Creating Games for TEFL Classes

Creating your own games based on language points you cover in class.

Many years ago in a language school in the south of England, we had a visit from a snake-oil salesman trying to fob us off with a “method” for teaching English that would be suitable for any class and cover any language point. It turned out he was suggesting bingo.

There are a great many excellent books out there giving advice about creating games for the TEFL classroom with a myriad of game frames besides bingo; the names Mario Rinvolucri and Andrew Wright spring to mind as authors you should follow up if you have not already seen their work. My purpose here is to explain a way of creating your own games based on the language points that come up in your class and perhaps also protect you from dubious sales pitches. I’m not claiming these game ideas are mine. I collected them over the years from various TEFL game books and from colleagues, though it’s just possible the Othello idea and the use of wargame dice might be my own.

My tip is simple: try to find a conceptual match between a language point which your students struggle with and a well-known parlour game. To help you get the idea, I’m going to list some examples which start from the language point.

Word formation

Your students are having trouble learning how to convert from a verb to a noun:

discover – discovery

inform – information



Othello involves turning game pieces over repeatedly during the game. If you have the verb form on one side and the noun form on the other, students have to practise the word transformation with every turn. The only additional rule to the traditional game is that a player can’t flip a piece if they can’t give the correct noun or verb form.

Extracting the underlying concept: The game involves flipping a piece from one state to another and many language points boil down to transforming a word or sentence from one form to another.
Extension: This can be extended to any word formation problem. It would also lend itself to such perennial problems as learning the past form of irregular verbsWith a bigger board and bigger pieces, it could be used to practise transforming sentences from one grammar form to another, such as affirmative to negative or affirmative to interrogative.

Linking sentences with cohesive devices

Your students are beginning to handle complex sentences but inevitably make mistakes distinguishing however and despite etc.


Create a set of matched sentences/clauses that can be linked with the cohesive devices you want to practise with your students, for instance, linking words for contrast and concession. The first player plays a card with a clause or sentence. The other players try to match it with a clause or sentence they hold in their hand. It’s more fun if they shout ‘snap’ when they lay their card down. If the match works and they can produce a grammatically correct complex sentence, they win that trick and can put the cards aside. If not, they have to add both cards to their hand. Play continues until one player has managed to get rid of all his or her cards.

Extracting the underlying concept: The fun of the game derives from making a match between one card and another more quickly than the other players. Using linking devices involves being able to see a match between two ideas and choosing the appropriate linking word to clarify the link.
Extension: For a lower level, the sentences could be constructed with pre-set grammar forms and linking words provided so that students only have to choose the correct match, they don’t have to construct the complex sentence.Other situations involving matching would work, such as word formation involving prefixes and suffixes (e.g. inform – information would work but strong – strength might be better in the Othello format), or opposites (big – small)

Further examples

Prefixes and suffixes Dominoes (one half is a root and the other half is a prefix or suffix). Warning: it can be tricky to get the whole set to match up.
The verb tense and aspect system Monopoly (each set of properties involves one area of the system e.g. Past Simple vs Past Continuous, or Time Adverbials with the Perfect Aspect (yet, for, since, already etc) Each owner has a set of relevant grammar exercises. If a player lands on your property, they have to pay rent if they can’t answer the grammar question put to them by the owner.
Articles or any other dreaded language point which lends itself to gap-fill exercises with only one correct answer and which students need to repeat often. The Hex board game. You need quite a large board with large hexagons. Make hexagonal-shaped cards with a sentence with gaps. The correct answers are on the back of the card. If a player identifies the correct article for each of the gaps in the sentence, he or she can play the piece on the Hex board.Hex is a compelling game and learning articles is pretty deadly – the underlying concept here just involves making a repetitive exercise more stimulating.
Tag questions Snap. Instead of matching two cards which are the same, you match a sentence with its most appropriate tag question, e.g. You love chocolate, don’t you?
You have a bunch of exercises designed to revise a range of language points you covered during the course. You just want to liven up proceedings but you can’t come up with equal numbers of questions for each point. For articles, you came up with 20 sentences. For word formation problems, you managed to create only 12 etc. Wargame/fantasy roleplay diceOne feature of games of chance is the fun involved in not knowing the outcome of a dice throw, coin toss or whatever. A set of wargame or fantasy roleplay dice come in all kinds of configurations: 4-, 6-, 8-, 10-, 12- or 20-sided dice. It’s even possible to find other variants like 3-sided or 5-sided dice. A little set of these dice is usually very attractive and can add a little spice to the task of randomising some revision exercises. Going through 20 grammar questions in order can be very dull. Simply doing them in a random order can make the task fun.Trivial Pursuit would be another way of exploiting revision exercises like this. The disadvantage of course is that you have to limit the number of categories to 6 to fit the game pieces.
Spelling and vocabulary MastermindAdmittedly a little limited, but you can play the old favourite Mastermind with 4-letter words instead of the usual coloured pegs.
3rd Conditional There is a less well-known game based on the Winnie-the-Pooh books where the player moves round the 100-acre wood along paths that lead to crossroads. The dice has special instructions like Go forward, Decision etc. The winner is the person to negotiate this maze to reach the final goal. You could have a number of paths with crossroads that lead the player off to triumphs and disasters. At the end, each player tells their story including 3rd conditional sentences to explain what led to their final triumph or downfall: e.g If I hadn’t become a banker, I wouldn’t have met my wife.

I hope these examples have inspired you to examine your students’ errors in a new light and turn them into repositories of fun using simple frameworks taken from well-known parlour games.

Written by David Mann for July 2013
David Mann has 30 years’ experience in TEFL, both as a teacher (General, ESP and EAP) and a Director of Studies in Spain, Britain and Japan. He has been an ESP and EAP instructor for Nippon Steel & Sumikin Intercom, Inc in Japan for the last 15 years, working with scientists, engineers and business people from major companies and top universities in Japan. He has also delivered successful IT courses on database and web application design through the auspices of the Japanese Association of Overseas Training Scholarships (AOTS) in Yokohama to IT professionals from all over Asia.

One Comment

  • Alison Sattler says:

    Thank you much for these ESL game ideas!

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