When you need an activity, I got you. Here are my top 10 games to practice any language pattern or vocabulary set.
- Keyword Game
- Go Fish aka Spin the Bottle
- “Touch” Battle
- Don’t Say 20
- Rotating Quiz
- Fruits Basket
- Catch aka Hot Potato
Karuta aka The Slap Game
Materials: A deck of picture cards for each group of students.
Good For: Any vocabulary set, but especially vocabulary that can be expressed with pictures.
Have the students break off into groups. Give each group a set of picture cards. Have the kids spread the cards out on the table so that they’re all facing up, randomly spread around. Have the kids put their hands on their heads. Tell the kids the goal is to “get” the right card. Say a single vocabulary word. The kids race to grab that card. Whoever grabs it first, wins that card. Whoever has the most cards when you run out of vocabulary is the winner.
Most Japanese people are very familiar with the rules of Karuta. The name Karuta comes from the Japanese playing card tradition. The most common associated game is Hyakunin Ishuu. In the Hyakunin Ishuu version of Karuta, players listen for the first half of a famous, traditional poem to be read and then race to grab the card with the last half of that poem written on it. It’s not an obscure thing. I have a class of 5th graders who play it every morning as a warm up to the day.
The English class version of this traditional game replaces written and spoken poetry with English language vocab words. Anything that can be represented on a flash card can be practiced with this game. This game is the end all be all of ESL English in Japan. Every single curriculum and textbook series suggests this game. It can be a challenge not to over use it.
Keyword Game aka The Eraser Game
Materials: Flashcards for the chalkboard and an eraser for every pair of kids.
Good For: Any spoken vocabulary or grammar.
Have the students make pairs. Tell the students get out one eraser per pair and place it between the two players. Then, have the students put their hands on their heads. Pick out a keyword and mark it as the keyword on the chalkboard. Tell the students if they hear the keyword to “get” the eraser. Say random vocabulary words and have the students repeat after you. Eventually, say the keyword. The students should race to grab the eraser. The kid who grabs it first wins the round. Play 3~5 rounds.
The Keyword Game is one of the few games illustrated in both the Eigo Note series of textbooks and the Hi! Friends series. It’s basically verbal vocab drilling with a punchline. While the demo can be pretty direct, it’s also way too teacher focused to be used all too regularly. I work it in maybe twice a year per grade.
One place this game can really shine is grammar drilling. I’m partial to using the Keyword Game to drive home the difference between “I like” something and “I don’t like” something. You negate a Japanese verb by changing the end of the word. But, you negate an English verb by putting another word in front of it. This feels wrong to a lot of kid’s ears and they need to hear it and repeat it a lot of times in succession for it to sound natural. And, whattaya know! This game is almost nothing but repeating after teacher and listening for small differences between words.
It’s also a great game to troll the kids with. Say a word or expression that is not the keyword with EMPHASIS and the dummy not paying attention in the back will make a grab for the eraser and embarrass themselves every time. Good for a chuckle.
Three rounds is good. Five rounds is usually my limit, though, because it can get monotonous. I have random winners of each round pick the keyword for the next round. Makes ’em feel appreciated.
Go Fish aka Spin the Bottle but not Baba Nuki or Old Maid
Materials: A deck of cards for each group containing multiples of each card, a bottle or spinner.
Good For: Any vocabulary list that can be represented with a vocabulary card, or any grammar pattern that conveys a request, a like, or desire including but not limited to, “I want”, “I like”, and “please”.
Have the students get into groups. Distribute a deck of cards and bottle/spinner to each group. Then, have the kids deal the cards out evenly among themselves. Or, even better, give all the kids an individual deck of cards with one of everything. Explain that the goal is to assemble a set of three like cards. Each set of three like cards is worth a point. The player with the most sets at the end wins. Have the kids play Rock, Paper, Scissors to determine who goes first. The winner of rock paper scissors spins the bottle jr high style and asks the person the bottle ends up pointing to for a card by name. Then, that person gets a chance at the bottle, spins, and requests a specific card from the player the bottle points to. This goes on until they’re out of cards.
Wait a minute, you say. That game sounds nothing like Go Fish or Old Maid or any of it! Well, you’re right. The only element that is the same from those games it the matching of cards into like sets. Why? It’s Old Maid/Baba Nuki’s fault.
