Using ball games to teach English
Summary: Almost 100 ways to use a ball in EFL classes, plus 13 other kinds of objects you can use the same way if don't want to use a ball
Ball games are a great way of practicing all kinds of language with young learners, particularly kids who struggle with more traditional classroom activities. In fact, many teachers start most classes with games such as one person throwing and catching as many times as they can while saying the right thing, two or more people cooperating to do the same thing, a more competitive version in which they try to get their classmates to say the wrong thing or drop the ball, or one of the many variations described below. Because they have so many possible uses, ball games are particularly good for revising a load of old language before moving onto presenting the new language point of the day. Some can also be used with livelier classes of adults or teenagers.
Perhaps just as many teachers see just potential problems with bringing balls into their classroom, including:
The ball hitting things in the classroom (and even breaking them)
Students getting overexcited
The ball distracting the students from the language
Students who can’t catch (well) getting frustrated or holding the game up
Students fighting over who should have the ball next, who won a point, etc
Time wasting, e.g. by students throwing the ball far away from the next person
Students doing nothing while waiting (maybe a long time) for the ball
Students being picked on (by not having the ball thrown to them, having the ball thrown to them too often or too hard, having the ball thrown to a place that is difficult to catch, etc)
Students getting an uneven amount of time speaking (due to how often they are thrown the ball, how long they can spend with the ball depending on how successful they are, etc)
Students getting bored with the same old uses of the ball
The many variations mentioned and then summarised below have been designed to deal with all of those problems, as well as to make using a ball possible for a wider range of language points, more fun and more productive.
Basic ball games to practice English
Throwing or bouncing balls to drill language
The simplest use of a ball is for students to throw and catch it while drilling something like months of the year or pairs of infinitive and irregular past forms of verbs. This can be done with all three of the ways mentioned in the introduction above – one student on their own, two or more students cooperating, or a more competitive version with more challenging throws or things said to catch the other people out. You could also have one or two people throwing and catching while everyone else chants, perhaps as teams.
A very soft foam ball is usually best for these games. A beach ball is also usually fine and better for bouncing, as long as there aren’t things in the classroom which could be knocked onto the floor by it. They can also throw and catch soft plastic fruit and animals (including hand puppets) and beanbags (or socks filled with something to make your own beanbags). Balloons also work, but waiting for them to come back down again can be a bit of a waste of class time, and you’ll need some spares in case they burst.
As well as throwing and catching, students can bounce the ball on the floor, wall or table, or in the air without letting it drop, like volleyball. Students can also roll or flick the ball along the floor or table, pass it, or throw it just in front of each other. These variations expand the list of things that can be used in the place of a ball to include things like coins and toy cars (for flicking and sliding across the table), erasers (for passing), pieces of paper (screwed up or as paper aeroplanes) and sticky balls (also known as sucker balls, especially useful for throwing just in front of each other).
As well as months, other sequences which students can drill include:
Days of the week
Ordinal numbers (first, second, etc)
I me my mine, you you your yours, etc
I go, he goes, she does, it goes, we go, etc (useful to practise third person S)
Adjectives and adverbs (slightly better, quite a lot better, much better, much much better, etc)
With many of these, it can be useful to move onto more challenging ways of progressing through the list, e.g. odd days (“Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday, Tuesday”, etc) or increments of five (“five, ten, fifteen, twenty”, etc). Particularly with CLIL classes, students could also do times tables (“Three times two is six” “Four times two is eight”, etc).
To drill pairs of things like infinitives and irregular past forms, they could throw the ball backwards and forwards between two students or teams, with the serving side giving the infinitive and the other team trying to return the ball (volleying or catching then throwing) while saying the correct Past Simple form. Scoring and exchange of serve can be organised like any similar sports, e.g. tennis or volleyball.
