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15 no-prep games with just little scraps of paper

One of the most flexible and useful resources in the classroom are bits of scrap paper.

One thing that has really developed in my teaching over the years is my ability to react flexibly to things that happen in class, such as students knowing more or less about the language point than I expected, having wrong information about the class, students arriving late, or energy levels not being what I expected. One vital part of developing that ability to respond rather than just stick to the lesson plan has been to find and develop games that can be can be added to almost any class as and when needed. Most of these games use things that are already in the classroom or at least the school, such as the students’ fingers and textbooks- perfect for improvising and for the minimal resource situations I have often taught in.

One of the most flexible and useful resources in the classroom are bits of scrap paper that are blank on one side, cut or torn so that each piece is approximately 2cms by 3cms, giving about 20 pieces per A4 piece of blank paper. You can find the raw material for this in most classrooms, but I take an envelope full of already cut up slips into every lesson with me. Below are some of the many games you can play with those little bits of what would otherwise be rubbish. In each case, the teacher gives out the pieces of paper to each student and asks them to write on them before explaining the game.

Games where you tell them exactly what to write

1. The basic understanding game

In many situations in real communication, your students’ task will simply be to make a binary judgment about the meaning of the language they are hearing or the reason it is being said, e.g. if the person speaking is accepting or refusing an offer, if they are being rude or polite, if the familiar-sounding word being used has the same or different meaning to what they expect, or if that person is lying or telling the truth. This game provides a fun way of forcing students to make those instant judgments with whatever clues are available whilst providing an easy way of introducing and practicing new language.

Give out two pieces of paper per student and ask them to write the two categories you will be looking at on them, e.g. “Positive” on one piece and “Negative” on the other. As you read out the words, expressions or sentences, they must race to hold up the correct card as quickly as possible, maybe competing with their classmates. With positive and negative cards, the task could be to decide whether body idioms describe something positive (e.g. “feet on the ground”) or negative (e.g. “down on my knees”). Here is a by no means complete list of other pairs of cards that you can ask them to write and therefore language the game can be used for:

  • Connected to present/ No connection to present (Present Perfect/ Simple Past)
  • Present/ Future (e.g. uses of Present Continuous)
  • Minimal pairs (e.g. ch and sh)
  • Weak form/ Strong form (e.g. the two pronunciations of “to”)
  • A/ an
  • True/ False (with trivia questions, personal statements, statements about the language being studied, etc.)
  • Can/ Can’t (listening for which one is being pronounced, guessing the teacher’s skills, or trivia questions on what animals can do)
  • Up/ Down (what kinds of changes trends language is describing)
  • Request/ Offer
  • Polite/ Impolite
  • Question/ Answer (guessing by intonation or grammatical form)
  • Right/ Wrong (grammar mistakes or information)
  • Same/ Different (e.g. pairs of synonyms and false friends)
  • More/ Less (e.g. was this sentence more or less polite than the one before?)

When you have done 10 to 30 examples, you can brainstorm or give out the sentences you were using and then get students to test each other in groups.

A more competitive and fun version is for students to rush to slap two cards that they have put in the middle of the table, rather than just holding them up.

2. T and L Bluff

Give out the same number of pieces of paper to each student. I usually use six per students. You might want to change that depending on timing and how much practice they need, but an even number is usually best. Ask students to write a letter T on half the pieces of paper and an L on the other half. For six cards, this would give each student three T cards and three L cards.

Students take turns putting one of their pieces of paper face down on the table and making a statement about themselves. If they have put down a T piece, they must say something true. If they have put down an L piece, they must lie. Students who think the person who just spoken lied can challenge them, at which point they turn over their piece of paper to show whether it was a lie or not. If no one thinks it was a lie, they should remain silent and the paper stays there for other people to put their pieces of paper on top of. If they are challenged and were lying, they need to take all the pieces of paper on the table and put them in their hand of cards. If they were actually telling the truth (i.e. they fooled their classmate), the person who challenged them has to take all the pieces of paper on the table and put them in their pack. The winner is anyone who has no cards left in their hand or has the fewest when the teacher stops the game.

A variation that can be played with the same cards is to put all the T and L cards into the middle of the table face down in a pack and take the top one and make a statement whose truth is decided by the card that you just took.

