17 ESL Activities To Make Classes Fun

Auxiliares Expat Life

ESL (English as a Second Language) education is one of the largest industries on the planet and is predicted to skyrocket in the next 10 years. With a third of the world’s population looking for classes, there are billions of dollars out there that you can start earning from any country, even from your laptop at home. It’s the perfect job or side hustle for my fellow expats, travelers, and tutors. But what should you do in your lessons? What ESL activities can you use to make your classes more fun?

After 5 years of teaching English as an Auxiliar de Conversación here in Spain, I’ve been asked those questions about as many times as there are English students in the world. It’s not easy to come up with new, engaging material all the time. And if you’re bored with worksheets or your go-to lesson plans, you know your kids are too.

Most importantly, if your student aren’t practicing speaking in each class, they won’t ever improve.

So here I’ve compiled 17 ESL activities and games that I’ve used over the years to make my beginner-advanced classes more enjoyable, and make the students talk! Whether you’re just starting out or you’re a veteran in a bit of a teaching rut, these will help take your lessons to the next level!

17 ESL Activities and Games

1. Go fish

Level: Beginner Class Type: Individual, Group

go fish flash cards scattered

Sometimes the hardest thing is getting kids to start speaking. So this is a great game to break the ice and build their vocabulary. You can Google dozens of printable decks of cards online in any vocabulary set you want. To make it more challenging, use cards with only pictures, no vocab words, and make your students speak in full sentences and questions. In addition to that you can use sets with multiple pictures to incorporate numbers into the game.

2. Charades

Level: Beginner-Advanced Class Type: Individual, Group

Let’s be honest, this game is even fun for adults! Also I particularly like this activity because you can adapt the difficulty to your students’ level. For example, whoever is guessing has to say the verb (e.g. walk), phrase (e.g. walk the dog), or use a full sentence (e.g. She is walking the/her/a dog.) Also, it takes very little preparation! Scribble down some words and cut them into cards or use this page to generate different word lists.

3. Pictionary

Level: Beginner Class Type: Individual, Group

Another easy, no-preparation game to get beginner students to start speaking is Pictionary. It encourages kids to be creative and think outside the box, depending on how difficult the word or phrase is. Even my shyest learners felt comfortable participating with this activity. Start drawing whatever word comes to mind or use this page.

4. Heart-Bomb-Gun

Level: Beginner-Advanced Class Type: Individual, Group

Undoubtedly this game is known by a number of other names and can be played in many different ways. I found Heart-Bomb-Gun through this video which explains it very well. Here’s another variation of the game.

Basically you need two identical grids on separate papers, one empty and one you fill with hearts, bombs and guns. Make a scoreboard with everyone’s names and three points to start out. A student begins by answering a trivia question or other instruction (e.g. “Make a question in the past tense.”) If they answer correctly, they choose a square from the empty grid while you hide the other paper with the filled grid. If the corresponding square has a heart, they gain a point. A bomb means they lose a point and a gun means they take a point from another player. Mark off the used squares as you go. You can change the point system or add more symbols however you like. The player with the most points wins.

5. King’s Cup

Level: Intermediate-Advanced Class Type: Individual, Group

cards scattered

I know what you’re thinking. “King’s Cup? Really?” Though I didn’t come up with the idea, trust me—it was one of the most loved ESL activities in all of my private classes.

If we all remember university then you know you just need a deck of cards and a list of rules. (Nothing else of course!) You can customize your rules to the level of your students and change it up if they get repetitive later. Here’s an example of what I used:

  • ACES- Rule Maker- Whoever drew the ace makes a rule that everyone has to follow until another ace is pulled. Make a repercussion for when someone forgets the rule, like they have to name ten fruits.
  • TWO’S- Make a sentence with more than six words using “to be” + an adjective. (e.g. “I am tired today because it’s Monday.”)
  • THREE’S- Choose a verb and make a sentence in the present tense.
  • FOUR’S- Pick a verb and make a sentence in the past tense.
  • FIVE’S- Ask a question and someone else answer it.
  • SIX’S- Make a comparison sentence (or superlative for more advanced students.)
  • SEVEN’S- Ask a question in the past and someone else answer it.
  • EIGHT’S- Simon Says
  • NINE’S- 3 Clues- The person thinks of any word and describes it with three clues without using the word. Whoever guesses it first wins the round.
  • TEN’S- Mime an animal.
  • JACK’S- Categories- Pick a category (e.g. School supplies) and go around the circle naming things as fast as you can. If anyone repeats a word already said or can’t think of a new word, they lose and the round ends.
  • QUEEN’S- Truth or Dare
  • KING’S- Two Truths, One Lie- Write down two true facts about yourself and one lie and have everyone guess which is untrue.

Here’s another example of rules you can use. Mix and match your favorites.

6. Never Have I Ever

Level: Intermediate-Advanced Class Type: Individual, Group

Again, this old college game is great for ESL lessons! It can be hard to get your students to practice the present perfect form and past participle. This is a fun way for them to start.

Every player starts with three fingers up. First one player states something they have never done. For example: “Never have I ever/I have never visited New York City.” If anyone in the group has done the action they put down a finger. After that you continue around the circle and the first person with no fingers up loses.

