Finding the game-like challenge!*

*With minimal preparation involved… Following a recent Friday workshop on teaching teenagers, in which, amongst other things, we discussed the difference between playing games for the sake of playing games and adding a game-like challenge into the activities we do in class, I have been thinking about different ways we can do this, without spending heaps of extra time on preparation. Here are some of the ideas I’ve come up with:

1. Board it and collaborate

Instead of (or as well as/before) having learners complete a table in their books, individually, why not put them in teams, put the table on the board and get them to race to complete the table accurately:

Linking words with teenagers

Linking words with teenagers

Here is an example from a teenager class of mine, looking at linking words in a writing lesson. The words were highlighted in a model text and the activity in the book was to divide them between a: words for contrasting two pieces of information, b: words to give reasons for something and c:words used to list arguments. Doing the activity this way got them out of their seats, changed the pace of the lesson and generated some useful energy. Of course, they also got to benefit from working together to solve the task. And all I had to do was draw a table on the board while they were reading the text.

2. Bingo it!

The age-old game of bingo can be used to liven up writing activities, as Sandy explains here or speaking activities, as I describe here. Bringing bingo into a speaking or a writing activity in this way gives students something extra to aim for, rather than just completion of a writing or speaking activity. It doesn’t hurt that the something extra is a) fun and b) encourages extra production and/or better use of the target language! Here is an example bingo board I used to model the activity for my Level 9 Upper Intermediate adult students:

Bingo with L9

Bingo with L9

All students need is a page in their notebooks on which to draw their table. No preparation is required beforehand, unless you want to make a model, in which case I think that one took me about 60 seconds to mock up! You could also play Reading Bingo, where students make a bingo grid of ideas or vocabulary that they expect to find in a given text, having looked at associated pictures or headings, and then read the text quickly to see if what they predicted is present, ticking off anything that is. First student to tick everything off in their grid wins! This is a good way to challenge students to read faster and resist reading every word.

3. Speed it up!

Adding a time constraint to an activity can up the level of challenge and bring in some competition. This is enhanced if the activity can be done in pairs or groups. Whether you set a time limit or do the old ‘whoever finishes first gets a point’ thing, heart rates will probably speed up. Beware though: a) make sure stronger and weaker students are mixed up. b) enforce an accuracy rule (i.e. being really fast but really inaccurate doesn’t win any points!)

60 seconds...starting now! Image taken from, licensed for commercial re-use with modification

60 seconds…starting now! Image taken from, licensed for commercial re-use with modification

4. Make it kinaesthetic!

If you can get students moving (for good reason rather than at random!), chances are you can make the language more memorable. For example, going back to the language my teenagers were looking at in 1, to test their recall of which words do what, you could ask them to put their hands up when you say a word used for giving reasons, stand up for any words used to list arguments and stamp their feet for any words used to make a contrast. Other variations on this include ‘river crossing’ or ‘traffic lights’ where students move to different parts of the room or move from side to side, according to where a given piece of language is allocated. This is a good way to change the pace of a lesson and generate some energy when teenagers – or adults! – are getting tired. Or, with younger kids, perhaps you’ll use it to get rid of some excess energy!

Kinaesthetic to the max! Image taken from, licensed for commercial reuse with modification

Kinaesthetic to the max! Image taken from, licensed for commercial reuse with modification

5. Bring out the banana boards (a.k.a mini-whiteboards!)

Mini-whiteboards are a fantastic way to spice up a lesson and add some game-like challenge. From something as simple as the teacher saying a verb and the students writing the past participle on their mini-whiteboard and then holding it up, and awarding points to the fastest and to those who got it correct but more slowly (so that everybody has a chance to win some points and nobody gets too far ahead or behind) to as complex as working on introductions in an IELTS class, mini-whiteboards come up trumps for their flexibility and students always love them!  Common uses include banana dictating sentences (i.e. dictating a sentence with a gap for students to complete) or sentence transformations. For lots of great ideas, here is a brilliant post from Chia Suan Chong, describing how she uses mini-whiteboards in her lessons. I particularly like the idea of having students summarise a portion of a text using pictures and then using the pictures to jog their memory when they tell a partner about their portion of text. A jigsaw reading with a difference! “But my school doesn’t have any mini-whiteboards!” I hear you say. Not to worry, all you need is a piece of card and a plastic folder like this (our YLC taught me this one!):

Home-made mini-whiteboard!

Home-made mini-whiteboard!

