English Teacher Article 21 classic ESL card games

Summary: Well-known and “new classic” multipurpose card games for teaching English to adults and children.

By: |Audience: Teachers|Category: Teaching English


Although the TEFL teacher with a pair of scissors cutting a worksheet into little cards has become a bit of a stereotype, it is amazing how much more stimulating an activity can sometimes become just by giving it to students as a pack of cards rather than as a single handout. Having said that, many of the games below can be played by ticking things off a worksheet rather than playing around with cards. Many of the games below are well known (hence the name of this article) and some are based on even more well-known non-TEFL card games like blackjack and snap. However, I’ve also added my own variations and tips, and the article starts with some less well-known “new classic” TEFL card games:

1. Key phrases speaking card game

Prepare a pack of cards with one phrase useful for discussions (e.g. “Do you mean…?” or “I can see why you might think that, but…”) on each card. Give one pack to each group of two to four students and ask them to deal them out. As they speak about a topic that they have been given, students must try to use as many of the phrases on their cards as possible in the conversation. As they do so, they can discard those cards face up into the middle of the table. If the other students think that person hasn’t used the phrase correctly, they can challenge that person and make them take that card back. The first person to discard all their cards, or the person with fewest cards left when the teacher stops the game, is the winner. Functions which can be practised this way include turn taking (interrupting, giving other people the turn, etc), opinions (asking for opinions, politely disagreeing, etc), and supporting arguments (giving examples, sharing personal experiences, etc).

2. Key functions speaking card game

The game above can also be played with a pack of cards that just has the names of the functions (“keeping the turn”, “strongly agreeing”, etc) on the cards. As well as saying something with exactly that function when they discard a card, students must make sure that they don’t repeat any phrases already used during the speaking activity, with their partners giving them the cards back if they say “I strongly agree” the same as someone said before or “Stop!” for “politely interrupting”.

3. Key words speaking card game

The prompt for the games above can also be single words that students must use in something they say in order to be able to discard the card. For example, students could say “How do you feel about this?” to be able to discard the “feel” card. If there are repeated cards in the pack (e.g. three "feel" cards), students must make sure they don’t use phrases that are exactly the same as others have used. As well as functional language, this variation can also be used to prompt use of vocabulary (e.g. phrasal verbs such as “get on with” and “put off”) or grammar points (with grammar words like “will” and “since”).

Variations on all three of the games above include having all the cards face up in the middle of the table for students to take as they do that thing successfully (with the student with most cards being the winner) or an extra person monitoring and giving cards to people as they do the right thing.

4. Longer phrases matching card game

Although matching up bits of paper is both more interesting and simpler than drawing lines on a worksheet between sentence halves, it is rarely worth the cutting up time involved – with this possible exception. Students match up beginnings and ends of phrases, then try to put extra words and phrases into the middle of those phrases to make them longer, e.g. “Can I phone you back” + “a little” + “later?” You can also usefully add an intermediate stage during which they brainstorm extra words that can go in the middle before they are given those middle cards. They can then use those same cards to play a version of the games above.

5. Take the cards to make a picture

You could argue that this isn’t exactly a game, but the amount of fun and useful practice that kids get out of it (especially students still learning to read) means I’ve included it anyway as a true classic. Prepare a pack of cards describing things that can be drawn such as “fish” and “plate” and aspects of those things such as “two”, “blue”, “happy” and “huge”. If they can already read quite well, you will probably also want to include grammatical words and parts of words needed to make those descriptions into sentences like “There”, “is”, “s” and “a”. Students simply take turns trying to take groups of words which describe what they want to draw and adding those things to their drawings, e.g. taking “four” + “happy” + “fish” and drawing that or accidentally taking “fifteen” + “huge” + “plates” and having to include that in their picture. If you want to have scores, you could give points for cards taken that they manage to successfully include in their picture and/ or for good final results. This works as a whole class activity with up to about eight students. With more students, you’ll need to put them in teams to take cards and draw together as a team, or classes that need little supervision could do it with one pack of cards per table.

