Although most schools probably have a ball at the top of their list of objects which must be bought for young learner classes, I would argue that a set of stackable blocks should be given pride of place on the teachers’ room shelves. In addition to games with blocks being at least as fun but much more controllable than ball games, blocks are even more flexible than a ball. This article gives some of the many possible uses of blocks for specific language points, thereby explaining games which can easily be adapted for many other uses.
Personal questions blocks games
Especially with very young learners, the first use of blocks in a typical class for me is getting them to add blocks to a tower as they ask “What’s your name?”, “How are you?”, etc. I usually do this with one block for each question and another block for the answer, but if this means the tower falls down too quickly then you can do just one block for each question. After one round reviewing simple questions like this, we then have a second round in which each question must be at least a little different from all the previous questions. This can be done with either any question at all being okay or with a single language point such as “Can you…?” or “What’s your favourite…?” If the blocks have pictures or phonics on them, students can also use them in their questions, e.g. asking “Do you have a dog?” if there is a picture of a dog or the letter D on the next block.
Colours blocks games
I usually get students to ask for what block they want to add to the tower next with “(Can I have) a red block, please?” They could also add the block that matches the answer that they get to their question about colours, e.g. asking their partner “What colour is your pencil case?” and adding a blue block if the answer is “It is blue” and there are still blue blocks remaining. You could also get them to describe what colour blocks are in the tower before they add the next one with phrases like “(There are) (four) blue blocks”. With higher level classes who still need to revise colour words, these ideas can be combined with other language such as prepositions in sentences like “The pink block is on the red block”. For reading practice, most of these games can also be played with students taking and maybe arranging word cards, e.g. making the sentence “Two” + “orange” + “blocks” to be able to add those blocks or just picking the card with “Red” written on it to be able to add a red block (if there are still some red blocks left).
Numbers blocks games
The simplest stacking games involve students counting the blocks in the tower as it gets taller and taller, e.g. the first students saying “One” as they add the first block, the next students saying “Two” as they add the second block, etc. You can also do the same thing with “First”, “Second”, etc. To add more speaking, you can ask each student to count through all the blocks that are in the tower so far before adding the next one, e.g. the third student counting and saying “One two” before adding the third block and saying “three”. They could also take and arrange cards with number words to say how many blocks there are or how many they want to add to the tower, e.g. choosing and arranging cards to make the true sentence “There are three blocks” to describe the tower in order to be able to add one more or taking the card that say “Three” if they want to add three more. Alternatively, they can just ask orally (“Can I have three blocks, please?” etc).
Students counting up as the tower grows can also include bigger numbers (going up in fives, tens, twenties etc as in “Fifty”, “A hundred”, “A hundred and fifty”) and smaller numbers (“Nought point five”, “One”, “One point five”, etc). Particularly for bigger numbers, you can also let students go up as much as they like each time (“Twenty seven”, “Twenty nine”, “Thirty seven”, “Eighty one”, etc). To make this more challenging and make students think more carefully about what they are hearing and saying, you can make them miss their turn if they say something lower than the previous thing that was said. You can also set an upper limit that they should not reach, e.g. telling them that they lose the game if they go up to or beyond 100.
Ordinal numbers also work with students testing each other as they place blocks, with students saying alternate simple numbers and ordinal numbers (“One” “First” “Two” “Second”, etc) as they build the tower (preferably with an odd number of students or teams so the person challenging and the person being challenged changes with each turn). They could also test each other on different ways of pronouncing numbers in the same way, e.g. saying “One thousand two hundred” for their partner to convert to “Twelve hundred” or “A hundred seven” for their partner to convert to “A hundred and seven”. In a similar way, they could also set each other maths puzzles like “Seven plus four equals” “Eleven” or “Seven” “Plus” “Four” “Equals” “Eleven”.
If more excitement is needed, groups of students can also race to make a tower that the teacher or another student describes, e.g. making the tower described by “There are two blue blocks and eight orange blocks”, “Two thousand (and) forty four”, “The seventeenth of December” or “Half past seven”. For many of these students will need to make more than one tower in a row, e.g. two blocks then no blocks then four blocks then four blocks to represent the four figures in 2044.
Finally, stacking games can be combined with asking and answering questions, e.g. having to get the answer “Four” from someone to be able to place the fourth block with questions like “How many chairs are there in your kitchen?”
Apart from stacking games, the other possibility is students making the shapes of numbers with blocks, e.g. using seven blocks to make a shape on the table which is something like a figure 8 if they hear that number or the word “eight” is written on the board.
