Olympics Ideas Part One: Teaching English for and through Sport

Summary: Teaching the popular topic of sport and using that topic to practise loads of other language.

This article deals with the related matters of using sport as a topic while teaching other language and actually teaching the vocabulary etc associated with sport, but first of all why should we do so?

Reasons to use the topic of sport

- Some people, e.g. sportsmen or sports journalists, have a specific need for the language of sport.

- Other people are interested in sport and will be motivated by being able to understand coverage of sport and being able to give their own opinions about it in English, and this should help with the development of their general English level.

- Other people are not particularly interested in sport but often read, watch or listen to the news in English and perhaps find this part particularly difficult to understand.

- It can come up as a topic in EFL speaking exams, either as part of the topic of free time or separately. Less commonly, it could also be in the writing, listening or reading papers.

- It is a common topic of conversation, especially amongst males.

- A lot of sports language (e.g. “dribble” and “substitute”) has other meanings that might be useful and easier to learn if they also look at the sports meaning.

- Sports language is used outside sport, e.g. the common use of sports idioms like “ballpark figure” in business, especially in America.

- Sport in different countries can be an interesting way of starting a lesson or unit on cultural differences.

- It is often one of the only things that students know about some countries or towns, e.g. Manchester or Sao Paulo.

- English words are often used in other languages when talking about sport, and this can make students interested in other meanings of those words and other differences in their use in different varieties of English.

Sports language you can teach

This choice depends partly on the reason(s) from above that you have for bringing the topic of sport into the classroom, but the options are:

- Names of sports

- Equipment

- Verbs connected to sports

- People connected to sport, e.g. “linesman” and “spectator”

- The names of countries, towns and teams

- Collocations, e.g. “play”, “do” and “go” with names of sports

- Idioms and slang, maybe including sporting clichés

- Cultural information, e.g. sports and sportsmen that are popular in a country they are going to travel to

- Differences between varieties of English, e.g. what “football” means in British and American English

- Typical mistakes, e.g. words in their own language that seem like English but aren’t generally used like the Janglish expression “heading shoot”

- Sporting chants and songs

- Phrases that are typical from crowds, between players, from officials to players, or from coaches to players

The other choice is to teach totally different language such as tenses or modal verbs through the topic of sport, and is this is relevant to more classes it will be dealt with first by language point below.

Teaching English using the topic of sport

Present Simple

Students make Present Simple statements about a sport, action or piece of equipment (e.g. “People wear this to play ice hockey and to drive F1”, “I never play this sport” or “People usually play it in the summer”) until their partner guesses which they are speaking about. Alternatively, they can talk about sport in one country (“Many successful sumo wrestlers come from this country and they also have their own kind of wrestling”) until their partner guesses which place they are talking about.

Present Continuous

Students mime playing sports (“You are doing judo”), specific actions (“You are kicking a ball”) or using particular equipment (“You are swinging a bat”) for their partners to guess the sentence. They should continue doing the mime until someone guesses correctly so that the tense is the right one to use in that situation. Pictionary also works with the same kinds of sentences.

You can also do an activity with a video or picture. One student describes everything that is happening and the other student listens and completes a task that the teacher has given them just from what their partner says, i.e. without being able to see the video or picture.

Past Simple

Students guess the country or sport from moments in its sporting history, e.g. “They won the football World Cup in 1966” or “It was first played in China”. You can also be more specific and use only Past Simple Passive sentences.

Past Continuous

Mimes can also be used with this grammar point (similar to Present Continuous above) by stopping the mime when someone is ready to guess with “When I shouted ‘Stop’ you were…ing…”

Present Perfect

Students give hints using Present Perfect (“I have played it once or twice”, “I haven’t done or seen this since I left school” or “This sport has been played for hundreds of years”) until their partner guesses the sport.

Used to

Students guess if statements about sport with the tense taken out (“Fox hunting …illegal in the UK”) are true of the present or just the past.

Present Continuous for future arrangements

Students decide on a whole week of sport events to watch or take part in together, maybe using a listings magazine or website to help them.


Students guess the sport from sentences with modals (e.g. “You can use your hands” or “You have to wear special shoes”) or guess the right modal for a sport they don’t know or don’t well (“You ____________ wear gloves in cricket”). Students could also decide on rule changes (e.g. to make a sport more popular or safer but still fun) or make up their own sport with its own rules, e.g. by combining two sports like chess boxing.


Students follow written or spoken instructions and try to play a sport correctly, or guess if instructions describing a sport (“… look at the ball all the way when you are trying to catch it”) should be positive or negative imperatives.


Students guess the sport from the clues with determiners (“You need a lot of physical strength” or “You don’t need much skill”) or guess the missing determiners in similar sentences. They could also design a diet for a sportsman.


