English Teacher Article 19 simple, fun and effective ESL board games

Summary: English teaching board games without dice etc that are more fun and better at practising language than those which need such accoutrements, and with many more possible uses.

By: |Audience: Teachers|Category: Teaching English

Like the even more common teacher’s trick of putting things on little slips of paper, converting something into the format of a board game can be a great way of making it instantly more stimulating and fun, even if it isn’t quite Monopoly. Perhaps the two most common things that teachers put in the squares on the board are questions from language exercises (such as gaps to fill and errors to correct) and topics to speak about. Students usually move around the board by successfully doing what they are asked to in the square that they are presently on and/ or doing something with an element of chance such as rolling a dice. Other possibilities for adding luck that I have seen recommended and tried include flipping coins, spinning spinners with numbers on, and doing “janken” (rock paper scissors). 

As good as these basic TEFL board games I’ve described so far sound, I no longer use any of them. Those kinds of regular board game include at least one of these problems:

  • The language activity and how you move around the board being completely separated from each other, with the latter often being down entirely to luck

  • No need for the speaker to push their speaking performance

  • No need for the people playing with them to pay attention to what they say

  • Rather passive students

  • A bit random, often including no clear language focus

  • Quickly becoming repetitive

  • So common that students have almost certainly done the same thing with previous teachers

  • Not really a game (and certainly not the kind of board game that students would play by choice outside class)

  • Too similar to other things you do in class, not really exploiting the strengths and peculiarities of board games

The variations below aim to deal with all these problems while adding more variety and fun. Most of the variations also need less equipment and preparation than some more complex variations, with only one game needing dice and no extra cards etc needed.

The main thing that I try to get rid of when making a new board game is the first of the problems mentioned above – the disconnect between the language activity and how students move around the board. Possibilities of bringing what they say and how they move together include, in approximate order of how simple they are to organise and explain:

  1. Students moving the number of squares of the answer that they get when they ask someone who is in their group a question (e.g. three squares if their partner answers “I have three” to “How many cousins do you have?”)

  2. Students moving the number of squares of the number of linguistically correct things that they say in the category given in the square that they are on (e.g. uncountable nouns which are “liquids” when they are on that square)

  3. Students moving the number of squares of the number of linguistically correct things they can say in order in the category given in the square (e.g. expressions of certainty and uncertainty in order of how sure they mean someone is)

  4. Students moving the number of squares of the number of factually and linguistically correct things that they say (e.g. making true sentences about their partner with Present Perfect and the verb in the square that they are on)

  5. Students moving by the number of linguistically correct statements that they make which the other people in the team agree with (e.g. predictions about the future that everyone thinks are true)

  6. Students moving by how long they can speak (e.g. one point for each thirty seconds that they can speak, up to six points for speaking for three minutes, with points off for things like silent pausing)

  7. Students moving by a ranking by the other people in the team of how well they did something (e.g. from five squares for perfect communication down to one square for barely achieving their aim in a roleplay in the situation given in the square)

  8. Students moving by the number of criteria which their speaking matches (e.g. one point for few pauses, one point for using language that the class have studied, etc, up to maybe six criteria)

  9. Students moving by the number of words or phrases on an accompanying worksheet that they can use while they are speaking (with the other people in the group looking at the worksheet and ticking them off, perhaps with the person speaking being able to see hints such as names of functions or key words)

  10. Students moving by the number of phrases they can use that have the functions given on the side of the board game (as long as no one else has used the same phrases during the game)

  11. Students moving by the number that they get on the dice, but only if they can overcome the challenge that one of the other people in the group have given to that number (e.g. for the square “In the post office” their partners decide that “Six equals you don’t have any foreign currency and five equals you don’t know exact address you are posting it to” with the other numbers being “No problem”)

  12. Students moving by the number of levels of formality/ politeness that they can come up with beyond what is in the square (e.g. moving four squares for coming up with “just a mo’”, “Just a moment”, “Just a moment, please” and “Can you give me just a moment, please?” in response to a square saying “Please wait”)

