9 Quick and Fun ESL Games to Teach Verbs and Tenses
If you want to go beyond the usual verb exercises, I’ve got the solution for you.
This guide will help you integrate ESL verb games into your lesson plans for fun in the classroom.
After all, there are so many tenses and grammar rules for students to learn!
ESL verb tense games—and verb games in general—encourage students to use verbs in personal and creative ways, making lessons much more enjoyable.
- 1. Hot Verb-tato
- 2. Pantomime Verbs
- 3. Verb Charades
- 4. Visual Verbs
- 5. Verb Snip
- 6. Jumbled Storyboard
- 7. Communal Story
- 8. Story Trail
- 9. Mother, May I?
- Why Teach with ESL Verb Games?
- Tips for Using ESL Verb Tense Games
1. Hot Verb-tato
Ever heard of the game Hot Potato? Well, Hot Verb-tato is actually the variation of this timeless schoolyard game. But instead of just tossing a bean bag, balloon, ball or even a real potato to each other, the student with the “potato” needs to say a verb before passing the “potato” to another student.
Arrange the students in a circle. Pick a round, easy-to-handle object as your “potato.” Put on some lively music (ESL music or ESL nursery rhymes are great choices).
At the start, each student must say a verb and pass the “potato” to another student. When time runs out, the student holding the potato is subject to some lighthearted punishment.
To make the entire experience educational and fun, the punishment can be anything from singing the ABC song to answering three questions in English. Students may also be given three random verbs and asked to use them in three meaningful and related sentences, like a three-sentence story.
In classes with more advanced students, you can challenge students by limiting verb varieties by only allowing verbs that start with certain letters. For example, you could say, “For this round of Hot Verb-Tato, we can only say verbs begin with a, b and c.”
2. Pantomime Verbs
This is the perfect game for all levels, but especially for shy beginners. The game is great for expanding verb vocabulary while teaching students about rhyming in English.
Explain the meaning of “rhyme” to your students and start practicing with nouns. After the students get the hang of the game, start with verbs by dividing the class into two to three teams, depending on your class size.
Begin by saying, “I’m thinking of a verb that rhymes with ______.” Try to use single-syllable words and verbs.
Have students raise their hands when they have a guess. The first student who asks, “Is it this?” and acts out the right verb, earns a point for their team. Set the goal for points, and the team that reaches the threshold wins the game.
For advanced classes, the student who first pantomimes the right verb can start the game.
3. Verb Charades
Students often get confused between the simple present (I walk) and the present continuous (I am walking). That’s because, in English, an event that’s still happening isn’t expressed using the simple present.
Get your students more comfortable with the present continuous tense through a game of charades!
Prepare slips of paper in advance, using well-understood activities that are easy to act out and using vocabulary that your students know. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Building a house
- Making the bed
- Setting the table
- Cooking /making a meal
- Doing homework
- Driving a car
Have the student act out the activity on their given slip. Students can suggest ideas for the student, but they must be correctly formatted in the following way:
- “You’re making the bed!”
- “Eric is riding a horse!”
- “He’s mowing the lawn!”
Any student who doesn’t formulate the sentence correctly must sit out that round and receive no points—even if they mentioned the right activity.
Examples of incorrect sentences are ones using an infinitive or partial infinitive (Make the bed!), a simple present (He makes the bed!) or a grammatically incorrect present continuous (He making the bed!).
For more advanced students, you can ask them to give several sentences for the same action. They can mention synonyms or even come up with wacky ideas!
For example, someone doing homework can also be writing in their journal, planning a travel itinerary or coming up with song lyrics.
4. Visual Verbs
Similar to Verb Charades, Visual Verbs is a great verb game to help ESL students practice different verb forms.
Have a list of level-appropriate verbs ready before the game, and divide up the students into two teams. Write the teams on the board and draw three columns under each team, labeling the columns as “base,” ” past” and “past participle.”
Each team will choose one player to go to the front of the class. Give each representative a different verb and ask them to act out their verbs without speaking.
