Game-Based Learning

Skill-Developing Games for ELLs

These simple activities for high school English language learners can keep them engaged and having fun as they learn.

May 9, 2024
kali9 / iStock

The other day, I brought a kickball-sized ball to class, and the students, grades nine through 12, were overjoyed and curious. The ball symbolizes play. And play is synonymous with fun. And fun, when appropriate, can be synonymous with learning. 

As we get closer to the end of the school year, I find myself increasingly using game-based learning to maintain engagement with my English language learners (ELLs). Students need to prepare for upcoming state testing, so I think of ways to integrate that with skills they need. I also must face the reality that at times students just refuse to do anything, or it’s hard for me to get them to work consistently for an entire class period. Unless, that is, we play a game.

Fun Games With Very Little Prep Time

20 Questions: This is my students’ favorite game. A student thinks of something related to a theme—something as simple as a person, place, or object. Or it could be related to a historical era, for example, like the industrial revolution. As students are questioning, and considering what word might be in their peer’s head, I write the words/questions that they generate on the board or on the computer and then project them on the board so that the students are continually seeing the language they’re producing. I also have one student keep track of the number of questions asked (yes/no questions only). At the end, I have students copy down the sentences and translate them into their native language.

If students struggle with the English language, they may also use their phones to find images and show peers or translate text from their native language. 

Endless Story: Students sit in a circle and take turns going around the circle telling a story. If it’s a small class, I do this as a whole class. As they talk, I encourage them to use a translator if needed, and after they share their contribution to the story, I type their sentences on the computer and project them on the board so they can see their words in text format. I fix the grammar as I type and have students read their sentences to reinforce the corrected text. At the end, I have students write the entire story in English (projected on the board) on a piece of paper. 

Here’s a more advanced option: If it’s a larger class, students can work in groups of five or six. Give them a list of literary elements like personification, foreshadowing, irony. They should include these elements in their story and identify where they used them. 

Word on My Head: Choose vocabulary words or topics (for example World War I) related to themes that students have been studying in one of their classes (science, history, English language arts). Or have students create a list of words or topics and write them on paper for you to collect and draw ideas from (this saves your own prep time and provides an opportunity for students to reflect on what they’ve learned in previous classes).

Give a student a card with a word on it, but don’t let them see the word. They can hold it over their head, or the word can be written on the board with the student sitting in a chair facing away from the board. Other class members should use English to describe the word that’s hidden from their classmate. The student has to guess what it is. Or the student who is guessing the word can ask yes/no questions about the hidden word, and the classmates answer without details.

I encourage students to use as many words as possible, along with gestures if needed. After the student with the word has answered correctly, add the word to a list on the board. 

Another alternative to this would be to put an image of something or someone on a student’s head or behind the student, requiring the other classmates to use English, either by speaking or inputting the text into a translator, to describe the image. Because my classes are small, I do this with a whole group.

If your classes are larger, however, split the groups up and monitor and guide them to ensure that they’re working on task. This game can also be timed or turned into a race to see which group can complete the most terms the fastest.

Themed Scavenger Hunt: Give students a hall pass, and have them find anything they see in the hallways or out the windows that is related to a theme. They should make a multilingual chart of the words in English and in their native languages. A group of three students, for example, may have English, Spanish, and Ukrainian.

If the students are newcomers, I have them make a list of words of what they find in the hallway—for example, student, window, door—within a particular time frame, using a translator, and then bring it back to me. I want them to discover the words that they feel are most useful and write them on their paper.

When students return, they can choose some of these newfound words and use them to create sentences, with my guidance or using their translators. The purpose is to frequently use language they come in contact with every day through speaking and writing.

Students love this because they’re moving around, exploring the school and getting more comfortable with it, developing relationships with their teammates, and using language to express what they see and do in their environment. As a follow-up, depending on their language level, I might have students write a list of sentences or a paragraph to describe what they saw and did on their scavenger hunt.

An alternative to this activity is to have the class first create a list of common things they see around the hallways—for example, a water fountain, lockers, doors, students. Then they take that list, and within, say, 20 minutes they explore the school and see how many times they can find each of those objects and include where that object is—that may be a particular corridor if it has a name (the 100 wing, for example)—or describe what this object is near, such as the library or the cafeteria. This is a good activity for prepositions and direction words. 

Not only does game-based learning activate eagerness to engage in academic material and create a joyful mindset about learning, but also it can cultivate relationships in the classroom and a joyous sense of community.

Now it’s your turn. What are your favorite games for English language learners? Please share in the comments.

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  • Game-Based Learning
  • English Language Learners
  • 9-12 High School

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