Ready to set your class on fire?
No, you don’t need the firetrucks on this one. I’m talking about getting your students engaged with the content and setting your classroom ablaze with fun and excitement.
Playing games in the foreign language classroom is a great way to reinforce important concepts, and they’re the perfect complement to your lessons.
And just to add some fuel to the fire, I’m going to first give you some practical tips about what you can do before, during and after playing to get the most out of these activities.
Ready? Get set.
Tips for Before, During and After Games
We know that games are ultimately vehicles for learning. They give us opportunities to review and practice past lessons, as well as introduce new ones.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the games, let’s quickly talk about some ways you can boost their effectiveness in your language classroom.
Before the game
Invest time in making props and securing materials
There are games you can do on the fly that involve nothing more than spouting instructions to your students. Games like “The Longest Line” is one such example. But games that require props will need more preparation time. They may involve you arranging some chairs in a circle, like the game “Musical Chairs,” or something more elaborate.
Don’t shy away from making or gathering items for your games. Props, objects and pictures are highly immersive and suck students into the game. They make it more exciting so your kids are locked in and engaged in the activity.
So go ahead, make those props, print those pictures or bring those objects to class. It’ll be worth it.
Prepare appropriate game content
Games, if possible, should be conducted in the target language. For beginners, (which is likely the case since we’re dealing with games for kids in this post), you may have to mix in first language material and instructions.
For example, in the game “The Boat is Sinking,” you may have to give a large part of the instructions in English, leaving just a few choice vocabulary words in the target language. For example in a Spanish class, you can say “The boat is sinking, the boat is sinking! Group yourselves in cinco (five)!”
For these games to be engaging, the tasks involved should be in the “happy medium.” Meaning, you can’t present them with language that’s too advanced, but it also can’t be so easy that they’ll begin to think it’s a waste of time.
Give them questions and tasks that are just challenging enough. In order to do this, you’ll have to consider the target vocabulary involved. Give them vocabulary you’ve discussed in class and makes them think, “Wait, I think I know this. I think I know this.”
You could also show students a video clip of the game being played so that they have an idea of what game play actually looks like. This will also give students to hear the vocabulary used by actual native speakers of the language. For that, I recommend FluentU.
Content is still king. And for these games to be engaging, they have to be properly calibrated to your audience. If asked to choose between “too easy” and “too hard,” choose “too easy.” It’ll be a confidence booster for these kids and they’ll be able to tell their parents how well they did that day.
During the game
Be fired up!
As the teacher, your kids look to you for inspiration.
Are you excited about the game? Are you fully engaged during the game? It’ll show in your voice, in the twinkle in your eye, in the glow of your face and your body language. And one of the hardest things to do as an adult is to celebrate every little thing. “Yay, you guys got that one right! Cinco is “five” in English. Good job guys!”
Passionate teachers make passionate learners. And the game will never captivate your audience if you aren’t enthusiastic about it.
So get into the game. Lead the whole class into it. Smiles and laughter is contagious. Give the students high fives and be lavish with your praise. Encourage the other team to catch up. Tell them you know what they can do, they just need to be a little faster next time.
Give “micro-lessons” during the game
There are teachable moments that happen during every game.
Maybe a team has misspelled an answer on the board. You don’t simply move on to the next question and get on with the game. You take the opportunity to teach the correct spelling. But you don’t go all out and give a lecture.
Keep it short and sweet. You can say, “Guys, success has two c’s in the middle. It’s spelled s-u-c-c-e-s-s. Repeat after me. Okay? Good! Let’s go to the next picture.”
It’s important that you grab this opportunity to teach because it’s a moment the students will remember. The next time they come across this word, they’ll think, “Oh, I know how this word is spelled. This is the word we missed in the game, and that’s why we lost.”
So look for the little mistakes and do a quick “hit-and-run” lesson. It’ll make your games more powerful.
After the game
Make everybody feel like a winner
You’re dealing with kids here, and the outcome of a game as innocuous as “Musical Chairs” could be on their minds long after it’s played.
You need to make everyone in your class feel like a winner after the game—regardless of their team winning or not. That’s why you celebrate each little point. That’s why you prove to them throughout the game that they’re making unbelievable progress in the target language.
That’s why you would rather err on the side of easy and boost their confidence (which will hopefully lead them to mastery) rather than making the questions or tasks super hard and alienate the whole class. If the games make your kids feel like they haven’t learned anything, they’ll start proving you right the day after. And it’ll be that much harder to teach.
