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Games on the Go: Quick and Easy Activities to Use in Your English Classroom

Despite your best laid plans, sometimes you just need to improvise in your English lessons. For those times, here’s some inspiration.

By 7 min read

Over the course of my 12 years in teaching, I’ve noticed that in general there are two types of teacher in the English education game.

In the first group are those who plan everything out in intricate detail, producing a lesson plan that is mapped to the second.

As for the second type, they employ an overall approach that is more along the lines of “it’ll be alright on the night.” They dare the bare minimum in preparation, have little (if any) prior discussion with their colleagues and place an overwhelming emphasis on improvisation and ingenuity in the classroom.

Now, most teaching guide books — as well as on the job training programs and the Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA) course I completed in 2006 — will tell you that the former is the way to go, while the latter should be frowned upon and demonstrates a serious lack of professionalism.

My experience, however, tells me that it isn’t as clear cut as that. To be a good all-round teacher, you need a balance of both planning skills and improvisation abilities. No matter how much you organize yourself or how nicely prepared your materials are, there will be times when it becomes necessary to throw all of that stuff out the window.

Maybe the printer doesn’t work. Maybe your colleague who has all the materials calls in sick that morning. Maybe you accidentally bring the wrong materials to the wrong class. In all of the above situations, the onus is on you to come up with a solution — and fast.

In today’s post, I want to offer some game ideas I’ve used down the years for those times when — through no fault of my own — my only option was to “wing it.”

Each of these activities will take up about 10 to 15 minutes of class time (maybe 20 if you stretch it and try a few variations) so be ready to deploy at least three or four of these in a class if you’ve got nothing else.

These exercises can also make for handy five-minute fillers at the end of a lesson. Useful for those times you burn through your lesson plan too quickly (a common mistake, especially among newer teachers).

1. The line out game

For this to work, your students will need to be seated in rows and columns. Most classrooms are laid out this way. If you’re using a multi-purpose room, get the students to make orderly lines to create a grid.

Ask students to answer a question. Try to base the questions around target language structure or vocabulary they already know. Tell them to raise their hand if they know the answer, but do not let them shout out. Order is important in this game.

Select a student to answer your question. If they give the correct answer, do a round of janken (rock, paper, scissors) with them. If they lose, they sit down. If they win, they must then choose either row or column. If the words “row” and “” are too hard for the students to say, have them use the Japanese terms yoko (horizontal) and tate (vertical).

Depending on this choice, either the other students in front of and behind or to either side of them will sit down.

Depending on your class size, and how good your kids are at answering, it usually takes about 10 minutes to cycle through the whole class. If they really enjoy it, you could do two rounds. I usually just do one so it doesn’t get too repetitive.

2. The keyword game

This game works as an excellent vocabulary drill and review, as well as a lifesaving time killer in class.

Arrange the students into groups of four or five.

Have them move their desks or tables together so that each group is sitting around a single, larger desk. Have one student take out their eraser and place it in the center of the desk.

To be a good all-round teacher, you need a balance of both planning skills and improvisation abilities.

Explain to the students that you are going to list some words and they will have to repeat them. For example, colors, names of places in town, different foods and the like. Try to use vocabulary pertinent to that particular class.

Next, tell the students your “keyword.” For example, if you’re doing fruits the keyword might be “strawberry.” When the students hear the keyword, rather than repeat it, they must instead try to grab the eraser in the center of the desk as quickly as they can. The first one to grab the eraser wins a point.

You can either play the game for a set time limit or make it a “first to 10 points” scenario, depending on how much time you want to use. This can probably take about 10 to 15 minutes when played out fully and it can be extended if the kids are into it.

3. Line drawing game

For this game, divide the class into four or five teams (asking them to sit in their school lunch groups is a good way to achieve this quickly).

Tell the students that you will draw some pictures on the board and they need to guess what the picture is. Try to keep it to pertinent current vocabulary items.

Now, tell them that you will draw the picture very slowly, just a single line at a time. When they know what it is, they must raise their hand and tell you. If they get it right, their team gets one point. If you have a particularly disorderly class, you can also tell them that shouting the answer without raising their hand will result in a one point deduction.

Next, on the whiteboard or blackboard, start to draw a picture. Stop after you finish each line and ask the students: “What is it?” Angular items such as cars, planes and boats are especially good for a game like this.

This game can literally run for anywhere from five to 30 minutes. It’s limited only by your own creativity and your students’ patience.

4. The shark game

I’m sure many of us remember the classic word game hangman from childhood. However, given Japan’s well-documented issues with child suicides, hangman is hardly an appropriate game for a typical English class here.

Instead, we can play its local variant, the shark game.

Map out your letter grid in the same way you would a hangman puzzle, but instead of drawing your gallows, draw a “Jaws” style shark poking his head out of the water. (Google the poster for the movie Jaws if you’re unsure what this looks like)

Above the shark, draw a series of horizontal lines, one on top of another. How many you draw depends on how many chances you want to give your students to answer.

Atop these horizontal lines draw a stick man. Explain to the students that they have to save Mr. Stickman from the shark by completing the word puzzle before all the steps disappear.

For each wrong answer the students give, erase one of the horizontal lines below your stick man (thereby taking away one of his steps). When all the steps are gone, the shark gets him and it’s game over.

5. Jeopardy

This one works like the classic game show Jeopardy, hosted by the legendary Alex Trebek.

Draw a five-by-five grid on the board. Above the top line, write the names of five categories. Typically, if it’s for a fun filler for the end of class, I go with the following: Countries, Sports, Food and Drink, Japanese (you say something in English and the kids tell you the Japanese) and English (you say something in Japanese and the kids tell you the English).

Divide the class into three or four teams.

Next, in each column underneath the subject name, write in ascending order from top to bottom the numbers 10, 20, 30, 40 and 50.

Tell the students that they will choose a subject and the points to play for. Be sure to also explain that 10 point questions are easy but the 50 point ones are much harder.

Once the first team chooses a question, it’s then open to whoever raises their hand first — from any of the teams — and answers correctly to get the indicated number of points. Whichever team goes first does  matter. Just be sure to rotate to a different team for each question selected, so that they all have the chance to choose the subject they want.

This is a fun, competitive way to round off a class.

All these games require basically no prep, and are guaranteed to keep your students engaged and enjoying your lesson. All it needs is a little improvisation on your part.

Do you have any impromptu games or activities that you like to run in the classroom in a pinch? Let us know in the comments!

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