TEFL (Almost) All Fun and ESL Games

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

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. 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.

ESL games for teenagers are a great way for students to drill vocabulary. They also help students become comfortable using new grammatical concepts, and develop conversational fluency in English. In the video, some of my 12-16 year-old students from 1-4 ESO demonstrate how this is done. I think you’ll find their ganas quite evident when there are ESL 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 ESL games. 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. 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 games, though. Sometimes we have to crack down and do bookwork, listening exercises, and worksheets. Sometimes sass and hormone levels are high. ESL class 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.

I remember my Meddeas interview vividly: I’d been chatting with a lovely Spanish woman named Flavia in a café 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 think 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 ESL games and 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.

By Emily P.

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  • I love your connect four idea! I am always looking for fun ways to incorporate grammar into lessons and this is a great idea. My students are big fans of the Alibi game as well! It really gets them to think creatively and work together as a team!

    Amanda Reid June 11, 2020 7:07 am Reply
  • I do love when you can integrate learning with games. It means that the students associate English with having fun.

    luke carey June 11, 2020 7:07 am Reply
  • I played Alibi with my ESO and Bachillerato students the past few weeks and it was such a successful game! They really enjoyed it. I agree games are a great way to engage students! Especially since Spanish kids are so competitive!

    Lisa Torres June 11, 2020 7:07 am Reply
  • YES the kids looooove playing games – as a language assistant we are so lucky that we can be as creative as we like with our lesson planning and we can incorporate SO many games! win win – the kids learn english, and they LOOOOVE having fun with you!!!

    Jessica Tatam June 11, 2020 7:07 am Reply
  • Hahahaha the games! I have to agree with them, it's my favourite part too. Thanks for showing us these game, Emily (and co)

    Rebecca Mcmullin June 11, 2020 7:07 am Reply
  • I love Basque region 🙂 These are some great activities that I will for sure use in the next upcoming weeks.

    Mary Carper June 11, 2020 7:07 am Reply
  • WOW these games are fantastic. I am definitely going to use these in my classes. I think my favorite from here was using the projector for the Connect Four game. Genius!!

    MaryAnn Thackrah June 11, 2020 7:07 am Reply
  • I love how you have the kids explain how to play the games! Shows how you are a good teacher by making them tell you how to do things! I've never played the game connect four before, but I feel like it's a really fun game and want to play this with my students in Primary 6!

    Olivia Lo June 11, 2020 7:07 am Reply
  • Games are so crucial to engaging students and keeping their interest- thanks for sharing some good ideas! It's great that your students can explain the games, they seem to really enjoy your class! Have you ever is a favorite among my students, I'll have to try some of these other ones out!

    Taylor Elton June 11, 2020 7:07 am Reply
  • This an excellent of example of using games in the classroom to get the kids practicing, I am glad she included a student talking in English to explain, what a great way to have them practice conversation skills.

    Tatum Wilson June 11, 2020 7:07 am Reply
  • Hi, thanks for sharing. The first activity ‘ Connect Four isn’t really clear. Could you please explain it

    Fjord Hellas June 11, 2020 7:07 am Reply
  • Thanks for sharing but the games aren’t very clear. Could you please explain or give more details about the last two games: hot seat and alibi? Could you give or show examples ?

    Fjord Hellas June 11, 2020 7:07 am Reply
  • The audio on this is terrible, I couldn't understand any of what was said. Shame, as the games looked quite good.

    Tom Braley June 11, 2020 7:07 am Reply
  • Could you try to explain it better please????

    Vane Ribeiro June 11, 2020 7:07 am Reply
  • Hello, can you please explain to me more the alibi game! Didn’t get it. Thank you 😊 niceee games my kids love the hot seat and have you ever😍❤️❤️

    kim kim K June 11, 2020 7:07 am Reply
  • What I really don´t understand why Spaniards have such an awful English accent!!!….Lo que realmente no entiendo es porque los Españoles tienen un acento fatal en Ingles!!!

    Eve June 11, 2020 7:07 am Reply
  • Hey . What's up . Where are your students from. I hear so strange accent )

    Денис June 11, 2020 7:07 am Reply
  • what is the wage for working there? Im in Vietnam teaching

    sexy babes June 11, 2020 7:07 am Reply
  • Thank you very much. I'm gladtohave found this video.

    Svenja Geißler June 11, 2020 7:07 am Reply
  • very nice!

    STREET TALK 4 THE SOUL June 11, 2020 7:07 am Reply

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