There is/ There are blocks games
The simplest way of adding “There is/ There are” to the stacking of blocks is for students to describe the blocks that are already in the tower with sentences like “There are four red blocks and there is one yellow block” or “There is a pink block and there are some purple blocks” before being allowed to add the next one. If you want to make this more challenging, you can let them quickly look at the tower and then describe it with their eyes closed. They could also have to answer a question like “How many pink blocks are there?” with their eyes closed to be able to add the next block. For reading practice, they can also take cards to make sentences to describe the tower like “There” + “are” + “some” + “big” + “blocks”.
Students can also be asked to make true statements or questions about the classroom, their partner’s family and home, etc with “There is/ are” to be able to stack blocks. For example, if they say “There are four chairs in your kitchen” and it is true or ask “Are there four chairs in your kitchen?” and get a positive answer, they can add one more block to the tower. Or in a more exciting version, if their partner answers “Four” to “How many books are there in your desk?” they can add four blocks. These kinds of questions can also be combined with requests if the remaining blocks are hidden in a bag with exchanges like “How many blue blocks are there?” “There are four blue blocks” “Can I have two blue blocks, please?”
For more speed and therefore hopefully more excitement, students can race to make towers matching sentences that they hear or see flashed up like “There are four big blocks and seven little blocks in two towers”.
Countable and uncountable nouns blocks games
The stacking games for “There is/ There are” above can also be played with countable and uncountable nouns by adding things to stack like paper (torn and/ or screwed into a ball to make why it is uncountable clearer), a half-empty bottle of water or soda, some plastic (perhaps torn off a plastic bag), etc.
Prepositions of position blocks games
Students describe what is already in the tower and/ or what they want to add to it with sentences like “(There is a black block) on the white block” and “(Put) a red block under the black block”. This is most fun if they give instructions to the teacher or each other, because then they tend to choose challenging things like “Put the red block between two blue blocks”. If students are only making one thin tower, that obviously limits the prepositions to “on”, “under” and “between”. However, if you let them build more complex structures, you can add “in front of”, “behind” and “next to”, and maybe even “on the left of/ on the right of”. Note that having a tower that is more than one block wide means that the whole tower is very unlikely to fall over as more blocks are added to the top, but you can add other rules such as being able to insert things between the blocks that are already there that mean they will need to move blocks around without anything falling over while they do so.
Blocks are also usually a suitable size, shape and weight for balancing on other things, e.g. following instructions like “Put your block under your head” and “Put your block under the window”.
Have/ Have got blocks games
Students can ask “have” questions about the blocks or each other to add things to the tower. For example, if the blocks are hidden in a bag they can ask “How many blue blocks have you got?” or “Have you got a purple block?” to try to find blocks that they can add to the tower.
“Have” can also just be used when making and responding to requests, e.g. “Can I have a red block and a blue block?” “Sorry, I don’t have any blue blocks”. The more personalised version is asking about things outside the classroom with questions like “How many cuddly toys have you got?” and then trying to add that many blocks. This can also be played with trying to make true statements in place of asking questions, e.g. being able to add two blocks if they say “You have two parents” and it is true.
Time and dates blocks games
Blocks can be used to practise:
- Days of the week
The simplest game for all of these is counting up as the blocks are added to the tower, e.g. saying “Monday”, “Tuesday”, etc as each block is added. You can also let them go up as far as they like each time, e.g. “The first of January”, “The first of February”, “The third of February”. To make them think about what they are saying, I take off points for going backwards from what the previous person said and usually add a limit that they should try to not to reach such as the 15th of July. The game finishes when anyone reaches the limit or the tower falls.
You can also get students racing to stack to a height that matches what you tell them, for example getting them to make a tower that is seven blocks tall if you flash up a card saying “Saturday” (or “Sunday”, depending on what you have taught is the first day of the week). This can also be done for times and dates if you have one block for each figure, e.g. towers of three, five and five blocks for “Five to four”. For times, the other possibility is to have just two towers, one for the hour and the other for the minutes, and have one block for each five minute interval in the minutes tower, e.g. thirteen blocks and then nine blocks for “one forty five p.m.” For all of these it can be nice to add some trick questions that they shouldn’t stack anything for, e.g. times like “Five sixty five” and made up days like “Moonday”.
Maths games also work for times and dates, for example students challenging each other with “Quarter to seven” “plus” “twenty five minutes” and only being allowed to place the next block if they can work out that the answer is “Ten past seven”. Alternatively, a simpler way of them testing each other is challenging each other to convert one way of saying a time or date to another, e.g. saying “Three forty five” for their partner to convert to “A quarter to four” before they place the next block.