7. Noun-Noun-Verb!

Level: Beginner Class Type: Group

Whether it’s after a long vacation or lack thereof, inevitably you’re going to have some classes with rambunctious students that just won’t sit still. As a result of some restless lessons, my students and I came up with Noun-Noun-Verb.

It’s like Duck-Duck-Goose but if you’re “it” you have to use different nouns they’ve learned in your lessons and a verb when they tag another person. This really forces everyone to listen to identify the word and reinforces vocab they’ve learned. Plus your kids get to burn off some pent-up energy. This is the perfect game for a classroom or private group class at a house with some room to run around.

8. Family Feud

Level: Intermediate-Advanced Class Type: Individual, Group

Just like the TV show, you have a question with multiple answers, each worth a different amount of points depending on how popular the answer is. You can create your own lists to adapt them to your lesson or use this page, this page or this PDF that I love. However if you use the sites I mentioned, your students will need to be at a higher English level. The questions are not easy for beginners and they won’t have enough vocab for the game to be fun.

9. Telephone

Level: Intermediate-Advanced Class Type: Group

Though this isn’t my favorite of these ESL activities due to the fact that it can get monotonous quickly, it is a good listening and remembering exercise. Of course children enjoy this game the most but they need at least the ability to make complete sentences and comprehend them or the game goes nowhere. I’d recommend it as an icebreaker to start the class and get everyone focused.

The first person whispers a sentence to the next person and you try to make it through the group without the phrase changing. Finally the last person says it out loud to see if it is the original sentence.

10. Describe a Picture

Level: Beginner-Advanced Class Type: Individual, Group

It can be hard to find ESL activities for classes with learners at different levels, so this is a great option. I’ve taught siblings with large age differences and needed games that everyone could participate in together. Choose any picture from Google or have your students describe a photo they like that they took on their phone. Make them go into as much detail as possible and use pics that help them review vocab that you’ve taught them. Also you can have them make up a story about the image.

11. Scattergories

Level: Beginner-Intermediate Class Type: Individual, Group

On a piece of paper numbered one to ten, write different categories for each number. As an example you can use anything from ‘animals’ or ‘foods’ to ‘things that are cold.’ Each round you choose a different letter of the alphabet and everyone fills out each category with a word that starts with that letter. Set a timer if you want to make the game more difficult. At the end read the words out loud and if anyone in the group puts the same word as someone else, they both cross it out and earn no points. The person with the most points wins.

12. Bananagrams

Level: Beginner-Intermediate Class Type: Individual, Group

A best friend introduced me to these and they are a great tool to use in lessons. The main way to play with Bananagrams is just like Scrabble but without the board, which makes it more portable. You can create other ESL activities with them by following the instructions they come with.

13. Jeopardy

Level: Beginner-Advanced Class Type: Individual, Group

If you can’t tell from the number of them on this list, I love trivia games. Your lessons will be more enjoyable for your students if you’re having fun in them too. Here are some preset boards and questions but I liked creating my own to customize the lesson. If you can use a computer in your class, this website has various interactive computer games like Jeopardy.

14. Jenga (with colors and a die)

Level: Beginner-Advanced Class Type: Individual, Group

I’ve made a point of including almost entirely free, little-to-no prep activities to this list. I understand not wanting to spend everything you make from classes on items for your classes. However if you are going to invest a little, Jenga (with colors and a die) is a great game. It’s versatile and keeps the students engaged. When you play, make each color a different category or verb tense the student has to use. Each category can be as easy or difficult as you want. And another added bonus is that then you have it for your own game nights with friends.

15. What’s the question?

Level: Intermediate-Advanced Class Type: Individual, Group

Any ESL activities that work with questions are great for all learners. Because let’s face it—questions in English are HARD! It takes a lot of practice for non-natives to memorize the strict grammar. This is a simple exercise to prep and can generate lots of different answers. Simply write out some sentences and underline one part of the phrase, then another. Then have your student create the question that the sentence answers. Depending on the underlined part, the question changes. For an example here’s a worksheet.

Here is a PDF I made that lays out the grammar structure in a simple way. You can print it and have your students use it as a reference.

16. Continue the Story

Level: Beginner-Advanced Class Type: Individual, Group

This game can be a speaking or writing activity and you can use one word, a few words, or whole sentences. One person starts and the rest of the group continues adding more information to the phrase or story. I think it’s the most fun if each person has to repeat the sentence said before them and then create another. You continue until someone can’t remember the whole story anymore.

17. Who am I?/The Post-it Note Game

Level: Intermediate-Advanced Class Type: Individual, Group

Last but not least, you can use the game ‘Who am I?’ to get your learners to talk and practice questions. Write a different word or famous person on post-it notes and stick them to each player’s forehead so they can’t see it but everyone else in the group can. One person starts and asks only yes-or-no questions to figure out who or what they are. Be selective with the famous people you use because younger students don’t always know celebrities from your foreign country.

Thanks for reading my post! I hope this will help you in your next classes. Do you have any ESL activities or games that you use? Comment down below to share more ideas. To find out more about teaching English in Spain, check out my post about The North American Language and Culture Program here.

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