Students describe a sport through numbers (e.g. “It is fairly common for one player to get an individual score of fifty or even a hundred” for cricket) until their partners guess the sport. They can also guess a number (“What is the highest number score ever in a 5 day cricket match?” or “How long is a baseball bat?”), being given hints about how much higher or lower the real answer is (“Much lower”) until they get exactly the right figure.

Relative clauses

Students describing sports, sportsmen, sporting venues or equipment (e.g. “It’s a place where…” and “It’s a person whose…”) until their partner guess what they are speaking about. They could also work together to create a clear explanation of a sport that isn’t much known outside their country, e.g. Korean wrestling. They could also guess and try to write a sport’s definition from its name (e.g. bog snorkelling) and then read to check.


Students make sports-related sentences about things that can be described by the same adjective (“A basketball player is like this” and “A rugby goal is like this” for “tall”) until their partners guess the adjective.

Comparative and superlative

Students guess the superlative from the number, e.g. “I guess it’s the longest long jump ever” for “Seven meters”.

Students can also try to outdo each other when describing a succession of sports or sports equipment, e.g. “Football is faster-paced than American football” from Student A being replied to with “That’s true, but sailing is more unpredictable than football”.


Students try to put instructions for playing a sport in order by adding linkers like “at the same time”, “within less than a second” and “before that”.


Students can negotiate a contact with a celebrity sportsman, conditions for a team moving into their area, a contract with a sponsor, etc.

Advice/ Recommendations

Students can give advice on the best sports for particular people, ways of getting young people playing more sport, ways of getting people interested in a minority sport, ways of making a town more popular for visitors through sport, ways of improving the Olympics medal haul of their country, what to do about sports addiction, etc.

Opinions language/ The language of meetings

Students can be asked to discuss the topics below, perhaps pretending it is a business or committee meeting:

- Which sports stories their TV news programme or newspaper should cover

- Which sportsman they should have in their advert

- Which sport, sportsman or team their company should sponsor

- Whether it is worth hosting a sport event such as the Olympics or an F1 race or not

- Boycotting a sporting event or not, e.g. because the government in that country is oppressive

- Banning people, teams or countries from sporting events or not

- Punishments for doping offenses they are given descriptions of, including minor and possibly accidental ones

- Designing a sporting tour of their city or country

- Deciding if there will be a designated national sport and if so what it should be

- Deciding how the government’s, local government’s or school’s sports budget will be spent

- Deciding whether to spend local taxpayers’ money on sports grounds etc and if so how much

- Deciding which of a group of people should be allowed to take over their football club

Topics which are also likely to bring up a lot of opinions include:

- Whether sports events such as F1 should be stopped for ecological reasons

- How much politics should be allowed to affect sports

- Sexism in sport, e.g. if women should get the same prize money even if the television viewing figures are lower, whether women should have to wear feminine clothes or not, until what age boys and girls should be able to play sports against each other, all Olympic sports being for both genders, and banning countries which don’t treat female athletes equally

- Violence in sports, e.g. if boxing should be on TV and if people should be allowed to do bare fist fighting if they want

- Sports sponsors, e.g. possibly unacceptable ones like tobacco and junk food companies, and how much influence they should be allowed to have

- Which things don’t really count as sports

- Sports to add to or take out from the Olympics

- Competitive sports in schools

- Sports on public television

- Sportsmen as role models

- Celebrity gossip about sportsmen

- Salaries for sportsmen

- Contact sports, e.g. brain damage in American football and ice hockey

- Animal rights and sports, e.g. horses dying at the Grand National

- Nationalism and sports

- Which country can really claim to be responsible for the existence of modern football

- Help for less successful teams to make things more competitive, e.g. the American draft system

- If the four British nations should still have separate football teams or not

Practising the language of sports

Obviously sports language is likely to come up in most of the activities above, but there are also activities that are more precisely focussed on this. Possibilities include:

- Miming (perhaps just the sport, equipment etc rather than whole sentences)

- Pictionary

- Picture dictation, e.g. describing sports equipment for someone to draw and guess or describing the position of a team and equipment on the field

- Taboo (students must describe a sport, place or piece of equipment for others to guess without using the three words written on their card for their partners to guess)

- List dictation (students listen to a list of words related to one sport until they guess what it is)

- Random pelmanism (students turn over two of the sports-related vocabulary cards that are face down on the table and must say something that the two things have in common, e.g. “You have to jump in both” or “You wear special footwear for both”. They can’t use the same similarity more than once.)

- Storytelling (Students use as much of the sports vocabulary as they can to tell a story or pretend to be a commentator at the Olympics)

- Brainstorming (e.g. students use as much of the sports vocabulary that they are given as they can to create their own sport)

- Commentary (e.g. students predict what sports vocabulary they will hear in the commentary and then listen or watch and listen to check)

Copyright © 2012

Written by Alex Case for UsingEnglish.com

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