  13. Students moving by the number of longer and longer phrases they can come up with (e.g. “It’s a long ruler”, “It’s a long clear ruler”, “It’s a long clear 30cm ruler” etc, with the adjectives in the right order)

  14. Students moving round square by square with only one counter for the whole group, with something else such as who has which role being decided by their speaking performances etc

  15. Students moving by the number of times that they can obtain the response that is written in the square from the other people in the group (such as “Yes, I did” for one square, “I don’t remember” for another square, “That’s a bit personal” for another, and “I envy you” for another)

  16. Students moving by the number of a single kind of response (for the whole game) that they can get from other people in the group by asking questions on the topic in the squares (e.g. squares that say “toys” and “kindergarten” for a game which is meant to practise versions of “I don’t remember”)

  17. Students moving by the number of questions that they can answer or reject for being off topic or already answered after speaking about the topic in the square (with points also for their partners running out of questions)

  18. Students moving by the number of lines that there are in a dialogue which they take part in (with the other people taking part in the roleplay trying to keep the conversation as short as possible by politely making their excuses etc)

  19. Students trying the challenges on as many squares after the one that they are on as they like, but going back to their original square if they mess anything up before they settle on a new square and let play pass to the next person

All of these variations are looked at in more detail below.

For the ones where students try to come up with as many correct examples of the thing in the square as possible to get points and so be able to move that many squares (like most of the games above), there are several possible policies on wrong answers:

  • Students can continue to attempt the challenge in the square until they make a mistake, with the number of points (and so number of squares that they move) the number of correct answers that they had said before they messed up. For example, if their fourth attempt at doing what the square which they are on asks them to is wrong, they move three squares. If their first attempt is wrong, play passes straight to the next person and they have to try the same square again when play comes back to them. If the tasks are quite easy, you might want to set a maximum number of points per square, e.g. students stopping when they get to six correct attempts, even if they haven’t made a mistake.

  • Students continue trying to do what the square tells them to until they aren’t sure about their next attempt. They then move the number of squares of their (correct) attempts before that point. If they have misplaced confidence in their next answer and so make a mistake, their points go back down to zero and they have to try again from the same square the next time that it is their turn. Progress will obviously be much slower this way, both in terms of number of squares moved and thinking time.

  • Students are allowed a certain number of attempts (e.g. six) and get one point for each correct attempt out of that number, with no particular punishment for making mistakes early on. This should make progress round the board quicker than the two versions above.

  • Students have a fixed time limit to make attempts and get one point for each correct answer in that time. This can be combined with stopping when they make a mistake or stopping and losing all your points when you make a mistake as just described above.

You could also tell students to stop their turn if they can’t come up with another idea and/ or are silent for more than a certain time limit, e.g. 20 seconds.

1. Moving the number of squares of the answer they get

This can be played with a whole board game for just “have”/ “have got” or “there is/ there are”, perhaps including things in the classroom with questions like “How many tables are there in this room?”

Students could also use Present Simple (“How many sausages do you eat?”), “can” (“How many times can you head a ball?”), Present Perfect (“How many times have you…?”), or Past Simple (“How many… did you yesterday?” or “How many years ago did you last…?”), although this would probably be for a freer/ more mixed game as it would be a struggle to make up a whole game from just one of these structures.

This game doesn’t necessarily have to have anything written in the squares, or you could put in pictures and/ or words to tell them what kinds of categories to ask about such as toys, media, furniture, family, cutlery, crockery, and clothes. You could also include categories of language or phrases mentioned such as “can” and “Present Perfect”.

You have to design the game very carefully to make sure that students don’t get answers like “300” and have to count round and round the board, or you could just set a maximum number of 10 at how many squares they can move. To make them think more carefully about their questions, you could also say that any answer over 10 means that they actually can’t move that turn and have to wait for the next one.

2. Moving the number of squares of the linguistically correct things they say in the category given

This can be used with so many language points, e.g. examples of particular categories of countable and/ or uncountable nouns (“liquids”, “abstract nouns”, etc), particular kinds of comparative adjectives (“ending with –ier”, “positive”, “four syllables” etc), Past Simple verbs (“with –ed pronounced /t/”, “irregular with the vowel pronounced ‘or’”, “three syllables” etc), and words with a particular spelling and/ or pronunciation. For a few of those language points you could make a whole board game for one language point, e.g. by putting a different phoneme or a different category of uncountable noun in each square. However, this generally works best as a revision board game, with different things from the course which you want them to remember in each square. I often use this version in the penultimate lesson of a course, before an end of term test.

