Original Ways to Play 5 Classic Board Games for ESL Classroom Fun

Shall we play a game?

The words made famous by the Matthew Broderick movie thirty years ago are still useful in the ESL classroom today.

Games are fun and can have lots of linguistic advantages.

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

So what’s a teacher to do?

Fortunately, there simple ways to change how you play well-known board games, such that they’re perfect for your ESL students! I’ll share five of my favorites with you below. But first, what’s so good about board games in the first place?

Why Play Board Games in ESL Class?

I’m not a gamer, but I do love games. Maybe that’s part of why I’m quick to use them in my ESL classroom. But my liking them is only a small part of why I use them in class. Games actually have lots of benefits for students learning English (and their teachers).

  • First off, games are fun. When your students are having fun in class, they are decreasing stress. Stress is like kryptonite when it comes to language learning. Therefore, when your students relax and have fun, they will be in a better frame of mind to learn English.
  • Games are also competitive. Healthy competition is good for motivating students and for getting them to try harder on things they might otherwise be willing to shrug off. After all, who doesn’t like to win?
  • Games introduce new vocabulary. Games are a fantastic way to bring up words that otherwise wouldn’t come up in English classes. There aren’t many vocabulary units that include the words “lynx” or “jaunt.”
  • They offer a challenge. Most of all, these games still challenge your students to use and learn English while they play. You won’t waste time in class when you play games like these, but your students will still feel like they are getting a break from the everyday work that comes with language learning.

Here are my top five for including in your ESL class. And I’ll be you haven’t tried playing them this way.

Top 5 Board Games for ESL Classrooms and Ways You Never Thought to Use Them

1. Scrabble

esl board games

Scrabble is probably my all-time favorite game to play with ESL students. It is simple and straightforward: Make words from the letters you have. Play starts with everyone pulling seven letter tiles and seeing what word 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 score points for filling certain squares on the board.

Playing Scrabble is beneficial for several reasons. One of the biggest is that students are introduced to new vocabulary on almost every turn, and it’s not the typical vocabulary that would come up while covering your usual ESL content areas. (When was the last time you taught your ESL students the word “tryst”?) It also gives students practice using a dictionary. (I limit my students to an English-only dictionary when they play.) And there is always a fun social element to the game.

Change It Up

Scrabble is also a game that is easy to modify, and we’re talking more than just not keeping score. The next time you play Scrabble, try allowing stacking of tiles on top of one another. Set a max of five tiles high (for several reasons, one being that you’ll have tiles sliding all over the place in a huge mess otherwise), 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 you play this way, you have a natural opportunity to talk about word families with your students as well as phonics patterns. You can also talk about rhyming words and minimal pairs. Plus, this version of play puts less pressure on lower level students who might be too overwhelmed to come up with an original word with every play.

Another variation on Scrabble is to have each person make their own flexible grid rather than playing all together on the board. Have students make up their own words and their own grid on the table in front of them. Then 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. When you play this way, your students will be free of the pressure to outperform all the other players, and no score means no stress as you play. Plus, your students will get even more practice forming words in English because they may have to shuffle their words every time they add a new letter, and the game is over quicker as well.

2. Apples to Apples

Mattel Apples to Apples Party Box The Game of Crazy Combinations

Apples to Apples is a fun party game that is popular with players of any age. For normal play, 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 the one of their noun cards that they think is best described by that adjective.

Something that makes the game especially fun is that points are awarded purely subjectively. One player chooses a card he or she likes best and awards the point for that round. For ESL students, playing traditional Apples to Apples lets them be creative with the words on the cards and the connections they make between them. They learn new vocabulary, laugh lots and have an opportunity to better understand English parts of speech.

Change It Up

If you want to change things up with Apples to Apples, it’s easy to do. Try giving each student ten random cards: five noun cards and five adjective cards. Then have each person work independently to match up their cards into five pairs. Next, let students talk about the matches they made. Playing this way, your students will still have lots of opportunities to laugh, but there will also be more discussion among your students.

You can also play the game by giving 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 order of adjectives in English and to put that knowledge into practice.

3. Candy Land

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

Candy Land is a super simple game for young children that practices color recognition. Players start at the beginning of a brightly colored, tiled road and move their way along it to the end goal. According to the rules, players draw a card—which features a color found on the game board—and then move their marker to the next place that color appears on the board. If you play this way, it’s obviously great for talking about colors.

Change It Up

You can use this simple game to make a fun year-end review activity. Collect as many review questions as you like—the more the better. Then give each group of around four students the questions, a playing board and one traditional die. On their turns, players roll the die and then must answer that many review questions correctly to move that amount of spaces on the board.

If they cannot answer the questions correctly, they do not move from their starting square. This activity makes reviewing way more fun than just answering questions. 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)

I Spy Eagle Eye is another simple children’s game. In this game, players look at pictures loaded with random objects and try to find specific items pictured on their own cards. Though not language heavy, it is a good way to introduce new and unusual vocabulary to your students. It’s also a good game for beginning level students since it is so simple. They can play even if their English skills are severely limited, and they can learn new vocabulary one word at a time.

Change It Up

I sometimes like to use the pictures from I Spy Eagle Eye for another purpose. I have my students list the letters from “A” to “Z” on their papers and then race to search for 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 do finding lots of other words in the picture.

The process also opens up a natural conversation about synonyms. Part of the strategy in playing is to use different words to describe the same element in the picture (i.e. house, home, dwelling, living space, etc.). When you are listing words that span the entire alphabet, you will also naturally encounter vocabulary that doesn’t often come up in ESL classes. Plus, students can play this version of the game on their own in a learning center to work on their own vocabulary development without the pressure or stress of timed rounds or competitors in the game.

5. Jenga

Jenga Classic Game

While some might argue that Jenga is not a board game, it’s still worth putting on the list. In traditional game play, participants pull a wooden block from the middle of a tall stack and then place it on the top of the stack without tumbling all the pieces. When you play this game in class, it’s just fun, encourages laughter and small talk, and gives your students a chance to relax.

Change It Up

I prefer the modified version, however, where you write an ice-breaker question on each of the blocks. When someone pulls a block for their turn, they must answer the ice-breaker question before they can put it on the top of the stack and complete their turn. Played this way, it’s a great chance for students to get to know each other. It’s still a good chance for laughter, but it also spurs discussion among your students. You might find that all of your students want to answer all of the questions that get pulled, not merely their own.

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 be sure to walk out of class smiling when you do.


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