On it’s surface, traditional Go Fish is the perfect game for a language learning class. It’s all about speaking! Do you have any threes? No? Go fish! Ah! I have four of a kind. I win! But, it’s absolutely impossible to explain or demo the rules of this game in Japan. I consider myself a pretty damn good teacher, ok? But every single time I have tried to get a classroom doing rounds of Go Fish at least one group ends up just playing Baba Nuki/Old Maid instead. The goals of Baba Nuki/Old Maid are the same, you see. In both Baba Nuki and Go Fish you have to assemble sets of cards. But, in Baba Nuki/Old Maid you don’t ask for the card you want, you just take one randomly and silently from the kid sitting next to you. The entire lesson objective, to say words aloud, is gone. In that game the matching sets of cards go into a discard pile. There is no winner, either. The kid with the last card just loses. So, it becomes a waste of classroom time. I knew I had to socially engineer a reason for them not to default from the language-based game at hand to a similar, familiar game and that’s where the bottle came in.
Last year I replaced the pile of “fish” cards in the center with a plastic bottle to act as a spinner. Already the equipment signals this is a different sort of game. And, I emphasized the sets being worth points. This Spin the Bottle version of Go Fish has worked like a charm every time. The goals are familiar enough that they understand the objective of the game right away, and the bottle is unique enough that they don’t fall into familiar patterns instantly like they would otherwise.
This game is super helpful for the grammar patterns “I want”, “Do you have?”, and asking for something with “please”. I mean, there are only so many things you can say you want in a classroom activity before it gets too abstract. This game is also amazing if you’re looking for a last minute game to go with virtually any Hi! Friends vocab set. In the back of each Hi! Friends workbook is a set of cards for each chapter. Fish some Coke bottles out of the staff room recycle bin, have the kids cut out the vocab cards from their workbooks, and get them into groups of 3 or more. Boom.
“Touch” Battle aka Rock Scissors Paper Battle
Materials: A set of preferably laminated flashcards for the chalkboard.
Good For: Any vocabulary set that can be conveyed with flashcards.
Prep by putting the flashcards up on the chalkboard in a single row. Have half the class line up on the right side of the chalkboard, the other half line up on the left side. Each half is a team. The first kid in each line waits for the signal to start. Then, the first kid in each line touches the flashcard closest to them and says what it is aloud. Once they’ve touched and said the first card, they move onto the next card, then the next. When the two kids coming from each side meet in the middle and touch the same card, they stop and play Rock, Paper, Scissors. The kid who wins Rock, Paper, Scissors, can move onto touching and saying the word for the next card. The kid who loses Rock, Paper, Scissors has to move to the back of their team’s line. If a kid loses Rock, Paper, Scissors, then the next kid on their team starts the touching and speaking from the start. This goes on like a tug of war until one kid is speedy enough and lucks out at Rock, Paper, Scissors enough that they touch the last card in the row. Touch the last card, get a point, end the round.
This game gets rowdy and is really only good for review as a result. Kids go wild. The Rock, Paper, Scissors matches are brutal. But, it’s super fun. If it’s the end of the year or the unit or chapter, they deserve to review in a raucous way. Don’t you think?
Doubt aka Bullshit aka The Liar Game
Materials: A deck of cards for each group with multiples of each card. Can also be played with a regular deck of playing cards.
Good For: Any ordered set of vocabulary including but not limited to numbers, dates, times, months of the year, days of the week, or the alphabet.
Have the students get into groups and give them a big deck of cards. A big ‘ol random pile of cards will work easily for this game. Have them deal all the cards out to each player equally. The goal of the game is to get rid of all your cards. Each time it’s your turn you have to put down a card, in order, into the discard deck in the center of the table and say aloud with a confident voice exactly what that card’s supposed to be. But, all cards are placed face down. So, you can lie about which card you’re playing and what’s in your hand. No “February” cards and “February” comes up your turn? Pull a “March” and put it face down in the discard pile and confidently state it’s February! However, if someone thinks they’ve caught you lying, they can call “Doubt”. If someone calls “Doubt”, then they can check the card you played to see if you were lying or not. If you were lying, you have to take the entire discard deck into your hand. If you weren’t lying, the person who called “Doubt” has to take the entire discard deck into their hands.
