5 Thoughtful ESL Games Geared Towards Adults

All work and no play makes for a dull ESL classroom.

Every student deserves a little fun every now and again!

There must be scarcely an ESL teacher in the world who, in a moment of exhausted despair, has played hangman with a rowdy group just to get them to focus for five minutes. Similarly, games like Boggle or Scrabble can be good fun at the end of a class when the day’s targets have been met—but there’s leftover energy that needs to be spent.

For adults, though, it might seem incongruous to try including enjoyable, light-hearted activities into what is often a professional context. After all, they’re paying serious money, and deserve the highest levels of tuition.

This is where activities come in. A game, in the more traditional sense, might not have a particular learning aim attached to it, whereas an activity most definitely does, and often practices all four skills in a surprisingly rigorous way. Today, we’re going to redefine the idea of games, and take a look at the educational twists that can be put on them.

When teaching adults, teachers are in a position to include more challenging subject matter. Students often want to cover topics which rely on a greater level of life experience, travel and higher education. It’s also a very valuable opportunity to be creative and to deliver lesson content which suits exactly the needs of your students.

Why Play Games with Adults?

Firstly, it’s a nice break from the textbook. You may be fortunate enough to be working with a textbook you respect, but many teachers are stuck with dull, outdated or simply uninspiring texts. The change of pace (and sometimes scenery) can be good for morale, and it shows the students that you’re committed to creating genuinely useful and interesting lessons for them, as opposed to simply slogging through the next unit because, well, it’s next.

Games can also provide much-needed encouragement for those students whose enthusiasm is flagging a little. They can bring a welcome change of pace, might involve moving around the classroom and speaking with different people and can bring in contexts, moral dilemmas and discussions of current events which are absent from the textbooks.

Finally, they bring in a refreshingly different skill set. Through activities, you might be able to engage your students’ flair for the theatrical, for comedy or for the visual arts. This is a great way to get to know your class and to go beyond the roles and responsibilities of a typical ESL teacher.

What Kinds of Games Work with Adults?

When you’re teaching adults, you can’t use just any old game. You’ll need to find ones that suit their needs and interests. A consistent topic that adult learners love to”play with” is film and TV content. And the best place to find it is FluentU!

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

Interesting videos, documentary clips, and other media types all make a great foundation for an ESL game. FluentU even comes with inbuilt quizzes and flashcards meaning the games are ready to go.

Here are additional types of games that tend to work best with adults, generally speaking:

  • Those which rely on personalization. Your students will come to embody or represent a certain character or point of view. It becomes of personal interest to them, engaging them in the material and increasing the chances of lots of language production (which, let’s not forget, is the main point of your classes).
  • Those which pose challenging questions of ethics, human behavior, morality and policy. Again, this reveals your students’ inner worlds—their moral core comes forward, and perhaps also their religious beliefs—about which they’re passionate, and likely to be willing to speak at length.
  • Those which have a slow burn. They take time to build up, require some background reading or listening and perhaps the creation of a little “universe” within which the class will tacitly agree to operate. They reach their climactic point only after the students have worked their way through, providing significant reward and a sense of shared achievement.
  • Those which target particular language or skills. Adult students should always know why they’re doing a certain type of practice and how this fits into their overall development.
  • Those which bring in background and history so that they feel couched in reality, even if the game is fictionalized (based in a made-up country, for example).

5 Thoughtful ESL Games Geared Towards Adults

1. Persuasion and Debate: The Bridge

Background: While her husband is working away, a woman crosses the bridge in the center of her village to spend the night with her lover. She’s woken the next morning by gunfire and explosions. A civil war has broken out, trapping her on this side of the bridge. When she approaches the bridge, she’s turned away. She asks her lover for money to bribe the soldier, but he refuses and insists that she stay permanently with him. A family friend also refuses to help, disappointed by her affair. When she tries to rush across the bridge, the soldier follows his orders and shoots her dead. Who’s responsible for the death of the woman?

Game play: This ESL classic has many variants. Feel free to add more characters, or color them in different ways (the soldier is drunk, his command officer is a megalomaniac, the husband has a girlfriend where he works, the lover is a serial marriage-wrecker, etc.) and assign roles to your students, who will then try to convince the class that they’re the least responsible for her murder. At the end, everyone votes for the most (five points) to the least (one point) responsible character, and the votes are totaled.

2. Negotiation and Compromise: United Nations

Background: Two neighboring nations are on the brink of war and your students are responsible for averting the crisis.

Game play: Include tricky points of negotiation, e.g. local resources or disputed territories, the return of captured soldiers, a proposed technology exchange, visiting rights for pilgrims to a temple on disputed land, trade agreements, etc.

In its fullest form, this has been one of my most successful ESL games and can take 2-3 hours of presentation about the background of the conflict, discussion between members of the negotiating team to create their plan, negotiation with the opposing side and the drawing up of an agreement.

3. Environment and Sustainability: Antarctic Development

Background: The Antarctic Development Commission and the Antarctic Protection League are facing off in a televised debate to inform the public. The ADC wants permission to dig, mine and drill in this pristine region, while the APL is committed to limiting such development and preserving the continent’s natural state. On one side is cheap fossil fuels and minerals; on the other stands the wildlife and unique beauty of the last unspoiled wilderness.

Game play: The two teams must prepare their approaches and offer compromises to the other which ensure the protection of wildlife and the natural environment, while accepting that some form of development is almost inevitable. This is a perfect test-case for the notion of trickle-down economics.

4. Choose Your Own Adventure: Sam’s Choices

Game play: This requires some preparation from the teacher, but once you’ve created the game, you’ll have it for life and your students will love it.

Begin with a list of the choices faced by a typical teenager: School, free time, romance, college, aspirations, etc. Then write a set of numbered cards, each leading to two or three choices and each with outcomes in the areas of Happiness, Life Experience and Earning Potential.

Add points for decisions which enhance these areas of Sam’s life, and deduct points for the mistakes. The online tool Inklewriter is designed for the creation of CYOA texts, and is easy to use.

5. Quiz Games: Jeopardy

Background: Readily adaptable for the ESL classroom, “Jeopardy” is a game show for individuals (or teams) answering questions on a range of topics.

Game play: Include topic areas relevant to your students, and offer more money for more challenging questions. Choose a time during the class (at random) to hit them with a “Daily Double,” offering twice the prize money for a given question. I’ve included categories which test grammar, vocabulary and knowledge of the International Phonetic Alphabet for my trainee teachers.


With a little forethought, you’ll be able to create terrific games for your classes.

Often, students are particularly grateful for material they know their teacher has created specifically for them, and you’ll find a very enthusiastic reaction.

Be sure to join in the fun yourself!

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