The teams have to try to guess what verb their player is acting out. The student who guesses the verb correctly for their team will have to come to the front of the class and fill out the three forms of the verb in the columns.
The game continues until the team runs out on their list of verbs, then they can start to steal from the other team’s list by guessing their verbs. At the end of the game, give a point for every correctly spelled and formed verb. The team that has the most points at the end is the winner.
If you have a more advanced ESL class, you can prepare two lists of verbs: one easy and one hard. Assign point values to the verb list based on their difficulty (eg. two points for “easy” verbs and five points for “hard” verbs). If students can’t guess the hard one, they can pass and get a one-point deduction.
5. Verb Snip
This is a great activity for all ESL levels. Verb Snip is a perfect game to challenge students to think creatively and expand their verb inventory. Because of the nature of the game, you may also use Verb Snip as a game for spelling practice!
Arrange the students in a circle with one student in the center. The student in the center counts to five, then points to someone and asks them to spell a three-letter word.
Then the student in the center must slowly count to ten, and then point at a different student and say, “Snip!” The selected student must name three verbs that start with the letters spelled in the previous word.
“Draw, Order, Go.”
The student who names the three verbs switches places with the student in the center, then continues the game by choosing a new three-letter word for someone else to spell.
In a more advanced class setting, allow the student in the center to choose words with four letters or more, with no repeats allowed. You also can ban words with certain letters (like x, y and z).
6. Jumbled Storyboard
English, like many languages, has several different past tenses. Use this to your advantage by playing a game of Jumbled Storyboard.
Draw or find pictures that create a logical (or illogical!) story. Place them in jumbled order on your whiteboard.
Students have to arrange the pictures in order to tell a story, but they can only do it by telling you what happened before and after.
A student must talk about the first picture in relation to the others so that the rest of the class can put them in the right order.
“The man was outside in his bathrobe because he saw the newspaper boy throw the newspaper onto the porch.”
After hearing the sentence, ask students to correct it for grammar and order, if needed. Place the next picture (it could be any picture), then ask students if it’s correct. If it isn’t, ask them to come up and choose the correct picture. Then have another student select the next picture for the story, and so on.
Once the students understand the game, you can select a volunteer to take your place putting the pictures in order. Encourage fellow students to correct any mistakes by asking, “Is that correct?”
Make this more challenging by assigning numbers to the pictures, and then having each student draw lots on which picture should come next when it’s their turn. They then have to connect it to the previous picture while adding a logical explanation about why it’s the next in the sequence.
7. Communal Story
Could, should and would can be difficult to understand for many ESL students. Many other languages use verb tenses to express these ideas, so the idea of using a helping verb can be difficult to grasp. Practice these words by having your students write a communal story.
Start the story by giving an idea to write about, such as the main character or a plot point. Then have students volunteer their ideas by using could, should and would.
Imagine that the story is about an elephant who runs away from the zoo. Students might say:
- “What would he do? Maybe he would try to find some peanuts!”
- “Could we make him a pink elephant?”
- “Should we include a sidekick? Like a monkey?”
Designate one student as the notetaker to jot down brainstorming ideas on the board. Once there’s a communal story through this brainstorming session, each student writes his or her own version down in their notebooks, including all of the details that you’ve decided on as a class.
Allow students to read each other’s stories or read their own aloud to see just how many different versions of the same story you’ve come up with together!
You can step this up by setting more complex themes. For example, the story could be about modern life in an English-speaking country, a historical period or a haunted house, depending on the vocabulary you’ve been learning in class recently.
8. Story Trail
Story Trail is a combined story-and-memory game. Students love the game because it challenges their language skills and linguistic creativity.
Prepare a bag with verb cards. Form a circle. The teacher begins by picking a verb card from the bag and forming a sentence with the verb.
Pass the bag to the next student in the circle so they can pick a card, repeat the teacher’s sentence and form another sentence that contains the verb on the card.