Have them play Rock, Paper, Scissors to determine who goes first. For simplicity’s sake, tell them to go clockwise from that person. The first player puts out one card face down into the center of the table and claims it to be the first card in the set. “One”. Or, “Today is Monday”. Or, “I have ‘A’.” The next kid plays another card face down and says the next in the sequence. “Two”. Or, “Today is Tuesday”. Or, “I have ‘B’.” When one kid has run out of cards, they’re the winner. Game over.
This is straight up the classic game from our childhoods with zero rules changed. It’s fun as hell to demo with a sample group in front of the class. I play so comically panicked that I don’t have the card I need, then laugh like a super villain when they take the bait. You really have to emphasize that this is a game for lying. It’s all about the Poker Face. However, because of the way children’s brains and personalities develop, this game can only be played with older kids. First through third graders struggle with the whole mental strategy. Fourth grade can usually manage it. Fifth and sixth graders thrive. You will never see happier, more social 6th graders than when they play this game.
It can be a bit of a challenge to demo if you’ve never done it before. I’ve got an entire script down to describe the rules:
“Ok, group! Today’s game is Doubt. First, all players, all cards. *deals cards* Next, Rock, Scissors, Paper, ok? Oh! I’m the champion! The champion is player number one. Player number one, card number one. *puts a random card face down in the center of the table creating a discard deck* One! Player number two, card number two. *gestures to the kid next to me to play a card, and comically grabs a random card and plays it if they hesitate, indicating the card itself doesn’t matter* Two! Player number three, card number three. Three! Oh, I’m player number four. Hm. Four…. Four… Oh no! Uh… Erm… Four? *puts out a card all shy and stage whispers at a kid to say “Doubt”.* Doubt? Oh, no. It’s not four. It’s 10! My miss, my cards. *grabs the discard pile, sadly* Player number five, five. Player number six, six. I’m player number seven… Uh… Seven… Seven. Oh no! *plays the seven card all uncertain, prompts the same kid to say Doubt* Doubt? Ha-ha! It’s seven. Your miss, your cards. *then fast fowards to the end* Ok? And, in today’s game… zero cards? *tosses all cards into the discard pile* Zero cards and you’re the champion!”
The pedant in the class will always get caught up on the contingencies. I typically guide the kids to continue numbers after a kid says Doubt, instead of starting over from “One” or the equivalent each time. Kids tend to want to keep the game going until all kids have run out of cards except one loser, who gets left with the entire deck. This takes forever and emphasizes the loser of the winner. I tell them the game is over whenever any single kid runs out of cards. That kid is the champ and you can’t play anymore once the winner’s been decided, right? So go ahead and start a new game! Sometimes the kids want to put out two or three of the same card at once. Try not to do that. It makes it harder to follow for the kids with a weaker understanding of the games rules or the vocab.
And, at the end, this game is just repetition. Each time they put down a card in order, they say the word. For an entire lesson period they’re just repeating the vocab in order and they won’t even notice because it’s such a blast. I love Doubt!
Don’t Say 20
Materials: None. Maybe a chalkboard for a demo.
Good For: Any ordered set of vocabulary including but not limited to numbers, dates, times, months of the year, days of the week, or the alphabet.
Each player can say between one and three words. The player who says the last word in the set is out.
This game is so simple and customizable that it’s almost impossible to describe in definite terms. So, here’s a few specific examples of the ways I’ve used it in the past.
Second grade. Practicing numbers one through ten. I write the numbers one through ten on the board and draw six dots. In this game, I say, one number is ok. Two numbers are ok. Three numbers are ok. As I speak, I draw circles around one dot, then the next two dots, then the next three dots. But, I add, get to ten and you’re the champion! I draw a happy face under the 10. Then, I hand a piece of colored chalk to the homeroom teacher. Let’s play! I pretend to seriously consider my options. One? One, two? One, two three? And then decide. One, two! I circle the first two numbers on the board. Then, I gesture at the homeroom teacher and query. Three? Three, four? Three, four, five? They usually catch on immediately, even if I didn’t go over it before hand. They circle and say a few numbers. We get down to the last few. I circle 10 and start cheering for myself. Yay! I’m the champion! The kids get the gist, so I tell them it’s their turn. I tell all kids to stand, and point to the first kid in the first row and prompt them to say “One”. Then, to the next kid in the row, I query. Two? Two, three? Two, three, four? Usually between the chalkboard diagram and their peers helping them out, they get the gist. They say numbers. The first kid who gets to 10 gets cheers. Yay! I give that kid a sticker and tell them to sit down. Then, the kid next to them starts at one. We zig zag through the room over and over again, taking nearly 20 minutes, until every kid, with the help of their peers, has “won” the game. Every little seven year old is a winner and everyone is happy and we literally just counted to ten over and over again for a half an hour.
