The Ultimate Guide to ESL Grammar Games
Do games and grammar really mix?
We’re casting our vote for “yes,” and we’re done listening to naysayers.
It may just be the best mix since peanut butter and chocolate.
Grammar is usually thought of as dry and dull.
Plenty of old-school ESL teachers will tell you that traditional rote learning methods are the way to go.
Something so boring as grammar belongs only in musty old textbooks, right?
Anyone who loves language knows that grammar can be fun. Just feel the thrill of discovery, the excitement of placing another piece in that huge linguistic puzzle. Every time you learn new grammar, it’s like deciphering a little bit more of a complex secret code.
What’s not to love about that?
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Why Use Grammar Games in the ESL Classroom?
Studies show that rote memorization isn’t necessarily the way to go when it comes to learning grammar. Every day, the ESL teaching community comes closer to the realization that there are more effective and fun ways to teach grammar.
One of these is games.
ESL classroom games aren’t just for fun.
Games and fun activities for teaching grammar can have purpose if used correctly and at the right time.
Just take a look at some of the benefit a well-timed grammar game can offer any ESL classroom:
- Games shake things up.
When language learners can apply grammar and use it in a fun way, there’s a better chance that they’ll retain it all. They’ll be able to practice and internalize grammar phenomena extensively rather than just learning a bunch of rules superficially.
When language learners are exposed to repeated target grammar through different and varied activities, they’ll be more motivated to work and retain the grammar as much as possible. They know that games are coming up, and they need to be prepared if they want to win!
Think about this compared to boring old grammar lectures about the differences between the present simple and the present continuous. Sure, you’ll still need lessons, but the enthusiasm your students have for games and being classroom champions will carry them through.
- Help students develop a competitive streak.
Grammar games for learning English don’t only motivate, they also boost the idea of competition in the ESL classroom. Like they say, a bit of healthy competition never hurt anyone. Students will strive to be their very best when thrown into action, and they’ll need to outperform their peers and surpass their own expectations.
- Encourage cooperative learning.
We just said that games make students competitive, so how can they also help with cooperation? They facilitate bonding between students and between the students and teacher. Students need to assist their classmates and cheer them on when competing in teams or pairs. Everyone will pitch into the group effort in order to succeed!
- Get students’ pent-up energy out.
ESL learners often lose focus during traditional grammar lessons because there’s a lot of new and sometimes complex information to absorb. Introducing a well-timed game to teach grammar could break up a monotonous lesson and get rambunctious learners to participate.
Who Wants to Play ESL Grammar Games?
Games for any age group are fine. They aren’t only meant for young children.
Contrary to popular belief, adults love games as much as kids.
They may appear more reluctant at first, but that’s because they’re not used to this way of learning. Once they see you, the ESL teacher, having a great time and being a little bit silly, they won’t be so reserved.
Here are the reasons why different groups of ESL students can expect to see unique benefits from mixing games and grammar:
- Adults need more engaging ways to learn.
Generally speaking, adult language learners have a more difficult time learning another language. Language and grammar games will help them learn the relevant points in context.
- All students need to keep things fresh.
Learning grammar or any part of language is tiring. The constant learning of grammar rules and exceptions in English requires constant effort from learners. Grammar games, if used wisely, can really break up the monotony of what’s considered to be one of the worst and more difficult aspects of learning any language. In short, using grammar games in the ESL classroom can allow for meaningful use of the target language in the right context.
- Younger learners need a purpose to study.
Many young ESL students just fail to see the importance or need to learn and study grammar. To them, grammar is just something their teachers make them study. They’re too young to really grasp the true concept of the importance of grammar, which is why game playing and grammar go hand-in-hand sometimes—these young learners will have no idea that they’re actually learning something very valuable that will assist them with their English knowledge in the future.
- Games target young students’ learning potential.
Grammar games will naturally pique a child’s curiosity. They’ll want to explore and experiment with different skills. When young children can move around, they’ll be able to better stimulate their mental capacity. Once this has been stimulated, they’ll not only learn, but they’ll also retain the new information as well.
So, keeping all of the above in mind, what kind of grammar games work best when teaching ESL?
How to Choose the Right ESL Grammar Games
It’s important to recognize the purpose of a grammar game in your ESL lesson.
By no means whatsoever should you use it as just another “time filler.”
Yes, perhaps these particular games are funny and entertaining for your learners, but that’s not the point of using games in the classroom.
The point is to learn and to take something away from the session. Think of games like interactive lessons.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s completely possible for a grammar-focused ESL game to be both fun and educationally sound. If you’re not sure about which kind of grammar-based games are suitable for the ESL classroom, you can ask yourself the following questions:
- Does the grammar game practice any skills? If yes, which ones?
- What’s the purpose of the game?
- What kind of game is it? Is it a strategy game? A communicative grammar game?
- Does the grammar game mesh with the learners’ ages?
- Is the game the right fit for your learners’ levels?
- Are all learners involved in the grammar game? Does it require maximum student involvement?
- Do your students enjoy the game?
Additionally, you can also ask yourself:
- What specific grammar points do you plan to introduce or practice through this ESL grammar game?
- Is it possible to maintain absolute control over your class while playing this particular game?
- Do you need any special materials to play this grammar game? If you do, can they be easily obtained?
- How will you be able to maintain student progress and keep your learners on track when playing this particular game?
- How long do you need to play this game?
- At which point of the lesson will you incorporate your grammar game?
- Are the rules clear? How will you successfully explain the game without too much TTT (teacher talking time)?
At the end of the day, every learner of English (or any other language) wants to have a fun language learning experience.