6. Take the cards to make true sentences

This is like the activity above but is closer to an actual game. Students take words from the table in front of them to try to make true sentences, e.g. about their partners, the classroom, the teacher or the town that they are in. They get one point for each card used in the correct sentences.

7. Guess and use the letters

This is possibly the ultimate practice of phonics, as it combines practising things they already know about the letters, being able to get hints from the teacher to expand their knowledge, and a chance to be more creative with those letters. Students listen to the teacher’s descriptions of letters and shout out their names whenever they are sure what the letter is, e.g. “A!” if they hear “It’s the first letter of ‘alligator’”, “It’s the middle letter of ‘pan’” or “It comes before B”. People who guess wrongly have to remain silent until the teacher moves onto describing the next letter. The first person or team to guess correctly gets the card with the letter on it, then the teacher does the same with the next letter. After each letter is guessed, students have one minute to try to make English words out of the cards that they have, e.g. showing the teacher that they’ve put together “c” + “a” + “t”. If teams get stuck, the teacher can give hints like saying words that they can spell with their cards, telling them first letters that they can make words with, or telling them which letters they can rearrange into words.

Any attempts which aren’t real English words mean they have to wait for the next round before trying to construct more words, but real words that they make without knowing their meanings are fine. Teams which put correct English words together get an extra letter (randomly, chosen by the teacher or chosen by the team), which they can also use during that one minute to make still words if they can. The student or team with the most letters at the end of the game is the winner.

8. Revision card game

Prepare a pack of at least 30 cards with each card having several correct answers which are related to things that you’ve studied in class, e.g. “Things your partner dislikes” and “Uncountable things in this room”. As with those examples, it is best if the students need to think about both fact and language to be correct. Give one pack to each group of two to five students and tell the first student to take one card off the top of the pack. The first person must try to make correct statements as explained on the card, e.g. “Juan, I think you dislike cheese”. Whenever they make a mistake or they reach the maximum that you have set (e.g. four), they have to stop and get one card from the pack for each correct statement up to that point. Play then passes to the next person, and when play comes back to someone they can choose their next question from one of the cards that are in their hand from previous rounds. The winner is the person with most cards when the whole pack of cards has gone. Then can then work together to come up with correct sentences for all of the cards, or just the ones people took but never chose as their challenges.

A much longer variation on this game involves all the students in the group trying to get each card. One person takes a card from the pack and makes true statements until they make a mistake as above. The other people in the group then do the same for the same card, not repeating anything that people have already said. The person with the most points from that round wins the card, then play passes to the next person.

9. Extended speaking card game

This is a variation on the first version of Revision Card Game above, and is also best as a revision game. A student takes a card with a topic on it like “The near future” or “Overrated artists” and speaks about for as long as they can or up the maximum you set. The number of cards they can take (and therefore number of points they get) depends on how long they can speak for, with time taken off for silent pausing. I tend to go with one card per thirty seconds speaking, stopping at three minutes (= six cards). They can then choose from the topics in their hand when their turn comes round again.

10. Use the words on the cards for points

This is like a much simpler version of the Revision Card Game above. One student turns over the card at the top of the pack and should try to make a factually and grammatically sentence using the words on it about one of the other people in the group, e.g. “You’re dreading Monday morning” for “dread”. If they are correct, they can take the card and score a point. If not, play passes to the next person, who can choose to use the same card or turn over another.

The game can also be used to practise grammar by using words like “since” and “the… after next”. The cards could also be instructions to follow rather than words to use, e.g. “prediction” and “near future”.

11. Get the answer on the card for points

I usually use the much snappier but less descriptive name “Answer me” for this classic speaking game. In groups of two or three, students deal out the whole pack of cards. They can look at their own cards but shouldn’t show them to their partner(s). They ask each other questions and can discard their cards face up on the table if they get one of the responses written on their cards. For example, if they are holding the card “Not much” and they ask the question “How much time do you spend studying English every week?” they can discard the card if they get that response but not if their partner replies “Probably too much!” (unless they also hold a card that says that).