Fifth grade. The alphabet. I put individual flash cards up on the board of each letter in the alphabet and draw six dots. In this game, I say, one is ok. Two are ok. Three are ok. As I speak, I draw circles around one dot, then the next two dots, then the next three dots. But, I add, get to “Z” and you’re out! Game over! I give the homeroom teacher colored chalk and start in. I circle the first few letters of the alphabet with attitude and state them aloud. The homeroom teacher says and circles the next few letters. I get to “Z” and lose. I pretend to cry crocodile tears. Woe is me. I’ve lost and I’m out. Then, I challenge the homeroom teacher to a revenge match! This time, no chalk. Voices only. We go again, speaking the letters, ignoring the chalkboard. By now all the tweens get the strategy and the goal. I tell them to break into their groups and play an elimination round in the group. Play until there’s one last kid standing. Then, we do the grand champion round. Each group’s winner comes to the front of the room as their group’s rep. The winners play each other in front of the class until one grand champion is left standing. They win a pack of stickers for their group.
The words you use, whether saying the last word means you win or lose, how big the group you play in is… All of this can be changed without changing the substance of the game. It’s a real winner if you’re good a crowd control.
Materials: Bingo card worksheets. Some sort of reward for the winners.
Good For: Any vocabulary set.
For classic bingo, instruct kids to fill out their bingo sheets with the vocabulary being reviewed. Read out vocabulary words. Have the kids mark the words off on their sheets. First kid who crosses out an entire row or column is the winner. For a more dynamic bingo, call on kids to decide what the next word called out will be. For an even more dynamic bingo, have the kids fill out their cards by interviewing their friends on what color/shape/country/target language they like or what have you and only permitting kids to fill out a bingo square with their peers’ answers. For an even more dynamic bingo, have them fill out their cards by asking their peers one question in one round of interviewing, then mark off squares in another round of interviewing.
A quick vocabulary note here: Most kids past second grade will know “bingo” and “double bingo”. Some kids think diagonals are off limits in bingo and will ask if they’re fair play or not. The Japanese word for diagonal they’ll use is “naname”. Also, there’s a phenomenon in Japan wherein being one square away from getting bingo is called a “reach”. You’ll hear kids screaming out “reach” in pretty much any bingo game.
When the vocab set is really small, like with the littlest kids who can’t handle more than about 8 words, I tell them the star normally in the center of their bingo board isn’t a free space, it’s a stark block. A “jama suru star” if you will. It can make what would otherwise be a statistically very fast game into a little longer activity.
Justice Kids (TM) who will always pitch a fit if things are No Fair (TM) have a tough time with bingo so it’s good to lay down the limits right off in an unruly class. Older kids with larger 5×5 game boards can handle the object of the game being a certain number of winners. In a class of 35 kids, I’ll draw seven stars up on the board and say that the limit is seven champs. Seven champs, game over. No exceptions. Have multiple cards ready to play multiple games if need be.
For a 3×3 game board, it can be easier to limit the number of options called. I draw four boxes on the board in the little kid classes. Four chances until game over. The four flashcards that go in those boxes are the only words called. If you get bingo using those four, good for you. If you don’t, too bad. Nothing you can do. When the limits are clear, fewer kids cry at losing. Though, there is always one kid who cries because he loses bingo. Every time. I have no idea why bingo is such a high stress game to a certain subset of children.
Materials: A deck of picture cards for each group of students.
Good For: Any vocabulary set, but especially vocabulary that can be expressed with pictures and can be described in the abstract or with hints.
Students get into groups. Groups get a deck of cards. Students play rock paper scissors to determine who goes first. The first player shuffles the deck of cards, picks one, and then hints to the group what it might be. The other group members guess what the card is. If they get it right, they win that card, and it becomes their turn to shuffle the deck and quiz the others. The group plays, winners of each round winning the card and then taking their turn, until the group runs out of cards. The player with the most cards wins.
