Take a Bite Out of Dull ESL Classes with Apples to Apples!

Teaching and apples have gone hand in hand for far longer than any of today’s teachers have been in the classroom.

The classic picture of an apple on the teacher’s desk is one we all know, and odds are that, as a teacher, you have at least one apple-themed mug in your possession.

But we’re in a new century now. Long gone are the days of one-room school houses, and most of us try to find new, exciting ways to engage our students’ interest.

Mattel Apples to Apples Party in a Box Game

These days, the apple you’ll most likely see in your classroom comes with a keyboard and a mouse.

But there’s another type of apple you should really consider bringing into your class: Apples to Apples.

How to Play Apples to Apples

If you’ve somehow never heard of it, Apples to Apples is a simple yet fun card game in which players try to match noun cards to adjective cards. It’s actually a family-oriented party game, but it’s also essentially an ESL lesson in disguise, making it a perfect opportunity to reinforce grammar in the ESL classroom.

Apples to Apples is a very simple game to play. Each player receives five red apple cards, each of which has a noun printed on it. Each round, one person—the “Judge” for that round—takes a turn playing a green apple card, which has an adjective on it. The rest of the players select the red apple card from their hand that they think is best described by the adjective on the green apple card. The Judge looks at all the red apple cards and then decides which one he or she thinks best matches the adjective for that round.

What Makes Apples to Apples Good for ESL Students?

First and foremost, Apples to Apples is great for vocabulary development for ESL students. Lots of the words on the cards are ones they won’t encounter in typical ESL units, and you already know that it’s a good move to expose students to new and unusual vocabulary words in the ESL classroom, especially if you can do it through a fun game.

In addition to the main adjective on the green apple cards, each card also lists a few synonyms. This gives you a chance to teach word groups, and these sets of synonyms are a great starting point for other vocabulary development activities such as crossword puzzles.

Another plus for ESL students is that Apples to Apples is customizable. It’s not hard to make your own cards with words on them, and that gives you the freedom to create cards that focus on the words you want your students to learn. Even better, you can have your students make the cards themselves to reinforce their learning.

You can use words associated with a unit you’re studying in class, take vocabulary from a reading passage or ask students to share words they encounter in real-world English usage.

A great way to engage students with real-world English is to model spoken English with native video content from FluentU.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

You’ll be able to build a solid vocabulary base from some of their favorite media clips. Get started with a free trial to discover how native content can form the basis for many fun and engaging ESL games! 

Another advantage of Apples to Apples is that it’s a quick game. Generally, a full game lasts around 30 minutes, although some games can go over an hour; most class periods probably fall within that time frame. But remember that Apples to Apples is flexible.

If you don’t have 30 minutes of class time to spare, let alone an hour, you can simply take five minutes each day and play one round. Put students in groups of five and let each person have a chance to play a green apple card before ending the game.

You can also use Apples to Apples as a warm-up or a filler. Basically, you can play the game however you’d like, using exactly the amount of time you want to give it.

Most of all, playing games in class is fun, and this one fits the bill. Because players choose the best answer, there’s plenty of room for your students’ personalities to shine. They can choose serious answers or silly ones. As long as they can explain why they chose the winner that they did, any answer is a worthy one.

Easy as Pie: Excellent ESL Variations on Apples to Apples

Assuming that Apples to Apples has become the apple of your educational eye, then there are a few things you should take into account before using it in your classes. Let’s first look at a few ways you might want to modify the physical game and cards to customize them for your ESL class.

6 Apples to Apples Modifications for ESL Students

While you can play this game straight from the box, there are modifications that you may want to consider before introducing Apples to Apples to your ESL students.

1. Add pictures

You might choose to put pictures on the cards, especially if you’re playing with beginning students. If students are unfamiliar with all the words in the deck, they might appreciate an extra boost to their comprehension. Give them that boost by including a picture on each noun card. They’ll still learn plenty of vocabulary and the pictures may make the game even more fun.

