Top 10 TEFL Games & Activities

TEFL games and other fun activities play an important part of the English class, and not only when teaching English to children. While a class based around tefl games would lack balance [and create certain problems], an English class without any games would also lose a lot. It is important to choose esl games which practice English intensively, and avoid 'empty' ESL games which, while fun, only involve minimal practice of English. Good games for teaching English should involve most of the students using English for most of the time.

By involve, I don't mean that students have to be talking nonstop. A silent student may be very actively listening and thinking in the language, and a very noisy student may not be thinking at all. My preference is for TEFL games which involve little preparation, as most esl teachers are busy enough anyway. I've also included some 'gamelike' activities which have worked well for me - and for many other teachers.

Many of these TEFL games I've been shown by other teachers over the years I've been teaching. I've come across some TEFL games in English teaching books. Occasionally I've used them straight, but usually I've adapted them to suit my needs; as any teacher should when necessary.

1 - Word Tennis

This English teaching game is an ideal warmer when teaching children, especially 6 to 8 year olds, and is an excellent way to review vocabulary. It also teaches category names to the students.

Divide the class into 2 halves. Write the team names on either side of the board at the top. Leave a space in the middle of the board to write a list of categories. Write the first category [for example, animals]. Have the students read this to you, if they can't read it yet, you can read it to them. Repeated exposure to the category names will help them recognize them.

Point quickly to the first student. The student must respond with an animal name within a few seconds. Then the 'ball' bounces to the other team, and the first student quickly gives the name of another animal. Then the second student on the other team answers.

This game must be done quickly, and without any repetition of vocabulary. When a student cannot answer, a point is given to the opposing team, and a new category is written on the board. The whole process is then repeated. Ideally this game should be a fast review of vocabulary items.

The very first time you do this activity, the students may well need help. However, once they are familiar with it, then it should become faster. Any categories can be used from vegetables to verbs, and places in the city to parts of the body. Sometimes teachers stop using TEFL games like this when the children know animals, fruit and other simple vocabulary. However, this English teaching game can also be used to teach more advanced vocabulary categories [for example things that melt, personality types...] can be used.

2 - Call My Bluff

One of a few TEFL games based on a BBC radio 4 program, and is an interesting activity when teaching English to more advanced level children, to teenagers, and to adults. The approach needs to be adapted for these different groups, but the basic activity is the same. You will need a set of dictionaries for this. Picture dictionaries work well for younger children.

Choose an obscure word - or at least, obscure for students involved. Write this word on the board and check whether anyone understands it. As an example I might write the word 'gnat.' Under this I write four definitions; three of which are false and one of which is true. I might write: 'To gnat is a verb that describes falling out with a friend. For example, the boy gnatted his best friend because he was angry with him.' 'A gnat is a small biting insect, like a mosquito.'

The students must then read the definitions and decide whether they are true or false. Once the students understand the activity, they can be put into small groups, given a dictionary, and told to choose a word that they think the other students won't know. Set a time limit on deciding, and if necessary assign suitable words. The students then write four definitions on pieces of paper.

The first team ready can write their word on the board, with a phonetic transcription, if wanted. When the class is ready, each team in turn reads out the definitions. The other students have to guess which definition is the correct one.

This ESL activity can take 30 or 40 minutes, as it involves choosing a word in the dictionary, writing four definitions, reading them out aloud, then discussing as a class which is true. Students may need to be shown how to write longer and more detailed definitions. The more advanced the class, the more detailed their definitions should be. For children at a low level, a single sentence for each definition may be enough.

3 - 20 Questions TEFL Game

There are many TEFL games involving guessing. In the classic 20 questions tefl game, a student thinks of a word [which other students are likely to know], and the other students try to guess the word by asking a series of yes/no questions. The 'knower' can only respond by saying yes, no, or don't know.

The game can be played with one knower and the rest of the class guessing. This can be fun, and has some advantages, but it means that at any one time, the majority of the class are waiting to speak. Putting the students into pairs or small groups will increase the student talking time a lot.