Less a set game than a conversational structure. Here are some ways it can be applied.
Third grade. Telling time. Each group gets a deck of “time” cards, each with an analog clock face showing the hour. The first kid shuffles the deck, chooses a card, and puts the card face down in front of them. Then, the “gesture” the time, using one kid arm as the big hand of the clock and the other arm as the little hand of the clock. As each card only shows the hour on the hour, the gesture can be pretty wobbly and still be obvious. The other kids in the group raise their hands. The first kid calls on one. He’s correct. He wins the card. It’s his turn to shuffle and pose like a clock face. The deck has multiple of each time so that kids can’t guess by process of elimination what’s coming next. When they run out of cards, they tally the points to determine the winner.
Fourth grade. Colors and other adjectives. Each group gets a deck of animal cards, or sometimes food cards. The first kid shuffles the deck, chooses a card, and gives three hints. Example: “It’s brown. It’s cute. Bananas.” The other kids in the group raise their hands. The first kid calls on one. He’s correct. He wins the card. It’s his turn to shuffle the deck, pick an animal, and give hints. When they run out of cards, they tally the points to determine the winner.
Materials: Chairs -or- cushions. Cards if you need them.
Good For: Any small vocabulary set, or any yes/no question.
Students arrange their chairs in a circle, one chair for each kid. You pass out cards with pictures of fruit on them. One to each kid, unless they’re a really annoying kid and then they get like five. Teacher stands in the center and calls out a fruit. Kids holding that card get up from their chairs and run around trying to find a new chair to sit in as teacher rushes to sit down. The last kid standing has to call out another fruit, and again the kids holding that fruit card have to find a new place to sit. If a kid says “Fruits Basket”, everyone has to find a new seat.
A classic baby game! Every kid ever has played this in kindergarten. Well, here in Japan. And because the structure is so well known, and requires at least one person to say at least one thing out loud, you can adapt it to a multitude of lessons.
Sixth graders. Birthdays. The kids sitting down chant at the kid in the center, “When is your birthday?” and the kid in the center replies with a random month. Kids with that birth month run to find a new seat. “Happy Birthday” gets everyone to change seats.
Sixth graders. Abilities. The kid in the center asks a question with “Can”. Can you play baseball? Can you cook rice? Can you ride a bicycle? Kids who can, rush to find a new seat.
First grade. Colors. The kid in the center says a color. Kids wearing that color t-shirt rush to find a new seat. Kid in the center says rainbow, everyone finds a new seat.
One catch is the “Batsu Game”. Typically, if a kid gets stuck as the last one standing three times, they have to be “punished” somehow. Usually this means doing something embarrassing. Popular punishments include writing your name in the air with your butt, singing a stupid song by yourself, or shaking hands with the teacher. I try my best to avoid doing any batsu game because it’s just mean. But, sometimes they are out for blood and they demand it. Children are vicious.
Catch aka Hot Potato
Materials: A paper ball. Sometimes, a CD.
Good For: Any time you need to force kids to talk, especially asking and answering questions.
The person with the ball talks.
Variation 1: Teacher wads up a ball of paper and tosses to the students. The teacher asks the kid who catches it the question and they must answer. Ideally, the kid gets a reward of some sort.
Variation 2: All the kids sit in a circle. The music starts, and the teacher passes a paper ball to the kid next to them. They pass it to the kid next to them. It gets passed around until the teacher pauses the music, prompting passing of the ball to stop. The teacher asks that kid a question. After a few rounds, a second paper ball of a different color enters into the mix. Now, the kid with one color paper ball has to ask the question when the music stops, kid with the other color paper ball has to answer.
So straight forward I’m not sure I need to describe it anymore except to say I find this game to be particularly useful for the early pleasantries in the year like practicing “What’s your name?” and “How are you?”.
I specifically suggest a paper ball because it’s basically impossible to hurt someone with a paper ball. And, when the paper ball gets gross from all those kid fingers touching it, you can just recycle it.
There you have it. These 10 games make up over half of the lessons I teach in any given school year. They’re good stuff. And, I’m kinda curious how many are universal and how many are just my faves. Let me know, readers?