Playing with Language: Favorite ESL Games

Just because you're playing a game doesn't mean your students are wasting their time! Au contraire - sometimes they can learn more from playing because they are so engaged in the activity. I generally play a lot of games when I teach. The games that I am including here for you are my very favorites that have always worked well with my students. Enjoy!

Who am I?

(any level) One student stands in front of the classroom. This student can not see the board. Write the name of a famous person (or fictional character) on the board so that the rest of the class can see it. The student standing in front has to ask questions to discover the famous person. The class can only answer with YES or NO.

Examples of questions: Am I real? Am I young? Am I a woman? Am I alive? Am I from America? Am I a singer/writer/politician? Do I have blond hair?

Examples of people: Obama, Sponge Bob, Harry Potter, Frodo, Santa Claus, Nelson Mandela, Johnny Depp, Putin, Shakira, Leonardo Dicaprio, Madonna, Princess Diana, Leo Tolstoy, Eminem, Marge Simpson, Cameron Diaz, Shrek, Spiderman, Batman, Alexander the Great, Enrique Iglesias, Einstein, Mickey Mouse, Cleopatra, Tutankamen, David Beckham, Cinderella, the Grinch, Elvis, Coco Chanel, Gandalf, Charlie Chaplin, Tarzan, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Neil Armstrong, Oprah

Variation: Sticky notes. You can write famous names on sticky notes and attach one note to each student's forehead. The students then walk around the classroom and ask each other questions to figure out whose name is written on their own forehead. You can make rules, such as “you can only ask the same person three questions, then you have to find a new partner.”

Variation: What animal am I? The student must ask yes-or-no questions to discover what animal is written on the board. (Do I have four legs? Do I have a tail? Can I fly? Do I live in Africa? Do I live in the ocean? Am I a mammal?) I often teach the words mammal, amphibian, reptile, and insect before starting.


(any level) Write target vocabulary on small pieces of paper, one word on each. Put the papers in a pile upside-down. The first student takes one paper and has to explain the word to the class. The class will guess the word. Vocabulary can be related to themes (careers, body parts, foods, clothes, etc.) or it can simply be a mix of vocab the students have been studying recently. This game is nice because it gives everyone a chance to speak, even the quiet students. If a student gets stuck, you can prompt them or let them take another paper. For the harder words, I sometimes draw a small picture next to the word to jog their memory. You can make teams and keep score, but I usually don't bother and we keep it fun and light-hearted.

If you're looking for some ready-made “guess the word” games, here is my collection. Of course, you can modify them as you like.

General theme (easy. I often use this set on the first day to get a feel for the level of the class.): snow, knife, Eiffel Tower, mosquito, carrot, make-up, library, toothbrush, mustache, mouse, clock, airplane, computer, skirt, restaurant, glasses, bicycle, car, cheese, moon, necklace, garden, fork, spoon, purse, apple, zebra, e-mail, camel, pencil, sock, refrigerator, sun, mirror, swimming pool

Careers theme (easy. Students have to describe what this person has to do for his job.): doctor, designer, taxi driver, dentist, author, nurse, grave digger, garbage man, mechanic, nanny, engineer, waiter, veterinarian, lawyer, farmer, coach, teacher, barber, chef, astronaut, fireman, journalist, artist, accountant, surgeon, computer programmer, cashier, actor, zookeeper, pilot, secretary

Valentines theme (advanced): affection, to propose, passion, infatuation, a fling, hug, lovebirds, smooch, broken heart, spark, embrace, break up, Aphrodite, arrow, “love is blind,” blind date, roses, adore, candlelight dinner, date, honey, a ring, engaged, Cupid, sweetheart, chocolate, a crush, double date, flirt, relationship, love at first sight, to make up, kiss, a couple

Valentines theme (easy): broken heart, adore, to get married, perfume, boyfriend, wine, restaurant, honey, secret, Rome and Juliet, candy, fall in love, to go on a date, cinema, February, gift, break up, angel, arrow, kiss, crying, heart, hug, candle, friends, roses, pink, “I love you,” flowers, a ring, love at first sight, chocolate, Aphrodite, Cupid

Story theme: If I am teaching a particular story from this site, I often take the list of new words for that story and write them down on little papers to play this game. The students have already become familiar with the words, and this game reinforces them and allows them to give their own examples and situations.