3. Moving the number of squares of the linguistically correct things they say in order in the category given

This is basically the same as the game above, but students must also get the things that they say in the right order. This works for anything that you can rank the meaning of, e.g. phrases explaining how similar and different things are like “very different” and “slightly different”, phrases explaining how often something happens like “very rarely”, phrases explaining (approximately) how many or much something is like “a couple”, phrases explaining how sure you are like “fairly likely” and phrases explaining positive and negative feelings like “absolutely disgusting”, “a bit irritating” or “can’t stand”. For enough squares to make a whole board game, you’ll need to repeat squares and/ or have students doing the same thing backwards sometimes, e.g. going down from “always”. You can also have a mix of some squares with words that they should go up or down from and some squares with just descriptions of the kinds of language they need to come up with in order (e.g. “adverbs of frequency”). You could also have whole sentences that they should make more and more sure, make about more and more people, etc.

The levels of politeness game below is a version of this.

4. Moving the number of squares of the factually and linguistically correct things they say

This is perhaps the most flexible of all the games in this article, being possible with just about any language point and again being great for a review game at the end of term. If possible, it’s best to add some personalisation by telling them to make most or all of the statements things which are true about the other people in their group such as “You have never been to Iceland” and “You detest heavy metal”.

Some of the many possible points to practise with this game include (with suggestions of what to put in the squares in brackets):

  • Present Perfect (topics such as “work” and times such as “this year”)

  • Likes and dislikes (words to use such as “adore” and topics such as “food”)

  • Second Conditional (words to use and topics such as “lottery”)

  • Simple Past (times such as “the day before yesterday” and “last”, and topics such as “daily routine”)

  • Present Simple (adverbs of frequency, other frequency expressions, verbs and topics)

  • Comparative and superlative (things to compare to the other people in their group or their possessions, topics, and adjectives to use)

5. Moving by the number of linguistically correct statements that the other people in the team agree with

This is a variation on the game above which allows students to make statements about other topics such as comparisons (comparisons between the thing written in the square such as “this town” and other things), adjectives (describing things and people in the squares that they all know), recommendations, (strong and weak positive and negative) opinions, and Third Conditional (about the historical topics in the squares like “inventions” and/ or decisions in their own lives like “different study after high school”). In each case, their partner must agree with their opinion for them to get a point. Note that this doesn’t work with very competitive groups as they will just disagree with everything that the other people say in order to stop them winning (whatever their real opinion).

6. Moving by how long they speak

This is another very flexible game which I often use for revision by adding topics from the course book like “a holiday” and “my health recommendations” to the squares on the board. This can also be good preparation for giving presentations in English, as well as more informal extended speaking – for exams such as FCE Speaking Part Two and IELTS Speaking Part Two, but also as a vital skill for higher level students.

7. Moving by a ranking by the other people in the team of how well they did

This is another one which is good for revision, especially as you can include roleplays such as “In the post office” and “Respond to a complaint”. You can also do telephoning and emailing roleplays, in the latter case with them saying what they would include in such an email (word for word) and their partners doing the same for the original email which that person has to deal with and/ or the response after they send the email that they come up with. Business English students could also roleplay meetings for particular challenges such as “Negotiate a pay rise” and “Explain to your boss why you haven’t finished your project yet”.

8. Moving by the number of criteria which their speaking matches

This can be used for any of the uses of the game just above, and this variation is usually better than that game as this one makes students think more about what successful communication in English is. Possible criteria include “achieved what the square asked you to do”, “smooth communication”, “friendly”, “good stress and intonation”, “good active listening”, “polite”, “few pauses”, “fluent”, “language that you have studied in class”, “few mistakes”, “high level language”, “speaking for a long time” and “avoiding repetition”. You could also let students decide what the criteria will be, maybe changing it (a little) for each square.