As well as irregular past forms, games where they challenge the other person or team can also be used for:
Infinitive and (pronunciation of) regular Past Simple verbs
Infinitive and (pronunciation of) past participles
Infinitive and (pronunciation of) third person S
Singular and plural nouns, or whole sentences containing them (“I have a dog” “I have two dogs” etc)
Maths problems (“Seven plus twelve” “Equals nineteen” etc)
Common questions and answers (“What’s your name?” “My name is…”, “How old are you?” “I’m…”, etc)
Adjectives and comparatives and/ or superlatives
Opposites (adjectives etc, like “Dark” “Light” and “Huge” “Tiny”)
If anyone makes a mistake or drops the ball, you can:
Simply continue from the same point
Go back to the beginning again
Switch to another person or pair
Deduct a point from that person or their team
Give a point to the other people or teams
Give a point to the person or team who spoke just before that mistake
Eliminate that person from the game (maybe continuing until you are down to a few or even just one person before allowing everyone to join in again)
Give elimination points or make them do something that will lead towards their eventual elimination, e.g. one elimination point of three needed to lose and start the game again, or having to kneel then play with one and finally no hands
Give something to everyone else to hold to show that they got a point (e.g. an eraser)
The advantage of the last variation is that it makes it more difficult for people who have points to play, giving the others more of a chance to win – or at least to catch up a little.
The next level of drilling is doing whole sentences word by word, e.g. “How” “are” “you” “I’m” “fine” “thank” “you” as the ball is bounced up and down or goes back and forth between students.
Going beyond drilling with throwing and bouncing balls
An obvious next stage from the drilling word by word game suggested above is letting students add their own words to those sentences as the ball is caught and thrown or bounced back. For example, for likes and dislikes the fourth person can add their own word “ice cream” to the drilled sentence “Do” “you” “like”, with the next person to touch the ball answering truthfully “Yes” or “No” and the following people continuing with “I” and “do” or “don’t”.
A livelier variation on this is for other people to react to the words that are said, e.g. running and putting their hands under a desk if the words are “Where” “is” “it?” “It’s” “under” “the” “desk” or miming the correct action if the sentence is “What” “are” “you” “doing?” “I’m” plus the next student’s choice of “swimming”.
Another obvious activity that could be considered one step above drilling is brainstorming as a ball goes back and forth, e.g. “banana”, “apple”, “grape” etc if the topic is fruit. The same thing can be done for grammar by brainstorming things like past participles (“been”, “seen”, “watched” etc) and uncountable nouns. You can also do the same thing for pronunciation, brainstorming words with “iz” ending (“passes”, “churches” etc), words with long vowel sounds (“arch” etc), single syllable words (“fan”, “bar” etc), words stressed on the first syllable (“power”, “waterfall”, etc), and so on.
Brainstorming is the variation in which I most often use the idea of bouncing the ball as in volleyball rather than throwing and catching it, as this version reduces the time that students can spend thinking about the next thing before they have to say something. If students can’t think of something in the time it takes to receive the ball and volley it straight back (and they usually can’t), you can allow them to bounce the ball on their own (or within their team) while they are thinking.
Target practice games for practising English
After throwing, catching and bouncing, the next most obvious thing to do with a ball is to aim it at something, like basketball or a safer version of darts. There are loads of games using this fun idea while practising useful language.
One target practice game is an extension of the word by word activity explained above, with the person who receives the ball after the last person to speak throwing the ball “under” “the” “whiteboard”, “next to” “the” “door” etc as per the sentence that their classmates have constructed.
Target practice in the classroom can also be played with students aiming balls at the places that the teacher or a student says or writes up on the whiteboard. If you don’t have enough balls for one per student or don’t want lots of things flying around the classroom at the same time, students can use paper (screwed up into balls or made into paper aeroplanes) or one person from each team can throw, with their teammates helping them work out where to do so. To add extra language, you can let students try again if they can describe where their ball actually ended up (“It’s in front of the box” “That’s right. Try to throw it behind the box again then.”)
You can also play the opposite game of one person throwing and the other students competing to be first to correctly shout out where the ball has ended up.
The other way of using the classroom as it exists is to designate parts of it as representing certain things, e.g. telling the students that the wall with the whiteboard on it represents the sound “ch” and the opposite wall represents “sh”, with students throwing at the wall representing the sound that they think they hear (or see the teacher mouthing silently). The same game can be played with many many other language points, including:
Other minimal pairs, e.g. “ar” and “er” in “far” and “fur”
One-syllable words and two-syllable words
Words stressed on the first and second syllable
Other pronunciation pairs, e.g. “-ed” endings that do and don’t add a syllable (“wanted” and “passed” or “banned”)
Collocations with pairs of words, e.g. words that go with “do” or “make”
Countable and uncountable nouns
“more” or “er” with comparative adjectives
“most” or “est” with superlative adjectives
Pairs of commonly confused functions such as offers and requests
Starting or ending (conversations, emails, presentations, etc) phrases
Positive and negative answers (to requests etc)
Polite/ formal and impolite/ informal sentences
Passive and active forms
Correct and incorrect sentences
True and false sentences
Written and spoken language (e.g. emailing and telephoning phrases)
Unreal Past sentences and sentences actually about the past
You can also play with more than two parts, e.g. two walls and the ceiling for each of the three pronunciations of third person S or plural S.
