Middle School ESL Games That Have Worked For Me
I wanted to share with you some middle school ESL games that I’ve been using in my classroom in Korea. I’m only sharing games that I feel work really well and that I’ve used more than once. I teach at two, all girls middle schools, and my students seem to really enjoy these games.
There are some teachers out there that like to stick their noses in the air when it comes to playing games. I would like to make a note here and say I only play games if they are effective at teaching something. Most often it’s a fun and interesting way for the students to practice otherwise boring dialogue. I also find games necessary to have all the students in my class participating, including the very low level students that are often rather quiet in class.
Playing Effective Games
Overall, I believe in playing effective games. Often the ‘games’ I play might be called ‘activities’ by others. I swear if you call something a ‘game’ and slap a competitive element on it then your students’ interest will go from 0 to 100 real fast! So feel free to be rather loose with what you call a game vs activity.
I have broken the games into two categories; vocabulary practice and dialogue practice.
Vocabulary practice games work mostly with the new words your students will be learning, and are great for brushing up on older vocabulary too.
Dialogue practice games work with the phrases you will likely be teaching if you have a textbook. In terms of how my classes are structured, I’m told to choose the main phrases out of the book and then build the class around them. I don’t actually teach with the book but I do teach from the book if that makes sense. Even if you don’t have a textbook to work with your classes will likely still revolve around practicing dialogue with your students.
The Level of my Students
I would classify the level of my students as low with a few mediums trickled in. However all these games can be adapted to whatever level your students are. As well, although I call them ‘middle school ESL games’ they can easily be played with elementary and high school students too.
I did not invent these games. Though I frequently take a game and alter it to suit the needs of my students. Feel free to alter these games so that they work better for you as a teacher!
For this game you will separate your class into two teams. Have both teams form lines in front of the white board. The first person in each line will have a marker.
This game is good because you can really get the students to write whatever you want – whatever suits the theme you are working with. For example, maybe you are talking about vegetables that week. The aim of the game is for one team to list as many vegetables as there are teammates (re: each student must write one different vegetable).
So the first student writes a vegetable, hands the marker to the next student, and then races to sit down. This continues down the line with each student writing one vegetable.
The team that is sitting down (ideally at their desks) first, wins. I typically say they are allowed to help out their teammates so no one feels embarrassed if they can’t think of a word.
I’ve played this game with vegetables, hobbies, movies…
It’s a fun little game to start off class with if you’ve got some vocabulary you’d like to get them thinking about.
This game has been a huge hit with my students, and again is super easy to change to suit your class.
Basically you get a box and fill it with items, ideally linked to vocabulary you’ve been studying or you think they should know.
Split your class into teams, 4-6 students will work best.
One person from each team will come up to the front and look in the box. How long they are allowed to look depends on their level (maybe longer for elementary, shorter for high school). They must then run back to their teams and try to remember all the items they saw; the team will start a list.
Then another person from each team will come up and the process will repeat. You essentially rotate through students until either a) everyone has gone, or b) their lists seem fairly full.
The team that has listed the most correct items wins. It’s fun to open the contents of the box slowly and name them as a class. Students get really annoyed when they realize the things they forgot!
I’ve played this game with classroom items (stapler, pencils, etc.) but am hoping to do a Christmas version this year since they enjoy it so much.
OK, this game isn’t exactly ground breaking but hear me out. I like to play this as a quick warm-up for my students sometimes because I think it gets their brains into English-mode.
It’s as simple as you think it is. Take a word, ‘scramble’ the letters (on a power point or just write them on the board) and have the students guess what the word is. Don’t underestimate how tricky it can be to ‘unscramble’ a word in another language.
So yes, simple, fun, and a good way to warm up the class. If you have higher level students, you can try scrambling full sentences and having them guess the correct word order. This can also be a good dialogue practice game.
The Flyswatter Game
Another fun game that gets your students out of their seats! This game can be used to practice both vocabulary and dialogue.
For vocabulary, print out a bunch of words or pictures and tape them to the board. Then, create a power point (PPT) with either the picture or word match.
For example, maybe the PPT has the word, “butterfly”, and on the board is a picture of a butterfly.
Split the class into two teams. One member from each team will stand in front of the board, each holding a flyswatter. Basically, you show the PPT image/word and the students must “swat” the match.
The student who hits the correct picture first wins a point for their team. I make a rule that they can only swat twice, this prevents them from going crazy and smacking every picture/word until they hit the correct one.
If you don’t have a smart board and thus no PPT, just use images and say the words. This might even work better if you want to work on listening skills over reading.
I’ve also used the Flyswatter Game to practice dialogue. We were learning about problems/advice (common theme) and I printed off a bunch of “advice” answers. Basically I showed them the problem and they had to find the matching advice.
To make things more difficult, after the student swats the correct match have them then say the answer out loud.
Ball Toss Game
This game is easy to explain and can be adapted to whatever vocabulary you want.
You will need a soft ball or toy that is easy to throw and catch (my students seem hilariously bad at catching things). Have all of the students stand up. Choose a category, animals for example.