This has the advantage of giving the students more speaking practice, but there are also advantages to running the 20 questions tefl game as a whole class activity. The first is that this will create a fun group atmosphere, and will pull the class together. However, it is the second advantage I want to discuss here.

If you are teaching English to children, or elementary adults, you may need to give your students more support, and help them develop the language they use. By doing this English teaching game as a whole class activity, you can write examples of questions on the board, and encourage weaker students to use questions they otherwise be unable to.

For example, with a class of elementary level 7 or 8 year olds, I would write possible questions to ask on the board. These might include: "Are you---?" "Can you ---?" "Do you ---?" I would then have the whole class ask a question with "big?" or "eat fruit?" Then some individual students could ask questions. Then again I'd have the whole class ask a question or two chorally, then back again to individual questions.

When teaching English to children who are at a very low level, I have one child sit at the front of the class, facing the class. This child then chooses a flashcard of an animal. The other students must find out what animal this student 'is.' At a slightly higher level I tell the students to choose an object from what they can see in the classroom. As soon as the students have become stronger, they should be free to chose whatever they wish - as long as the other students are likely to know the word.

The 20 questions TEFL game comes in many varieties. First person or third person may be used. The choice of vocabulary may be restricted to recently taught items, famous people, or any vocabulary set the teacher chooses. What's My Line? is a variation in which the knower chooses an occupation, which the guessers must guess. Verbs may also be chosen, in which case a nonsense word must be used. For example: "Do you baboo every day?" "Are you babooing now?" Using verbs can be harder, and sometimes it's useful to allow WH questions as well, in this case.

4 - How Many Words?

This is one of a number of TEFL games which is useful for teaching pronunciation, and developing a student's listening skill. It's not so much a game, as a fun activity which gives intensive practice listening to the weak sounds in English. I give a more detailed explanation of the activity and terms used in teaching English pronunciation , but the basic procedure is to choose a sentence with a number of weak forms and linkages between the words. An example would be "I'm going to go to the restaurant to eat fish and salad." Say the sentence at normal speed, and have the students count the number of words. Contractions count as two words. So "I'm" is two words. When the students give the correct answer, ask them to work out what has been said.

If you slow down your speaking too much it will defeat the object of this esl activity. You can, however, break the sentence into smaller parts - still speaking at a normal speed. If this activity is practiced regularly over several months, you should see an improvement in the students' listening and pronunciation of sentence level, and longer, chunks of speech.

I prefer tefl games and activities which involve minimal preparation, and this is a great example of an esl activity which can be prepared in minutes, yet is extremely useful.

5 - Yes/No Chairs

This is one of the classic TEFL games for children, especially when teaching English to younger children. It is best suited to elementary level classes. It is sometimes called yes/no stations, as chairs are not essential.

To play, place one chair at each end of the classroom. Stick a piece of paper with 'yes' written on it on one of the chairs. A 'no' on the other. Divide the class into two teams, and ask a yes/no question. For example: "Can pigs fly?" To win a point for his/her team, the student must run to the correct chair. In this case 'no' and then answer the question correctly: "No, pigs cant fly." If they get the answer wrong, the other team can answer for the point.

This English teaching game can be adapted to true/false chairs, where students have to determine the truth of various statements. Take care, of course, that the statements are within the children's general knowledge. "Ducks can fly," might work, but "England won the world cup for football in 1966," probably wouldn't.

6 - Relative Clause Clues

This is one of my favorite TEFL games for practicing defining relative clauses. Write a list of definitions for four or five nouns. Choose nouns with the same first letter. Give the students the clues, and they must decide - in pairs, groups, or as a whole class - what the original nouns were, and the shared initial letter.

An example for an advanced esl lesson might be: "A novel which tells the story of a French prostitute," "The god of the sea who gave his name to a large planet," "The country where hobbits have been seen."