6. Drill it differently

Instead of just doing the same tired old choral drill, add some challenge to your drilling and make it more appealing to learners. Here is a post from Chris Ożóg over at ELT Reflections, which highlights the benefits of drilling together with lots of good ideas for how to spice it up. Another way to bring drilling to life, and make it more game-like, in the YL classroom, is to use a pronunciation wheel:

Pron wheel made by our YLC

Example pron wheel (made by our YLC)

Students take it in turns to spin the wheel and say whatever sounds, words or chunks it is that you are drilling in the way that the wheel stipulates. You can do this as a whole class, and then you can put learners in pairs or groups and they can continue the activity and drill themselves while you go round monitoring and working with individuals/groups to upgrade their production.

7. Make it a memory game

If learners have just done a crossword or a vocabulary activity in their course books, rather than check/feedback and move on, why not re-use the activity to challenge their memory? Get them to cover up the crossword clues and try to remember what the clue for each word in the grid was. Or get them to cover up the grid and test each other using the clues. Get them to close their course books and see how much language they can remember from the page (in pairs or groups, make it a competition) or call out prompts, so that you encourage active recall. Give students a time-limit in which to read a text, then have them close their books and see how much of it they can recount in pairs.

Testing your memory? (Image taken from Google image search licensed for commercial reuse with modification.)

Can you remember? (Image taken from Google image search licensed for commercial reuse with modification.)

8. Hand it over!

Sometimes the game-like challenge may also be a case of making a game more challenging, so that students are pushed more. A good way of doing this is finding ways to make games as student-centred as possible. For example, getting students to make up some quiz questions rather than only answering teacher-prepared questions. Here is a post describing how I upped the challenge in the review team game, Kaboom!



This picture is taken during a recent Kaboom! review with my teenaged upper intermediate students.

What do you like doing to bring a game-like challenge into your lessons? 

Speaking Bingo

This idea came up in our two-weekly Friday seminar, nearly two weeks ago now (how time flies…). The seminar was about teaching teenagers, and at this point were were discussing the difference between games and adding game-like challenge, and sharing ideas for how to add game-like challenge. Our YL coordinator suggested Speaking Bingo.


Encourage learners to incorporate target language into their speaking. Give learners additional motivation to speak.


  • Prior to a speaking activity, have students make up a bingo card for themselves. In each square they choose a piece of vocabulary studied in that lesson (or from a set studied previously that you wanted to review).
  • During the speaking activity, students tick off each bit of vocabulary as they use it.
  • First student to tick off all the bits of vocabulary gets to call Bingo!


Instead of ticking off the words they use themselves, you could get them to start a timer and tick off any target language their partner uses. Their partner should be trying to use as much target language as possible, and the winner would be the one who managed to use all the language on their partner’s card (which they wouldn’t have previously seen) in the fastest time.

Bingo with L9

An example I made for my Level 9s (Upper Intermediate)

It worked really well with my adult Level 9’s, gave them that added push to use the target language and they enjoyed it!

Autonomous learning (5): Games learners can play (autonomously)!

This is the fifth in a series of posts whose goal is to explore ways of helping learners develop their language skills autonomously. The first two posts are specific to listening. The first post, which focuses on perception of connected speech can be read here , the second post on dictations as an autonomous learning tool here. The third was on the topic of “text mining” and can be read here while the fourth post was on using Graded Readers as a means of autonomous language and skill development. This post expands the series even further (!) to look at games as an autonomous learning tool. 

Games are widely used in the language classroom – as warmers, as stirrers, as lead-ins, as a means of practice, as review…and so the list goes on. This post looks at games as an autonomous learning tool:

  • What games can learners play on their own?
  • What games can learners play collaboratively via platforms such as Edmodo, Blogs or Wikis?
  • What games can learners play on other websites?
  • What value do these games have?

These are based on activities I’ve done with learners and activities I’ve done/am doing as a learner (of Italian). None of them are sufficient on their own, of course, but I believe each of them could become one of the many little pieces that make up the mosaic of language learning.

What games can learners play on their own?

Games are not the first thing to come to mind when you think about learning on your own. However, there is plenty of fun to be had in autonomous learning. Here are a few ideas:


Alone? Why not!

