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TEFL (Almost) All Fun and ESL Games – Practical Examples


My name is Emily, and I’m a 22-year-old from Ankeny, Iowa in the US. As you’ll see, I’m teaching teenagers in a school in northern Spain (440 teens, to be exact). Through this experience, I’ve found out that ESL games are a good tool to engage students.

How Did I Come to This Conclusion About ESL Games?

While I was more than a little nervous about taking on so many adolescent pupils, the secret to winning them over is to find out what motivates them. Don’t just take my word for it, though. As I’m in the advanced program, Meddeas has provided me with a course called Expert in Bilingual Education through the Universitat Internacional de Catalunya. Many educational experts we’ve studied in the course—like Robert C. Gardner and Larry Ferlazzo—say that students need to be intrinsically motivated in order to really learn a language.

Exam grades, parents and teachers’ expectations, candy, even—these are all external motivators. I can wave these in front of my students all I want, but if they don’t have the “ganas” (desire) to learn, they won’t take much away from the class and the English activities. So how do you find something that’s intrinsically motivating to 440 different teens? After months of trial and error, I discovered the common denominator of all my successes in the classroom: fun.

English games
Selfie in my classroom.

How Games to Learn English Stimulate Students’ “Ganas”

English exercises for kids, and particularly vocabulary games, are a great way for students to drill new words. They also help students become comfortable using new grammatical concepts and develop conversational fluency in English. In this ESL video, some of my 12-16yo students from 1-4 ESO demonstrate how this is done. I think you’ll find their “ganas” quite evident when there are English games in the classroom.

While they sometimes walk down the hallways like they’re too cool for school, the video shows that they’re just absolute goofs who like to have a good time. This is evidenced by my 1st ESO students, who insisted on wearing the stickers I gave them on their foreheads. Also by the fashionable Sellotape choker my 3rd ESO student Peru is sporting. He made it himself—a surprise to no one who knows him.

Don’t let their cool, apathetic personas fool you: teens like to have fun and the best way to entertain them in the classroom is through games in English. They can get super competitive. Even the students who don’t care about learning English still usually care about winning. Thus, when using English is the medium to do that, they generally engage more and learn subconsciously.

So They Don’t Know They’re Learning

One of my personal pedagogical philosophies—adopted from theorist Stephen Krashen—has come to be that sometimes you have to distract students from realizing they are learning by making the subject or task itself so interesting and compelling that they forget they are using English. The same applies to students who are shy or worried about making mistakes. When they speak you have to make what they want to say or do overrule their fear of failure.

Class isn’t all fun and ESL games, though. Sometimes we have to crack down and do bookwork, listening exercises, and worksheets. Sometimes sass and hormone levels are high. English games are always the reward for working hard, though, and that usually gets us through the class without too many problems. Teenagers aren’t the easiest age group to teach, but in the end, it’s been rewarding. I didn’t always want to teach them, though.

Alibi, one of their favorite games.

How the Selection Process with Meddeas Changed My Mind

I remember my Meddeas interview vividly. I’d been chatting with a lovely Spanish woman named Flavia in a café in Dallas for over half an hour when I told her: “I think I’d most like to work with primary-aged students.”

She took a long look at me as if peering deep into my soul, profiling my innermost capabilities and desires, then said: “I reckon you could work with teenagers. I think sometimes we’re afraid to work with teens, but you seem like someone who could take charge.”

Flavia’s benediction not only banished my fears of adolescent hormones, it filled me with “ganas” to teach that age group. Think of the satisfying, intelligent conversations I could have with teenagers who would be able to speak in complete sentences and contemplate abstract concepts!

And alas, it came to be: I’ve spent the last year in the Basque Country of northern Spain teaching English to the teenagers of Larramendi Ikastola—all 440 of them in Secondary and Bachillerato. I know it’s not easy being a teenage. I was one a few years ago myself, so I can empathize. With this in mind, I’ve tried to prepare classroom activities I would have enjoyed doing as a student learning Spanish. Besides, it’s a win-win—if the kids are having fun, this usually means that the teacher is too.

English for children
Discovering the Basque Country.

8 Responses

  1. Awesome insights that help ESL teachers to help the students learn the language appropriate to the needs of the learners. I am very much interested on this topic and hope to hear more from you.

  2. These are such good ideas! It always surprises me what kids will enjoy. I love incorporating signing and dancing into my classroom. Always a blast with the younger kids.

  3. I have had some trouble trying to find new games and activities to do with my ESO and higher primary students. I think the examples you gave are great and original, and definitely engaging! I especially love how you included a video so we can see how they are played in the classroom, and I love the added element that the students are explaining the games! What a great resource that’ll look back at! Thanks!

  4. I’ve been teaching secondary and primary students in Huelva for the past almost six months now. Teaching teenagers can definitely be daunting at first, but exactly as the article says, the tools that help me the most have always been ESL games and competition. When the super chatty energy they have is channeled toward engaging in English, we can stay on task and in our target language. Whenever there’s some sort of game involved, they are much more motivated.

  5. Awesome article, you can really see that they are having fun learning English! I teach kindergarten and primary school students and it is just as important to tap into their interests, find games/activities that they enjoy doing and also to mix it up a lot. With my kindergarten students I use a lot of games with flashcards such as “go fishing” and “hot and cold”. I also sing and dance a lot with them, it’s so important to keep them moving! With my primary school students, games depend on the size of the groups I have and how much time I have with them. For example, in my 1st and 2nd grade classes I only have 10-15 minutes with a small group (4-5) of students and so I usually play games with them to practice and consolidate vocabulary and grammar. Some examples I have used are “go fish”, “memory” and a taboo like game where they have to guess what card they are holding. With my older grades, like 6th grade, I play games like taboo/back to the board, the memory/chain game, “guess who/what” (a form of taboo where the student has to describe something to the class and the class has to guess). It is challenging trying to think of new, fun games all the time but it is worth it when you see them enjoying the class!

  6. Thanks so much for sharing your experience, Emily. I´m working with ESO and Bachillerato too and it definitely has its pros and cons! But as time goes on, I am experiencing more pros and fewer cons! One issue I have sometimes, though, is that the students get so into the game that all they care about is winning and, so, they get very impulsive and start to answer in Spanish! I´ve tried taking points off for this but sometimes it doesn´t work because they´re just too impulsive. Any advice or tips?! Thank you!

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