7 ESL Card Games You’ve Gotta Have Up Your Sleeve
Card games are simple, flexible and cost-efficient.
As the teacher, you get to make up the rules. Since they’re easily customized, you can play around with all kinds of variations on classic card games.
You’ll hold teaching tools for whatever vocabulary or grammar point you’re working on in class.
Teaching them card games not only builds language but also builds cultural knowledge.
From elementary schools and retirement homes to casinos and college parties, card games are an important part of our culture.
The card games I’ve assembled here are not only international favorites, but they’re also perfect teaching tools for an ESL classroom.
- 1. Spoons
- 2. Memory
- 3. Go Fish
- 4. Uno
- 5. Kings
- 6. Dictatorship
- 7. Cards Against Humanity
- Why Are ESL Card Games Legitimate Teaching Tools?
- How to Avoid ESL Card Game Pitfalls
This hilarious card game translates into effective ESL spelling practice for all levels and ages.
It works best for smaller groups of 4 or 5 students. Things tend to get pretty crazy with big groups, but it can be done.
Be forewarned: the cards require a lot of preparation in advance.
However, if you make them correctly and have them laminated, they’ll last a long time.
In a Word document, create a table.
Each square in the table should be about 2 inches by 2 inches.
These are your game cards!
Type up the alphabet, with one letter per square.
Create about 20-25 squares for each letter of the alphabet.
Print the document (laminate if you can) and cut the tables into the game cards.
(You can also use the cards for a homemade Scrabble game.)
How to Play
Choose about 10 vocabulary words and write them on the board where everyone can see them.
Dump the cards face up in the middle of the table or desk. Then put plastic spoons or unsharpened pencils in the center.
The quantity of these is important, though—there must be one less than the number of students playing.
For example, if there are five students, put out only four spoons or pencils.
The students will each spell the same word from the board by choosing letters from the pile.
When one student finishes, he/she takes a spoon.
As soon as that happens, the other students must take a spoon, also.
The student who does not get a spoon writes “S” on a piece of paper (or “P” for “pencil”). Whoever spells “Spoons” or “Pencil” first loses.
One reason this game is so popular is that everyone enjoys the challenge it poses.
It’s another ESL game that transcends all levels and abilities.
Create paper cards with key vocabulary words on them.
You’ll want to create a grid of at least 7 by 7 (49 cards) for small groups of intermediate and advanced students.
You can make larger grids for more advanced students and larger groups.
Teeny tiny grids of cards (think 4 by 4, 16 cards) can be made up for young children and beginning students.
You don’t just have to limit yourself to vocabulary words, either. You can use pictures, numbers or colors for young and beginning-level students.
You can also kick the difficulty up a few notches by using matching verb conjugations.
How to Play
On your turn, you can select any two cards to flip over.
You can keep the cards and go again if they are a pair.
If not, turn the cards back over in their original spot, and your turn is over.
Depending on your classroom’s technology, there are various ways to play Memory.
- Place the cards at the students’ desks. It’s best to laminate the cards regardless of the students’ ages. Otherwise, they become dog-eared and torn up very quickly.
- Put the cards on the board with magnets or small pieces of tape. Be especially careful that the tape won’t damage the board. Have the cards hung before class starts to save valuable time. Young students become very antsy and disruptive when they have to wait.
- Create a PowerPoint game. For the tech-savvy, you can create a PowerPoint with numbers in the squares or find a free template online. The students first choose a number. A word or picture is revealed and then disappears. The students choose another number, trying to find a match.
3. Go Fish
This old favorite is for beginning-level students and never fails to get everyone talking.
You can either use a traditional deck of cards and focus on structuring questions and identifying numbers, or you can make up your own set of illustrated cards for key vocabulary.
In Korea, the students’ textbooks usually would have pre-made flashcards in the back of the book that students punched out.
These were perfect for Go Fish when there were a lot.
How to Play
Divide students into small groups of 4-6.
Deal out 5-7 cards per student, then dump the rest face down in the center. Mix them up well!
You know the drill from here on out: First, students lay down any matches they have in their hands.
Then students will go around in a circle, asking each other if they have a match for their particular vocabulary words or numbers. If the other student has a match, he or she must pass it to the questioner.
The successful questioner can keep asking for matching cards until they finally get told to “Go fish!” The goal is to have no cards left in your hand because you’ve laid down matches.
With traditional playing cards, you’ll need to get all four numbers (one in every suit) to lay down a set.
With vocabulary, it’s up to you to decide how many make a complete set, though pairs work well for younger students.
The matching cards get set aside into a pile.
At the end of the game, the student who finished their hand first may be the winner—but the ultimate winner will have the most matching sets of cards in their pile.
It’s great for practicing questions, answers and easy vocabulary, like:
Do you have _______________? (a fish, book, house, etc.)
Yes, I do./No, I don’t. Can you give me a ____________? (pencil, dress, spoon, etc.)
Yes, I can (give it to you).
No, I can’t (give it to you).
Sorry, go fish!
Feel free to be creative and adjust the asking phrases to match your key vocabulary.