9. Moving by the number of words or phrases on a worksheet that they can use while they are speaking

Students roleplay the situation of the square that they are on now while the other people in the group look at a list of useful words and phrases for that situation, probably ones that have already been studied in class. The students who are listening tick off anything they hear and when the person whose turn it is has finished speaking they can move one square for each one that was ticked. Those phrases stay crossed off, meaning other people must use different ones when it comes to their turn. The person speaking can’t look at the list, but they will be able to see it when it is other people’s turns, giving them a chance to memorise them somewhat at that time.

This works best if the words and phrases are divided by function, e.g. “apologise” and “give reasons” as the categories for a board game with lots of different situations for dealing with complaints in the different squares, in which case the key words etc that they must use can be things like “afraid” and “due to”.

10. Moving by the number of new phrases they can use that have the functions given on the side of the board game

This is the same as the divided by functions version of the game just above, but with an extra blank space with each category of language that they are asked to use. As well as ticking the phrases that the person speaking uses, students can also give them a tick in the blank space for each other suitable phrase with that function they use that hadn’t been used before. This means that the person who is speaking doesn’t have to use exactly the words and phrases which are on the suggested phrases list as long as they say something original and with the right function.

The functions that you give will need to be ones which can be used with almost every square, e.g. “checking/ clarifying”, “starting conversations” and “thanking”. I mainly use this game with exam preparation classes, e.g. typical topics for FCE Speaking Part One in the squares and typical interactional language that can come up in the exam like “vague answers” and “commenting on your partner’s answer” as they categories that they should come up with as they are speaking. It can also be used for business meetings/ negotiations, as long as you push them to keep each meeting very short.

11. Moving by the number on the dice, but only if they can overcome the challenge given to that number

When it is someone’s go, the other people in the group try to think of a challenge for each number on the dice connected to what is written in the square that they are presently on. For example, if they are on the “telephoning” square, their partners can decide that “Six means that you can’t contact the person you want to speak to” and “Five means that you have a bad line”. If they run out of ideas, the other numbers on the dice have no problem attached to them. As the other students want to stop their partner going too far, it’s best for them to give the challenges to the highest numbers on the dice, leaving low numbers like one as “no problem”.

The person whose turn it is then throws the dice and roleplays the situation, including the problem if they get one of those numbers. If they find some way of having a successful outcome, they can move the number that was on the dice, with the new square being what they will have to do next time.

This game works for all kinds of situations and functions.

12. Moving by the number of levels of formality/ politeness that they can come up with

Students must make more and more polite versions of the basic or rude phrases that are written in the squares like “Please write back soon” and “No idea”, getting one point for each additional level of politeness that they can come up with (in order). You will need a mix of functions to fill a whole board game, but you can make them all connected to one situation such as emailing (with squares for opening, requesting, etc), telephoning, giving presentations and business meetings. As well as sentences to improve on, students can also just be given just the name of the function that they should try many levels of formality for (e.g. “apologising”).

13. Students moving by the number of longer and longer phrases they can come up with

If it will be difficult for students to judge whether the sentences which someone is coming up with are really getting more and more polite as in the game just above, it might be easier for them to come up with longer and longer correct sentences (which are also usually more polite). This game can also be used for longer and longer descriptions, or longer and therefore more specific and higher level functional language phrases (“bigger”, “a lot bigger”, “quite a lot bigger” etc).

14. Moving round square by square with only one counter for the whole group

In this game there is no skipping squares/ jumping ahead, so there must be another reward for doing well. Students who do well could give someone else the more difficult role in the situation on the next square, sit out the next round, make problems to be solved, choose the criteria for doing well, etc. Doing well could be defined as doing better than the other people taking part or other ideas from above such as meeting criteria or using phrases on a worksheet.

15. Moving by the number of times they can get the response that is written in the square from the other people in the group

This is another one for which is quite difficult but just about possible to make a whole board for one language point. Possibilities include all the short answers (“Yes, I did”, “No I haven’t” etc in the different squares), typical short social responses (“That’s a shame”, “I don’t believe it” etc in the different squares), names of different people and relationships (with questions like “Who do you…?” and “Who… you?”) and frequency expressions (“Once every two weeks”, “Often” etc, with “How often do you…?” questions).

