5 Fun ESL Board Games

Games are fun and can have lots of linguistic advantages.

But it’s a lot of work to make new games from scratch, and classic board games weren’t created with the ESL student in mind.

So what’s a teacher to do?

Below, I’ll share five ESL board games you can share with your students and how to play them in a way that boosts their language learning experience. 

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1. Scrabble

Scrabble Board Game, Word Game for Kids Ages 8 and Up, Fun Family Game for 2-4 Players, The Classic Crossword Game


Scrabble is probably my all-time favorite game to play with ESL students. It’s simple and straightforward: Make words from the letters you have.

The game starts with everyone pulling seven-letter tiles and seeing what words they can make from those letters. Usually, one person puts the first word on the board, and every player must connect their word to the existing grid of words on their turn.

Players can score additional points for filling certain squares on the board (i.e., they can double or triple the value of a letter, word or a combination of these).

Why Play It in Your ESL Classroom

Having your students play Scrabble is beneficial for several reasons. One of the biggest is that they’re introduced to new vocabulary that doesn’t often come up while covering your usual ESL content areas. (When was the last time you taught your ESL students the word “tryst”?)

Also, it allows students to practice using a dictionary, though I limit my students to an English-only dictionary when they play. Of course, there’s always a fun social element to the game.

Change It Up

Here are a couple of ways you can turn classic Scrabble into an ESL board game:

  • Allow stacking of tiles on top of one another. Set a maximum of five tiles high, and let players change an existing word on the board rather than playing a new word. For example, “COAT” could become “MOAT” by stacking an “M” over the “C.” When students play this way, you get an opportunity to talk about word families and phonics patterns. You can also talk about rhyming words and minimal pairs
  • Have students make up their own words and grid on the table in front of them. In each round, have all the players pull between one and three tiles and add them to their grid if possible. Allow rearranging of the words in the grid at any time during play. Once all the tiles are gone, the person who can get all their letters into their grid first wins the round. 

2. Apples to Apples

Apples to Apples Card Game, Family Game for Game Night with Family-Friendly Words to Make Crazy Combinations Rules

Apples to Apples is a fun party game that’s popular with players of any age.

Players hold five random noun cards in their hands. The leader of the round lays down an adjective card, and the other players must choose one of their noun cards that they think is best described by that adjective.

Why Play It in Your ESL Classroom

For ESL students, traditional Apples to Apples lets them be creative with the words on the cards and the connections between them. They learn new vocabulary, laugh a lot and have an opportunity to better understand English parts of speech.

Change It Up

There are a couple of ways to play Apples to Apples in an ESL context. 

  • Give each student ten random cards: five noun cards and five adjective cards. Have each person work independently to match up their cards into five pairs. Then, let students talk about the matches they made. Playing this way further strengthens your students’ critical thinking skills by forcing them to really explain their choices to others.
  • Give each student one noun card and ten adjective cards. The players choose at least five of their adjective cards to describe their noun. This opens the door to talk about the order of adjectives in English.

3. Candy Land

Hasbro Gaming Candy Land Kingdom Of Sweet Adventures Board Game For Kids Ages 3 & Up (Amazon Exclusive) Rules

Candy Land is a super simple game for young children that enables them to practice color recognition.

Players draw a card—which features a color on the game board—and then move their marker along a brightly colored, tiled road to the next place that color appears on the board.

Why Play It in Your ESL Classroom

If your lesson is all about colors, this game is a great way to reinforce the concepts you teach. Students can learn to associate words with specific hues and have fun while they’re at it. 

Change It Up

Prepare as many review questions as you like—the more the better. Divide your class into groups of 4 and give each team a set of review questions, a playing board and one traditional die.

On their turns, players roll the die. The result determines the number of questions they’ll need to answer. If they answer all the questions correctly, they can move a number of spaces on the board that corresponds to the number of questions. Otherwise, they don’t move from their starting square. 

This activity makes reviewing way more fun. Plus, you can review just about anything you like by giving your students the right questions in their lists.

4. I Spy Eagle Eye

Briarpatch I SPY Eagle Eye Find-It Game (06120) Rules

I Spy Eagle Eye is another simple children’s game. Here, players look at pictures loaded with random objects and try to find specific items pictured on their own cards.

Why Play It in Your ESL Classroom

Though not language heavy, I Spy Eagle Eye is a good way to introduce new and unusual vocabulary to your students. It’s also a good game for beginner students since it’s so simple. They can play even if their English skills are severely limited and pick up new vocabulary a little at a time.

Change It Up

Have the students list the letters from “A” to “Z” and find a word that starts with each of those letters in the picture. Of course, finding “Z” and “Q” words will be hard for anyone, but you might be surprised at how well your students can find plenty of other words in the picture.

The process opens up a natural conversation about synonyms. When you’re listing words that span the entire alphabet, you’ll naturally encounter vocabulary that doesn’t often come up in ESL classes.

Plus, students can play this version of the game on their own and work on their vocabulary development minus the stress of timed rounds or trying to win the game.

5. Jenga

Jenga Classic Game Rules

While some might argue that Jenga isn’t a board game, it’s still worth putting on this list.

In traditional gameplay, participants pull a wooden block from the middle of a tall stack and try to place it on top of the stack without tumbling all the pieces.

Why Play It in Your ESL Classroom

This game is fun, encourages small talk and gives your students a chance to relax. Those who have a keen awareness of space will particularly enjoy this game.

And even if the players aren’t good at it, the risk of having the blocks tumble all over the place will make everyone laugh. 

Change It Up

Write an ice-breaker question on each of the blocks, ensuring that they’re not visible when the blocks are stacked. When someone pulls a block for their turn, they must answer the question before they can put it on the top of the stack and complete their turn.

Aside from all the benefits I already mentioned, you might find that your students want to answer all of the questions, not just their own.

Why Play Board Games in ESL Class?

  • Games are competitive and challenging. Healthy competition is good for motivating students and getting them to try harder on things they might otherwise shrug off. At the same time, these ESL board games challenge your students to use and learn English while they play.
  • Games introduce new vocabulary. Games like Scrabble are fantastic for teaching words that otherwise wouldn’t come up in English classes. There aren’t many vocabulary units that include the words “lynx” or “jaunt,” for example.


ESL board games are great for the classroom. And they can be even greater if you modify them to meet specific language goals. Try these games in class or come up with your own ways to change up others. Your students will surely walk out of class smiling when you do.

Aside from games, another fun way to teach English is through a language-learning platform like FluentU.

FluentU features authentic English videos with interactive subtitles that can help your students pick up new words and phrases. Specifically, the subtitles feature information like definitions, pronunciations, example sentences, tips and other videos where the new vocabulary shows up. All your students have to do is sit back, relax and enjoy as they learn. 


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