15 ways to teach English with blocks and stacking games
Summary: Stacking blocks and other things like plastic kitchen sets to practise numbers, basic maths, times, days of the week, months, dates, the alphabet, phonics, colours, basic questions and answers, shapes, prepositions of position, requests and offers.
A set of simple stacking blocks is up there with a ball in the list of things that I most want to have available to prepare for a young learner class, and probably top of the list in classes where use of a ball could lead to breakages or other disorder. As well as basic cubic wooden or foam stacking blocks, most of the activities explained below can also be done with Jenga blocks, paper cups, matchsticks, ice lolly sticks, Lego blocks, etc, or even with more irregularly-shaped things like a toy kitchen set or even plastic animals . There are also fun commercially-available stacking games that look like towers of ice cream, incredibly thick hamburgers, stacks of doughnuts etc, and even stacks of pandas! Only a couple of the ideas below demand the kind of set of stacking cups of different sizes and colours that babies are often given, but these can also be used for most of the other games here. There are tips on using different kinds of things for stacking at the bottom of the page.
The activities below are arranged from the easiest and most basic at the top to the most complex nearer the bottom.
Counting as you build a tower
Students count up to ten, twelve or twenty as a tower of blocks is built, going back to counting from one and trying again if the tower falls down. They can also say whole phrases or sentences like “One block, two blocks, three blocks” or “There is one block, there are two blocks”.
The easiest way of organising this is for students to take turns saying the next number and adding the next block on top of the previous one. You could give points to the person who last successfully places a block, but the challenge of stacking is usually motivating enough without the use of points.
You can also do this basic stacking and counting activity with students taking turns trying to build a whole tower whilst counting as high as they can go, with the next person taking their turn to build a tower when that person’s tower falls down. Alternatively, one person can do the building as the whole class or one team counts. If you have enough supplies, another option is for students to all work on making their own towers at the same time with different sets of blocks. Teams are told to stop when they don’t think they can go any higher and the tallest tower when the teacher shouts "Stop!" wins. The language comes in by forcing them to count in English as they stack and them and again when they count the height of their tower in front of the whole class when the winner is decided.
Students who already know numbers up to twenty could also do the same thing for “ten, twenty, thirty” etc as they stack each block, though this might confuse students as it doesn’t match the actual number of blocks that they can see. It might therefore be better to move onto “first, second, third, etc” once they have got the hang of numbers up to the teens, especially if you want to move onto dates after that.
You can also of course do “One o’clock”, “Two o’clock” etc as students build the tower. The same thing can also be done with smaller graduations (“One o’clock”, “Five past one”, etc), perhaps as Don’t Finish Stacking below.
Dates tower building
This is basically the same as Counting as You Build a Tower above, but with students saying “Monday” “Tuesday” etc or “January” “February” etc as the tower gets taller and taller. You can let students stop and give them a round of applause when they get to the end of the week or year, or ask them carry on round the weeks or years until they make a mistake or the tower falls down.
You can also do the same with actual dates. The simplest possibility is to get students to go through “(Monday) the first of December” “(Tuesday) the second of December” etc day by day, but it would probably be better to let them choose any date that is later in the year than the last one which was mentioned, leading to students saying “The sixth of February”, “The tenth of February”, “The first of March” etc. This can also be played as a version of Don’t Finish Stacking below.
Don’t finish stacking
Students have to say something that comes after what was said as the last block was placed on the tower, but making sure they don’t come to the end of whatever they are going through together. This is easiest with dates and times, e.g. telling them to progress but not reach midnight or Xmas Day. It can also be done with numbers up to 100, or even with a sentence word by word or word letter by letter.
Alphabet tower counting
This is the same as counting numbers, but with students saying “A”, “B”, “C” etc (the names of the letters) or “a”, “b”, “c” etc (the phonic sounds of the letters) as you do so. This basic version isn’t especially useful with most classes, as students tend to already know the alphabet, and those that don’t are rarely capable of making a tower that is 26 blocks tall! Instead, you could get them to put the names or the sounds of the letters in combinations such as “A, a” (letter name and phonic), “a, apple” (phonic and example word) or “A, a, apple” (letter name, phonic and example word). The can be played with the whole thing being said by the person laying one block on the stack (moving onto the second block for “B, b, banana”) or each part being a separate block (e.g. the first two blocks for “a” and “apple”, then the next two for “b” and “banana”). If you are doing one block per sound or word, students can also challenge each other out of alphabet order, e.g. “A” “apple” “D” “dog”, etc.
Stacking in order
This can only be done with a set of stacking cups of different colours and sizes. Spread the cups across the floor and start the tower by putting the largest base one in front of you. Students try to spot which cup should go next in the tower and shout out its colour. You could also have them touching the written name of the colour that they think should go next instead of or as well as shouting out its name. As an extension and for more stacking challenge fun, you could then try it upside down, going from the smallest cup to the largest.