Other target practice games depend on creating something for students to aim at. Games just described above for parts of the classroom such as opposite walls can also be played with the ball thrown into boxes, onto blankets on the floor, or at the parts of the board divided by a line (especially if you have sticky balls). Other things that students can throw at include:
large (word, picture and/ or phonemic) flashcards (put around the room or on the board)
objects placed around the classroom
letters, words or sentences on the board, perhaps written into a table
a dartboard-style target on the board
Students can aim at things which the teacher says (“height”), things which are the right answer to what the teacher says (“Which food is my favourite?” “What’s the last letter of ‘cheese’?”, “What’s the next letter in this word/ word in this sentence?”, “Which object is the biggest?”, etc), things they want to complete their word or sentence (e.g. when playing a form of hangman or making example sentences), things they want to challenge the other team with (“What’s the past of ‘bring’?” etc), or things they want deleted from the text or table for everyone to have to remember (the game “Disappearing text”). With two or more of each flashcard or object to throw at, you can also practise “this/ that/ these/ those”.
The dartboard-style target can be used to choose how difficult a question they want to be challenged with (e.g. from a list of progressively more difficult to spot grammar mistakes), how many points they can score for the next task that they are given, or simply which team will get the next task and so the chance to score points.
As well as the objects mentioned above like beach balls and paper aeroplanes, students can flick rubber bands or aim plastic shooting toys (guns, bow and arrow, etc). They can also try to get coins or toy cars in the right place, but obviously in a two-dimensional way along the table or floor.
Even more fun variations include allowing students to compete to run and fetch the ball after it is thrown, having “goalkeepers” who try to block the person throwing, and throwing blind (maybe with their team mates telling them where to throw and the variation where they have to say where the ball landed if they miss and want to try again). You can also have the people who aren’t throwing close their eyes (or turn around if they can’t be trusted not to look), listening for where the person with the ball has thrown the ball and shouting out their guesses.
As well as listening for where the ball has gone, students can listen for what someone is doing with the ball, e.g. “You are bouncing it on the door” and “You are kicking it”. Students can also race to do the action that is shouted out or written up (“Balance the ball on your shoulder”, “Hold the ball between your knees”, etc), challenge each other to do tricky things (“Can you head it four times?” etc), or think of and do actions that no one else has (“We are holding it with our little fingers”). One person or group can also do a whole sequence of actions that the other people must try to remember, as practice of Past Simple and/ or sequencing language (“after that” etc).
TEFL dodge ball
This is kind of the opposite of the throw and catch games at the start of this article. People try to avoid the thrown ball, and if it hits them they have to answer the question, come up with the next word, guess the next missing letter, etc. If they are wrong, they lose a point or are out of the game. If they are right, they can throw the ball next, perhaps also setting the next challenge. If you and the students can stand the chaos, this works best with everyone running around freely, rather than gathered at opposite walls as in the normal rules of dodge ball.
The idea of passing the ball rather than throwing it which was briefly mentioned above can be the source of a whole bunch of other teaching games. The simplest is to split the class into two or more teams. The members of each team pass the ball to each other as quickly as possible while practising language mentioned above such as drilling the months, asking and answering personal questions, or going through “I me mine you your yours” etc. This can be done round and round circles, or if they are standing in straight lines the person at the back can run to the front and continue from there. To make the actual passing more interesting and challenging, they can do so over their heads, under their legs, under their left arm etc. Although it is rarely worth the wasted class time for anything but an occasional treat, they can also play the party games of passing the ball (or better balloon) from between knees to between knees, under chin to under chin etc. The person running to the front can also go under people’s legs, wind in and out along the line of people as they run, etc. They can also add more challenge and fun by passing with just thumbs, passing several objects at the same time, or passing tricky objects (because they are huge, tiny, slippery, etc).