For example, my sixth graders had a unit where the target phrase was:
How do you say ~ in Korean/English?
We used their textbook’s flashcards to play Go Fish, but instead of “Do you have ~,” they would ask:
How do you say ‘apple’ in Korean?
If the student had the corresponding flashcard with the Korean word for “apple,” it was a match.
As always, laminate your cards if you can, or you’ll remake them quickly. It’s also a good idea to glue words or pictures onto darker paper so no one can see through the cards.
No, no. Despite the name, this game isn’t for teaching Spanish.
It’s actually perfect for teaching your ESL students colors, numbers and a few basic phrases here and there.
This beloved game was a strong presence in many of our childhoods, and it’s so darn popular because it’s simple.
How to Play
Deal seven cards to each student in the playing group. Place the deck in the center and flip one card over to create the discard pile.
Students will then take turns placing the cards in their hands on the discard deck.
If you’re out of touch with your inner child and need some refreshing on the rules, the student actively playing their turn must match the last discarded card’s number, color or command.
For instance, a red 8 can be played on any other red card, a blue “draw two” may be played on any other blue card and any color “draw two” can be played on any color “draw two.”
Black cards can be played at any time!
Because the card matching is super visually-oriented, it’s easy for even beginner English students to pick up.
Now, how do they practice their English with this game?
Have the playing student speak the number, color and command (if applicable) of each card out loud while they play it.
This will help them practice identifying colors and numbers quickly and naturally.
When a student gets down to one card, have them shout “One card!” instead of “Uno!” if you like.
The winner is the student who gets rid of all their cards first.
Some of you might recognize this as a drinking game (also known as “Circle of Death,” though I highly recommend sticking with the “Kings” name).
I won’t try to slip that one past you. It is!
But you can rework this classic party night game to be an excellent, engaging and activity-driven game for in-class English practice.
It’s also wonderful for getting the “wiggles” out of your more energetic classrooms.
Create a sheet of rules for the game.
You’ll need to assign a different action to every number in the deck (Ace through King).
These rules can be created with your students’ input before gameplay starts, or you can make it up at home.
Not sure what kind of rules to make? To get your creative juices flowing, here’s one set of rules you could use.
How to Play
The students go around in a circle drawing one card on their turn, and then everyone does the activities corresponding to the selected card.
Students can keep the list nearby for reference, or you may elect one student as a “rule keeper” and have them read off what every student must do.
This works on the students’ English comprehension skills because they must either read or hear the action and respond accordingly.
Those who cannot perform the actions sit out the round, and the winners are the ones who can jump through the hoops until the deck runs out!
This one is all gameplay, no preparation.
Just get yourself a deck of traditional playing cards, explain the rules and you’re good to go!
You’ll want to break larger classes into smaller groups for this one. Each group needs its own deck.
How to Play
Everyone draws a card to play.
The highest-valued card is the “dictator” for that round.
Or feel free to call them the “president,” “leader,” “commander” or any other term that suits your fancy.
Whatever you decide, this student officially gets to call the shots for one round.
Depending on the cards they draw, they’ll decide on a couple of fun “rules” that the rest will have to follow.
“Everyone with a red card has to dance salsa for five seconds.”
“Everyone with a diamond has to jump up and down.”
You can provide them with a list of possible actions if they’re still learning action verbs and activities like these.
Definitely write the sentence structures they’ll need on the board to command their classmates.
After determining the actions everyone will need to do, the dictator will then deal out the cards in a circle.
Once the cards are out and everyone has followed orders, reshuffle the deck and pass it to the next student on the dictator’s left (or right).
Go around in a circle until everyone has had a chance to be the boss!
One little tip: Give the dictator a limit for how many “rules” they can impose on their subjects for each round—otherwise, things might get out of hand.
I’d suggest no more than 2-3 rules per round.
For lower levels, just one rule will suffice because the other students playing might forget what they’re supposed to do while waiting for the cards to be dealt!
If you’re in the mood for some silly and boundless fun at the end of a class period, let them command to their heart’s content.
7. Cards Against Humanity
This game is perfect for adult and advanced students. But it’s only appropriate in a (very) casual learning environment.
You probably won’t want to bring this one into school—and you’ll definitely need to get an “okay” from a higher-up, depending on where you teach ESL.
There are a few ways to modify this game and make it school-friendly, so stay with me here.
For the unanointed, this is not your grandma’s card game.
It’s full of explicit language, offensive statements and other content that is not politically correct.
How the heck is this great for ESL, you’re wondering?
Suppose you can get away with the official Cards Against Humanity decks.
In that case, it’s awesome for helping adult and advanced students learn more about popular culture, puns and black humor (which is honestly quite a lot of American and British humor).
Plus, they’ll learn the names of well-known people and events in the English-speaking world.
It’s also hilarious. It encourages students near fluency to own the English language and have fun with it.
You will definitely want to remove any cards with exceptionally obscure references.
You may also want to create some of your own cards to add to the deck—or craft your own deck entirely based on references and humor your particular class will understand.
How to Play
Each student will be dealt 8-10 white cards, each containing a noun or gerund.