The answers, of course, being 'N.' Nana written by Zola, Neptune and New Zealand. Much easier examples should be given when teaching English to kids. "An animal that gives us milk," "A bird we eat that cannot fly," for example [cow & chicken].

After you have demonstrated the activity, the students can write their own examples in pairs. With lower level classes you can give a list of nouns for them to define. This also makes a good homework activity which can then be read out for guessing, as a warmer in the following class.

7 - Pelmanism

Memory based TEFL games are usually popular, and can be used with children and adults, elementary and advanced students. It can be used to practice words or sentences. A simple example would be to prepare 2 sets of cards. Each set containing 10 cards with a different word on each. Divide the students into groups - two sets of cards are needed for each group.

Divide each group into two teams. Shuffle all the cards and place them face down on the table. The object is to find matching pairs. The team with the most matching pairs wins. The students may have to match "It's a horse," with "They're horses." Or it could be single words: lobster-lobster. Or it could be opposites, or definitions of a word on half the cards and the words themselves on others.

Every time they turn over the cards they should be encouraged to say the words or sentences. For very young children matching pictures can be used instead. If the team guesses correctly they keep the cards and guess again. If they guess incorrectly, they must turn the cards back over so the words cannot be seen and the next team tries.

Some preparation is needed for this English teaching game. Blank namecards need to be prepared, but once made, they can last for years. It's not always convenient to play pelmanism with a larger class, you may not have time to prepare all of the cards. There is an alternative.

Prepare a grid of 4x4 or 5x5 squares on a piece of paper. Fill it with pairs of words. Then draw a blank grid with the same number of squares on the board. Number the side and write letters along the top of the grid. Divide the class into 2 teams and the students take turns 'turning over' 2 words at a time. Squares 2E and 4A, for example. The teacher then reads out the words which only he/she can see from the prepared grid. If they choose 2 the same The teacher writes the words in the grid, or simply crosses the used squares, and awards that team a point. The same team then continues. If they choose 2 different words, the other team has a go.

8 - Just A Minute

Another one of the TEFL games based on a BBC radio 4 program. This is a fluency exercise which works well with older children, teenagers and adults; as long as the students are not too shy.

Choose, or have the students choose, several topics they are interested in. Write the topics randomly around the board. A student then throws a ball of paper - sticky ball, if you have one - at the board. The topic which it hits, or is nearest to, is then chosen.

The student must then stand at the front of the class - or with shy students behind their desks - and talk for one minute with no repetition or hesitation. Other students must monitor this, and shout out if the student repeats or hesitates. The teacher must keep the times, and write the times next to the students' names, which are written on the board.

The student who can speak for the longest time [up to 1 minute] without hesitation or repetition wins. I usually add a third prohibition and apart from no hesitation and no repetition, add no silliness. This avoids any tendency for the activity to descend into nonsense.

9 - Spontaneous Conversations

This is not so much a game, but a fun activity, and a good warmer. Write simple sentences or parts of a conversation on strips of paper. These should be suitable conversation openers. For example: "You look lovely in your orange dress," or "Would you like to visit my grandmother's house with me?" If the sentences are a little unusual, so much the better.

Put the students into pairs and give each one a sentence. The first student should read the sentence out, and the student's partner should help continue the conversation. Once they have completed their short conversation, the other student reads out his or her sentence, and they repeat.

10 - Spelling Competition

Many of the oldest and simplest TEFL games are still enjoyed by students. This one is effective and fun. Put the students into teams and give them a word. They race to write it on the board - paper can also be used. With younger children, magnetic letters add a lot of excitement. More advanced students can be given clues. For example: "Which language is spoken in Brazil?" or "A precious stone beginning with d." They then write: "Portuguese," or "diamond" as quickly as possible. The first student to write the word correctly gets a point for his/her team.

There are so many good tefl games to choose from, but the ones above have worked well for me, and many other teachers I've known, for many years.

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