing skills, spelling, vocabulary, practicing sentence building, grammar, and reading skills.

Who it is best suited for: All ages; specifically those who have a strong vocabulary and grammar understanding.

As you can see, when games are introduced to help teach language learning skills, the teacher is able to create different contexts so that language is more meaningful to the students. It also provides a fun and easy way to learn that will keep their attention and distract them from becoming too frustrated with the process of language learning.


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