I haven’t tried this, but you could count down as well as up with blocks, e.g. counting up to twelve as you build the tower then counting down again as you take it apart. A more complex version is for someone to nominate a block that they want taken out (e.g. “The seventh block” or “March”) and two people to work together to remove it without the whole tower falling down. Disappearing Towers is a good extension of Counting as You Build a Tower and its variations above as it is a step up in terms of both language and difficulty of stacking.
Blocks for points
Blocks can also be given for points during other games, with teams stacking them into towers, the heights of which are their final scores. Not only does this add some fun practice of numbers to the end of the game, it also evens things up in classes where one person or team tends to do much better than the others, as very tall towers made of many points are more likely to fall over.
Blocks can also be given for more boring things like good behaviour and correct answers, and taken away for bad behaviour and not knowing things that they really should know. If they get more points/ blocks than they can realistically put into a tower, they can use some of them to make a pyramid-style base or similar to save their tower falling down, with the height of the highest block still be the number of points.
If you leave all the stacking until the end of the game that you are giving points for, you can give them a time limit and give them points for the height of their towers at exactly that point in time, or you can let them try to build as high a tower as they can but with the teacher taking away any blocks that fall off while they are doing so. Blocks for points can also be done with teams stacking their blocks every time they receive them, with any blocks falling off being lost in the same way.
Questions and answers stacking
Students add blocks to a tower as they ask and answer questions like “How are you?” and “What’s your name?”. They will obviously build a taller tower that will fall over more quickly if they place blocks both for questions and for answers. If you want to add numbers practice to this game too, you could have them say how many blocks there are after each question and answer exchange.
Maths with towers
One step on from stacking blocks one by one is doing so a few at a time. This can be done for CLIL practice of numbers and maths if you get students to shout out what the height of the tower will be when you add two blocks (“What’s ten plus two?”), letting them count to check when you’ve added them. The same thing can also be done with subtraction. The adding version can be combined with Blocks for Points above.
Stack that many
Students ask each other “How many…?” questions and the people who answer add that many to their stack. For example, if one student asks “How many brothers and sisters do you have?” and the answer is “I have three”, they can score that many points as long as they can balance that many on the top of the tower without it falling over.
This is quite different from all the other activities in this article as the aim is not to build the tallest tower but instead to make a particular shape. Teams of students can compete to be first to build:
2D shapes such as square, triangle and rectangle, perhaps with a particular size given
3D shapes such as cube and pyramid, again perhaps to the size said by the teacher or a classmate (“three blocks by three blocks by three blocks” etc)
Some capital letters and small letters, and even simple words made of those letters
Most other letters of the alphabet and many other shapes can be constructed by making a shape flat on the table, which is still fun despite losing the possibility of it all falling down factor.
With a mixed set of things to stack such as a plastic kitchen set, students tell each other what thing they want the next person to add next, with perhaps points if that challenge leads to everything falling down. To practice prepositions of position, they could also say where they want each bit to go, e.g. “(Put the fork) in the cup” and “(Put the cup) under the plate”.
I want to stack that
Students ask for things to stack on their tower with “Can I have a green block/ saucepan/ big block/ rectangle?” etc. The teacher says “Here you are” if it is available or “Sorry, I don’t have…” if it isn’t, and play passes to the next person. As usual, the tallest tower or the last person to do something before a fall wins. As with the next game, this usually works best with the things which are available hidden inside a bag.
Do you want to stack that?
The teacher (or student with the teacher role) randomly selects things by sticking their hand into a bag without looking and asks if the next person wants those things to stack with sentences like “Do you want a…?” or “Would you like a…?” If they say “No, thank you” twice, they get whatever the third thing is with no further choice. The usual stacking rules for who wins apply.
Tips on using different things to stack with
If students can’t stack to a high enough number to make for proper practice of the language point of the day (e.g. rarely reaching a 12-block tall tower when you want to practise months), it is best to use Lego-style buildlng blocks for stacking. If this becomes too easy, give a mix of sizes of Lego blocks and/ or encourage students to sometimes stack off to one side rather than straight up. If you don’t have access to Lego-style bricks, large wooden blocks are the next easiest to stack, especially if you let them stack in pyramid or wall shapes. Stacking paper cups in pyramids is also fairly easy to do.
There are many more options if the problem is that students are too good at stacking and so the game never comes to a natural end or play never passes to the next person. The next level up in difficulty from simple wooden stacking blocks are different sizes (and even shapes) of wooden block and/ or using plastic ones instead. Again, you can also suggest and/ or demonstrate stacking off centre to add challenge to the next person to go. You can them move onto plastic or paper cups stacked in a tower, perhaps adding other things like plastic toy saucepans and plates, and knives and forks balancing on the sides of them.
Unless it helps your language point (e.g. in the last three games above), it’s rarely worth going up the next level of difficulty with things like pyramids of playing cards and (hard) plastic animals, as you’ll spend most of your time picking the animals off the floor or waiting for students to plan where to put the next thing.