12. Get the answer with the card

This is similar to Answer Me above, but with students using the words on the card to make questions that receive the same kind of response each time. The most fun version is for students to always try to get the answer “I don’t remember”, for example making a question like “What was your first primary school teacher’s name?” with the card “primary school”. Other responses for students to try to get include negative answers, positive answers, big answers (e.g. “all the time” and “so many”), small answers, and “I don’t know”.

13. The T L bluff card game

This is a game which is quite similar to the non-TEFL card game called Bluff. In groups of three or four, each student is given or makes three cards with a T on each and three cards with an L on each, with the letters standing for “truth” and “lie”. Perhaps in response to a question and/ or using the language that the class is about (e.g. Present Perfect), students make a true or false statement and place the relevant card face down on the table in front of them. If anyone thinks that the statement is not true, they can challenge the person who made the statement by saying “Liar” and the card is turned over to check. If the challenge is right and the statement is a lie, the person who made the statement should take all the cards on the table at that point. If the challenge is incorrect, meaning it was a T card, the challenger must take all the cards there. If no one challenges the statement, the card just stays there face down and becomes one of the cards that will be taken later by the liar or challenger. The winner is anyone who has no cards or the person with fewest cards when the teacher stops the game.

14. Roleplay challenge card game

One student takes a roleplay card (e.g. “Go to a shop and try to find an antique which is indistinguishable from something of your mother’s that you broke”) and must find a successful solution while roleplaying that situation with their partner. If they can bring the conversation to a successful conclusion, they get to keep the card and score a point. The person with the most cards/ points at the end of the game is the winner.

To give students practice of the varieties of English communication that they are most likely to experience outside the classroom, I like to do a variation on this game where students have to choose if they will communicate by telephone, by email, by SMS, by telephone message or face to face before they start each roleplay.

15. Brainstorming challenge card game

Students turn over a card from a pack on the table and take turns brainstorming things in the category it says, e.g. “uncountable liquids” or “ways to speak about likes or dislikes”. Whenever no one can come up with any more correct answers, the last person to say something in the right category gets that card and hence a point, then the game continues with the next card in the pack. Although this does have the potential to stop them getting into the flow of brainstorming, you can also have a rule that if anyone makes a mistake, the last person to give a correct idea wins the card and one point.

16. Storytelling card game

This could be seen as a more controlled version of the key words speaking card game above. Students take turns laying down cards in a line to continue a story, hopefully bringing the tale to a conclusion when they get to (or towards) the end of the pack of cards. They can then tell the story to another group, or another group can try to guess the story from the arrangement of the cards.

The cards can be words connected to particular kinds of story (“fingerprint” and “witness” for crime, “prince” and “sword” for fairytales, “laser” and “spaceship” for science fiction, etc), words useful for telling stories (e.g. “suddenly”, “by that time”, “this caused…” etc for writing FCE stories), vocabulary in a story they will hear or read after this activity, or just a random collection of vocabulary that you want them to revise. Particularly with vocabulary for particular kinds of story, the cards could be pictures instead of words.

There are also variations on this game that are meant to stimulate more use of different narrative tenses. A simple one is telling them that they can jump back in time when they place the next card down, but they must use the Past Perfect tense to do so and must show that time shift by placing the card down in a different way, e.g. slightly above the rest of the line of cards. They can also do something similar with Past Continuous by having longer actions placed lengthways and any shorter actions placed above or below within the space covered by the longer action, for example the “Have a meeting” card is placed horizontally across the table and the “Read my text messages” card is put vertically above it for “I was having a meeting when I checked my text messages”.

The finished stories can also be used for a variation on the classic Alibi Game, with one student memorising the story as if it happened to them and being tested on what happened when. The person who makes most mistakes when questioned on their alibi is guilty of the crime.

17. Yuppies

I got this game from the classic Communication Games books, but you can easily make your own version. A pack of cards is dealt out to each group of two to four students. The first student chooses one of their cards and places it down on the table face up, saying how good that thing is, e.g. “The pot plant in my office is calming and keeps the air clean” for the card “pot plant”. The second person acknowledges the property of that thing but says one way in which the thing that they place on top is better, e.g. “That is a lovely plant, but the view from my window is more impressive than your plant” for the card “view”. The game continues in the same way until all the cards are gone or someone gives up. It’s usually best to tell them that they can’t use the same comparison twice during the game.

