How often do you play board games with your English learners?
With a little bit of imagination, you can use your board to practise grammar, lexis and pronunciation in lots of fun and engaging ways that will make your learners love your classes.
If you’re lucky, the board may be a new-fangled, hi-tech snazzy interactive smartboard. If you have never used one of these, they are basically like a giant tablet. You can do anything with them, but they do have a habit of breaking down when you’re in the middle of an activity.
The majority of private language academies – and even universities and training centres – still use boards which aren’t very smart at all – but are much more reliable.
There are two main types:
1. Old-school blackboards with chalk and dusters
2. White plastic boards with coloured markers.
Now, whichever type of board you use, I hope you use it for more than delivering boring grammar presentations and noting down new vocabulary.
I hope you use it for language learning games.
In my experience, even to most po-faced, straight-laced adult learners (the ones you often find sitting at the front in business English classes) understand the appeal of board games in language learning.
1. Hot Seat / Back-to-the Board
One student sits with their back to the board. The teacher writes a word on the board and the other students have to define the word to the student in the chair. Here’s a video explaining the game.
That’s the boring version.
Make it more competitive by putting the students in teams. A student from each team is chosen to sit with their back to the board and then the members of each team try to define the word to the seated student from their team.
Total mayhem will ensue and you’ll feel like a WWF referee. Great fun though!
I’m sure you know how to play this classic game. Make it more engaging and challenging by getting the students to choose the words. In fact, why stop with words? Use phrases and idioms. You could even substitute letters for phonemic symbols!
This is a TV show in the UK. Ask one student to pick 9 letters which you (or better still, one of your learners) write on the board. Make sure there are at least 3 vowels and 4 consonants. The students have to create the longest word possible from the combination of letters.
A variant of Countdown which I often play with students is to write a long word, such as ‘elicitation’, on the board and set a time limit of 3 minutes. The students (individually, in pairs, small groups) have to write down as many words as they can they can be found by using the letters found in the chosen word. Award extra points for longest word, funniest word etc. This is great for raising awareness of spelling combinations, prefixes and suffixes.
Write 10-20 words or phrases on the board. Best to use lexical items that your students have recently studied. Your students choose 5 of the words and write them on a piece of paper. You – or one of your students – randomly read out the words and the first student to cross out all of the words on their paper is the winner.
This game is fine but can also be adapted to make it more fun and/or challenging.
Instead of reading the words, why not read out a definition. Write the word ‘rich’ on the board but say ‘This is a word that describes somebody with a lot of money’ to your learners.
You could also read out a synonym. For example, write the word ‘rich’ on the board but read out the word ‘wealthy’.
Tell a story and use the words. Students will have to follow the narrative and listen out for the words. To make it really challenging, you could tell a story and ‘beep out’ the words. For example, “Even though my grandfather was extremely poor, he married a woman who was (beep)… When they met,…’
5. Board Races
You can do board races in lots of ways. Draw a line in the middle of the board (or even divide it into 4 sections) and assign a section to each team. Students have to write their answers in the part of the board.
One very simple way to do a board race activity is put the students in two lines in front of the board. A student from each team stands in front of the board with a marker in their hand. You say a word and the first student to write the word correctly on the board wins a point for their team. A simple and fun way of practising spelling.
This game is also easy to adapt. Read out definitions rather than words. Read out a sentence with a missing word and asks the students to fill in the gap. You could even ask students to draw the word. If you want to practise telling the time, draw clock faces on the board, read out a time, and the students have to draw the hands on the clock face.
As well as spelling and vocabulary, you can do grammar board races. Modals, tenses, conditionals….
Give a student from each time a word. They have to draw the word on the board and the other members of the team have to guess. Higher-level students could draw idioms. ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’ could prove very amusing!
Another TV show from my childhood. Draw a grid on the board (20 squares with 4 columns and 5 rows). Write a letter in each box. Team A starts from the left-hand side and Team B from the right. Each team has to cross the board by choosing a letter and answering a question about a word beginning with that letter.
Student: “Can I have a p please?” (British people of a certain will titter nostalgically)
Teacher: “Of course. P is a word we use to describe a large, tropical fruit”
Student: ” A pineapple”.
If one team is unable to answer, the other team can answer and win the square. This is basically a ‘3-in-a-row’ game and I’m sure you can find ways to adapt the basic premise. Here is a more detailed explanation of how to play with ESL learners.
8. Word and Sentence Jumbles
Write a word on the board but put the letters in the wrong order. Students have to rearrange the letter and write the correct spelling of the word.
Do the same with a sentence to practise grammar or syntax. You could also write idioms or phrases and scramble the words. As always, once you have modelled the game with your learners, you should aim to encourage learner autonomy by asking them to create the word and sentence jumbles for their opponents.
9. Grammar Auctions
Grammar auctions are really simple to create. Write a sentence on the board and ask your students if they think it is grammatically correct or incorrect. If they choose correctly, they win a point. Here is a template you could use.
This simple idea can be adapted in several ways:
Hand out toy money and ask students to place a bet on whether they think the sentence is correct or not. If they are right, they double their money; if they are wrong, they lose their bet.
Get each group to write a correct / incorrect sentence for the other group.
Instead of grammar, write sentences with idioms, phrases or definitions on the board.
10. Board Dictations
If you have a large board, enough markers, and a reasonably small class, you can get most of the students writing on the board at the same time.
Read out a sentence and ask the students to write what they hear on the board. Correct sentences earn a point.
With higher-level learners, read out short passages. Even better, get students to dictate to each other.
If you haven’t come across dictogloss activities, you should try them. Read out a short text at normal speed and students write the keywords on the board. Read the passage again and let them add words. Read it out a third time and they may be able to write out the full passage, by using their knowledge of grammar, vocabulary and syntax to complete the sentences.
Finally, you could always do a ‘running dictation‘. Write words, phrases or sentences on pieces of paper (post-its) and stick them around your area of study. Each group nominates a ‘scribe’ who will write down what they hear. The other students in the group run around, read the words on each piece of paper and try to memorise them. Then, they have to run back to their scribe who is waiting by the board and dictate what they read. The scribe writes what they hear on the board. This is a great example of an integrated skills task because it practises speaking, reading, listening and writing.
These are a few of my favourite board games in the English language classroom. You might like to try some of them for yourself. Working out how to instruct and implement board games with your learners will take some trial and error. In my experience, the learners themselves will often give you some useful feedback and ideas about the best way to play these board games in class: they may even like to design their own (learner autonomy!!).
What about you? What board games do you like to play with your learners?
I’m a great fan of using board games in the ELT classroom. If you’d like to know more about this topic, why not listen to this webinar by my friend Jason Anderson, author of Speaking Games.
As well as being great fun, I believe speaking games offer some of the best opportunities for ‘authentic’ language use in both adult and teenage classrooms, promoting real communication in interaction between learners, interaction with the teacher and interaction with materials.