(intermediate to advanced) Taboo is like Guess-the-Word, but there are many words the student is not allowed to say while explaining the target word. To teach the rules, I write an example of one card on the board, with the target word “banana.” I tell them, “this is the word you have to explain so that the class can guess it.” However, there are other words on the card that are taboo, that is, forbidden to say. I add about three word to the card, saying, “You can't say 'fruit.' You can't say 'yellow.' You can't say 'monkey.'” Then I ask them how would they describe “banana” without using any of those words. They usually come up with several good ideas, such as, “You eat it. It's tasy. It's shaped like a moon. It's healthy. It's not an apple.” They catch on quickly.

This game works well with 6-10 people, but I have done it with more. I usually make two teams. Everyone sits in a circle and I number the students 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2. They don't change spots, as they should be sitting in such a way that the neighbor to either side of them is on the opposite team. The first student from team 1 takes a card that he will explain for his own team. One neighbor student from team 2 has the job of “checker” - this person can also look at the card and check that the student speaking does not say any of the taboo words. If he does, the checker makes a loud “BEEP” sound and the speaker loses a point for that card. The speaker can skip a card if he likes, but he will lose one point for each card skipped. The speaker has one minute to explain as many cards as possible. When his team guesses the word, he takes another card and continues until one minute is up. Record the number of correct guesses on the board (minus any skipped cards or cards where the speaker said a taboo word). Then a student from team 2 will be the speaker, and a student from team 1 will be the checker.

It's best to use normal, everday words for this game because it becomes complicated when students are limited in their explanations. (Imagine yourself playing this game in a foreign language.) Advanced classes can handle more difficult words. You can use the actual American board game called Taboo, but be warned – it is very difficult for students learning English! It's best to make your own cards.


(any level) Write words on small slips of paper. Each student takes one from the pile during his turn. Instead of explaining the target word, the student must draw it on the board and the class will guess. As a funny variation, you can play Blind Pictionary, in which the student must draw while their eyes are closed.

General theme: (any level) compass, wheel, snowman, cloud, bee, operation, pants, elephant, root, people, mirror, eyebrow, necklace, egg, rainbow, umbrella, friend, snail, guitar, dance, gun, helicopter, bowtie, window, fire, square, money, worm, owl, tears, river, grapes, alien, bunk bed, rain, ghost, pizza, drum, sunglasses, knee, exhausted, skateboard, camping, Monday, triangle, key, elevator, eyelash, matches, trumpet, oval, shiver, sleep, thumb, freckles, scissors

Halloween theme: zombie, ghost, cemetery, frog, bat, costume, skeleton, “trick or treat!”, grave, werewolf, spider, haunted house, witch, owl, cauldron, wizard, wart, rat, toad, blood, scream, potion, fang, pumpkin, black cat, vampire, nightmare, candle, bone, candy, spiderweb, full moon, mummy, mask, broomstick, monster


Instead of explaining or drawing, the student must act out the word for the class. (Good for verbs, animals, careers, etc.)

Compound Word Acting:

This game works very well every time I play it. Ask students if they know what a compound word is, and explain that it is two small words put together to form a new word. Tell them you are going to act out an example by acting out the first word and then the second word separately. Hold up one finger for the first word, and act like you are sweating to death under a burning sun until the students say “hot.” Then hold up two fingers and act like a panting, barking dog until the students say “dog.” Then write hotdog on the board – point out that the meaning of hotdog is different than the meaning of the individual words.