Passing games without teams include Pass the Parcel. Students pass a ball while practising the language of the day such as going through some dates in chronological order. Whenever the music stops, whoever is holding the ball has to do an additional challenge to stay in the game, get a point, or not lose a point (depending on which rules you choose).
If you are teaching “have”/ “have got”, students can try to secretly pass the ball to each other around a circle, with the person in the middle trying to guess which person they should say “You have the ball” to when the teacher says “Stop”.
Passing rather than throwing means you can use virtually anything in the place of a ball, e.g. classroom objects like eraser and stapler for the “have”/ “have got” game that I have just described.
Summary of different ways of using a ball to teach English
Each section given in approximate order of how often I use those variations in my classes (although of course your classes will be different).
As well as a foam ball or beach ball, students can use:
Sticky balls (= sucker balls)
Screwed up pieces of paper
Soft plastic toys, e.g. plastic fruit
Toy cars (pushed across the floor or table)
Cuddly toys (teddy bears etc)
Bean bags, including homemade bean bags (e.g. made from socks)
Coins (pushed or flicked across the floor or table)
Toy bows and arrows
or virtually anything else if students are passing rather than throwing. Especially for passing, it’s obviously good if the thing chosen is related to what they are saying, e.g. an empty paper cup for “Would you like a cup of tea?”
As well as throwing and catching, students can:
Roll it along the floor or table
Bounce it up and down (perhaps with more or less the rules of volleyball)
Pass it (along a line, including behind their backs, under their legs, over their heads, etc)
Throw it at a target
Throw it anywhere they like (for people to identify the position of, perhaps without looking)
Bounce and catch it (on the floor, wall, right flashcard, right part of the board, etc)
Flick it (if it’s something small, heavy and flat like a coin)
Do an action with it (for people to guess, perhaps with their eyes closed, to say what original thing they are doing for points, etc)
Throw it at someone (like dodge ball)
Throw it just in front of each other (if it’s something that won’t roll away like a beanbag or sticky ball)
As well as the whole class standing up and taking turns throwing, students can:
Take turns seeing how long they can throw and catch (or just bounce up and down) while saying the right thing (with the people watching chanting along, helping or looking out for mistakes)
Work together to throw and catch while drilling something
Throw or pass within their team
Chant as one or more people throw and catch etc
All throw at a target
Say where the ball landed
Say what action is being done with the ball (perhaps without looking)
Secretly pass a thing or things (for the watching person to work out where ti has gone with “You have got…”)
Give instructions to a blindfolded person about where to throw
Run and fetch the ball after it is thrown
Act as “goalkeepers”, trying to block the ball going from where it is being aimed (guessing what the person with the ball will choose or going from what someone said)
If students won’t be motivated enough just by playing a game, you can:
Give points for doing the right thing with the ball while saying the right thing
Give points for challenges that someone sets and someone else can’t do
Score and change service like real ball sports, e.g. badminton, tennis, table tennis or volleyball
Give a punishment to anyone who fails to do the right thing with the ball or say the right thing that makes the game more difficult, e.g. on one knee, on two knees, just one hand, no hands, out
Eliminate the first person to make a mistake (or a certain number of mistakes) give everyone else a point, then start the next round with everyone again
Just praise anyone who does anything particularly well
Eliminate anyone who fails to do the right thing with the ball or say the right thing from that round, continuing until there are a few or even just one person left, perhaps giving points to the last remaining people
Take away points from anyone who fails to do the right thing with the ball or say the right thing
Give a black mark to anyone who fails to do the right thing with the ball, one which will lead to their elimination when they have a certain number of black marks (usually three)
Give winners something to represent points but which makes it more difficult to win future rounds, e.g. the ball from that round to hold
You might also need to punish bad throws, taking too long to throw or taking too long to set the next person a challenge.
Things that can be practised with at least one of the variations above include:
Personal questions and answers (“What’s your name?”, “Do you like…?”, “Do you have…?”, “Do you want…?”, “Are you feeling…?” etc, as setting each other challenges to answer the questions, dodge ball with the person who is hit having to answer, choosing questions to answer as target practice, or completing word by word sentences like “Do” “You” “Want” “Some banana juice?”)