The game can be used for virtually any language point, e.g. vocabulary revision (by asking them to use at least one word in the list in each statement they make), the grammar point of the day (by asking them to use that structure, e.g. the present perfect, in all statements), or a topic based lesson.

Games where they choose what to write

3. Strangers on the train

Give out one piece of paper per student or group. They should write a word, expression or sentence of their choice on it. That thing is something that someone in another group will need to try and slip naturally into a conversation that they will roleplay with their partner, e.g. pretending to meet each other on a train (hence the name of this game). When that conversation finishes, the people speaking will be asked to try and identify which word, expression or sentence their partner had on their piece of paper, e.g. because it seemed a bit unnaturally slipped in. All this could be explained to students before they start writing, so that they can choose something amusing or odd to say, or could be explained after you take the pieces of paper in.

When each student or group has chosen and written down their word, phrase or sentence, take them all in and give one to each student, making sure that no slips of paper go back to the same table. When you say “Go”, they should start the roleplay conversation that you have set for them. Tell them what the time limit will be before they start, so that they know how long they have to try and use what is written on the paper they received, preferably without their partner noticing.

This game is most amusing if the things they must are really strange (e.g. “You seem to have a bee on your nose”), but this might be a bit difficult for some groups and anyway the game is more useful if used for a specific purpose such as revision (e.g. by telling them to choose things from the textbook) or the language point of the day. As well as being humorous, this game is a great way of combining free and controlled speaking. It is also similar to the way I advise students to try to use new language they learn in communication outside the classroom to make sure they remember it.

4. Random pelmanism

Each group of students prepares a pack of 15 to 25 cards with one piece of vocab that they think is worth revising on each slip of paper. When they have finished, this pack can be given to another team or mixed up with all the other cards from the class and then dealt out to different groups. These are then spread across the table face down for people to choose pairs of cards to turn over. If the student can find some kind of link between the two cards that they choose and explain that similarity or connection, they can keep those two cards and score two points. If not, they have to put them back down face down in the same place. As there will be few obvious connections in these random cards, students will need to use some imagination and find less obvious similarities like “The middle letter of both is G”, “They both make me think of teatime” or “They are both concrete uncountable nouns”. Each explanation can only be used once during the game.

5. Definitions game

Cards are prepared and distributed in similar ways to those described in Random Pelmanism above, but in this game a student must pick one card and explain it without saying the words on the card until their partner or teammate can identify and say the word or expression, e.g. “It’s the china thing in your bathroom that you fill with water if you have dirty hands” for “Washbasin”. You can add to the fun by having a time limit in which they must define as many as cards they can.

6. Taboo

This is similar to Definitions Game above, but to make it more challenging students write three words that can’t be said while someone is trying to explain the meaning. For example, for “Give him a big hand” students could write “applause”, “clap” and “congratulations” so that the person who picks that card is forced to use a less obvious definition like “It’s an idiom which means making a noise with your palms and it contains a synonym of large”.

This game can be a bit challenging at the speaking stage, but the great thing about it is that the students have to think carefully about the meaning while preparing the cards and while thinking of more imaginative ways to explain it. This game should therefore lead to better vocabulary retention than the Definitions Game. You can exploit this strength by asking each group to prepare ten to twenty cards with just the words or expressions to explain on. These are then passed on to the next group to write one taboo word, then the same around the class until there are three taboo words on each card. These can then be mixed up and dealt out, or given as a complete pack to a group who haven’t seen that set of cards yet.

7. Pictionary

This is basically the same game as Definitions Game above, but with students drawing the word or expression until someone identifies what their sketch is supposed to represent, e.g. drawing a row of mountains and/ or people shooting at a target for the word “range”. As there are some words or expressions which are almost impossible to draw, it is worth setting the game up so that people might have to draw a card that they have prepared themselves and letting them know that those are the rules to discourage them from writing things that are impossible to represent on the cards that they prepare. Limiting the language they can use, e.g. only money idioms or only things from units 1 and 2, will also help people guess what is being drawn.

8. Miming

This is also similar to the ideas above, but with students not allowed to speak or draw but just use facial expressions and gestures.