Letters, phonics and spelling blocks games
The simplest alphabet block game is stacking the blocks as the students say “A”, “B”, etc, but this is rarely very useful. Instead or in addition, you can get them to say the phonics of each letter and/or a representative word such as “Q, kw, queen”. You can also split the parts up, but it’s best to have an even split (“Q kw” “queen” etc) if you have an odd number of students and an odd split if you have an even number of students (“Q”, “kw”, “queen” etc) so that the person saying the next letter naturally changes all the time.
If the blocks are small and/ or plentiful enough, you can also get students making letter shapes from the blocks, e.g. four blocks to make an “L” shape in response to the teacher saying or showing the letter name, saying the phonic sound and/ or saying a representative word starting with that letter, or showing a picture of that object.
Other phonics and spelling games rely on having letters on the side of the blocks, perhaps stuck on them if the blocks don’t already have them. Possibilities include students:
- racing to find the letter of the phonic that you say
- racing to find the first letter of the word that you say
- racing to spell the (simple) word that you say
- making as many words as they can from the letters that they have on their blocks
- asking questions including words starting with the letters on the blocks (“Do you like ice cream?” for “i”, etc)
You might also be able to play a kind of Scrabble with the blocks being added to each other in a crossword shape to make different interconnected words, but to do so you might want to add more vowel sounds by adding stickers with “a” etc to the sides of the blocks.
Yes/ No questions blocks games
Students can add one more block to the tower each time that they get a “Yes” answer from their partner, either with any Yes/ No question at all or only using the grammar point of the day, for example:
- “Do you have/ Have you got…?”
- “Can you…?”
- “Have you ever…?”
- “Are you… ing?”
- “Did you… (yesterday/ on Sunday)?”
- “Will you/ Do you think you will… (if…)?”
- “Would you… (if…)?”
- “Do you want to/ Would you like to…?”
- “Is there/ Are there… (in your house/ in this room/under the whiteboard)?”
- “Do you like…?”
For some of these such as “Have you got…?” and “Do you like…?”, you can also limit them to questions about objects drawn on the blocks and/ or words beginning with letters written on the blocks. Note that some classes get so nervous/ over-excited by the idea of the tower falling over after they add another block that they might try avoid getting “Yes” answers, in which case it is better to have the opposite rule of the person answering “Yes” having to add the block.
Names of objects blocks games
There are two ways of using blocks to practise the names of objects like “banana” and “cat”. Firstly, if the blocks have pictures on the side, then students can talk about those objects as they place the blocks. For example, they could describe things in the tower, perhaps with “there is/ there are” and/ or prepositions as in “There is a cat between the bush and tree”. They could also ask for the block they want to add next by asking for the object drawn on it (“Can I have a cat?” “Sorry, there isn’t a cat” etc). The asking for objects on the blocks works well if there is one picture per letter of the alphabet, e.g. an apple for A, etc, as is often the case with sets of blocks, as this makes the guessing what objects there might be suitably challenging but possible. As described above, they could also ask personal questions about the objects pictured on the blocks, e.g. “Do you have a cat?” and “Do you want a yoyo?” This also works for names of things starting with the letter on the side of the block.
The second way of using blocks to practise the names of “stairs”, “hat”, etc is to make shapes with the blocks to represent those objects, e.g. towers of one block, then two blocks then three blocks to represent “stairs”. Only some objects are simple enough for their shapes to be made this way, and it is more difficult still with large blocks and/ or a limited number of blocks. However, I’ve managed to find about 40 simple objects such as “fork” and “house” that can be made this way, especially if you use a mix of 3D shapes and 2D shapes laid flat on the table, and include some hollow 2D shapes to make shapes such as “ball”.
There are two different games you can play with such shapes made with blocks. One is for the teacher or a student to make the shape and the other people to guess what the shape represents, perhaps by asking “Is it a/ an…?” (which is quite a natural question in this context given how ambiguous most of the shapes will be). The other game is the opposite activity of the teacher or a student saying and/ or writing up the name of an object and students racing to make shapes that match it.
Finally, you can actually use the objects themselves, practising “plate”, “cup” etc as students ask for or describe those things as they are added to a tower along with blocks.
