Golden Oldies: 6 Fresh Ways to Reinvent Classic ESL Classroom Activities

TGIF, man.

The weekend is calling.

You’re struggling to think of ideas. The students have played all of your games 50 times each, and even that trusty fail-safe game is starting to get some groans from the kids. You shudder just thinking about bingo.

Hold up—don’t toss out those favorite old activities in favor of new ones. 

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, quit your job or spend hours on ESL websites looking for some undiscovered gold. All of your ESL activities are still great, they just need a little spice. A new flavor.

Adding an exciting new element or just twisting around an old classic a little can breathe life into it for weeks and months to come.

Here are 6 simple ways to get your students excited about activities again.

Freaky Friday: 6 Ways to Switch Up Your Favorite ESL Classroom Activities

1. Get the Clock Ticking

Don’t underestimate just how much difference adding a countdown timer can make.

It adds some pressure, yes, but it can also add a competitive element to any activity. It’s a great way to create excitement in the classroom.

You may already use countdown timers for some games and activities, but now it’s time to consider using them in ways you haven’t yet thought about.

Just set up your activity as normal, adding a countdown on the board. The bigger the clock (and the noisier the alarm) the better.

Works well with…Memory Circle.

This is the game where you seat your students in a circle and each student repeats the last student’s statement, adding their own bit of information at the end of the statement.

For example, John would start with “I like bananas,” then Alice would say “John likes bananas. I like apples,” and Reza would add “John likes bananas. Alice likes apples. I like pears…” and so on until all of the students have had their say.

Let them complete the circle. Easy.

Now challenge them to get around the circle in 2 minutes. Let them go wild, making it around the circle in time any way they can. They can write, they can speak, they can gesture or ask for help. Be sure to let the students help their classmates. They might feel like they’re getting away with cheating, but they’re speaking lots of English. Take it as a win!

If they manage it, let them celebrate for a moment. Then restart the clock at 1 minute and watch their faces drop. They’ll have to survive yet another harrowing round together, so this is an excellent game for fostering teamwork and peer encouragement.

2. Set Targets

Nothing is simpler than this.

Rather than just setting up an activity and then letting students have at it, set some targets. If you’re like me, then you start almost every lesson with a brainstorm session or a lead-in activity to warm up. Just by adding a target you can focus the classroom and pique interest effectively.

Works well with…Brainstorms.

Your students know all the animals, but once you start brainstorming they all go quiet except for that one student who will happily name 20 animals on his own. Well, set the target for 30 animals and suddenly the class has something to work towards together.

This really encourages lower-level students and quiet students, as they feel like their input is valued. This can be paired beautifully with a countdown timer (“Can you name 30 animals in 2 minutes?”) and can be a great introduction to any class.

3. On Your Marks…

Anything can be a race.

Maybe you’re doing a group activity with the whole class involved and it isn’t going as well as you hoped. The students are lethargic and seem unmotivated. No problem. Just split the class into two (or more) teams and tell them that the first team to finish wins. An instant motivation adrenaline shot.

Works well with…Telephone (aka “Whispers”).

It’s always good fun to whisper “I like oranges” to a student and watch it somehow transform through the whisper chain to “Alligator, yes” at the other side of class. Just remember that almost everybody loves competition, and you can really inject some energy into the classroom by having a Telephone Race and crowning a winning team (while still enjoying any hilarious whisper mishaps).

4. Freaky Friday

You’re playing the same game for the 50th time this year. The students all know it inside out and they just don’t enjoy it like they used to. Even if it’s still kind of fun, the challenge is missing because they’re just too familiar with the game.

Great. If they’re so familiar with it and know all the rules and rituals, there’s no need for you to be involved. Pick a good student to be the “teacher” or “ringleader” and they can run the game. It’s time for a regular Freaky Friday scenario to play out—you’ll swap bodies with a student, playing the game while they run the show.

This gets a giggle from the students every time, and (almost) everybody wants to be the teacher for the day.

Works well with…Simon Says.

Simon Says is such a simple game. Even after one or two plays through, the students should all understand what’s expected of them. All that’s required is for the students to know the appropriate actions, and then you can just let them at it.

Choose a student to be the new you and go have a seat on the sidelines. Or—even better!—take their place and play the game. The students will love playing by your side, and many will watch to see how you respond to Simon’s requests.

Hint: Just watch out for the “teacher” being too awesome at this task, or you might find yourself out of a job!

Adding a timer for the new “teacher” (for example, he or she has 2 minutes to get everybody “out” with tricky commands) is always a winner here, and encourages the teacher do your job properly.

The research around this method shows that simply allowing a student to run an activity can increase language retention by 60% compared with reading or listening. A statistic worth remembering.

5. Shake It Up

Next, just change up the setting!

This is such an obvious idea that many teachers just don’t consider it, or maybe they don’t fully appreciate the benefits.

Your students can get weighed down by routine. Into the classroom, listening, reading, writing and out again. Introducing a new setting can really add something, especially to the less active activities.

Works well with…Storytelling or Reading Time.

Almost all schools have a library. Libraries are for reading. Why are you doing your reading in the classroom? Taking the lesson out of its usual setting can really add intrigue and interest to a simple storytelling lesson.

The students will be excited by the change—it’s a “special trip” after all!—and as an added bonus you’ll create enthusiasm for using libraries. Students will even need to learn how to navigate the library’s book organization system. So many lessons in one!

Best of all: Libraries are silent. Students will need to behave well, keep their eyes glued to their readings and be quiet.

Don’t have a library? Take them outside, take them to the gym, take them to the cafeteria, take them anywhere! Tell an English story in the setting of the story itself. Just get them excited to be away from the classroom.

6. Theme It

Which would you prefer?

“Children, today we’re going to study animals. Turn to page 5 and write the names of the animals under the picture.”


“Children, today we’re going to study animals. Put on these animal costumes and let’s learn animal sounds!”

If you’re working with adult learners, you might bring some real-life, printed resumes for them to read, correct or use as models for their own practice resumes. Or you might bring real job advertisements that they can scan for important English vocabulary (and that they could even apply to, if they wanted to!).

Something as simple as introducing realia (real-world items) or costumes to the lesson can transform the students’ attitudes completely. It doesn’t have to be as extreme as dressing everybody up as animals. Just little embellishments like giving your teams animal names, having ambient animal sounds in the background or pretending to be an elephant when you come into the classroom can have a big impact.

Get them immersed in the lesson by injecting it with your own enthusiasm!

Works well with…Anything!

This goes really well with changing the setting, helping to create a more immersive lesson.

Try going outside for a lesson about sports and having soccer team names, or having an Olympics-style triathlon activity in the gym to earn “medals.” In my experience, both children and adults love these kinds of hands-on classes.


As you can see, these tips work with tons of different activities. It’s up to you to apply them to your favorite games.

There are many brilliant games and lessons out there, but you don’t need to have 1000 game plans in your desk drawers to be a good teacher.

Sticking with whatever works for you, and having the tools to adapt whenever the students aren’t engaging, will improve your teaching and cut out those hours spent searching for the next big game.

If it isn’t working, don’t throw it out: Mix it up.

Cal Hudson is an ESL teacher in Sokcho, South Korea. He has taught children from kindergarten to high school, and adults from complete beginners to advanced. Cal’s focus in ESL teaching is developing non-conventional lesson plans to get the maximum motivation from his learners.

Enter your e-mail address to get your free PDF!

We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe