Larry Ferlazzo

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                                                         (This article originally appeared in the Dec., 2006
 issue of  "Language Magazine.")                                  


                                           GAMES STUDENTS PLAY


                          Using Classroom Games To Teach & To Learn

                                                                      By Larry Ferlazzo


“Trick them into thinking they aren’t learning and they do,” says Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski, a teacher in the HBO television series “The Wire.”  In the show, he gets a very challenging group of kids to learn math by showing them how to determine odds as they play dice for Monopoly money.


Learning another language can be a challenging and often frustrating experience for many of our students.  No matter how motivated students are, a good teacher must have many instructional “weapons” at his/her disposal to help students engage in the class and not have to endure it.  Games are one of those weapons.


I often use games in my classroom, and I have six criteria for any game I use. The first is that they require no or extremely minimal preparation on my part.  The second is that if any materials are needed they are developed by the students themselves -- the preparation for the games in itself is a language learning experience.  The third is that, in addition to not costing me much time, they can also be done without costing me any money.  The fourth is that the game is designed in a way to strongly encourage all students in the class to be engaged at all times. The fifth is that the game, after being modeled by me a number of times, can periodically also be led by a student.  And, finally, the last criteria is that I must feel like the students are learning by playing the game and the students must feel like they are having fun by playing it.



I’d like to share some games I’ve found that meet this criteria and can be adapted to all levels of instruction (and to most other subjects in addition to language).  I suspect that few, if any, are particularly original.  I’m sure that many of them been developed by other teachers, and I’ve picked them up through conversations and reading about them.  However, if they have, I certainly cannot remember where I first learned about them, and I offer my apologies to their originators.




Having a few small, handheld whiteboards can make a number of games go smoothly, though pieces of scratch paper can act as substitutes.



I divide the class into small groups of generally four or so students. I change how the groups are formed – sometimes I allow students to choose their own partners and at other times I just have them “number off.”  However, I always reserve the right to move students around if I feel that one group is obviously too strong or weak.


One game is calling out a question to answer or a word or sentence to spell, giving the groups twenty or thirty seconds to write the answer (and telling them not to raise their board until I say time is up), and then having them show me the answer.  The groups with the correct answer get a point.   This way everyone has an opportunity to score a point, not just the first one with the answer.  I’ll sometimes end this game, and others, with an opportunity for each team to bet all or part of their points on the last question (like in “Final Jeopardy”).


A similar game with some different twists is having each group rotate having one person from their group stand up in front with a small whiteboard.  All other group members have to remain in their seats.  I’ll again ask questions that must be answered in writing by the person in front.  However, their groups can help them by yelling out help.  The first person to get the answer correct scores a point for their group.  Needless to say, this game can get a little noisy.


Another game where the whiteboards come in handy is “Hangman.”  In my version, though, we dispense with the hanged man himself (a little too violent of an image for my taste and it just adds unneeded complexity and an unnatural ending to the game itself).   I have students guess entire sentences and not just words, with a space between the word blanks, and the blanks I write on the board are further distinguished by different color blanks for each word.  If we’re studying food, for example, instead of having to guess the word “milk,” they have to guess the sentence “I drink milk in the morning.”  This way students can learn sentence structure and the game can easily be made harder for students with a greater grasp of the language being taught. 


In my version of the “Hangman” game, students are again in groups.  I give each group a turn to guess a letter, and will either write a correct letter in the appropriate blank or an incorrect letter below the blanks.  Groups get a point deducted if they incorrectly guess the sentence.  The first group that writes the correct sentence on their whiteboard scores a point.  Groups can guess the sentence at anytime, even if it is not their turn.





One game students enjoy has sometimes been called “Chinese Whispers.”   In my version, I will divide the class into two or three groups, depending on class size.  I will make sure they are all seated, whisper a sentence into the first person’s ear, and then, after I have whispered it into the ear of the first person in each group, they each have to whisper it to the next person in their group who, in turn, has to whisper it to the person next to them. The last person in the group has to come up and whisper to me what the sentence is.  The first group who gets it correct gets a point.  If their sentence is incorrect, they have to begun the process all over again with me whispering in the first person’s ear.


“I Spy” is another old game I use.   In my version, students again are in small groups and each group has a small whiteboard.  Students have to formulate questions.  Every person in the group has to be prepared to ask the question because, in this game, when it’s the group’s turn I sometimes will randomly choose who gets to ask the question (“Is it in the front of the class?”   “Is it brown?”).  Of course, if I do that, I will call on a student who I think is very likely to be able to say it correctly.  Using the examples I just gave, I will then write  “in front” or “brown” under the words “Yes” or “No” that I’ve written on the front board..


