5 Fast-paced ESL Classroom Games to Get Students Learning Lickety Split

Who knew that a simple kitchen timer could be a revelation for the ESL classroom?

Who would have guessed that the small countdown device that dings when food is cooked could be the cornerstone to wonderfully fun ESL games?

But it does. You’ll be amazed at how your classroom could benefit and how easily you can use these games in your repertoire.

You may be wondering now “Hey, Chris, what games are these exactly? I must know!” and I’ll explain it all and give you the rules, benefits and some examples of each.

But first, let me give a brief introduction on the timer. It’s a simple device, no bigger than a small box of dental floss, but it has such an impact that it will floor you. I prefer to use the small simple ones with the easy-to-set timer and the loud, signature “get your chicken out of the oven” beeping.

Now, you may be thinking “Hey, Chris, my phone has a timer, can’t I just use that?” Sure. The reason I prefer using a timer, as you will later see, is to build suspense and to create an experience. The constant clicking of a handheld timer seems to add some tension which is great for competition.

A little more on that later, let’s go on to the games, shall we?

Here are five simple yet rewarding games you can easily play in your classroom!

5 Fact-paced ESL Classroom Games Using a Kitchen Timer

1. Shiritori Showdown

Backstory: The word shiritori is Japanese for “Chicken’s Behind.” Strange, I know, but the element of the game is more unique. Traditionally it’s a Japanese game, but can be translated to English just as nicely.

How to Play: You can play with as many people as you’d like really.

The premise is simple. You put as much time as you want on the timer, perhaps 1-2 minutes depending on the class or any amount of time you’d like. Somebody starts off with any word they’d like. For example, my favorite word, “me.” The word “me” ends with an “e” so the next person has to say a word that begins with the letter “E.” So, perhaps the person can say “Egg.” The word “egg” ends with a “G” so they must think of a word with “G” and so forth.

The game ends when the timer goes off.

You can play around with it, like making the loser write on the board or by having a showdown where the person who lost is eliminated and you continue until there’s only one, kind of like musical chairs.

Benefits: This game is excellent for two main reasons. One is that it gets the mind thinking without really thinking too much. This is perfect for starting off the class and warming up. The second reason is that it is unpredictable in nature. You will never know what letter will come up until the timer is in your possession so this “on your feet” style of a game really keeps things lively.


(Teacher sets timer to 30 seconds)

Teacher: I’ll start. Moist. (Passes timer)

Student 1: Ummmm……..Towel. (Passes timer)

Student 2: Hmmm……Like. (Passes Timer)

Student 3: Like. Like. Like. Ummmm………….(time passes) (buzzer beeps!)

2. Word Warm Ups

Backstory: This one is as simple as it gets, for it is a classic. The concept of word warm ups is to use the words/grammar concept/English concept in a sentence and then pass the timer. It’s almost as if it were the Amadeus of timer games.

How to Play: Like Shiritori, any amount of people is fine for this game.

Let’s say the grammar concept from the last class/homework was “should/shouldn’t.” Just like most timer games, you set a time and make rules as to what the sentence must be like. For example, any sentence with “should/shouldn’t” or “kids should” or “I shouldn’t” or anything you’d like. So the students make a sentence following the rules and then pass it on.

Whoever has the timer at the end loses. You can make whatever additional consequences to the loser as you’d like.

Benefits: Another excellent game for its simplicity, the creativity it demands from the students and the suspense of holding a ticking time bomb of a timer while creating a logical sentence using the grammar point. Thinking of a word with a letter is cake. But this turns the heat up and demands a bit more, but not too much more which truly makes it a classic.


(Teacher sets timer to a minute and thirty seconds)

Teacher: Okay, so sentences using the word “even though.” Go!

Student 1: Hmmmm, I like Canada even though it’s very cold.

Student 2: Okay, even though she’s only 30, she’s too old for me.

Student 3: Hmmmm, I, ummmm, even, ummmmm (timer goes off).