9. Storytelling

Another thing that students can be asked to do with vocabulary cards that have been prepared by their classmates is to make a story with them. The students in one group must take turns continuing the tale, using at least one card each time they add to the story. The easiest way is to lay out all the cards on the table face up and put the cards in order as they are chosen and used in the story. This row of cards can then be used to retell the story, e.g. to a student from another group. A more challenging version is for the cards to be dealt out and people having to use one of the cards in their hand to continue the story when their turn comes. A competitive element can be added by the person who has used all their cards being named the winner.

10. Dialogue

A similar activity to storytelling is to ask them to continue a conversation in pairs, using as many of the words and expressions on the cards as they can. Again, the cards can be put face up on the table for anyone to use or dealt out around the group. This is a nice activity for sentence stems, e.g. by asking them to choose and write the starting parts of seven useful phrases for use in business meetings that their group or another group must use. This game is a bit like Strangers on a Train above, but with more language to try and use and without the element of guessing what things your partner was trying to say.

11. Answer me

Unlike Storytelling and Dialogues above, in this game you get a point if you make your partner say something. For example, if one student is holding a card with “Yes, I will” on it and they manage to get that response from one of the people in their group, they can discard that card and score one point.

Give each student between four and eight pieces of paper (the same number for each student) and show or tell them the group of words or phrases they can choose from (e.g. pictures of clocks with different times on them), asking them to write one on each piece of paper. These pieces of paper are then shuffled up and dealt out in each group. Students take turns trying to get the responses on their pieces of paper from their partners, e.g. by asking “What time do you (usually) …?”

There are so many uses for this game. Here are some examples:

  • Short answers
  • Adverbs of frequency
  • How do you feel about…? I love it/ don’t mind it/ can’t stand it
  • How does… make you feel?
  • Numbers
  • Exclamations

12. Limited responses

In this game, students must answer with one of the cards that they have in their hand, then others guess if that response is true or not. For example, someone asks “How long have you been studying English?” and the person whose turn it is answers “Since I was born” and puts the card that says that face up on the table. This game can be played with the same cards as Answer Me above, and you can add a competitive element by adding rules similar to T and L Bluff.

13. Homemade roleplay cards

Students make roleplay cards that will be shuffled up, given out and followed by the people who receive them. This works best if it is designed so that the other people in that person’s group have to guess what is written on the roleplay card once they finish speaking, e.g. guessing which famous person their partner has been told to pretend to be or guessing what kind of person they are while they are taking part in the debate (e.g. a middle aged farmer when discussing opening a new airport runway).

14. Homemade 20 questions

20 Questions (asking yes/ no questions until you can guess what it on your partner’s card) is another game that is much more fun if the students write the cards you play it with. As with most of the games here, the stage of writing the cards is also very useful practice for students. Things you can ask students to write to later answer questions on are almost infinite, but include “countable things in living rooms”, “times in the past”, “unusual jobs” and “famous dead people”.

15. Homemade truth or dare

Students write a question and a thing to do if you don’t want to answer that question (e.g. “Sing a song in English”) on each piece of paper, either individually or as a team. One pack should have ten to twenty cards in it. These can be shuffled in the same group or shuffled together with the other groups’, but make sure that students have the risk of getting their own card back to stop them asking too risqué questions or too tricky dares. This can tied in with particular language points such as auxiliary verbs, subject questions and imperatives.

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net April 2010
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

2 Comments

  • Peter says:

    Great ideas! Unfortunately I teach five 5th grade classes and five 6th grade classes with a very low level of English and no enthusiasm, so a lot of these wouldn’t even work for me. They don’t even understand basic instructions let alone basic questions. I’m almost giving up on them.

  • Hazel says:

    Thank you, I’m glad I saw this page. I’ve used some of these ideas and found they work – truth or dare worked as a great way of getting my summer school kids talking to each other.

    And getting kids to make their own games from scraps of paper also works well. Mine have followed instructions this week to make clothes to hang on a clothes line, and clothes pelmanism cards. They enjoy playing the games more because they’ve made the materials themselves, and it’s good teaching because they have to follow the instructions, and depending on their level, colour, draw, write or fill-in-the-gaps to create the game materials.

    And thanks for some new ideas for next week’s classes.

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TEFL.net : ESL Lesson Plans : Classroom Ideas : Games : 15 no-prep games with just little scraps of paper