Place a pile of upside-down words on a table. Students come one by one to take a word and act out each compound word in two parts. Make it clear that they should NOT act out the word as a whole. Often the students will know the individual words but not the meaning as a whole. Tell them to act it first and after the class guesses both words, you will explain the meaning. Even advanced students have fun with this activity and learn new words.

Compound word list: paper-cut, sun-flower, sand-box, cow-boy, lady-bug, eye-lid, fire-wall, dragon-fly, space-ship, jelly-fish, snow-ball, baby-sit, foot-ball, cat-walk, rain-bow, sea-horse, wheel-chair, brain-wash, cat-fish, dead-line, black-mail, door-bell, star-fish, honey-moon, green-house, hand-bag, draw-bridge, stop-light, light-house, head-light, head-phones, bath-room, book-worm, butter-fly, cup-cake, brain-child, basket-ball, ear-ring, cross-word, wall-paper, water-fall, break-fast, ice-cream

Talk-Act-Draw the Word:

(any level) Many times for review, I write all the recent vocabulary on slips of paper and give each student the option of explaining it with words, acting it out, OR drawing it on the board. They can do what they feel is the easiest.


(any level) I love this game because you don't need any preparation. Write about six categories on the board, such as Fruit/Vegetable, Country, Liquid, Transportation, Animal, Body Part, Clothes, Sport, Career, Something Smaller Than a Backpack. Explain that you will choose one letter of the alphabet, and the students will write one word for each category that starts with that letter. For example, if the letter is B, they can write (for the corresponding categories above) Banana, Bahrain, Beer, Bus, Bear, Bellybutton, Belt, Boxing, Biologist, Book. Put students in small groups (2 to 4). It's best to have at least three teams. Then explain that each team can write ONLY one word for each category. Choose a letter (or take turns letting each group choose the letter) and say GO. Let them think of their words for one minute, or alternatively, let them work until one group finishes and says “Stop!” For scoring, the teams get a point for each original word they wrote; that is, if two teams wrote the same word, neither team gets a point for that word. At the end of each round, record the points for each team, and move on to the next letter. The students get very competitive!

Variation: Backwards Scategories: (intermediate to advanced) Write all the letters of the alphabet on slips of paper. Give each student one letter and one for yourself, and put the rest in a pile. Now you read a category, such as Insect, and each student has to try to think of a word for their own letter. If you have B, you can say butterfly. If you have P, you can say praying mantis. Go around the room, and if a student can't think of a word for his letter, the class and the teacher can help. Sometimes no one can think of a word, and you can skip it and move on. This game is less competitive and more for fun. After you have finished one category, students pass their letters one person to the left, and the first student takes a new letter from the pile.

Backwards Category ideas: Insect, Car, Drink, Clothes, Furniture, Movie, Actor, Food, Something in nature, Country, Musical Instrument, Something Yellow, Career, Animal, School Subject, Author, President, Water Animal, Fairy Tale Character, Fruit/Vegetable, Body Part, Jewelry, Children's Game, Wedding Item, US State, Cartoon Character, Sport, Capital City.


(easy) Great for kids. Make cards with 5 squares by 5 squares. The center square is “free.” On the other squares, draw pictures of the vocabulary you have been studying. I like to fill the cards with pictures of clothing, body parts, animals, school supplies, colors, furniture, food, etc. Make a list of all the pictures on the cards. When you draw out a word at random, read it to the class, and the students have to place a marker on the corresponding picture if it is on their card. When students have a row of 5 (horizontal, vertical, or diagonal), they shout Bingo! It's best to have a little bag of candies to hand out for Bingos. To make it harder, you can write vocab words on the cards, and call out a synonym or an antonym. You can also do the traditional Bingo with numbers, of course.