So make your games fun for everyone. Make them uplifting and build the confidence of all your students.
Give prizes and rewards
A little competition is highly motivating, and a dangled prize can get those adrenaline juices pumping.
Ideally, a pat on the back and the fun they’ve had (as well as the fact that their team outscored a team of stinky boys) is prize enough. But these are kids, and you can easily boost their enthusiasm and engagement with a promise of a reward. (Even as adults, you know from experience that the simple thought of a reward can really up the ante.)
So announce what prizes await the winners before the game. And these prizes can be anything, really; you don’t need to spend money on rewards.
You can reward them by stamping stars on their arms—they’ll wear them like a badge of honor. You can give them bonus points. Or you can keep a cumulative record of their class points and call it their “Awesome-O-meter.” (Show them how they’re doing at regular intervals.)
Give something to everybody. And whatever you consider as a “prize,” remember, don’t overdo it. You could be motivating the wrong thing. Don’t make the game bigger than the lesson. The games will always be secondary to language learning. You don’t want kids practicing nonessential skills so they can win next time. You want them practicing the target language, telling mommy, “¡Buenos días, mamá!” (Good morning, mama!)
Now let’s move on to the ten games that will set your class on fire. (Figuratively, of course!)
10 Language Games for Kids That Even Grown Ups Love
1. Where are you?
This one makes for a noisy few minutes, but it’s worth it! This game provides the kids with lots of opportunities to practice listening and speaking in the target language.
Create groups with three or four members and assign them a specific word or phrase. If you have a smaller class, or if you just want students to take longer to finish the game, consider having pairs instead. (The smaller the groups, the longer the game. You’ll soon discover why.)
The assigned word or phrase will be the group’s cattle call. They’ll bellow out those words or phrases as soon as the game starts.
Why? Oh, because the students will be blindfolded and mixed with other groups. The goal is to find all their members as quickly as possible.
At the sound of a whistle, everyone tries to locate their group by calling out to them using their cattle call. And these target words or phrases could be anything. For example, in a Spanish class, you can use greetings: “¡Buenos días!” (Good morning!), “¡Adios!” (Bye!) or “¿Cómo estás?” (How are you?). You can also use Spanish colors, days of the week, numbers, etc.
The words don’t even have to belong to the same category or topic. The important thing is that your students are actually walking and talking in the target language. They’re also honing their ears while listening for it.
Instruct the class to raise their hands if they think they’ve rounded up every last member of their team. The first one to do this wins!
You can have several rounds of the game and assign different words for the groups each time. That’ll give the kids more time to practice more words.
You can play this inside the classroom or outdoors. Just make sure to clear the area from objects that may cause kids to stumble. Also, be on the lookout for “strays,” or kids who venture too far from herd.
This is a fun game that’ll easily become your students’ favorite.
2. The boat is sinking (with a twist)
We all know this classic. The teacher cries, “The boat is sinking! The boat is sinking! Group yourselves into three!” The kids then scamper and assemble themselves accordingly. Students who fail to find a huddle with the appropriate number of members are then sent packing. This is repeated until the two last remaining souls on-board are declared winners.
The twist comes with the creativity of the grouping instructions. It’s not just about numbers. Groups can be formed by gender, shirt color, letters in students’ first names, etc. It all depends on your target vocabulary. You can even transition into a TPR-style (Total Physical Response) activity and encourage your kids to get moving by, for example, saying, “The boat is sinking! The boat is sinking! Everybody, jump three times!”
This game can be used to have restless kids up and about. It also allows you to have a comprehension check to see whether your wards have understood specific instructions barked in the target language. So for beginners, use simple, plain instructions.
3. Cups and letters
This game helps students practice spelling simple words in the target language.
Prepare a list of 10 everyday objects you want your kids to review. Be ready to show a picture for each of these objects.
Divide the class into two or three groups and have them line up at the back of the room. In front of the class are stacks of plastic cups, one for each group. Each cup has a letter written on it. Make sure each stack contains all the letters necessary to spell all of your ten words.
If there are words with double letters, for example, be sure they’re in your stack. And if possible, have the group work with cups of the same color. So all green cups would belong to team A and all the red ones would be part of team B. (This would help identify which cup belongs to which group in the ensuing melee.)
To start the game, show the first picture. The first students in line run toward their stack and spell the object in the target language. The kids are to raise their hands as soon as they’re done. The student who raises his/her hand first (and with the correct answer) wins a point for his/her team for that round.
