ESL Activities for the Classroom

This is a list of ESL activities that have proven to be popular with my classes over the years. Games that work best in the ESL classroom are ones that are easily adapted to suit any topic, do a good job of reinforcing your lesson topic, and keep your students motivated and paying attention. They’re also a lot of fun, and it can be very rewarding to see your students getting excited about using English.

Game: Dead Dice

Materials: 3 dice – Preferably the big, plush kind.

Rule: Numbers 1 and 3 are death numbers.

How to play: I use this game for teaching sentence patterns.

  • Divide the class into two teams.
  • Write the sentence pattern you are teaching on the board.
  • Have the two teams take turns making sentences.
  • Each correct sentence gains one chance to roll the three dice.
  • Add all the numbers of the dice together to decide the points for the team.

For a longer version of this game, you can roll the dice until all three are dead.

  • For example: A student rolls 1 + 4 + 6 = 10 points  (remember the number 1 is dead, so it doesn’t count)
  • You can ask the students to continue rolling the two dice until all the dice are ‘dead’.
  • The team that gets the most points wins.

Note:  This game can be used to determine points for any kind of lesson.

Game: 15 Seconds of Me

This is a great game to use as an ice-breaker and will also give you an opportunity to gauge your students’ ability.  I usually use it with older students since it can be a challenge to get them talking.  The spontaneous nature of this game forces students to think outside the box.


A stopwatch


I usually warm up with a series of easy questions and answers, both asking students and accepting answers to their questions.

How to Play:

Each student has 15 seconds to tell me as many things as they can about themselves.

  • They get a point for each new piece of information.
  • The person with the most points wins the game.

Information to award points for: name, birthday, city, country, nationality, family, pets, favorites or anything else that comes to mind.

Most students will be really shy to play at first because they’re afraid of making mistakes.  For a good laugh and to poke fun at myself, I usually demonstrate in Chinese for 15 seconds to get the ball rolling.  They love it.  If the teacher makes mistakes, they can to.

I always get a  few jokers who say, “I like ‘a’, I like ‘b’, I like ‘c’, I like ‘d’” or “I like ‘1′, I like ‘2′, I like ‘3′”.  I guarantee the students will be laughing and speaking loads of English by the end of the game.  It has never failed for me.

NOTE:  I’ve played this super simple game with my intermediate beginners as well.  You might want to give them a longer time limit.  I usually switch the rules to topics the students know really well such as colors, animals, fruits and vegetables and ask them to list their favorites.

Game: Racing Messengers

This is a great activity for teaching idioms or learning dialogues.  I use this racing game with my intermediate and advanced level students and it never fails to generate a lot of excitement in the classroom.  I’ve also used it for basic questions and answers with my advanced beginners.  Example:  What’s your name?  My name is….

Note:  This game is for review purposes.  I use it at the end of a class for review or as a warm-up activity for the next class.

I’m going to use idioms to demonstrate properly.

  • Prepare a list of idioms and phrases.


If I don’t pass my English exam, I’ll be in hot water with my parents.

When they stepped out this evening, she was dressed to the nines.

  • Cut each sentence in half.  Place one half of each sentence in a basket.
  • Divide the class into groups of three and number each student from 1 to 3.
  • Line the students up in numerical order. Number #1’s should be at the head of the line with the rest of the team members lined up behind them.
  • #1 students leave the classroom. The teacher gives them the first part of the sentence outside the classroom.  Ask them to go back into the classroom and line up again in front of their team.
  • #1’s must tell #2’s the first part of the sentence.
  • #2’s run to the basket at the front of the classroom and find the other half of the sentence.
  • #2’s tell #3’s the full sentence.
  • #3 students run to the blackboard and say the full sentence OR write it on the whiteboard. The first team to say or write it correctly gets a point for their team.

NOTE: #3 students should be the brightest students in your class, since they are required to say or write the whole sentence.  I usually use my younger students for the first part of the game.