For a pre-made easy picture Bingo, you are welcome to use the one I created. The master list of vocab for this game is available here. Note that you can modify the words to be more difficult by using synonyms; for example, you could change "happy" to "delighted," etc. Nine different cards for students are available here. If you need a set of all the pictures used in case you need to create extra cards, you can find it here. This game is a four by four square. Students can win a Bingo by getting four in a row horizontally, vertically, or diagonally, or by having one in each corner, or by creating a two by two square anywhere on their card.

Change Chairs If:

(easy) Put all the chairs in a circle and remove any extra chairs. You stand in the middle and say something like, “Change chairs if you have glasses.” All the students with glasses must stand up and find a new chair. Meanwhile, you sneak into an empty seat. The one student who doesn't have a chair must stand in the center and make up a sentence. It can be anything – change chairs if you are the oldest in your family, change chairs if you have a dog, change chairs if you like sushi.

Variation: Have you ever (practices present perfect). The student in the middle must start with “have you ever ...” and add an ending, such as “eaten snails,” “dyed your hair,” “ridden a horse,” “been late to school,” etc. The students who HAVE done it must change chairs. This game gets wild!


(any level) Students usually enjoy this fun talking game. The class interrogates pairs of students to see if their stories match. Read about it here.


(any level) Read how to play here. Many students are already familiar with this popular game. It works well with 8 or more students. Use playing cards to assign roles randomly to students. For example, in a class of 10, I will use 2 black cards for the Mafia, one red Ace for the doctor, one red King for the police, and 6 more normal red cards for the good citizens. You will be the narrator, controlling when the students “sleep” and “wake up.” Eventually, you can ask another student to be the narrator, and you can join in the playing yourself. Every night the Mafia 'kills' one good person, and every day the entire city votes to condemn a person they think is Mafia. There are many, many variations (maniac, etc.) that you can read all about on Wikipedia. Before we play, I often teach the following words: guilty, innocent, suspicious, defend yourself, persuade, convince, vote. I explain that you can say anything you want – you can lie, you can tell the truth, whatever you want. But you can never show your card until you after you die. 'Dead' students can watch but are not allowed to give any hints! Some classes love to play Mafia more than anything else. Other classes don't find it so interesting.

Act a movie:

Put students in groups of 3 or 4 and tell them to choose a movie and act out part of it for the class. Give them 5 – 10 minutes to prepare. They can use props that they have in their classroom. The class has to guess the movie, which is usually quite obvious. Students usually get really into this activity and the results are hilarious.


Write down interesting mini-situations on cards. Put the class into small groups of 2 to 4 students and give them a card to act out. Give them a few minutes to prepare, then start the acting.

Some ideas:

At the airport, a man and a woman switch their bags by mistake.
Friends throw a surprise party for a girl's birthday.
Friends are eating in a restaurant but the waiter keeps bringing them the wrong food.
Two fans of opposing teams watch a football match.
You go to a restaurant and see insects in the food.
Two cars have an accident and nobody wants to admit it's their fault.
The next-door neighbor is angry because your family is so loud.
Two students are caught cheating on an exam at university.
A mother is trying to buy a pet for her child in the pet store, but the child is allergic to everything.
The kids cooked their parents dinner all by themselves, but it tastes terrible.
The boss interviews two people for a job. Only one position is open.
A fan sees her favorite actor in a restaurant.
Two girls go to a party and see that they are wearing the same dress.
A family is planning a vacation, but they are all arguing about where to go.

Get to know you:

Ask students to make a list on a piece of paper about themselves. Write on the board the list of things you want them to answer, such as: favorite music group, favorite animal, favorite actor, favorite thing to drink, favorite sport, favorite car, favorite color, favorite weekend activity, favorite subject in school, favorite place to go in their city, favorite restaurant or cafe, a country you would like to visit, what job you'd like in the future, and something you're afraid of. They don't need to write their names. When the students have finished, collect the papers, mix them up, and choose one to read. Students listen to the list and try to guess which student wrote it. Use anything interesting that they wrote to get the student to talk about herself, her hobbies, her interests, etc. Then move on to reading the next paper.