Syllables and stress blocks games
Students listen to a spoken word or phrase and try to build a tower or towers that represent the number of syllables and maybe the stress. For example, if they hear “the most wonderful”, they can race to build a tower of five blocks to represent five syllables, and if they hear “photograph”, they can make a tower of two blocks and then two towers of a single block each to represent three syllables with the first syllable stressed (Ooo). This also works with writing up a word and letting students work out the number of syllables and/ or stress for themselves before they use the blocks to represent it. The spoken or written prompt can also be a root, e.g. the teaching saying the infinitive and the students showing the syllables and stress of the Past Simple form (e.g. a tower of two blocks and then a tower of one block to show Oo for “wanted” if the teacher says “want”).
You can also play personalised questions games for syllables practice, with one block added for each syllable in the answer, e.g. three blocks if the question is “What’s your favourite school subject?” and the answer is the three-syllable word “History”.
Adverbs blocks games
If you are practising a limited number of rankable adverbs such as just the adverbs of frequency “never”, “almost never”, “occasionally”, “sometimes”, “often”, “usually”, “almost always” and “always”, there are two ways of converting these adverbs into blocks in a tower. One is for the answer to a question to be converted into a number of blocks that are added to the tower, e.g. eight blocks if the answer is “always” in the list given here. The other more complicated one is for each block in the tower to represent one of those answers, which must be obtained before that block can be added and students can move onto the next block and therefore answer, in a kind of climbing a tower game. For example, for adverbs of degree, students must obtain the answer “not at all…” to place the first block, “a tiny bit/ very slightly” to place the second block, etc.
Comparative and superlative blocks games
There are two simple blocks game for comparative and superlative. One is for students to make shapes representing “tall”, “taller”, “tallest”, “fat”, “fatter”, “fattest”, etc, either racing to make the right thing or making the shapes for other people to guess the adjectives for. The other is for students to test each other on the forms as they take turns placing blocks, in a kind of drilling game. For more personalised speaking, they can also try to get Yes answers or make true statements about their partners to be allowed to place the next block.
Past Simple blocks games
The nicest game with blocks with pictures on is for students to lay them out with one picture top on each block to make a story, then to tell the same story to another group. For more challenge, they can also roll each block like a dice and have to use all the pictures which come top. For students who are not up to this quite demanding speaking task, they can simply test each other on making regular and irregular Past Simple forms of infinitive verbs, or they can make shapes representing the number of syllables and stress patterns of Past Simple verbs.
Gradable and extreme adjectives blocks games
Students can drill each other on the extreme adjectives that match gradable adjectives in pairs like “big” huge” and “cold” “freezing”. Alternatively, if you give a number of points to each adverb, e.g. one point for “slightly/ not very + gradable adjective”, they can add that many blocks depending on what answer they get, e.g. five blocks if they ask “How small is your bedroom?” and the answer is “Absolutely tiny”.
Opposites blocks games
Students can make shapes of a fair few opposites pairs with blocks like “tall/ short” and “hot/ cold” (making shapes of a coffee mug and an ice cream). This can be done as a race, as a guessing game, or just with groups making as many different opposites pairs shapes as they can. Alternatively, they can just test each other on opposites as they add blocks to a tower.
Present Continuous blocks games
If the blocks are small and numerous enough, students should be able to make shapes representing a stick mane in “He is running” etc, and perhaps even “The giraffe is eating” and “The cat is sitting”. Alternatively, they could try to get Yes answers to questions like “Are you breathing?” and “Is your mother working?” to be able to place the next block on a tower.
Likes and dislikes blocks games
As with many language points above, the easiest way of making personalised speaking is for students to try to make true statements or get Yes answers to be able to place the next block. However, for “like” it is particularly easy to limit them to questions and statements about pictures on the blocks or words starting with the letters on the blocks. If you have enough and small enough blocks, you might also be able to make shapes from the blocks representing “He doesn’t like apples” etc by making a smiley or unhappy face and the object from blocks laid on the table.
Will and going to blocks games
Asking Yes questions and trying to make true statements also works for future forms, but you can also add predictions about the actual tower. For “will” for predictions without present evidence, students secretly write down “The tower will fall down when it is sixteen blocks tall” etc and get points if their prediction is true. For “going to” for predictions with present evidence, a student places the next block (or other object) in a precarious looking position and the other students predict “It is going to fall” or “It isn’t going to fall” before that person removes their hand and sees what happens.
Requests blocks games
To practise “Could…?” etc, students can ask for blocks to stack (“Can I have a blue block, please?”, “Can I have seven red blocks, please?”, etc), perhaps with negative answers possible if the blocks are hidden in a bag. They can also ask each other to place the next blocks, e.g. “Can you add three blocks?” and “Can you put the blue block between two red blocks?”
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