18. Pelmanism

This is a well-known TEFL game based on the non-TEFL card game “Pairs”, also known as “The Memory Game”. Cards are placed face down on the table and people take turns trying to find pairs such as two adjectives which take the same preposition, two irregular verbs with the same vowel sound in the past, or two nouns which collocate with “make” (rather than “do”). As with these examples, to make sure there are plenty of matches this game works best if the cards have to have something in common to form a pair, rather than (as in many textbook examples) having to go together (e.g. a “do” card with a “the laundry” card).

A less well-known but even better variation is “Random pelmanism”, in which the cards don’t have obvious similarities and so students must come up with more creative sentences to explain what they could be such as “Bushes and houses are both shorter than other similar things, namely trees and apartment buildings” if they turn over the “bush” and “house” cards.

19. Snap

This is also famous as a TEFL game and based on a well-known non-TEFL card game. Students take turns putting the top card from their pack down face up on two packs on the table, and if the two cards on the table match at any time the person who shouts “Snap!” quickest gets all the cards on the table at that point. People who shout “Snap!” when the cards on the top of the packs on the table don’t match have to “pay” two cards to each of the other people in their group as punishment. The person with most cards at the end of the game wins.

As with pelmanism above, this game works best if the cards have to be similar rather than go together to be a match and so demand shouting “Snap!”, e.g. two uncountable nouns or two time expressions which mean the future.

You might want to replace the expression “Snap!” with a more useful one for communication outside the classroom such as “They match!”

20. Dominoes

Although the non-TEFL version of dominoes is usually played with the thick blocks which are also famous for falling down one after the other in picturesque ways, it can just as easily be played with bits of paper dealt out to groups of three or four students. In its (fairly common) TEFL variations, dominoes have different words, expressions or half words/ expressions on either end in the place of the dots on normal dominoes. Dominoes can be placed down next to the ones on the table if they match what is written on either end of the line of ones that is already there, e.g. “arrive” with “at” or “come” with “from”. As well as collocations like these, you can play it with similar matches to those recommended in Pelmanism and Snap above, e.g. two positive words or two words that express uncertainty. Although many photocopiable versions are designed with only one possible way to match all the dominoes, I prefer versions with many possible matches, meaning the winner is the first person with no cards or the person with fewest cards when no one can place down any more cards.

If several matches are possible for each card as I suggest, you can also play a version of dominoes where each card has only one end (unlike the two different ends of normal dominoes). For example, the card from the pack which is turned over first says “air”, the first player lays down “port” and the next person lays down “ferry”.

Please note that your students might only be aware of the lining up vertically and knocking down use of dominoes, so it can help to demonstrate the original game first.

21. TEFL blackjack

This only works with some kinds of language and takes a fair bit of preparation, but it is possible to play a variation on the card game blackjack/ Uno to practice language including collocations such as compound nouns. As in the original card game, students play in groups of three to five, each of which is dealt five to seven cards that they can look at and must try to discard to win the game. Anyone who can’t go has to pick a card from the remaining pack, and play passes to the next person.

In the original version, players can discard cards to the top of the pile of the table if they match the top one there in terms of colour or number. In the TEFL version, students can only place down one of their cards if it makes a collocation with the word which is on top of the pile on the table, e.g. they can place down “put” or “Monday” if the word there is “on”. To make the game work, as in the original version every card in the pack must have several collocations with other words in the pack. You can also make it easier to match with “joker” cards that students can use to be any word they like, preferably letting the next person change the meaning of the joker which is on the top of the pack when their turn comes if they like. To make it more fun, you can also have cards with trick purposes similar to those in Uno and blackjack, e.g. ones that reverse the direction of play and skip the next person.

The same cards can also be used for the one card version of dominoes explained above.

Copyright © 2013

Written by Alex Case for UsingEnglish.com