Surprise Your Students with These 6 ESL Exercises

Ever have one of those days where you just want to eat potato chips and watch TV?

Don’t worry, everyone does. Nobody operates at full capacity 100% of the time.

But when it’s students having a blah day, things become a little more complicated.

You can’t just turn on the TV and tell them to relax. They have to learn!

So, what can you do if your students are feeling unmotivated and apathetic?

You could force them to push through it. Not the best solution, but we’ve all had teachers that operate that way. Or you could engage them with fun English exercises—we might even call them “games.” That will keep them energized and learning, minus the lethargy and listless attitudes.

6 ESL Exercises That’ll Revitalize Your Students

If the learning experience is too repetitive, students can grow tired of studying. Reading texts and memorizing vocabulary can feel like a chore. These games will help you keep your ESL classes interesting and engaging for your students, so that they enjoy your lessons regardless of the topic. Keep them on hand for when you’re having trouble coming up activities, or when you finish early and have extra time near the end of class.

While these ESL exercises may feel like games to your students, they’ll still be learning new concepts and practicing the English skills you’ve already covered. Before you start any of these exercises, make sure you review or teach any target vocabulary they’ll need to know to successfully complete the activity.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, here are some ideas for fun and educational activities you can use in your lessons.

1. Go Fish

Good For: Targeted vocabulary practice

Preparation: Before class, decide on the vocabulary you want your students to practice. Start by creating several decks of Go Fish cards. The number of decks you’ll need depends on the size of your class. Each pair or group should have at least two full deck of cards—one for each player.

Use the images on the cards to represent the English words. Two cards should have a representation of the same word, so that they can be “matched” during the game. For example, if you want your students to practice food vocabulary you might include the word “apple.” Two cards should have a picture of an apple.

In Class: Divide the class into small groups of four to six players. Distribute a deck of cards to each group. Within each group designate a “dealer.” The dealer should deal out five cards to each student including themselves, and then place the remaining cards facedown in the center of the table.

The student to the left of the dealer goes first. They should ask someone in their group for one of the cards they have in their hand. For example, if Student A has an apple card they should pick one student and ask them “Do you have an apple?” If that student has the apple card, they give the apple card to Student A. Now that Student A has a pair of the same cards, they should lay them down on the table. Student A gets to go again.

If the student asked doesn’t have an apple card, they should say “Go Fish!” Student A then has to pick a card from the deck in the middle, and it becomes the next student’s turn.

The game continues until someone runs out of cards, or until there aren’t any cards left. The person with the most pairs at the end of the game wins.

2. Race to the Right Answer

Good For: Targeted vocabulary practice

Preparation: Before class, prepare a deck of cards based on vocabulary you’ve covered in class. Consider having several decks of cards based on different categories. For example, you might have an action verbs deck, a food deck and a kitchen items deck. In each deck, each card should have one word written on it. For instance, in the kitchen deck, you might have “bowl,” “spoon,” “fork,” “cup” etc…

Tip: To make the activity even more challenging for your students, structure it like Taboo. Under the main word, write down words that the students are not allowed to use when describing the item. For example, for the card “cup” you might include “water” and “drink” on the card as words that are “taboo” to use. This encourages students to find synonyms and to be extra creative in their descriptions.

In Class: Divide the class into two teams. One member from each team goes to the front of the classroom. You pick the top card from the deck and show it to both students. When you say “go,” the two students turn to their teams and start describing what’s on the card without saying the item’s name.

For example, if the word is “cup” they might say “you can put liquid in it” or “you use it when you’re thirsty.” The students race against each other to guess the right answer. The team that correctly guesses the item first gets a point for that round. Both teams send up a new student, then you begin the next round. Continue until each person on the team has gone to the front of the room to describe an item. The team with the most points at the end wins.

Tip: This game can get very loud. If it becomes too loud, you can have one team go at a time. Instead of racing against one another, each team races against the clock. Give 30 to 60 seconds for the student to describe the item and have their team guess the correct answer. If the team guesses correctly within the time limit, they get a point and it is the other team’s turn. If not, they aren’t awarded a point. The team with the most points at the end of class wins.

3. Guess Who

Good For: General speaking practice, asking and answering questions and targeted vocabulary practice

Preparation: Decided what category of vocabulary you’d like to practice with your students. For example, you could use family member titles such as “grandpa,” “grandma,” “sister” and “brother,” or you could do professions, such as “police officer,” “doctor,” “writer” and “salesperson.”  Prepare stickers or note cards that can be taped to your students’ backs. On each notecard, write one persona.

In class: Inform the students of the category you’ve chosen. An example of a category you can use is different professions. Then, ask the students to form a line at the front of the room. Tape one card to each student’s back. Make sure that the student doesn’t see what’s taped to their back. Once each student has a persona taped to their back, the students should circulate the classroom asking each other questions. They need to ask questions that will help them identify who they are. For example:

  • Do I wear a uniform?
  • Do I help people?
  • Am I well-educated?

Students should respond with “yes” or “no.” Students can only ask each classmate one question. The more classmates they speak with, the more information they’ll gather. Once a learner correctly guesses who or what they are, they should take a seat.

4. Let’s Compare!

Good For: Practicing Comparison Structures and adjectives

Preparation: None

In Class: Students work individually to compare themselves to their family members or their friends. Ask them to write five sentences describing themselves compared to their family and friends. For example

  • I am stronger than my baby brother.
  • I am younger than my grandfather.

Encourage students to be as creative as possible while practicing these comparison structures. That way, students can practice making more advanced sentences like:

  • I am as adventurous as my mom.
  • I am confident like my best friend, Sara.

Tip: Students may also enjoy illustrating some of their comparisons, if they have time.

Save time at the end of the lesson for students to share some of their sentences with the class. Make any corrections as needed so the whole class can learn from the mistakes.

5. Plan Your Ideal Vacation

Good For: Verb practice (the conditional or future tenses)

Preparation: None

In Class: Students work individually to write about their ideal vacation. They should plan every detail. On the board, write some prompting questions to get them started. If you want to encourage the use of the conditional tenses, try:

  • Where would you go if you could?
  • With whom would you go?
  • What would you do?

Or, if you want to focus on the future tenses:

  • Where will you go?
  • With whom will you travel?
  • What will you do there?

Encourage them to write their answers in paragraph form.

Save time at the end of class for students to share their ideal trip. Ask them to stand at the front of the room and read their paragraph to the whole class. Correct them as needed.

6. Blow Wind, Blow

Good For: Listening comprehension and targeted vocabulary practice

Preparation: None

In Class: Push the desks and tables out of the way! Students sit in a circle on their chairs or on the floor. One student stands in the middle of the circle and says, “Blow wind, blow!” The other students call out, “Blow what?” The first student responds with a statement such as, “Everyone who knows how to swim” or “Everyone who has a blue shirt.”

The “wind” blows them around the circle. The students to which the statement applies must stand and run around to a new chair or place in the circle. The student who called out the statement in the middle must also try to find a place to sit. The student who is left without a chair goes to the middle of the circle and says “Blow wind, blow!” and the game continues.

There is no winner in this game. Play for as long as you like.


With minimal preparation, these exercises will keep the learning and studying light and fun in your ESL classroom! Not only will it make the learning experience more enjoyable, it’ll give your tired students a much-needed second wind.

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