How ESL Games Help With Difficult Classroom Situations

ESL games in the language classroom are more than just a fun break from worksheets and textbooks. They are important tools for addressing a variety of problems that can impede your ESL students' progress in learning a language such as:


  • Helping beginners through the "silent period"
  • Catering to different learning styles
  • Easing tension between students in class
  • Helping with irregular class attendance


Not only do ESL games provide structured independence for beginners, they facilitate learning in different styles, which maximizes your students' chances for absorbing the language. ESL games allow you, as the teacher, to have student-to-student practice while still maintaining control over the content of that practice. ESL games also adds flexibility to planning for classes where attendance is unpredictable. 


Teaching Beginners and Anxious Students 


One of the most frustrating things for adult ESL students is "the silent period." This time usually covers the first 3-6 months of language learning, during which students are absorbing a new phonetic system, vocabulary, grammar structure and cultural cues. It's completely natural and normal not to speak much at all during this period. After all infants have well over a year where we don't expect them to say a thing beyond nonsense babbles. Adults however get frustrated. Infants are developing in so many ways that we don't think about their lack of speech, but adults who have been successfully communicating for many years in their native tongue don't appreciate feeling like a toddler linguistically. 


Enter the ESL teacher with a game or ten up his or her sleeve. 


ESL games not only address the basic skills that all learners need to master, but they provide students with the chance to communicate successfully in a highly structured or patterned way, with the meaning clearly demonstrated and integrated into the lesson. Repetition without comprehension would not be nearly so effective. 


ESL games like Round Robin Advice fit the "silent period" very well, since the students can have their parts of the interactions written out and practiced in advance and only have to select the correct response from the pre-written choices. Other games, like the Grammar Auction, put the focus on a non-linguistic goal – making 'money,' or points, through bidding on grammatically correct sentences – and even quiet students will start calling for your attention, because they aren't worried about what they are saying; they are focused on winning the auction. 


ESL games with highly patterned interactions are wonderful for beginners. Good Evening Beach Ball not only wakes up your tired businessmen but it takes the pressure off because when they catch the ball, all they have to do is read the phrases their thumbs are pointing to and then throw it to the next person. You'll understand what an impact this class opener can have, when you walk in one day and the student who never says anything without being prompted grins and says, "Good evening" and there's no beach ball in sight! 


There are all kinds of vocabulary building games that not only help to review vocabulary in a general way, but create a much more anchored understanding of the meaning of the word. ESL Vocabulary Baseball is great for practicing spelling, but it can also be used with definitions and sentence making. Mind Mapping, where the class creates a picture or diagram of related vocabulary is a wonderful cooperative game that not only assists students in remembering new words, but also creates associations that support the accurate use of the word. 


All these games are included in the English Language Games Book for adults with 175 games and activities!


Variety in ESL Learners 


ESL games continue to be important with your intermediate and even advanced students. One reason for this has to do with what educational psychologists refer to as learning styles. Are they auditory learners who learn easily from lecture? Visual learners who do better with reading and video presentations? Perhaps your students are tactile or kinesthetic learners who benefit most from getting up, moving around, and making things. No matter what their primary learning styles might be, the more skilled all your ESL students become at using different styles, the more successful they will be at learning in general. 


ESL games are the perfect tool for encouraging greater flexibility in learning styles. Many ESL games that suit one group have elements that will appeal to students with another learning style, so playing them improves comprehension across the board. 


Tensions in the ESL Classroom 


Sometimes you will be faced with outside tensions coming into your classroom. Including ESL games in your lessons can help you create safe and interesting interactions among your students. Points of tension within a class can come from the mix of cultural backgrounds, current events such as war and immigration, and ESL students with personal difficulties such as learning disabilities. 


If you have ever had students from Iraq and Brazil in the same class, it's probably easy to imagine the kinds of tension that can come up between male and female students from different countries. In England during the fighting in Bosnia, it was not unusual to have many students from each side of the conflict sharing the same ESL class while recovering from terrible losses. While on the west coast of the United States you can still sometimes come up against bitter feelings about World War II held by Chinese or Korean ESL students towards students from Japan. 


In these cases, a teacher must constantly balance the need for open-ended practice with creating a comfortable and safe space for learning. ESL games are vital tool in maintaining this balance. ESL games help to break tension among students through highly structured interactions. 


In very touchy situations, such as with war victims or refugees, you can avoid games that use personal information, like get to know you ESL games, and use made up scenarios instead. It is also best to hold off on role plays that are very open ended, until you feel you know the students well enough to have a good idea of the direction the role- play will take. It is always better to start with more structure and control then you can loosen up as you get a better feel for the class. 


Scripted ESL games that practice a particular grammar point, like the verb review game Things We Do, where the teacher gives a category and the students come up with sentences using all the associated verbs they can think of, is a good way to start students practicing and working together in a very neutral way. 


Board games like English Trivia, based on Trivial Pursuits is a good ESL game for reviewing both language points and cultural information in a fairly neutral format. Crossword puzzles, Concentration, and Build-a- Sentence can be played with little or only very structured student interaction, while goal oriented role-plays, like shopping games where students are trying to buy a particular set of ingredients, start to get more open ended and allow the teacher to introduce greater freedom for the students while still setting boundaries for the interactions. 


ESL Class Attendance 


It is common to have unpredictable attendance in adult ESL classes and business classes because work schedules can change suddenly. It is a good idea to always have on hand activities that expand and contract easily for those times when you just don't how many are going to show up for a lesson. After all, it isn't unusual to have anywhere from one student on their own to the full class of 12 (or 18 or 20) when you are doing evening ESL classes.


Without some preparation you could run out of things to do or find yourself at loss for how to expand an activity you meant to use with only a few students. For example, if you have a class of ten and only four show up, you may find the lesson over with very quickly. This is to be expected since it simply takes less time to teach fewer students. 


On the other hand, if all your students attend, and you've gotten used to there only being three or four of them, then you may have change from a small group activity to an ESL game that can accommodate all your students. 


Paper based games like a treasure hunt based on the text you've been using are easy to put together quickly. Just have students work on skimming for examples of grammar or facts that will answer a list of questions and award points to the students who finish first with the most correct. Alphabet war is a great ESL card game since it can be played in as many pairs as you need, and the only materials required are index cards and pencils. It expands easily if you have the students make their own decks as part of the activity. Most quiz games scale to any size class and are great for review. When you have very few students and you want to make it more like a game and less like an interrogation, play a game like pyramid where the students play against the clock and gets points for how fast they get through each level. 


ESL games in the classroom are truly useful and can be a lot of fun. They simulate the unpredictable world outside your classroom and provide your students with chances to use their new language skills in a structured low stress environment. The more games you have up your sleeve, the better you will be able to prepare your students for exams and the real world.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Shelley Vernon promotes learning through English language games and activities.  Go to: Book of Games and Activities