Many learners dread grammar and just the mention of the irregular past participles and passive voice may be enough to make them run and hide. Like in any type of ESL learning situation, things need to be changed up a bit and games can definitely be overused. Use them sparingly and at the right times to either introduce a point or to reinforce, but not for both.
If you’ve been against using games to teach ESL grammar, you ought to give it a shot. You’ll not only motivate them, but you’ll also encourage your learners to use English more authentically.
For a great resource that helps your students learn grammar in a natural context, then check out FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
7 Golden Grammar Games for a Winning ESL Lesson Plan
So, without further ado, here are our 7 favorite grammar games for the ESL classroom.
Would You Rather
This classic sleepover and bus trip game, ideal for getting participants to know more about each other, can be a perfect giggle-inducing grammar game to reinforce recent lessons. The game is simple enough, driven by straightforward questions and answers.
The main use for this game in the ESL classroom is to practice using conditionals and discussing hypothetical situations (would you):
Would you rather get stung by a bee or bit by a spider?
Would you rather dance in front of ten thousand people or in front of the President of the United States?
Not to mention, being able to compare things in English is something that students will encounter frequently in interaction with native speakers. They’ll also get lots of practice using verbs in their different contexts.
You can have students play this game in pairs, groups or as a whole classroom. Prepare questions ahead of time and provide students with lists, or let their imaginations run wild with freestyle play. Either way, a great way to add another tricky element to this game is to see how many students would rather do one thing as opposed to the other after playing for a while.
For example, you could ask one student: “Sara, how many of your classmates would rather dance in front of the President of the United States?” Then this student must tell you how many people chose this option in her group or in the class.
This game is plain and simple—a good, old-fashioned classroom favorite for the ages.
Divide the board into two halves, and divide the class into two teams. Call out a theme or category for learned vocabulary words and have students run to the board and write as many related words as possible.
For example, you might call out something like, “Animals you will see at the zoo!” and one student from each team must run up to the board and write as many English zoo animal names as they can think of within a certain time limit. This game gets students thinking quickly and creatively.
Similar to blackboard race, the conjugation pyramid is a race-to-win classic that is beloved by language students everywhere. Set this one up for the very end of class when there are a few minutes remaining—this will really get the pressure cooking.
Draw a pyramid on either side of the board and break it up into blocks—kind of like a food pyramid, but with as many blocks as there are rounds in the game. So, if you want to go 10 rounds, draw 10 blocks in each pyramid.
Then you’ll give your students a verb and a person (first person singular, second person plural) and they will have to run to the board and conjugate the verb into each tense accordingly. Depending on the skill level of your students and what you’d like to practice, you can also choose a tense and have students conjugate the entire verb chart for that tense. The student who gets the conjugations right wins their team a block in the pyramid!
When a student wins a pyramid block, fill in that block with chalk or marker to indicate the progress. The first team with enough blocks to build their whole pyramid wins!
Draw up the grid for tic-tac-toe on the board. Fill in each square of the grid with a part of speech you want students to practice. What exactly you choose to include here is totally flexible, and depends on what lessons you’d like to reinforce. If you’re studying verb conjugation in the present tense, for example, fill in the grid with verbs in their infinitive forms.
Students will be divided into two teams for this game. The first team goes by choosing a square from the tic-tac-toe grid. They then have to figure out, as a group, how to properly conjugate that verb. If they get the answer right, then they claim that square of the grid. If they get the answer wrong, then they lose their turn.
Keep playing until one team scores a tic-tac-toe!
Go down to the school’s gymnasium, playground or set up a makeshift basketball hoop in the classroom. You can manage this without damaging school property by simply setting up a hula hoop or other plastic ring as the “hoop” and by playing with a small inflatable or foam ball.
Break the students into two groups or have them play individually against the rest of their classmates.
There are two ways to go about playing this one. Before being allowed to take a shot, each student must either:
- Answer a question with the appropriate featured grammar pattern.
- Create a basic statement using the featured grammar pattern.
If the student gets their answer or statement wrong or doesn’t phrase it properly, they won’t get to take a shot.
If the student passes this part of the game, they get to take a shot. If they score, they get 2 points. If they don’t score but got the question right, they get 1 point.
Use a foam or inflatable ball, and start up a fast-paced round or two of hot potato.
The objective, of course, is to pass the ball around in a circle as fast as possible. Before passing the ball to the next student, the student holding the ball must show off their English grammar skills.
When a student catches the ball, they must quickly think up a word that fits your given criteria, spit it out and pass the ball before the allotted time runs out.
This is super flexible and can be adjusted to practice virtually any bit of grammar you’ve recently introduced or would like to review.
For example, tell students learning the present tense that they must each say one verb conjugated in the present tense, using first person singular or “I form.” Each student will then have to say something like, “I run,” “I dance” or “I cry.” The ball gets passed around and around, with students being eliminated whenever they draw blanks or conjugate their verb wrong.
For easier games, give each student 6-8 seconds. For harder, faster paced games, give students 2-3 seconds. You can also start slower and gradually increase the pace of the game as it progresses.
In this tricky game, students will have to think quickly and creatively.
Start the class off by giving them a word which fits your desired theme. Restrict them to only certain parts of speech, such as nouns or verbs. For an extra challenging session, limit the words to certain moods and tenses. For example, every word given might need to be in present or past tense. If you’ve been practicing nouns in class lately, say a noun.
The student who starts off the game will have to think of a word that begins with the last letter of the word you provided. If you’re practicing nouns and said, “food,” then the student could say “dog” or “dish.” If you’re practicing with adjectives and started with “beautiful,” then the next student might say “lazy” or “loud.” Go around the classroom playing this way and eliminating students who can’t think up words quickly enough.
And that’s that! 7 great grammar games to pep up your English classroom.
Have fun, and get those students learning English grammar!
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)