(easy) Print out or draw simple mazes. Put the students in pairs and give one maze to each pair. One student must close their eyes and navigate the maze only by the instructions of their partner. Then the partners switch so the other student will navigate the maze. It's fun and good for kids. (Review words right, left, straight, turn, backward for low levels.)

Card deck speaking:

This link has a list of questions for every card in a deck. First ask your students if they play cards. What games do they play? Teach the four suits by drawing them on the board. Then teach Ace, King, Queen, and Jack, and pull out cards to explain how to name them: King of Spades. Three of Hearts. Let one student draw a card and give its name. Another student finds the corresponding question on the sheet and reads it for the first student. After the first student answers, the next student draws a card. The questions are easy to talk about and you can get some discussion going. Afterward, you can have them teach you a card game that they play in their country. You can teach them games you know – Uno, Go Fish, Speed, etc.

Trivia Game:

Choose several categories (history, geography, science, music, sports, grammar, vocabulary, miscellaneous, etc.) and write three or four easy, medium, and difficult questions for each. Put your students into two teams. The first team chooses a category and a point value (100, 200, or 300). Read the question, and let the team discuss until they have a final answer. If it's correct, they get the points. If it's wrong, the second team has a chance to answer for half the points. Then the second team chooses a question. Students usually can't get enough of this game.

Fun with words:

Riddles: (any level) Teach the word 'riddle.' I often give this example: “What has three eyes and one foot?” Then I teach the word “hint” or “clue” by saying, “You see it on the street. It's necessary for cars.” If they still need a hint, say “It has three colors, red, yellow, and green.” Yes, it's a stoplight. Ask them if they know any riddles to share. Then provide your own, such as these.

Wuzzles: (intermediate to advanced) Wuzzle is short for “word puzzle,” a visual representation of a word or phrase. For an example, write the word “stand” on the board with a line under it. Below the line, write the word “I.” Ask them how they could describe this picture using words like “over, under, up, down, etc.” Prompt them until someone says “I under stand – I understand!” Many wuzzles are quite difficult, but you can find some that they will be able to figure out. Try these.

Hink Pinks: (intermediate to advanced) This is a game of finding rhyming synonyms. If the clue is “an angry father,” the students need to find synonyms for 'angry' and for 'father' – but both synonyms must rhyme with each other. The answer? Mad Dad. Hink Pinks are one syllable pairs, Hinky Pinkies are two-syllable pairs, and Hinkey Pinketies are three-syllables. For lots of examples, try these.

Jokes: Have a collection of your favorite safe jokes for class. Telling jokes is a great way to give students quality listening comprehension, because they're genuinely hooked on your words. Also, ask them to tell you their favorite jokes. Some students can go on and on! Others can't think of any, so you can give them a homework assignment to bring a joke the next day.

Games you can buy:

Bananagrams: Bananagrams is like Scrabble, but without so many rules. Hand out 10 letters to each student and see how many words they can make. Then say that they will work together. The student with the longest word starts. The second student has to try to add onto that word with their letters, cross-word style. Continue around the room. Then try another variation – give each student 15 letters and tell them they must make their own individual cross-word, trying to use up all their letters. If there is a letter they can't use, they can put it back, but draw three new letters in its place. The student who connects all their letters first wins.

Apples to Apples Junior: (any level) We bought Apples to Apples Junior - The Game of Crazy Combinations! before teaching abroad and it worked out amazingly well. It introduces students to a lot of new vocabulary in a fun way and it lets students talk. Each student gets five cards with various nouns – marshmallows, caves, pillow fights, school, Superman, etc. Then you choose one “theme” card, which is an adjective – cold, expensive, brave, etc. The students have to decide which one of their cards best fits the theme and explain why, even if the reason is far-fetched. You choose the student who gave the most convincing answer. Then that student is the judge for the next theme. It's easy to play, and students enjoy it.

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