Are you ready to teach ESL for children?
Teaching ESL for children is no easy task— but with these amazing ESL teaching activities and fun ESL games, you’ll be their fave teacher in no time.
Teaching ESL is one of the most rewarding and challenging positions you can have, and never moreso than when you’re working with children. They can be the most enthusiastic, motivated learners you’ll ever have, and they can also be the ones who smear snot all over their books in an attempt to never write another word of English ever again (true story).
So are you ready to tackle this beast better known as teaching ESL for children? How do you connect with young learners and give them a learning experience that is as fun as it is meaningful? The key is not to take yourself too seriously, and weasel your way into their hearts through the simple act of play. Pepper your classes with these activities and these 14 ESL classroom games will make you their fave teacher.
Why are ESL classroom games important?
ESL classroom games are crucial in building a relationship not just between you and your students, but between the students themselves. Nothing makes for a better classroom environment than everyone liking each other. And it’s easy to like someone you’re playing with. You want them to trust you to respond to their needs, you want them to get along with each other, and just as importantly, you want to have fun in class! These are hours of your life too, so you might as well have fun while doing it.
English games for kids also make English memorable. Competition requires fast thinking, so those English phrases lingering in the back of their minds suddenly become the most important thing they can remember. And nowhere is a mistake more crucial than when it costs you a sticker and the title of hangman champ.
Should I memorize fun ESL games before teaching abroad?
No one will ever expect you to be Game Guru Extraordinaire, and quite frankly, you don’t need to be to be a good at teaching ESL for children. Most schools will have ample resources for you to plan your activities there, so you’ll be able to come up with ESL classroom games that are catered to the specific needs and abilities of your class.
That being said, if teaching abroad teaches YOU anything, it’s that flexibility is key. If only to give you confidence walking into your classroom for the first time, it’s good to have a few low-to-zero preparation fun ESL classroom games tucked up your sleeve. You don’t want to be the teacher totally stuck if the computer suddenly freezes, you forget your materials at home, or some other impediment decides to show its face that day in class. You don't need to be an encyclopedia, but having a few solid ideas in your head, or even in a notebook, goes a long way in giving you confidence, peace of mind, and a subsequent sense of authority the kids definitely pick up on.
We also recommend bookmarking this page as a resource to refer back to it!
Ever-popular ESL games for kids
ESL Listening Games
It’s just a fact: kids love music. If you’re lucky, the books you use will have songs that include the vocab from that unit, but you can also find some yourself on Youtube. Hand out flash cards from the unit, or even just words handwritten on a piece of paper, and have the students raise their card when they hear it in the song. You can then have them switch cards with their classmates and play the song again. This can be a good introduction to the song before you have them sing it, as they will have heard the melody several times and will have listened intently to the lyrics.
Another fabulous, well-loved resource when teaching ESL for children is the site Lyrics Training. You can choose the genre and even speed of the song, and then pick a popular tune they’ve likely heard on the radio and practice your listening! The idea is to listen to the song and simultaneously fill in the gaps they provide in the lyrics. You can choose between four levels- beginner, intermediate, advanced, and expert- which will change the gaps anywhere from 10% of the song to all of them, respectively. You’ll have to create an account, but it’s free and totally worth it.
ESL Speaking Games
If you have a ball, or in a pinch, some crinkled up paper, you have dozens of games at your disposal. An easy one that you can do on your feet is Categories. Have everyone sit in a circle and then shout out a topic— colors, food, clothing, sports, animals, etc. Toss the ball randomly around the circle, and have the person who catches it say something within the topic. Go until someone can’t name one, and then switch up the topic.
Another ball game is asking questions. You can practice first by having a list of questions on the board they can choose from, along the lines of “What’s your favorite color? What’s your favorite food? How old are you? Can you swim?” and then have them do it from memory once they’ve assimilated basic question structure. They can toss the ball to whomever they please, ask whichever question they please, and the person has to answer before tossing the ball to someone new.
To practice spelling— and paying attention when their classmates speak!— another on-the-spot game is Spelling Rounds. Choose a vocabulary word and start off with the first letter. Go around in a circle and have each student say the next letter in the word. They’ll try to jump in and help, so make sure only the student whose turn it is can answer!
ESL Writing Games
Classic ESL classroom games for all ages and levels includes the board race. Make two to three teams and have them stand in lines in front of the board. You then give them a vocab word and the first person in line has to rush to the board and write it— correctly— for the point. You can also do a variation where you write the alphabet on the board, and the teams are free to go one at a time and write a word that starts with each letter. There’s no repeating of words between teams, and they must be spelled correctly. The first team to finish them all is the winner!
A zero-prep activity while teaching ESL for children is a variation on tic-tac-toe. Draw the classic grid on the board, but now put a vocabulary word in each square. In order for the team to “get” the square and be able to put their X or O on it (or you can jazz it up with hearts or stars or any shape they want), they need to form a sentence using that word. If their level is too low to make full sentences, you can also do this with categories. Instead of making sentences they simply have to name something in that category to get the square. Ex. Animals - elephant, Color - purple.
If you have access to a computer and printer, there are dozens of free websites out there, like Puzzle Maker, where you can create your own word searches or crosswords. This is fun for them and a break for you, which is win-win for ESL classroom games.
ESL Reading Games
A fun way to liven up a story, or to review one that you’ve already gone over, is to write the story out on cards. You then hand them out to groups of students and have them work out the order.