On the second round, students second in line will try their luck with the cups. The game continues until each student has had the opportunity to play.
4. A bucketful of stuff
This is a great game to play as an opening activity for a new lesson.
Prepare two boxes containing the same types of items. You can have everyday objects like keys, rock, book, soap, etc. The items don’t need to look exactly the same, as long as they’re there. (Tip: You can also put curveballs in there, objects that really don’t have anything to do with the game, but muddle their options and make the game more exciting.)
This is like the “Bring Me” classic game, where the teacher pretends she’s a distraught little bear in need of items found in the box. So you’re going to have to wear your thespian hat for this one.
So you’re a distraught little bear, and the only way to make you stop crying is to bring you specific items requested. You describe the item and its uses. You act it out and gesture about, and the class deduces which item you’re looking for. The group who first zeroes in on those clues and brings you the correct item gets the point.
With beginners, you’re going to be more upfront with your clues. Give them clear hints as to what you need. If you need a comb, gesture appropriately. (For advanced language learners, you can be coy. You can say, “I need something to make me look beautiful.”)
Because the game is played before the actual lesson, you’re really helping the kids hone their linguistic deduction skills, negotiating meaning from the clues given. (We all know learning a new language involves a little bit of guessing!) And as long as you don’t make a big deal out of their mistakes and you encourage the group to keep looking inside the box, the children will see that making mistakes is part of the game, part of learning. And they’ll all be the better for it.
You can still play this game after the lesson, but that would now be for review purposes.
5. Make the connection
This one is both messy and fun, but it’ll make for one memorable game.
Write 10 object words on the board, five on each side of the board. Group the class into two. Give each group balls of string/yarn and tape. When prompted, the group will connect the words on their side of the board to the actual objects found in your classroom. They’ll need to tape both ends of the yarn, one end of it on the board and the other to the actual object.
If your list includes some objects not usually found in the room, you could bring them to class and secretly put them somewhere. You could also allow students to connect pictures instead of objects. So “auto” (car) in a Italian class can be tethered to a picture of a car found in a book, or even a toy car lying around. Your words can also be more specific to include more vocabulary. For example, you can specify a red car by saying “auto rossa.”
Feel free to help the class out during the game. For example, if you write “stella” (star), you could remind the class about a storybook on the shelf that had pictures of the moon and stars.
Your classroom will become a tangled web of colored strings, but it’ll get the students’ attention and it’ll help students to make connections. How many times does a teacher really turn his or her classroom upside down for a game?
6. Pass that question
Divide your class into two or three groups and have them line up in the middle of the room. Stand front and center and let the first students in each line come to you. You’re going to ask them something in the target language—this can be anything. If you were a French teacher, for example, you might ask, “Quel jour est-ce?” (What day is it?).
Whisper your question and repeat it a few times until the students confirm they’ve understood your question.
The kids then go back to their lines. As soon as you say, “Pass that question! 1, 2, 3, go!” the students at the front of the line will pass the question to the student behind them, who then passes it to the next. The question moves through the line and reaches the last student who then runs to you to whisper the question and the answer. The first team to give the correct answer wins the point for that round.
Before the next round, the first students move to the back of their lines, and the second student gets their turn to hear the question first. Prepare as many questions as necessary to give everyone an opportunity to play.
Your questions will, of course, depend on the level of your class—easy ones for beginners and more difficult ones for advanced learners. The thing is, your question may not even really reach the last student. It’ll change along the way and will probably not be identifiable by the time it gets to the last in line.
We talked about this earlier, but make sure to (quickly) explain the question and answer to the class before starting the next round. State the question and write it on the board so they can figure out how it changed along the way. Let them talk it out a few seconds.
Then on to the second round. . .
7. Something on your forehead
Tell the class to find themselves a partner.
This game is best as a review of past lessons, so you’ll need photos (or drawings) of objects or things you’ve already talked about in class. Be sure to prepare an appropriate number of picture cards that can easily be taped to students’ foreheads. Make sure they’re not so big that they impair vision but large enough to be seen by the class. You’ll also need a timer and two ping-pong balls (or any two identical objects) with “head” written on one and “tail” on the other. Place them in a box or a covered container.
Each pair will perform in front of the class, but instruct the spectators not to coach their classmates.