16. Moving by the number of a single kind of response they get by asking questions on the topic in the squares

This is similar to the game just above but with the responses for all the boxes being basically the same (although different phrases meaning the same thing should obviously be encouraged). Possibilities for what they have to get their partners to say include versions of “I don’t remember” (with topics like “primary school” and “celebrations”), versions of one level of agreement or disagreement (e.g. variations on “I totally agree”), phrases for accepting advice, and phrases for turning down requests.

To make sure that the language which you are focussing on gets some practice, you’ll need to ask students to use a different phrase each time they respond, being able to repeat only when it becomes the next person’s turn. Note that unlike most of the games in this article, this rather unusually makes it as much of a challenge for the people waiting as it does for the person whose counter is on the square.

17. Moving by the number of questions that they can answer or reject for being off topic or answered already

This more complex version of an extended speaking game is for students who might not really listen when their partners are speaking or for students who need to practise dealing with questions (e.g. Q&A sessions in real presentations). Students try to say as much as they possibly can about a topic while they are speaking, then their partner(s) must ask (say) six questions. The person who spoke gets points for successfully answering questions, but also for any questions that their partner(s) can’t come up with (e.g. two points if their partners only come up with four questions) and any questions that they can reject (e.g. for being off topic or already answered when they were originally speaking on the topic). You’ll need to decide if answers such as “I’m afraid I didn’t research that but I’ll check and email you tomorrow” count as a successful answer or not. You could also give points to the other people in the group for asking questions that other people can’t answer.

18. Moving by the number of lines in a dialogue that they take part in

This is useful for politely and smoothly ending conversations, although actually it is the people who are waiting for their turn who mainly use that language. The squares on the board can have topics of conversation or (probably) situations in which you might meet someone such as “the lift” and “a conference”. It’s probably best to have groups of at least three people so someone can count the number of exchanges in the conversation while the two people speaking try to extend the conversation (the person whose turn it is) or quickly but politely end it (the other person).

19. Students trying the challenges on as many squares after the one that they are on as they like

This means that, unlike most of the games here, students only need one correct answer for each square. Even more than the games above, for this game to work it must be obvious if a student has successfully managed to do the thing on each square. Possibilities include difficult roleplays (“negotiate a pay rise” etc), a certain number of correct things to brainstorm (“six uncountable nouns in this classroom” etc) or single things to come up with (“A food that your partner can’t stand” etc). If their partners decide any of those are not successful, the person whose turn it is goes back to the square which they started that turn on.

Creating your own board games

It is incredibly easy to make your own simple board games such as those described in this article with just any ordinary word-processing program. Make a normal table like you would if you were making cards or a substitution table, maybe one with five columns and ten or so rows. Combine (= merge) the middle boxes of the table to make one big space in the middle, leaving just a rectangle of boxes round the outside that will be the squares that students will put their counters on and move around. In Microsoft Word merging boxes in a table can be done by simply holding down the left button on your mouse while you drag the cursor over the boxes that you want to merge, right clicking on those highlighted boxes, then pressing “M” for “merge”. 

Write “START” in one of the remaining squares, e.g. the top right one. You can then add a circular ClipArt image to the middle space to show students which way to move, or some straight arrows to some of the boxes round the edge with the same purpose. Then add words and/ or ClipArt images to the remaining boxes around the outside of the table as you would to any other table.

You’ll need to decide which of the games you are going to play above, and how wrong guesses are treated. You’ll also need to decide on how the game will end. Possibilities include:

  • The first person to pass the START square again after one complete rotation of the board wins

  • Students continue going round and round the board until you tell them to stop, with the person who has progressed furthest at that point the winner

  • Students play for a fixed amount of time, with the person who has progressed furthest at that point being the winner

  • Don’t tell students which of those systems you are planning to use, only deciding when you see how useful the game is and how your timing is going

Copyright © 2014

Written by Alex Case for UsingEnglish.com