If you have a large class, you can use teams of four.  Add an additional step to the game by asking #4’s to find the sentence in their student book OR #3’s can say the full sentence and #4’s must write it.

Game: Survivor

This is a fantastic game that students of all ages can enjoy.  I use it primarily for reviewing new vocabulary and verb tenses.

  • Introduce 6 – 10 new words to beginner and intermediate classes.
  • Introduce 12 – 15 new words to advanced classes.
  • After teaching new vocabulary, give the students a few minutes to study the spelling of the new words.
  • Ask the students to stand up.
  • Explain that the students must work together to spell a word.  For example:  RED:  Student A says ‘R’, Student B says ‘E’, Student C says ‘D’.
  • If the word is spelled successfully, the students remain standing.  If someone makes a mistake, they must sit down.  The last person standing is the ‘Spelling Survivor’.
  • You can impose a time limit.  If a student takes too long to answer, you can ask him/her to sit down.

Alternate Ways To Play:

Advanced level students will catch on to this game quickly.  You can make it tougher by providing definitions in English for your vocabulary.   You provide each student with a definition and they must come up with the appropriate keyword.

I recommend that you play this game after you’ve spent a significant amount of time teaching new vocabulary.  I usually teach my students and ask them to study keywords and definitions for homework.  Then I use ‘Survivor’ as a warm-up activity for next class.

For example:   Keyword:  DUVET
Definition:  a bed covering

I also use this to review past, present and future verb tenses.

The Ultimate Harry Potter Challenge

With all the hype surrounding the latest Harry Potter book and movie, my students seem to be talking about nothing else. I’ve used this conversation lesson over the past week to generate team spirit and conversation in English. My advanced junior high school students haven’t stopped talking about it!

Time: 2 hours. It depends on how many challenges you wish to use.

Level: This lesson works well with large groups of 15 to 30 students in upper-intermediate or advanced level classes.

Warm-Up: Begin your class with a brainstorming activity to generate vocabulary related to the books or movies. Write the new vocabulary on the whiteboard or ask students to generate their own wordlists.

Divide the class into four teams from Hogwart’s School of Magic: Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin.

  • Make sure your students can pronounce the names of these schools properly before starting.

Activities: The teams are given tasks to earn points.

1. Write a short rhyme to cheer your team on. Perform it for the class.

  • I demonstrated a short rhyme for my students. It can be as simple as stamping out beats with your hands and feet, or thinking of an adjective to go with each letter in your team’s name.

2. Make a short speech for a new student at Hogwart’s School of Magic.

  • What would a new student need to know about Hogwart’s before their first day of class?

3. Design a new broomstick. Present your new broomstick to the class.

  • This one is a lot of fun. I was dumbfounded by some of the designs.
  • While students are working on their design, you may want to help them with new vocabulary. For example: I had one group add rocket thrusters to their broom design but didn’t know how to explain it in English.
  • Encourage your students to be creative.

4. Create a new game to play on broomsticks. Write rules for your game.

  • Brainstorm! Encourage the entire class to think of places with rules.
  • Ask them to think of the rules in each of these places before writing their own rules.

5. Predict what will happen to Harry, Ron and Herminione in the future.

6. Write the ingredients of a magic potion or make a magic spell for love, luck, money or protection.

  • Explain the differences between a magic spell and a magic potion.
  • This one will also require a bit of explaining and forethought. Ask students to think of spells used in the movies. Explain that some spells have ingredients. My students had a great time adding pig blood, spiders and frog eyes into a magic potion that turned me into a less than savory character.

Ask students to vote for the best team in each category. They were not allowed to vote for their own team. I also cast my vote for the best performances. You can assign a certain number of points for each team if you wish. At the end, the team with the most points wins the challenge.

Valerie Giles has also posted a terrific article on ESL Teachers Board. She writes about how to use Harry Potter House Teams effectively in the classroom.

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