Numbers (in sequence – including trickier ones like just odd numbers and counting up in threes, as times tables, or setting each other maths problems – perhaps including word per word completing sentences like “Seven” “Plus” “Fifty five”)
Times (in sequence, including trickier ones like going up in twenty minute segments, or setting challenges like “Forty five minutes before half past three”, perhaps word by word like “30” “Minutes” “After” “Midnight”)
Days of the week (in sequence or setting challenges like “Two days before Sunday”, perhaps word by word like “Three” “Days” “After” “Wednesday”)
Months (in sequence or setting challenges like “Two months before February”, perhaps word by word like “Three” “Months” “After” “January”)
Dates (in sequence, with regular intervals or any intervals okay as long as progressing chronologically)
Opposites (adjectives etc, setting each other challenges or brainstorming pairs)
Ordinal numbers (as a sequence or setting each other challenges with the cardinal numbers)
Classroom objects (brainstorming or target practice)
Prepositions of position (target practice around the class, completing the sentence then throwing or running to that place, or balancing the ball in that position)
This/ that/ these/ those (target practice with more than one of each flashcard or object)
Minimal pairs (as target practice or brainstorming pairs of words with both pronunciations)
Food and drink (brainstorming, or identifying which of two categories such as fruit and vegetables or healthy and unhealthy as target practice)
Family members (setting each other challenges with male and female versions of family words like “niece”, or brainstorming)
Collocations (e.g. with verbs like “take” and “have”, as target practice or brainstorming)
Have/ Have got (completing sentences, dodge ball with “Do you have…?” questions, or passing secretly around a circle)
Present Continuous (brainstorming and doing actions with the ball, just brainstorming Present Continuous actions with the usual brainstorming game – maybe for one verb or things true in this room, or guessing what is being done with the ball without looking)
Present Simple/ Third person S (I go, he goes, etc as sequences, set each other challenges with the infinitive, brainstorm examples of one pronunciation of the S ending, or target practice with two or more pronunciations of the S ending)
Number of syllables (brainstorming or target practice)
Word stress (brainstorming or target practice)
Past Simple (doing a sequence of actions with a ball which other people should try to remember and describe, brainstorming forms – perhaps with a single pronunciation or just irregular forms, or testing each other by giving the infinitive forms)
Comparatives/ Superlatives (brainstorming examples of one form like superlatives with “most”, brainstorming true sentences about the class with this grammar, setting each other challenges with the bare adjective, or target practice with “more”/ “most” or “er”/ “est”)
Pronunciation of grammatical affixes (-ed, -s, etc, as brainstorming or target practice)
Plurals (setting each other challenges with the singular, target practice with the singular and plural – including irregular ones like “children”, or brainstorming examples with one pronunciation)
Pronouns (I me my mine etc as sequences, or setting each other challenges with the subject pronoun such as “they” “their” or “she” “hers”)
Common errors (target practice with correct and incorrect sentences, selecting which sentence to correct, or selecting how difficult a correction)
Sports (brainstorming or guessing the actions)
Countable and uncountable nouns (brainstorming, perhaps in more specific categories like “Uncountable things in this room/ the kitchen”)
Past participles (brainstorming – perhaps ones with a particular sound or just regular ones, testing each other with the infinitive or as target practice)
Phonics/ Spelling (as target practice, spelling letter by letter in a sequence, or brainstorming words which have one kind of spelling or sound)
Shapes (brainstorming things with one shape or challenging each other to name the shapes of things)
Functional language (e.g. commands and requests, as brainstorming or target practice, or challenging each other to respond)
Formal and informal language (brainstorming, challenging each other to convert it to the other level of formality, or target practice)
Telephoning (formal or informal, starting and ending, or getting through or not, as target practice or brainstorming)
Emailing (formal and informal, starting and ending or two different functions such as complaints and responding to complaints, as target practice or brainstorming)
Taboo questions and topics (choosing how difficult a question you will answer by aiming at a dartboard-style target)
Seasons (brainstorming things related to each season or challenging each other to identify the season of what is said)
Passive and active forms (as target practice or setting each other challenges)
Unreal past (target practice with actual past sentences)
Adjectives and adverbs (slightly better, quite a lot better, etc, as sequences)