  • Get hold of a cheap scrabble set (I picked up a set of magnetic letters for about £6 on Amazon recently) or any game that constitutes a set of letters (e.g. Bananagrams) and play! Even if, like me,  you don’t have the scrabble board, as long as you assign each letter a score, you can create your own scoring system. You can also combine sets of letters and make a bumper game…


  • Get hold of an app! There are lots of free or extremely cheap word-game apps available. I picked up one with multiple dictionaries so that I can play in Italian. It’s nice to have a board and to have the scoring done for you, but on the other hand you can’t randomly decide that you’re going to work with 10 letters rather than 7 to give more scope for word-creation! NB: yes, you may need to be Player 1 AND Player 2… Some apps offer a solitary option, others not!
Scrabble App! (Rex verbi)

Scrabble App! (Rex verbi)


  • Trying to make words out of any given set of letters has you drilling yourself for every piece of vocabulary you know!
  • More time spent focusing on the target language – and every little helps…
  • Fun! = An extra thing to do using the target language that doesn’t seem like “study”.
  • Sometimes you make a word that you remember exists but can’t remember the meaning – then you look up the word and remind yourself of the meaning. This helps take the word from that borderline between recognition and production closer to production.

 Magnetic Poetry

  • Get hold of a set! There’s nothing quite like sticking alllll the magnets onto your fridge…then wondering what to do with them next. Seeing how many words/stems you know is a good start. Categorising them comes next. Into words types. Into ‘words I recognise’ and ‘words I use’…then try to use the ones you only recognise so that you can move them over. Make sentences. Make poetry. Make anything you feel like… 🙂
I particularly enjoyed classifying All The Words...well, nearly all!

I particularly enjoyed classifying All The Words…well, nearly all!

  • Use it online: Here learners (of English) can play with magnetic poetry pieces for free online. With 6 kits to choose from, there’s no shortage of words! Learners of Italian have to satisfy themselves with the real life version. Ah well! 🙂
Screenshot from Magnetic Poetry Online (

Screenshot from Magnetic Poetry Online (


  • Trying to make phrases or sentences out of the various words/stems has you drilling yourself for every piece of language/possible combinations of language that you know!
  • More time spent focusing on the target language – and every little helps…
  • Fun! = An extra thing to do using the target language that doesn’t seem like “study”.
  • Creativity that sidesteps the blank page syndrome: Having a load of words to start with, and making a game out of using them, makes production less daunting.


  • Get hold of a set: Storyonics is essentially a pack of cards, each of which has 4 pictures on it. Each picture is surrounded by a different coloured rectangle. But the same 4 colours per card are used throughout the pack. The game is to make a story using the pictures on the cards. You can use all the pictures on each card, or for the quick version each player chooses a colour and only has to incorporate the pictures ringed with that colour into the story. As an autonomous game, you can pick a colour (or two!), or try to use all the pictures, to make a story. You could record yourself re-telling the story, with the cards laid out in order as a prompt. You could attempt to upgrade your language in the re-telling: use more complex language, use more features of spoken narrative etc. Over time, you could compare your attempts and progress.


  • Make a set!: It’s a simple concept. And with resources like ELTpics, making your own needn’t be too difficult. Learners could make a couple of ‘cards’ each and share them in an Edmodo group or other collaborative tool e.g. Google docs, thereby jointly producing a pack. Learners could then compare the stories they come up with…


  • Stimulant for language production: This game acts as a stimulant for extended language production. Telling stories in another language is challenging but rewarding. Difficult at first, practice makes, well, not perfect but certainly for an improvement!
  • Potential for language upgrading: Retelling a story and recording oneself doing it (which is very easy with technology these days) provides an opportunity for language upgrade.


  • Make a Bingo card: use recently learnt language, focus on a particular element of language, etc. Watch or listen to something suitable. (E.g. an action film might not be the best thing if your Bingo card is full of news vocabulary…) Tick off any of the language that you hear.


  • Active listening vs. passive listening: You may not hear all your chunks but you can be sure it’s going to make you listen to whatever it is you are watching/listening to super-carefully!
  • Simple, straightforward and free: All you need is a pen and a piece of paper, as well as whatever it is that you are going to watch.


  • Create sets of flashcards and play games with them online or on your mobile phone/tablet. It could be words and definitions, it could be phrases, it could be language you have picked up from reading/listening that you want to be able to use productively as well as recognise, it could be language based on a particular point (for me, recently, such a point was personal pronouns!) …


  • Fun: Quizlet is a fun way to study vocabulary. (As with anything else, as the sole means of learning, it is insufficient, but as part of a varied diet, it’s very valuable…)
  • Recycling: Learning vocabulary requires repetition and exposure to that language in context. Drilling yourself on Quizlet keeps it fresh in your mind so that you can look out for it while reading or listening extensively.

For more about Quizlet and how to use it, see this post.

My Quizlet Sets!

My Quizlet Sets!


  • Acquire an audiobook with accompanying text. E.g. a graded reader. For more challenge, go authentic! Play the audio and attempt to shadow read. How many sentences can you keep up for?


