ESL classes are meant to be fun. They’re often an additional class that your students take outside of their regular school classes, so it’s good if you can make the classes fun and enjoyable for them. That way, they won’t mind coming to them during the hours they would usually spend playing on the computer or spending time with friends. But that doesn’t mean that your classes should be full of games. Games are fun sometimes, but they aren’t always good for learning for a number of reasons.

Why Games Aren’t Always the Answer

Teaching English abroad is meant to be fun and so are your ESL classes. That’s why lots of schools and literature on the subject talk about the importance of games. But in reality, using games all the time during your classes can damage your students’ learning. Dice games, ball games, games that make the students run from one end of the classroom to the other, they’re all noisy and disruptive. And they don’t always help the students learn. Some of the most serious problems with games in the classroom are the following:

Your students will be thinking about winning.

During your class, you want your students to think about how to say the language and how to use it properly. But they can’t do this if they’re busy competing with other students.

Your students will rush.

It’s the nature of games, isn’t it? When you play a game, whatever you have to do, you do it fast so you can beat other people. This isn’t the way you want them practising new grammar or vocabulary.

Everyone gets excited.

If you’ve ever designed a really good game for the classroom, you know how fun it can be. Everyone starts laughing and jumping around and there’s a general air of relaxation in the air. This is the ideal situation in certain situations, but it’s not the right kind of atmosphere for learning. When your students are laughing and mucking around, chances are they aren’t speaking English. And this is the opposite of what you want.

When to Play Games

This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for games in your ESL class. Games are a great icebreaker when you have a new class that’s full of students who don’t know you or each other. They’re also a great way to wake up a tired class, particularly if you’re teaching in the evening when the students have been at school all day and need to get moving and show some energy. And as long as you keep the games short, to the point, and surrounded by more beneficial activities, they shouldn’t disrupt the learning atmosphere too much.

You can find some game ideas here and here.

Activities vs Games

The difference between activities and games in the classroom can be subtle. Activities will encourage students to speak clearly and to think about what they’re saying rather than rush through them to get an advantage. The challenge is in getting it right, not in getting to the end, and that’s the most important advantage of ESL activities.

Planning activities rather than games can help your students learn, keep your classroom calmer, and will help you be a better teacher who has better students. To help you achieve all of those aims, here are some great activities to try:

Find the mistake.

Write a number of sentences on slips of paper with a grammar mistake in each. The students take one slip of paper. Let them mingle and use rock-paper-scissors to determine who speaks first. The student says the sentence with the mistake. Their partner has to listen and say the sentence correctly. If they pick out the mistake, they get the slip of paper. If they don’t, the students swap roles. The student with the most pieces of paper at the end is the winner.

Investigative Journalist

This activity is an old one, but it works. It can be adapted to any level, and it puts the emphasis on correct structures and thought. Pair the students and get them to interview each other on any subject. They have to write down the other students’ answers and then present the findings to the class. For beginner classes, you can have them interview each other about families, their likes and dislikes and even their everyday activities. For more advanced students, the sky is quite literally the limit.

Draw a Picture

This activity can also be used at any level as long as you encourage the right type of grammar and vocabulary. Tell your students to draw a picture without showing anyone else. And then they have to dictate the particulars of their picture to their partner, telling them how to draw the picture. The closest match wins. Just make sure the pictures are sufficiently detailed and that no one cheats!

Crossword Puzzles

Great for improving the cognitive functions of people of all ages, crossword puzzles are a great activity in ESL classrooms as well. Pair the students off and make sure the words and the clues are at their level and you’ll be sure to have a busy silence in your classroom while they work it out.

Tell Me a Story

This activity can be a little more difficult, but if you choose to scaffold the vocabulary and grammar that you want the students to use, it can be used in all but the very beginner classes. Students pair off and one tells the other a story in English. The other writes it down. They then swap roles. The students then edit their work for mistakes because they have to present each other’s story to the class.

These games are all fun without being overwhelming, and they focus on precision rather than competition. This is the best way to ensure that your students get the best of both worlds in your ESL class.

About the Author

Gayle Aggiss an ESL teacher and a dedicated traveller. She’s taught in Fuzhou, China and Hanoi and she much prefers smaller cities to the larger options. When not on the road, she lives in Perth, Australia.  She writes about education, ESL teaching specifically, and you can view more examples of her work at

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