Kids are little sponges. If they can memorize words from flashcards, it stands to reason they can memorize sentences in the same way, right? This is one of my favorite English games for kids. Either print out a picture, or if you have a smartboard project one on screen, and attach a sentence to each picture. To make it more interesting, write a number under each word. Have the children practice saying the sentence, and then, with the numbers still showing, ask them what number six is. So, in the sentence “They are going to play soccer after school,” “soccer” would be the sixth word.
Do this until they are comfortable with the concept, and then remove the sentence and continue asking the numbers. They’ll be racing to count the sentence on their fingers, and soon will be able to say the entire sentence just from looking at the picture.
Things to keep in mind when prepping ESL games for kids
Prepare in advance
The key to authority is good preparation when it comes to ESL teaching activities. Kids can totally pick up on you feeling unprepared, so seal off any cracks by knowing that you have enough material for the day that you won’t have down time to get them distracted. Kids like structure, and they like to know what’s expected of them, so plan your classes and make a routine and make sure you’ve thought through all your activities so no unexpected glitches come up that could easily have been prevented.
Read the audience/interest
Kids are nothing if not expressive, and you’ll be able to tell pretty quick which English games for kids they love, and which make them want to stare at birds out the window or decide it’s high time all their crayons be broken. They’ll usually love even the simplest of games, but also be mindful of when the activity has run its course. Keeping them wanting more is the best way to stay in their favor, and also a way to promise them something fun when they’ve finished the other work that needs to be done.
Know their skills / capabilities
It’s important to cater your ESL teaching activities to the level of your students. Nothing kills a game faster than students feeling like they can’t do it; sometimes this just requires a little further explaining of the rules or a demonstration, sometimes it will require total rerouting to a different activity. Either one is fine, but both can be avoided if you keep in mind their abilities while you’re planning.
Look at the activity from a cultural lens
Learning styles vary between students, but they also vary between cultures — so too should your ESL classroom games. What went over like a dream in Spain might crash and burn in South Korea, simply because the students have different communication styles and expectation from their regular school teachers. Competitions are usually good in any country and get people motivated, but be aware how students take wins and losses and adjust accordingly.
Plan backup activities
Back up activities are essential when planning ESL games for kids. Here are some of our favorite ESL teaching activities that can also double as back up’s:
- One relatively time-consuming and fun game while teaching ESL for children is Around the World. You’ll need a set (or two or three) of flashcards, and space to have them sitting at their desks in as close to a circle as you can manage. To start, two students stand next to their chairs and you show a flashcard. The first person to say the correct word moves to stand next to the student in the next seat over, who now stands up. The person who does not say the correct word in time sits down. Keep moving around the circle until one student makes it around the entire class and returns to their own seat.
- A game that continues to surprise in its simplicity is Behind the Back. Show three flashcards to your class and then put them behind your back and arbitrarily pull one aside. Have each student guess which card is the chosen one before showing it, and even though no skill is required, watch their sheer joy of having gotten it right.
- If you have a few minutes at the end of class or between activities, you can always do a bit of Hangman. You can choose either a word, or to practice whichever sentence structure you may be working on, a whole sentence, and have them guess away. This is good alphabet practice too, which a lot of younger ESL students will be working on.
- Another easy, no-prep game on the board is Scattergories. Write 3-4 topics on the left side with 3-4 letters on top. The students must come up with a word in each topic that starts with each letter. In addition to vocabulary themes, you can also do nouns, verbs, and adjectives if you’ve started working on grammar.
5 awesome programs where you can put your ESL games for kids to the test
Here are just five of the many amazing programs to use ESL games for kids and teach abroad. Not finding what you’re quite looking for? For more options, browse all teach abroad programs.
Use your fabulous arsenal of English games for kids while teaching abroad with LanguageCorps. One of the most widespread programs, LanguageCorps offers a 4-week TESOL certification course and has job placements in Costa Rica, Thailand, Vietnam, France, Egypt, Italy, Spain, Ecuador, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Czech Republic, Cambodia, China, Greece, Hungary, Russia, and Turkey.
This program is based in Madrid and provides optional TEFL certification prior to job placement. Great for beginners, it’s the best way to stay in Spain long-term and soak up all that Spanish sun and sangria while testing out your teaching chops.
3. Good Teachers Union / Top Notch ESL
Entry level teaching jobs — perfect for testing the waters of your fun ESL games — in Beijing, Shanghai, Xiamen, Shenzhen, and other prominent cities in China. There are contracts from 6-12 months, and a major perk is that they’ll buy your plane ticket for you! #winning
Launch your international teaching career in American schools abroad, and even get perks like health insurance and travel benefits. Schools will be structured like a typical K-12 in America, but your students will be a mix of nationalities.
Provides online TEFL training with optional classroom add-ons, and job placement in beautiful South Korea, one of the hotspots for English teaching abroad (pro tip: Korean children LOVE fun ESL games).
ESL for children is goofy and hard, but really, really fun
Teaching ESL to children is one of the most unique, rewarding experiences you can have. Nowhere else can you give someone 10 points that you will never refer to ever again, and see their face light up like they’ve hit the jackpot. On a more serious note, there is no better time to impact a person’s life than as a child, and creating a positive learning experience at a young age will forever influence their desire to learn English— something that in a lot of countries is crucial to career success. So yes, your ESL teaching activities matter. A lot.
So if you’ve been thinking about finding a teaching job abroad or have too many English games for kids swimming around in your head, take the leap and go for it. Your students’ promise to love you until the end of time may wane by the following school year, but the love they give you every day makes the whole thing worth it.