Toss the ball to a student, they’ve got 5 seconds (or more/less) to name an animal. If they can’t name an animal in time they are out of the game and must sit down.
Use any kind of category you want. I’ve used this game as a general warm up and put different categories on PPT slides (countries, animals, English names, colours…) then randomly change the slide. This helps keep the game going and keeps the students on their toes!
Dialogue Practice Games
I call this game, ‘Memory Run’, but it’s very similar to another popular game called, ‘Running Dictation’. The main difference between these two games is that the former is played in pairs while the latter in bigger teams.
Write some dialogue out, either directly from the book or your own. Put a few copies of the dialogue around the room. I recommend trying to space out the copies so that students are all equal distance from them.
Put your class into pairs, a group of three is OK if numbers are uneven. One person is the writer; the other person is the reader. The reader’s job is to run up to the dialogue, read it, and then return to the writer. The reader will tell the writer what it says, though they’ll probably only remember a few words at once (level dependent). As you might have guessed the job of the writer is to write down what they reader is telling them.
Make sure you are clear with each person’s role. The reader cannot write and the writer cannot read. I usually reward the first three teams that finish, but I emphasize that it must be correct. Misspelled words or words in incorrect order will not suffice!
If you want, do this twice. Once the first is completed, replace the dialogues with new ones and have the partners switch roles. What I like about this game is that it practices reading, writing, speaking and listening. It is also great for very low level students, but can be made more difficult for higher level students.
To alter the difficulty simply change how many sentences you put up.
The Slap Game
The Slap game also works well if you’re trying to match two pieces of dialogue together. It also works well with problems/advice scenarios.
Similar to the Flyswatter Game, you need to print out some dialogue responses on cards. 12 cards are a good number. Each team will get their own set of cards. Teams of 4-6 students works best.
Have the students spread the cards out in front of them. Everyone puts their hands on their head. Your job is to read a sentence; the students must then guess the correct ‘match’ by slapping the card they think is correct.
You read: “I’m feeling sick.”
Your students slap the correct answer: “You should go to a doctor.”
The first student to slap the correct card gets to keep the card in their own pile. Tell them they can only slap ONE card (to prevent crazy slapping of all cards hoping for the correct answer). At the end, the student who has collected the most cards wins. You can easily play this game a second time after they are more familiar with the dialogue.
If two students slap the same card, then have them play Rock Paper Scissors to decide the winner – what else?!
Broken Telephone (The Whisper Game)
I remember playing this game when I was a kid – it’s a classic!
Basically you separate the class into 2 teams, have them form two straight lines. You whisper a word to the first person on each team (at the same time) and they repeat the word to the next person in line – remembering to whisper!
Essentially, the word or phrase travels down the line until it hits the last person. You’ve got some choice of what to do from here:
1) Have them say the word/phrase out loud. It must be loud enough for you to hear it (since it must be correct). If they are correct then their team wins a point.
2) Have them write the word/phrase on a whiteboard at the back of the class. First person to write it correctly wins a point for their team.
3) (My favourite) Have a stack of matching pictures/phrases at the back of the class. Once the word/phrase reaches the last person they must run to find the matching card and show me. First team to choose the correct card wins a point.
I’ve played this game with weather.
I say: “It’s cloudy today.”
The phrase makes its way down the line. The last student chooses a picture of clouds – that team earns a point.
I like this game because you can alter it in many ways, yet it’s easy enough for my super low level students to participate. It’s a class favourite!
All of my classes seem to really enjoy playing this game. Again, it works well for really low level students but can be made more difficult for more advanced students.
Depending on class size, divide your students into small groups. My classes are always arranged with groups of 6 so that’s what I use. Give each student in each group a number (in my case from 1-6).
You really do need access to a screen to play this game. You will make a PPT full of dialogue, but that dialogue will be broken up by “elephant number”. See the picture below.
Basically, everyone goes to “sleep” on their desks – eyes closed! When you call their number (1-6), the student with that number must “wake up”, read the screen (quickly) and go back to sleep. The idea is that the student must remember the word(s) they’ve seen.
Once all numbers have been called all students wake up and must write the sentence, putting their words together. Since my students are lower-level I always put the words in order in which they will appear in the sentence. If you want to add an extra challenge you could give them the words out of order and make them order them correctly.
Normally I operate a points system for each group. If they are correct I give them one point, but if the sentence is written perfectly I give them two points. Sometimes they have it correct but there are mild spelling errors etc., and thus that would only get them one point. Offering two points for ‘perfect’ ensures they don’t rush and makes them really analyze their sentences.
For low levels keep the amount of words at 1-2 per student, and increase for higher level students.
*I’ve heard some boys in middle/high school think the name, “Sleeping Elephants”, is too ‘baby-ish’. Solve this by changing it to whatever you want. Sleeping Superheroes? Sleeping Lions?
Elephants are giant and could easily kill you so I fail to see how they translate as baby-ish…
I will end my list here. I chose to only include a few games that have worked well for me instead of a giant list. If you want a giant list to scroll through you can easily find them online, but my intention was to only discuss things that I’ve used repeatedly. I hope some of these games work well for you too!