5 Great ESL Number Games You Can Count On!
Want the secret formula for teaching numbers to ESL students?
You know, something that could help them learn their 1, 2, 3’s — and still let ’em have fun while doing it.
We have the solution to this tricky expression.
Games are a truly great resource to help ESL students learn or memorize concepts that aren’t all that logical.
So, why wouldn’t learning numbers be logical when math is, arguably, pure logic?
Think about it: you can explain the rules behind a certain verb form or conjugation, and then students can intuit sentence order based on the logic you’ve taught them. Meanwhile, learning numbers is straight-up memorization. And because math is such a complicated endeavor that’s linked slightly, but not fully, to language, it can be very hard for ESL students to make the visual link between the word four and the number 4, or the word twenty-six and the number 26. It’s just a matter of memorizing and getting used to the new numbers. That’s where games come in handy!
Games work very well when it comes to the memorization of new terms. Why? Because they force students to let go, stop thinking so hard and let their subconscious brains do the work. Games, when used properly in a classroom setting, can be the perfect way to get students learning new numbers. All it takes is exercise and practice.
5 Great ESL Number Games You Can Count On!
The best way to use games in an ESL classroom setting is to use them repeatedly. Pick one that you’ll use as your go-to warm-up game. Then, try to commit to five to 10 minutes to this game every day, or nearly every day. When students start to get used to one game, switch it up!
Fizz Buzz was originally a game used to teach native English speakers division and factors, but it works just as well with older students who’ve already acquired this knowledge in their native tongue. If your ESL learners have already finished the fourth grade, this is a great game to play with them. If you’ve got students younger than that, don’t worry! We’ve got a variation for younger students as well.
This challenging game is bound to get any student motivated!
Use this as a warm-up game by having everyone in the class stand in a line at the front of the classroom. This will also make it easier for students to know who’s next, which is very important in Fizz Buzz!
At the beginning of the game, you decide which number represents “fizz” and which represents “buzz.” 2, 3, or 5 are good ones to start with. Then the students go around the room, each student saying a number in sequence. Students who fall on the numbers assigned to “fizz” and “buzz” need to say those words instead of the number in the sequence. Then, for older students, the game will continue on and they’ll need to say “fizz” and “buzz” for any number divisible by the original “fizz” and “buzz” numbers.
For example, imagine that you’ve decided to use “fizz” for 3 and “buzz” for 5. The game would sound like this:
1, 2, fizz, 4, buzz, fizz, 7, 8, fizz, buzz…
And so on.
Students who either forget to say “fizz” or “buzz” or who say the wrong number (you can be the judge as to how pronunciation plays in, particularly when first introducing this game) are out. They take their seat and watch the rest of their peers continue the game. The last one standing is the winner!
This game forces ESL students to think quickly on their feet to remember the numbers in sequence, but it’s more exciting and dynamic than simple counting. All this makes it an exciting warm-up game. If it’s too challenging for students to recall the sequence of numbers by memory alone, write out the numbers on your classroom’s whiteboard or provide a printed hand-out for them to read while playing.
When students are too young to be able to play this game with factors, you can play a variant. In this easier version, students will have to recognize if the number in question appears in the number at all. Using “fizz” for 3 and “buzz” for 5 as before, we’d have a game looking like this:
1, 2, fizz, 4, buzz, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, fizz, 14, buzz…
For an even simpler game, stop at 10 and start the rotation again from 1. This will help reinforce numbers 1-10. From there, as your students learn and improve you can expand the length of the numerical rotation to 20, 30 and so on.
21 operates on a similar principle to fizz buzz, but it takes a bit longer to complete. It’s nice to use when numbers have already been covered and you’re working on a new set of vocabulary. It can integrate both a review of numbers and a test of the new vocabulary.
For the first round, get the class standing and have them go around, counting in sequence to 21. The student who says “21” is then asked to change one number in the sequence to a word.
If you were doing a sequence on farm animals, for example, the student might say that 3 is now “cow.”
You then do another round through to 21, with students being required to remember which word stands in for which number as they go. When someone trips up they take a seat, and the last one standing wins.
Of course, not all number games are ideal for warm-ups, as they take too long to complete. 21 is almost on the borderline here. That’s why we suggest devoting a day or two just to playing number games. This is best done at the end of your main numbers module with your ESL learners. You can either have the whole class play the same game or set up stations and allow kids to move through the room, trying new games and practicing their numbers. While the last two games were more on the warm-up side of things, the following games are more involved and time consuming. Keep them in mind for games day!
Bingo is particularly fun to play when you designate a student (or several) to be the number callers. Bingo cards can either have the words written out — “three” — or the digits — “3.” You can also include a combination of both. Students playing to get a “bingo” will have the classic grid paper filled in with different numerical values. Whoever gets a line of numbers matched first wins.
You know the drill!
Try to keep this game moving quickly so that there’s a clear winner and so that students don’t spend too much time thinking about what’s being said. The goal is for the association between the word and the number to become automatic.
As students become more advanced, you may want the bingo balls or cards you draw to have simple arithmetic problems on them.
For example, you might print “3+4” on a card. When the caller reads out “3+4,” students would be able to do the math and connect this to “7” on their bingo grid. This can also be done the opposite way, with a student caller reading out “7,” and playing students looking for simple arithmetic problems that equate to the called number. This should only be done for advanced students, as it adds quite a bit of complexity and previously acquired knowledge to the game.
Everyone remembers Go Fish from their grammar school days. Be sure to practice the correct sentence forms and encourage students to ask full questions as they play:
“Do you have any… threes?”
Not to mention, the phrase “Go Fish” is fun to call out during the game, and it’ll keep students excited about it. Be sure to go over the rules of this game before you begin, as different cultures — and even different individuals! — have slightly different ways of playing. It’s good to establish these rules from the very beginning rather than settle a disagreement during the game.
Pair students up and get playing!
Memory is actually a good game to have for all sorts of vocab tests. You can make your own memory cards and laminate them so that you’ll have them for years to come.
When playing Memory with numbers, it’s imperative to have the digit on one side of the card and the word on the other. The game will help students to intuit the association between the two. Encourage students to say the number out loud when they turn over the card. This will help them memorize the number and its pronunciation even better.
Of course, this is just a jumping off point. You can come up with all sorts of number games that work well with ESL students, and you can vary them depending on the age of the students their mathematical capabilities in their native tongue.