One player draws a black card and places it face up for all to see. This black card will have a question or fill-in-the-black statement.
Each player (except for the one who drew the black card this round) will put down the white card, which answers or fills in the black card’s statement as hilariously as possible.
The player who drew the black card chooses the winning white card based on whatever they feel like—usually, whichever card was the funniest.
While it’s loads of fun with mature content, most of you probably won’t be able to use these cards for ESL students.
However, you can print up your own deck of cards quite easily, making it a fun humor-driven game that expands students’ horizons in English language creativity.
Another school-friendly alternative is the classic Apples to Apples, which follows the same idea, except that it’s recommended for ages 12 and up—so you can surely play it at school.
Why Are ESL Card Games Legitimate Teaching Tools?
I taught hundreds of middle school students while living in South Korea.
In the beginning, I used games because I was scared to death of being boring. As a result, I was under constant pressure to be exciting, and I doubt my students learned much.
Eventually, I let go of perfection. I used ESL games as a teaching tool, and my classes improved enormously.
Your own classes will suffer if you use games:
- as time for you to take a break
- because you didn’t know what else to do
- to prove to your students that you are incredibly interesting
If you use ESL card games for the right reasons, the energy in your classes will increase. The teaching relationship between you and your students will also be strengthened.
Used correctly, games in the ESL classroom will enrich your lessons.
They make things fun and engaging for everyone
ESL games perk up your class’s interest and provide a mental break from stressful studying.
They can trick the most apathetic students into learning something new. Games reinforce the idea that the classroom is a fun place and that learning English is a fun activity.
They reduce teacher talking time
You should always be on the lookout for new techniques that will minimize the time you spend talking. This shines the spotlight on your students.
They’re not in class to listen to lectures. They’re in class to practice their English as much as humanly possible.
By introducing them to card games, you’ll give your students a way to practice English among themselves and try out their newly-learned grammar and vocabulary.
They build relationships
The student-teacher relationship and the peer relationships between members of the class can be significantly strengthened by having everyone laughing together.
They teach and reinforce the material
Games involve repetitive actions. Students will repeat the same actions and English phrases over and over again, ingraining this in their memories for the long term.
For example, when playing “Go Fish,” students must often ask questions using the same sentence.
By the end of a few rounds, it will be second nature to say, “Do you have any…?”
You can use this characteristic of games to teach the most challenging vocabulary and grammar concepts.
They let students take ownership of English
Games help students realize that they’re not just learning English for the sake of learning English. That there’s more than just, “Hello, my name is…”
It’s not something boring and dry that they’re “supposed” to learn.
Your students will come to understand that they’ll be able to have fun and play around with the English language the same way they do with their native language.
They encourage creative thinking
Many of these games involve students having to spell words, identify the right vocabulary and come up with their own sentences for gameplay.
This means they’ll need to get the gears in their brains spinning and be creative with the English they already know.
Plus, since games are fun, their brains will decide that making up new English sentences is fun, too!
How to Avoid ESL Card Game Pitfalls
A few elements of card games are sometimes challenging in ESL classrooms.
But there are always solutions!
Be sure card games of any kind are culturally appropriate in class.
While volunteering in the Philippines, I was told we couldn’t have card games in the women’s shelter. Cards were immediately associated with gambling and the irresponsible use of money.
Just to be careful, ask if any cultural taboos would cause you unforeseen problems.
No one understands the game
This happened to me often in the beginning, causing embarrassment.
The one lesson I learned was this: Even the easiest game can be hard to understand for a person who is learning your language.
If you have a co-teacher, be sure to explain the game’s rules before class first. He/she will then be able to translate when all else fails.
Also, be sure to practice explaining the ESL game before class. Know exactly what you’ll say. It’s helpful to demonstrate things like shuffling, passing a card or taking a spoon.
The class is too noisy
This is a particular danger when playing Spoons. The noise level will increase dramatically when students catch on to how it’s played.
You have a few options here.
You can mention the need for quiet before playing for more mature adult students. They should cooperate.
You’ll have a challenge for the younger students in middle and high school.
Some schools have an ESL lab far from other classes, and noise isn’t an issue.
You’ll have to have strong classroom management skills for those without an isolated classroom. The more cooperative students will probably respond to firm reminders. You may have to stop the game altogether for more strong-willed classes.
Sometimes, however, you can see trouble coming from a mile away. You know which classes can’t handle the excitement, and you’ll have to prepare a less rowdy activity.
Game materials are destroyed by students
In Spoons, a few plastic spoons will inevitably be broken. Have plenty of spares on hand—they’re cheap anyway.
That’s why unsharpened pencils are better—they’re sturdier and survive multiple classes’ use.
If you can’t do that, then break out the clear tape. Avoid the smaller rolls and buy the wider packaging tape. It works just as well as laminating.
Keep an eagle eye on the rowdier students and intervene when they get too rough. Circulate the room, picking up materials that fell to the floor.
Bringing fun into the ESL classroom takes creativity and dedication.
Those two qualities are what make you an unforgettable teacher. And you’ll forever remember the smiles on your students’ faces.