2. Keep a dictionary handy

If you don’t put pictures on the cards but you still think your students may struggle, encourage them to use a dictionary (or a dictionary app). If you allow them in your class, you can even let them use a translator app. It’s up to you whether you allow bilingual dictionaries or stick to English-only ones. Either way, students will make mental connections between the new words they encounter and the words they already have as part of their lexicons.

3. Try the “Junior” edition

Mattel Games Apples to Apples Junior - The Game of Crazy Comparisons (Packaging May Vary)

Apples to Apples has a “Junior” version, too, and that might be the right choice for your students. The game play is the same, but the vocabulary is simpler and targeted to a younger crowd. If you’re teaching an elementary or middle school ESL class, this might be a better fit for your students.

4. Try the “Sour Apples” edition

Apples to Apples Sour Edition

If you have many kinesthetic learners (or just want to include some movement in the game), there’s also a “Sour Apples” version. In that edition, the judge for each round picks the best answer as well as the worst answer.

Have students start the game at the back of your room. If they have the best answer, they take one step toward the front of the room. If they give the worst answer, they take a step back. The game then becomes a race to see who can get to the front of the room first.

5. Make your own cards

As mentioned earlier, you can easily make your own deck of cards to play Apples to Apples. Include vocabulary you want your students to learn or what they already know. Your cards don’t have to be fancy either. Simple index cards with handwritten words will do the job just fine. And if you’re too busy to do that, check the “Further Resources” section below for some sites that have free pre-made, downloadable cards that you can use.

6. Remove or pre-teach tricky cards

Since many of the cards in the basic game have American cultural references, you can either remove them or explain what they mean before you start playing the game. Depending on the age of your students, they may already know many of these references, but it doesn’t hurt to take some time to review.

5 More Apples to Apples Activities and Variations to Max Out Your Students’ English Learning

What makes Apples to Apples especially great for ESL students is that there are so many ways to go beyond the basic game to maximize language learning for your students.

Whereas the previous section was about modifying the game, this section has a few more ideas you can use to change the way you actually play the game with your students.

1. Make it into a matching game

One variation on game play is to make physical copies of the cards. Then, cut each noun from its definition or explanation at the bottom, and/or cut each adjective from its synonyms. Have students match the two halves.

2. Turn it into a debate

In some variations of the game, it remains a secret who played which red noun card. But in this variation, you ask students to argue why their card is the best choice, before the judge chooses which red apple card wins. You can also have the judge talk out his or her reasoning, and you can even have players or judges form teams to talk together to strengthen their reasoning—and their conversational skills.

3. Get alphabetical

If you teach beginner classes or younger kids, you can use the cards to teach alphabetical order. Give each person ten cards and have students race to put them in the correct order.

4. Make your students do the work

As mentioned above, you can strengthen your students’ learning experience by having them create their own sets of cards. Divide your class into three groups. Ask one group to make the green apple adjective cards and the other two groups to make red apple noun cards. Then play the game with the cards your students made.

5. Turn it into a writing or speaking assignment

Use your cards as a writing prompt by having students randomly choose five noun cards. They must then put them together in a written story. You can also give them a minute or two to collect their thoughts, and then use the words as prompts for a extemporaneous speaking assignment.

Further Resources for ESL Teachers

If you like Apples to Apples and want some other ways to play in class, there are several resources on the web to help you out.

Pre-made cards

Melissa Noad has a set of simplified cards for ESL students.

Make your own cards

If you want to make your own cards, Mike Astbury has made a template you can use. Or if you want some inspiration, you can take a look at what content is included in the official game.

Other similar games

Cards Against Humanity

If you want a similar game for more mature classes, consider Cards Against Humanity or Bad Decisions, both of which play in a similar style to Apples to Apples but focus more on situational match-ups rather than specific vocabulary words.


An apple a day may keep the doctor away, but these apples will surely give a boost to your students’ language learning—as well as their moods.

So give Apples to Apples a try and you may find a different kind of apple sitting on the corner of your desk in class!

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