  • Helps make you more aware of different pronunciation features and sound-spelling relationships. I recently discovered that I had been pronouncing (Italian) third person plurals completely wrongly without realising it. This activity helped me to discover that on my own.
  • Helps to develop your sense of rhythm of the language.
  • Gives you experience of producing language at speed, physically.
  • Fun! Often ends up with a bit of a tongue twist. But over time, the tongue twist happens later and later.

What games can learners play if they have access to classmates via tools like Edmodo?

There are lots of things that classes of learners can do outside of class, if they are using a tool like Edmodo  as part of their course. Here are a few:

Out of context

  • A learner picks a word or phrase out of something they have been reading or listening to and posts it on Edmodo.
  • Other learners try to put it back into context – turning it into a sentence, a question, a couple of sentences, seeing who can get closest to the original.
  • The original poster can help by giving clues. E.g. the number of people involved, the mood, the location etc.

Picture stories

  • A learner opens the story by posting an opening sentence or two, then linking to or copying in a picture.
  • The next learner must continue the story with a sentence or two, somehow incorporating the picture into their continuation and then link to another picture.
  • And so the process continues, with learners adding text and pictures to the thread.
  • The end product is an illustrated story.

Define me, describe me

  • For inspiration a learner can gather a bunch of random objects or find several pictures with lots of things in them, online.
  • The learner sets a timer for one or two minutes and defines or describes(orally) as many things as possible, recording him/herself doing so.
  • Next, the learner posts the recording on Edmodo. Other learners should try to guess what the things are.
  • Over time, learners can look back at their own recordings and see if they can improve the definitions/descriptions or correct any errors, and compare earlier and later recordings to identify progress.

Picture dictation

  • A learner writes directions to draw something, without identifying what it is, for other learners to follow.
  • The other learners attempt to follow the directions and post their drawings in response to the original poster, together with guesses as to what they have drawn.
  • The original learner looks at what is produced and may or may not wish to refine their directions…


I am grouping the benefits for these collaborative activities, as there is plenty of overlap.

  • Development of spoken and written fluency, through extensive use of language.
  • Encouragement for learners to think about/in the target language.
  • Encouragement for learners to use language more between classes.
  • Motivation for learners, as studying becomes a bit more fun and language production isn’t threatening.
  • Language play: playing with language can help give learners more ownership over the language as they manipulate it in different ways.
  • Of course, as with all the other activities in this post, any given activity is insufficient on its own but as part of a varied died of activities, the end result is increased input and output of the target language.


Many of these activities are based on activities commonly used in class. Using classroom counterparts and encouraging learners to try out the activities at home, perhaps through getting them to make a learning contract with an ongoing cycle of experimentation and discussion, learners may be more likely to do these kinds of activities unprompted in their own time, thus supporting their in-class learning.


Games can form a valuable part of a varied diet of language learning activities. There are games that don’t require the presence of other people and other games that can be realised via tools like Edmodo which enable learners to connect with each other outside class time. Providing adequate scaffolding is important in order to get learners using these types of activities independently, to support their language learning.

If you have ideas for other games learners could play on their own or collaboratively via tools like Edmodo, please comment and let me know about them! 

Review board-game for advanced level learners

I used this simple board game that I made, with my advanced level learners, to do some post-progress test review with them. It worked well, so I thought I would share it here for anybody else who might like to use it. It took an hour for three learners (my 50% attendance rate for today’s class!) to play the game together.

It covers the following areas:

  • Compound nouns from phrasal verbs
  • Language for adding emphasis
  • Inversion
  • Passive distancing
  • Responding to news

It is based on Units 5 + 6 of New Headway Advanced 


  • Put learners in groups of three.
  • Each learner needs a coin/counter and one coin is needed for use by all – to determine the number of squares a player should move forward.
  • All learners should put their coins on square 1 – “Go!
  • Tell learners to take it in turns to toss the central coin. If it lands with the “heads” side facing up, then they should move forward one space. If it lands with the “tails” side facing up, then they should move forward two spaces. If a square has already been landed on and the question answered correctly, that square becomes a “dead” square. Exceptions to this are those squares which require creativity! 🙂 In the case of a “dead” square, the learner would move to the next “live square” beyond it.
  • Each time they land on a square, they must follow the instructions in that square. If they answer incorrectly, they must go back to the square they were in prior to tossing the coin.
  • For the squares that require learners to take a longer speaking turn, to discuss a topic/tell a story, monitor and collect feedback to do a delayed feedback phase with the class at the end of the game.
  • For the other squares, monitor and settle any disputes that may arise!

Have fun! 🙂