3. Reading Race

Backstory: The reading race is more of a game to train reading speed and pronunciation, but thanks to the kitchen timer training becomes more intense.

How to Play: Since this requires reading passages or some sentences, maybe some more time is better, but this all depends on your style.

Any amount of people is fine but you’ll discover that it’s better for smaller groups since people are reading and taking up more time than when they were making sentences or thinking of words.

This works well when the students have a text or something. How it works is that students each read a sentence or even a passage perfectly and then pass the timer. The suspenseful part is reading perfectly.

If a student rushes through the reading to beat the timer but has an error, you must tell them to reread. A harsh rule, I know, but it’s the rules of the game. This way nobody is rushing through just to avoid losing.

The game ends when the timer goes off, at which point you may tell the loser to write what was to be read on the board.

Benefits: There are so many with this one including reading practice, pronunciation practice, control practice and even some writing practice for the loser. It’s quite good to practice all of those in one handy game, no?


(Teacher sets timer to two minutes)

Teacher: Okay, reading race, page 7. Ready? Go!

Student 1: (Reads passage perfectly) (Passes timer)

Student 2: (Reads passage but has an error with pronunciation)

Teacher: (Tells student correct pronunciation) Sorry! Reread!

Student 2: (Reads passage perfectly) (Passes timer)

Student 3: (Reading but struggling a bit) (Timer goes off)

As you can see, Student 3 seems to be having some troubles with these games, but not to worry. Like all students, they’ll pick it up and their competitive nature will help them succeed in English!

4. Question Master

Backstory: The art of asking questions is quintessential in learning any language and this game helps perfect that art.

How to Play: This is one more for experienced speakers, ones that could create sentences much more easily than others.

Any amount of people is good, any amount of time too.

The teacher chooses a scenario (like at a café, at the airport, even something crazy like on a date) and then sets the timer.

The student must ask questions that they would say if they were in that scenario. For example, if the scenario is “at the beach” a question could be “Where is the snack shop?” or even crazy ones like “Are there any sharks here?” Encourage creativity with this one.

The passing continues as usual and the game ends when the timer goes off.

Benefits: This one is dynamic, fun, creative and can really help students out when wondering what questions to ask. It also requires some creativity as well as spontaneity.


(Teacher sets timer to ninety seconds)

Teacher: Okay, the scenario is at a shop. Go!

Student 1: How much is this? (passes timer)

Student 2: Do you accept credit card? (Passes timer)

Student 3: Ummmm, where’s the bathroom? (Passes timer)

5. Time Trials

Backstory: This is quite familiar to those who run or swim laps trying to get that perfect time. This game is more like that race where you have to run with the egg on a spoon. You’re aiming for both speed and precision.

How to Play: This one is probably better for personal students but is also good to test out a group of student’s ability to speak quickly yet clearly.

Select something to read/say (this could be anything like a passage in a book, or even a set of statements) and start the timer at zero and the student starts reading/speaking. Once the student is done, you stop the timer.

Very simple rules, but it’s more to help the student beat their time and by helping them out in the process. Not as competitive as the other games as this one is more of the student’s old time versus their future better time.

Benefits: Students benefit greatly from the fluency practice, the thrill of the clock and the valuable feedback training from the teacher after each trial to help make the next trial even better!


Teacher: Okay, tell me your name, age, where you’re from, and what you do. Ready? Go! (Starts timer)

Student: My name is …..

(Timer ends when the student finishes)


As simple as these games are, they are just as effective!

The hot potato effect of the timer in the students’ hands makes the games more suspenseful.

I like to set the time and not tell the students how long I set it for while covering the timer with a sticker. Try it out!

Not to mention that the benefits are countless, from exciting tensions, to fast-paced thinking skills to good times and laughs in the end. Guaranteed.

These games are fun, easy to play and will definitely make your classroom more dynamic, engaging and enjoyable for everyone!

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