As we all know – or can quickly learn – from experience, even our best lessons can become overwhelming for beginner students in language classes.
Learning any new language is a huge challenge, and English is particularly hard for many people. Consequently, we should always be looking to create practical lessons and give lots of encouragement.
I’m a firm believer that games are an important part of such lessons, as they provide learners with the opportunity to practice language and gain confidence in their new skills, while also having a little fun. Today I’m going to make some very broad suggestions for you based on the language areas of vocabulary, listening and grammatical structures.
1. Games that focus on vocabulary
One vital thing for beginning learners trying to acquire English is to get their hands on as much vocabulary as possible and to transition these words to their long-term memory. Fortunately, classic vocabulary games such as ‘pictionary’, ‘charades’ and ‘hangman’ can be easily adapted to facilitate the development of vocabulary knowledge at beginner level.
Pictionary works particularly well with concrete nouns, as it creates a need for learners to draw and then remember them. The visual aspect of this game is especially useful in enabling learners to retain vocab.
- This video gives you an idea of how to play the game in class.
Charades is another great format that works really well when dealing with action verbs. Play as a class, allowing each learner to take a turn, until everyone understands the game. You can play this as a nice way of rounding off class at the end of the day.
- Here’s a short clip demonstrating how to play charades.
An additional means of reviewing vocabulary is to play a version of hangman. When starting out with this game, use single words so learners get used to which letters and patterns frequently appear in English. Later, you can move on to using phrases and sentences that incorporate vocabulary in a realistic way.
- The Many Things website has a version you can use in class.
2. Games that focus on listening
Playing the classic ‘Simon says’ – or ‘Teacher says’, if you prefer – works fantastically as a beginner game that gets your whole class involved with the words they are learning. After the learners have adjusted to the ‘Teacher says’ prompt, start combining action words with nouns in a meaningful way. You can then allow individual learners to come to the front of the class to give the commands.
- Here’s a video of the game being played in a Korean class.
One great way of utilizing this activity, especially with young learners, is to give them building blocks to assemble. When learners know about colors, numbers and prepositions of place, for instance, you can give out clear, simple oral instructions for them to listen to carefully and create a certain arrangement with their blocks. After giving the directions, show them a model so they can see if theirs match yours.
3. Games that focus on sentence structure
Learners need a lot of practice using sentence structures in a new language, so you’ll need games that allow you to incorporate new sentences. Fortunately, there are a couple of old standards that are great formats for doing this; ‘tic-tac-toe’ and ‘20 Questions.’
You can play tic-tac-toe as a motivating team game. Firstly, write the start of nine different sentences on a large tic-tac-toe board (you can get buy board specifically for this, or draw the outline on your class white board). Secondly, group the learners into two teams. Each team must then use your half-sentence to make a full new sentence in order to earn an X or O in their chosen square. When the learners are comfortable with this format, they can play the game in pairs so as to get more individual practice.
- ESL Games Box has a nice demonstration of how to play this.
Another game that works really well with beginners is ‘20 Questions’. You can get this game started by either writing a word on a piece of card or paper, or by hiding an object somewhere in the classroom. The fun part comes when learners ask 20 ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions to figure out the object or word. You can adapt this to a number of structures, such as ‘Has it got…’, ‘Is it in…’, or ‘Does it look like…’, for example. You can also turn this game around with great effect, by giving objects or words for particular learners to describe in 10 sentences or less, while the rest of the class tries to guess each one from the learners’ clues.
- The Jennifer Teacher blog calls this the ESL conversation classic with good reason.
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