Not everyone enjoys opening a book and memorizing vocabulary for hours. Using board games to teach in your classroom or while tutoring will get your students to engage with English without all the pressure. Having students interact with vocabulary will help them memorize the words naturally while playing these games. Many of the games listed can be used as a central focus for a lesson or be a subsidiary to have some fun while reviewing a topic earlier learned.

Teaching Tips

Some games will be more difficult from a gameplay mechanical level and will require skills in being able to learn how to play the game before you host a class and then being able to clearly communicate to your players how the game works. Please note any games that seem interesting and reference more in depth reviews to see if they are fit for your specific situation. Time to play the game, player count, player age, game difficulty, subject matter, and language ability are all things you should be considering.

Get Descriptive

Hues and Cues

3-10 Players ⚫  30 Mins  ⚫  Intermediate to Advanced  ⚫ ESL: Colors, describing colors

How to Play

Gather around with three to ten people to play a quick and simple game with a prism of possibilities! First, a “cue giver” hides a specific color they’ve chosen out of a deck of cards. There are 480 shades on the board in front of you! After getting one- and two-word cues, everyone places their marker on which color they think is being described. “Coffee.” Is it dark brown, as in freshly brewed? “Au lait.” With milk. That means I should pick a lighter shade!

Use examples from everyday life, from nature to pop culture, or materials and moods. Everyone around the table gets a turn to give cues and guess. The better your hints or guesses, the more points you earn. Play off others’ experiences to narrow down what they have in mind!

—description from the publisher

In the Classroom

Players will be forced to be creative to use their vocabulary to get players to find the color they have chosen. It will also bring up some interesting culture perspectives on different colors and objects.

Expanding Vocabulary

Just One

3-7 Players ⚫  20 Mins  ⚫  Intermediate to Advanced  ⚫ ESL: word association

How to Play

The game takes place over thirteen cards. In each round all but one player (who is guessing the answer) will see the top card of the deck. All the other players must write down clues to show to the guessing player. However if players use the same clue then their clue is canceled out, preventing the guessing player from being able to view what those clues were.

Example: There are 5 players. 4 of the players get look at the word card which is “shark”. Now those 4 players must right down clues to reveal to the guessing players. The clues given are; ocean, kill, fish, fish. Because two players wrote down “fish” the guessing player only gets to see the clues “ocean & kill”. The guessing player may be able to get the correct answer from these clues.

The goal is to get a score as close to 13 as possible.

In the Classroom

This game can be hard to play with players with a too limited vocabulary. If players only know very very basic words they will all write down similar answers making it really hard for the guesser to get the right answer.

Between each round you can discuss with players why they chose different words or other possible clues they could have written down.

Shy to Speak

Word Slam & Word Slam Family

3+ Players ⚫  15 Mins  ⚫  Intermediate to Advanced  ⚫ ESL: word association, communication

How to Play

Two clue givers, one from each team, is in a race to get their team to guess the answer at the same time. However they can’t communicate verbally or with motions, their tool is a deck of 100ish cards, each with a single word on it that is either a noun, verb, adjective, or preposition.

Example from Board Game Geek: “EAT, YELLOW, CIRCLE — do you mean pancakes? Or pineapple rings? Oh wait, the CIRCLE is DIVIDED? So something that you eat that is yellow and semicircular? Uh, is it, maybe…a banana?” “Yes, the answer is banana! One point for the Blue Team!”

In the Classroom

After each round there is usually discussion from the clue giver to what they were trying to communicate and the guessers as to what they thought the clues meant. This game might be good for groups that are a little more shy cause they don’t have to verbally give clues. Its great for learning how to communicate with basic words. It will help players learn how to communicate in situations despite not knowing a specific word.

Spelling Practice

Bananagrams

1-8 Players ⚫  15 Mins  ⚫  Intermediate to Advanced  ⚫ ESL: Spelling

How to Play

Each player starts with a group of letter tiles and races to build a “crossword”. Each time a player uses all their letters everyone grabs a new letter. The first player to finish their crossword after the 144 letters tiles have been depleted wins the game.

In the Classroom

This game is best used in situations where you can have students compete against each other that are at the same language level. Because of the nature of this game native english speakers will usually have a huge advantage over anyone they are playing with.

But outside of the normal rules for the game there are many ways to use the tiles from this game in a ESL environment. Whether it’s to have a more interactive way to help kids practicing spelling words or to be used for other mini games with students.

Confident Speakers

Rorey's Story Cubes

1-12 Players ⚫  20 Mins  ⚫  Beginner to Advanced  ⚫ ESL: Story Telling

How to Play

This game was designed by Rory O’Connor, a trainer in creativity and creative problem-solving. The game comes with 9 cubes (dice), that depict different images on each side totalling 54 unique images. Players roll all 9 cubes generating 9 different images. You use these results to create a story that starts with “Once upon a time…” and uses all 9 elements as part of the narrative.

In the Classroom

You can just have fun creating stories, you can give out awards as the teacher, or have classmates vote on the best stories. Beyond the basic idea of creating stories there are so many different ways you can use these dice to encourage your students to practice speaking and using problem solving skills to be creative. Each student could write a story based off the dice rolls, have teams act something out, or have the whole class take turns adding one aspect of a single dice into the story. This game can be used at all levels as higher students can add in more complex ideas and at lower levels you could use the dice just for students to learn vocabulary. There are many different versions of Rorey’s Story Cubes, you might want to consider picking up a few.