A game that I’ve heard called “Messenger and Scribe” is one that develops both speaking and writing skills. I’ll write four sentences (or, depending on the class level, four paragraphs) on four pieces of paper and tape the four sheets in different sections of the room.  Students are then divided into pairs – one is the Messenger and one is the Scribe.   On remains seated with a paper and pen, and the other has to run back and forth between the sheets and the Scribe and tell him/her what it says, who then writes it down.  The Messenger cannot stand by the sheet and yell to the Scribe, however.  The first five or so teams to write all the sentences down correctly are the winners.  I am very particular, though, on them having to get everything, including spelling and punctuation, correct.




We will play bingo, with students making a board on a piece of paper of four square down and four squares across.   They will write sixteen words out of perhaps twenty-five or thirty we’ve been studying, and they will choose which words will go in what square.  I’ll give them little buttons to place on the words as I call them.  When one person wins everyone clears their boards and we play another game.


We also play word searches with students creating their own word searches on graph paper.  Students will exchange their creations with other students, and we’ll see who can find the most words in five minutes and then in ten minutes.


Sentence Scrambles are also another popular game.  Students will be given blank index cards, or they can just cut-up pieces of paper.  Each student will pick one sentence from a book they have been reading and write the words and punctuation marks on the cards (one word and one punctuation mark per card).  They will mix up the cards and then paper clip them together.  Then they’ll do the same for another sentence.  Usually I have each student make five of them.  Then I’ll collect them, divide the class into small groups, and give each group a stack of the sentence scrambles to put into the correct order.  The group that has the most correct sentences in ten or fifteen minutes wins.  After a group feels they have one sentence correct I’ll go and check it and take it away after giving them a point.


Sometimes we’ll play a game called Slap.  Students will be divided into groups of four with their desks facing each other.  Each group has to make cards with one word each written on them from the week’s vocabulary list.  They are all put face up throughout the four desks.  I’ll call out the word, and the first person to slap the card with their hand gets a point (One person, who also plays the game, in each group is designated the scorekeeper).




I have many word lists and pictures with words posted on the walls of my classroom.  Sometimes I will again divide the class into small groups and give one person from each group a yardstick (they rotate who that person is).  They will all start from the same point in the room and then I will call out a word.  The first person to correctly touch the word with their yardstick gets a point for their group.  Other group members have to remain seated, but they can help their person who has the yardstick.  This is another noisy game.  One of my colleagues does a similar game by writing words on the board and gives students fly swatters instead of yardsticks.


Two other simple games are “Pictionary,” where either other students or I draw something on the board and the first small group to write on their white board the correct word symbolized by the drawing gets a point; and “Charades,” where other students or I act out verbs, again needing to be guessed by student groups.


Another great game for student review is what I call “Stations.”  I’ll copy five copies of five different worksheets related to the theme we’ve been studying (this is one of the few good uses I’ve found for worksheets).  The class will then be divided into five groups of four or so students.  One stack of each of the five worksheets will be placed in different sections of the room.  Each student group is given a group number and begins at one of the five Stations.  They will be given three or four minutes (or longer) at each Station to complete as many questions on the worksheet as they can, then told to stop.  They write their group number on the worksheet, give it to me, and then each group moves to the next Station.  After we’ve gone through all the Stations, each group is given another group’s papers to correct and we’ll review the answers as a class.  The number of correct answers is added up, and the group with the greatest number wins.


Another activity that requires a little teacher preparation time is what I call the ‘Labeling Game.”  I write words describing various classroom objects on post-its, divide the classroom into four or five groups, and then each day during the week one group will see how fast they can correctly label the classroom objects.  I time the groups, and the one with the fastest time wins.  I add new labels each week.



The other issue that goes with these games relates to the award the winners and, often, the “runner-ups,” receive.  The rewards I give cost me little or nothing – an extra point on that week’s test, students get to go to lunch two minutes early, or they don’t have to do the required work of copying the plan for the day in their notebook.  Sometimes it’s a piece of candy, or the right to eat food during class.


But, generally, after a short period of time I’ve found that students forget about getting a reward and don’t even ask about it.  The game itself becomes the reward, and the enjoyment of the experience and the knowledge learned becomes the intrinsic motivator.


This raises a question that all of us might want to consider:  What else can we do so that students feel that same way about their entire time in our classrooms?



Larry Ferlazzo teaches Beginning, Intermediate, and Advanced English Language Learners at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, CA. He can be contacted at



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