ESL TeachingTraining

ESL Games and Activities

by Steve Hirschhorn


People often say to me that it must be easy to play games with children but what do you do with serious professionals and stressed-out adults? After all, in some cultures the idea of playing to learn is abandoned at about age 10 and the notion that if it is fun, it can’t be a learning experience is common. In the right environment, most adults can be encouraged to ‘play’ and shown that what they have done is useful.

Sensitivity, as in all aspects of teaching is an essential ingredient for the successful execution of games. There is no particular reason why a ‘new’ group of middle aged architects or chemists, should suddenly feel the need to throw a ball around, sing songs or fly paper aeroplanes! Some will require help in getting to that point. That help will come first of all from your relaxed and efficient attitude, trust will be built up on the basis that you know what you are doing and you are doing it with and for them.

Demo Games in Jordan
Demo Games in Jordan

A gradual approach to ‘playing’ can eliminate later refusal; start by having some fun in that first lesson. I like the idea of having students choose an English name for themselves, this is a practice which comes from Suggestopædia and the theory is that people have a sort of mask to hide within. It also helps particular pronunciation areas as most people like to get others’ names right. A first game at very low level, could be getting everybody to say “My name’s Harry..” etc. Having established their names in the group, ask them to write name cards for themselves and then mix them up so Harry says: “My name’s Jim..” and everyone goes “Nooo!” make it fast, changing cards all the time and demanding instant responses: “Yeees!” or “Noo!”. Although you are getting them to relax, they will assume you are doing it to reinforce their names. In this way you are establishing the notion, right from the start that what is done in the classroom is not necessarily static, serious, boring or teacher centred! Do this kind of semi-game until you feel that they are ready for the ‘real’ thing.

Games need a raison d’être as an activity; it may be that you want to camouflage a language element to help its digestion or that a contrast of activity is needed to change the rhythm and mood. Perhaps you want to ‘test’ what has been taught in an informal way, without highlighting it; or it could be that you want to change the dynamic of the group and help people to communicate with each other. All these seem to be valid reasons to play, whereas, ‘filling in time’ with a game could be viewed as wasting time!

Teacher preparation needs to be exhaustive and the language used for instruction-giving should be simple, clear, minimal and accompanied by gesture.

Your preparation extends from actually making the physical elements of the game (where necessary), cards, posters etc., which should be attractive, clean and as professional as possible, to analysing the kind of language you can expect and the possible problems which could arise.

The way you set up the game (instructions) is important because it is here that initial enthusiasm is created. If you go too fast you risk confusing some or all of your group but if you go too slowly they may lose interest before you even start. Clearly, the higher the linguistic level, the easier it becomes to give instructions, so dealing with a low level, here are one or two hints:

Write down what you want your students to do in a maximum of six sentences. Take out the verbs in your sentences, check that they are known verbs and re-write your instructions around them, simplifying as much as possible. If the game is complicated, the instructions probably will be too, break them down into phases; if you can get people to do something simple, automatically, they will be more likely to follow you when things get a bit more meaty! I often start by saying something like: “You need... a piece of paper, a pen and a partner...” They can do these things without doubt and having done them they will be ready and waiting for the next bit. Count the number of words in each of your instruction-giving sentences, re-write each one with half the words and add big, clear hand gestures, cook for 5 minutes in the micro wave!

Here are twenty games which I have devised for the Suggestopædic classroom. They can easily be used in a ‘normal’ class and where necessary I have tried to indicate how many people you need.

Final note on Games

Playing is constructive if it is seen to be. One of the major problems with Suggestopædia is that people have a lot of fun because at least a third of the course is spent playing games, but they may not be convinced that the time was spent usefully if they have no concept of how much they have learned. Learning a language is often subtle and subjective, one doesn’t necessarily judge one’s progress or lack of, correctly.

The use and presentation of games needs to be balanced to provide a fun and effective learning experience whilst at the same time suggesting that what is being done is purposeful and directed. Much of this will be achieved by your professional, enthusiastic approach to the use of games. Light-hearted testing is also a way of bringing up and demonstrating that learning has taken place.

If you need a hand with any of these activities, just drop me an email and I’ll do my best to help.

Also if you come up with adaptations and would like to share them with others, let me know and I’ll help to share what you have created.