The game continues with more sentences that need to be repeated (this is where the memory part comes in). The goal is for students to use verbs to make meaningful sentences, while connecting them to other people’s sentences, to form a story.
You can also turn Story Trail into a written game by dividing the class into different groups. Each group should have its own bag of verb cards. At the end of the game, each team can send a representative to the front of the class to read their story aloud. The class then gets to vote for the “Most Creative Story.”
9. Mother, May I?
Use this classic playground game to your advantage.
The game uses a familiar turn of phrase for a physical game that’ll get students up out of their seats and keep them from getting drowsy at their desks!
Start with the traditional version of the game. Students line up at the back of the room, and the “mother” stands at the front. You, the teacher, should be the first mother.
When a student wins the game, they become the mother. A student asks, “Mother, may I…” and then makes a request to get closer to the front of the classroom.
“Mother, may I take two steps forward, hop once forward, take one lunge forward?”
The mother either says, “Yes, you may,” or “No, you may not.” The student who reaches the front of the room first wins. Any mistake sends you back two steps!
You can then modify the game to use “can” and “could” in a similar way.
Ask your students not to repeat the same verb if another student has already used it! You can write down verbs on the blackboard to remind everyone.
Why Teach with ESL Verb Games?
Learning English is hard work, especially with that tricky grammar! Using games to teach English not only alleviates the pressure and stress of language learning, but also encourages teachers and students to create a friendly environment in which the language is useful and applicable to the real world.
Teaching verbs with ESL games will also:
- Provide a welcome break from the usual routine of language instruction.
- Encourage students to interact and communicate in meaningful manners.
- Model real-life context of language use.
- Create opportunities for lesson review in a pressure-free environment.
- Make language come alive while helping students to sustain the effort of learning.
When you integrate ESL verb tense games and other similar activities into your lessons, students are invited to take part in personalizing new English verbs by putting them in meaningful contexts. Through experimentation, interaction and live communication, ESL verb games can provide excellent opportunities for learners to use English verbs as native speakers would.
Additionally, these games would make the perfect jumping-off point for more in-depth lessons about verbs. For example, after playing Hot Verb-tato, you can take the list of verbs you used for the game and upload it to FluentU.
You can then assign students homework to choose a number of verbs and watch clips where they’re used (this is made easy with FluentU’s powerful vocab search engine as well as the video-enhanced flashcards). They’ll be able to check the meaning of any word through the interactive flashcards as they watch.
Alternatively, you can ask students to complete some activities with the flashcards, like reading and shadowing the example sentences on each card, which come with audio pronunciations. Or they can complete a session of flashcard review with the adaptive quizzes provided on the program.
All these activities can be completed on the website and mobile (iOS and Android) app.
Tips for Using ESL Verb Tense Games
Grammar games are useful in an ESL classroom to help students absorb grammar elements. Here are some tips for making the most out of them:
- Make sure your lessons appeal to different learning styles and ensure that no student slips through the cracks (as best as you can). Only when the entire class is familiar with a set of verbs or verb tenses should you introduce games into the lesson.
- Put grammar games at the end of the lesson. Traditional exercises on paper are useful when you’re first explaining a grammar point, but grammar games can deepen students’ understanding. This is because it’s harder for students to reproduce a grammar point in a freer setting such as a game, compared to on paper. Games require them to think on their toes and keep their brains running faster.
- Explain how the game works clearly. Be vigilant about enforcing not just the rules of the game, but also grammar rules, by making sure that students are producing grammatically correct sentences all along the way.
- Keep the game fun. When students make mistakes with grammar points that aren’t the main focus of the game, those errors don’t necessarily need to be penalized. Overall, the goal is to ensure that students feel comfortable and confident about speaking up and participating during the game!
By spicing up your ESL lessons with some of these games, your students will learn verbs in a fun, interactive way to make the words stick. And now that you’ve seen the power of ESL verb games, it’s time to enjoy the creativity, and perhaps make some of your own activities!