Thinking Outside the Box

Dixit

3-6 Players ⚫  30 Mins  ⚫  Beginner to Intermediate  ⚫ ESL: story telling, sentences, word association

How to Play

One Player is the leader for the round. They say a sentence related to a card that they will place down. Then other players will pick cards that they think also fits the description well. After cards are shuffled and revealed all players vote on which card they think was the original card. If some players guess it, they both get points, however if all players or no players guess the right card the lead player doesn’t get any points.

In the Classroom

This game is great getting students out of their comfort zone and practicing speaking simple vocabulary. They will have to use some creativity while they do it, and listen carefully while other players are taking their turns. For more advanced students you can require them to limit their vocabular to a particular subject or require them to say short sentences.

Geography and Monuments

Trekking the World

3-6 Players ⚫  30 Mins  ⚫  Level  ⚫ ESL: USA Geography, Geography, National Parks, Monuments, Continents

How to Play

Each player plays as a trekker or explorer, traveling to key locations around the world or national parks in the United States in the “Trekking National Parks” edition. On a turn players must move to a new location, collecting a small souvenir (colored cube) from that location. As they fill their suitcases with souvenirs they will get bonus points for collecting the most of one color and points for collecting sets of all colors. But players don’t just want to travel from point to point, they want to see special destinations. By having the right cards and being in the right location, they can take tours of different locations with limited availability, granting them more points.

In the Classroom

Using Trekking the World is a great way to introduce students to different monuments and key locations around the world. This will also help their geography improve. If they are particularly interested in going to the United States. The Nation Parks version is a great way to introduce them to many national parks across the USA. This will give them a chance to learn about these locations and learn the proper names of each place.

Blast to the Past

Timeline Card Game Series

2-5 Players ⚫  30-60 Mins  ⚫  Intermediate  ⚫ ESL: invention names, history

How to Play

This game contains 55 cards, which each depicts an invention on both sides of the card, with the year in which that invention was created on only one side. Players take turns placing cards where they think it belongs in the timeline. After placing the card, the player reveals the date on the back.  Correctly placed cards with the date in chronological order stays in place; otherwise the card is removed from play and the player draws a new card. The first player to get rid of all their cards wins. 

In the Classroom

This game not only challenges students to know history, but also can be used to teach them words they may not normally learn in modern day. When playing this game encourage students to say the words on the cards they are playing and encourage them to talk about why they think the card should be placed the position they chose. “I think a typewriters were invented before telephones because…”

There is also other games in the series for animals or geography by the name of “Cardline”.

The game doesn’t go into great detail about each invention besides its name, date, and inventor. However the game has beautiful art, allowing you to be able to make use of the cards outside the designed game. They can be used as flash cards among using them in other games that you make up on your own.

Biology

Cytosis: A Cell Biology Game

2-5 Players ⚫  30-90 Mins  ⚫  Advanced  ⚫ ESL: biology, human cell, mRNA, ATP, enzymes

How to Play

A game all about the human cell.

Players start out with a number of workers and on a player’s turn, they will place one of their workers in any available location within that cell. Some of the locations provide players with resources (e.g., mRNA, ATP); some with actions (e.g., convert resources, collect cards). Resources are used to build enzymes, hormones and/or receptors, which score Health Points. The player with the most Health Points at the end of the game wins!

In the Classroom

As the players play they must place workers on places on the cell. Have student practice speaking with proper pronunciation each time they place their worker on that cell part of the cell. See if they can discuss briefly what that part of the cell does during the game. After playing the game try to discuss the parts of the human cell using the words they just practiced.

All About Birds

Wingspan

1-5 Players ⚫  45 Mins  ⚫  Advanced  ⚫ ESL: Birds, Ecology, Biology

How to Play

Players are trying to attract birds to their nature reserve. Throughout the game they will be populating the three habitats; forest, field, and water. On a turn you can choose to do one of four things; Play a Bird, Collect Food (forest), Lay Eggs (field), or Draw Bird (water) Cards. When you play a bird the bird has a food and egg cost, along with which habit it can live in. After playing birds in a habitat, the next time you choose to take the action for that habit, not only are you getting that habitat’s benefit but also whatever bonus actions the bird cards have written on them.

Example: On my turn I play a bird in the forest, then on my following turn I take the Collect Food action allowing me to collect food from the birdfeeder and then take the action on my bird which might allow me to get more food or do some other actions.

 

As the game goes on each time you choose which action you take it becomes more and more powerful. The game ends after four rounds have been completed. The winner is determined by adding points based on a number of factors; bird value, eggs laid, bonus points, birds flocks (birds tucked under other birds), smaller birds eaten by predator birds and more.

In the Classroom

This game would be useful for anyone interested in learning more about birds in English (or you can get the Mandarin version if you want to learn Mandarin). All the bird cards abilities are loosely related to how the bird behaves in real life. Even the amount of eggs a bird can lay is related in some proportion to its real life ability. Players will have a chance to learn lots of bird names along with some terminology like; invertebrate, cavity nest, platform nest, and more. Not only that players will be challenged to understand what each bird action does, they will have to carefully read the details of the cards to not misunderstand what is being represented. 

Dale Nolan
Author: Dale Nolan

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