The pair will draw twice. The first time will be to decide who will play what position and the second time will be to select a picture. The student who draws “head” will have the picture taped on his forehead. The “tail” will draw a card from a prepared deck of pictures and tape the card to his partner’s forehead. The “tail” will then provide hints to his partner to help him correctly guess the picture.
As soon as you tell them to go, the pair has 90 seconds to get to work. The “tail” can gesture all he wants, even talk (in the target language), as long as he doesn’t say the word itself.
Listen closely to the “head,” because the moment he guesses the word you’re looking for, stop the timer immediately and mark the time. If the pair doesn’t get the word, offer it up to the class so everybody else can give it a shot and learn from it.
8. Mission: Possible
Remember the Tom Cruise movie franchise, “Mission: Impossible” that takes you on a wall-to-wall action adventure, and has characters climbing and jumping off buildings and driving cars off a cliff? Well this is none of that.
But it does get your class to do their own “stunts” and “missions” Divide the class into groups of four and hand each group an envelope that takes them on a series of missions or tasks around class or even around campus.
Example tasks include:
- Write the days-of-the-week on the board.
- Do ten jumping jacks while counting aloud.
- Recite any nursery rhyme as a group.
- Dance “Gangnam style” for 30 seconds.
- Fill a pitcher with water.
- Find the most beautiful teacher on campus, give her a red paper flower, get her autograph and take her picture.
This game tests and reviews your students on two levels. First, it checks comprehension of the instructions, which, if possible, should only be given in the target language. Second, it checks to see if your kids are able to execute the tasks themselves. Do they remember the different days of the week well enough to write them on the board?
Adapt the tasks accordingly. For example, a German class might have students sing a specific German nursery rhyme or song.
It’s also important to prepare the materials in advance. So if you’re asking students to fill pitchers with water, make sure there are pitchers ready.
The group who finishes all the missions first gets a pretty prize of your own choosing. However, I’ve got a feeling that the fun in this one is a robust reward all by itself.
9. Prolific poster
Besides being able to teach your kids what the word “prolific” means, this game is a great way to get them moving about. Pepper your class with plastic Easter eggs that have targeted vocabulary written on post-its inside. The words written on the post-its are of objects that can be found in class.
If you don’t have plastic eggs, you can just fold pieces of paper and scatter them around the classroom, inserting them in books, hiding them under pots, desks, toys, etc. (Tip: Always remember where you put them, so you can coach the class later on.) Make sure you have enough so that everybody will have a few words of their own.
Give your students five minutes to look for the eggs/pieces of paper. As a bonus, play a song in the target language while all this is happening. Coach the students so they find practically everything you’ve hidden and no word is wasted. After the time runs out, tell the students to write their name on the papers they’ve found.
After that, it’s time to hunt for the objects. So if a student finds the word “Schuhe” (shoes) in a German class, he’ll have to post that paper on any shoe. Give students five minutes (or longer) to do this.
When the time is up, have the students bring all their objects to the front of the class, and go through them one by one. Show them to the whole class and praise the students for their work.
For those pieces of paper not posted on any object, have the kids surrender them to you so you can go through them as a class and do a quick hit-and-run session. This game is a good way to make vocabulary stick.
10. Two-word charade
This one is patterned after the classic game “Charades” where one person stands in front of their team, only to be the recipient of boisterous screams and anxious finger pointing.
It has “two-word” in the title because all answers come in two’s. Each word belongs to a specific language topic or category. (You’ll be matching topics for this game,so this one’s better after you’ve covered several topics and want to review.) For example, you can mix past lessons about adjectives with a recent lesson on animal names. You’ll then get items like “small monkey,” “fat cat” or “sad dog.”
Write the answers on pieces of paper and throw them into a hat, bowl or other container.
Divide your class into two groups. (Tip: Boys versus girls is always a hit.) Each group will send up a representative who will have to muster up the creativity to act out the words—one at a time. They’re not allowed to talk, only move. It would then be good for you to specify beforehand what the categories are. For example, tell the class ahead of time that the first words are all adjectives and second words are all nouns.
To make things more challenging, skipping is not allowed. The team cannot skip to the second word until they’ve nailed the first one. Each team gets 90-120 seconds to solve their mystery phrases. If they fail, the other group has 30 seconds to give the correct answer and steal the point.
The group with the most points wins and has bragging rights until the next time the game is played.
So there you have it! Ten games to make the mastery of the target language super fun! Use them often and use them well. And never forget that these games are simply vehicles to a higher purpose: making language learning possible for every student.
So are you ready? Get set, go!
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