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Keeping the attention of young children for any length of time is always challenging, whatever the circumstances.

So, it’s a great idea for English language teachers who teach kids to always have a wide variety of fun activities and games at the ready – especially when the energy level in the classroom is dropping.

Here are some that have worked really well for me.

1. Guess The Word

This game is a speaking activity that helps students to learn how to describe something, as well as review vocabulary they have learned.

Let’s say you’ve been teaching vocabulary for food. If the secret word is ‘banana’, students can use words like ‘fruit, yellow, curved, delicious’ to describe it.

How to Play

Divide your class into two equal groups. Each group will alternate sending different team members to the front of the room.

You’ll need to have a list of vocabulary words prepared. Write a word on your whiteboard above the head of the first student. Set a time limit of say 10 seconds.

The teammates of the student need to explain the word by calling out words like ‘fruit, yellow, curved, delicious’, without saying the word ‘banana’.

If the student can guess the word before time runs out, their team gets a point. The team that gets the most points wins.

2. Running Dictation

‘Running Dictation’ is a lively activity where students practice all four macro skills – reading, writing, listening, and speaking. They also need to memorise words or sentences, depending on the level of your learners.

After choosing a list of words or a short passage, put several copies up on the walls of your classroom.

How to Play

Put students into pairs. Students will alternate the role of ‘writer’ and ‘runner’. The runner will move as quickly as possible to the nearest list or passage and try to remember as much of it as possible.

They then come back to their seats and dictate what they have memorised to their partner. The students then swap roles.

Over several turns, they will complete the task. The pair, when they’ve finished, will call you over to check. If there are any mistakes, they need to continue until everything they have written down is correct.

The team that writes down everything correctly first is the winner.

3. The Apple Tree

This is a politically correct version of an old favourite called ‘Hangman’. Because of debates about the appropriateness of the name of this game, a safe alternative is for you to draw an apple tree with 10 apples.

During the game, the nominated student can cross out an apple for an incorrect guess.

How to Play

Choose a student to start. The ‘host’ comes to the whiteboard and draws a number of dashes, depending on how many letters are in their word. The student can choose their word, or be given a word by you, depending on the level of the class.

The rest of the class has the task of guessing the word by calling out letters that they think are correct.

It’s important that the class gives the host enough time between calling out letters to decide whether a letter is correct or not.

If the letter is correct, they write the letter above the appropriate dash. If a letter is incorrect, they cross out an apple on the apple tree. You can help them with this if necessary.

A class member can, at any time, try to guess the word instead of a letter, but if they are wrong, then the host can still cross out one apple.

If a student guesses the word correctly before all the apples are crossed out, they become the new host. The host wins if they cross out all ten apples.

4. Clapping Game

I have personally found this game to be the most popular ESL activity amongst young students.

After dividing the class into four teams, each team will be given a category, with a list of suitable vocabulary:

Food: Apple, Pizza, Cake, Carrot, Steak
Animals: Monkey, Tiger, Dog, Cat, Rabbit
Colours: Yellow, Purple, Green, Silver, Red
Clothes: Dress, Pants, Coat, Jacket, T-shirt

(For high level students, you can delete the word lists and just have the categories. Opposing teams can nominate any word in a category.)

All words should be one or two syllables.

How to Play

First you will need to practice the clapping sequence. The sequence has four steps:

Both hands hit your lap
Clap your hands
Extend the thumb of your left hand, and move that hand from right to left
Extend the thumb of your right hand, and move that hand from left to right

After the teams have mastered this sequence, ask the teams to choose a captain. The teams then engage in a practice round.

Practice Round

You will nominate a vocabulary word and a number for each team. For example:

Food Team: Apple 1

Animals Team: Monkey 2

Colours Team: Yellow 3

Clothes Team: Dress 4

Get all teams to do the clapping sequence in unison and with a uniform rhythm. Start slowly.

Call out ‘Apple 1.’ The Food team responds by calling out ‘Apple’ on Step 4 of the clapping sequence (not Step 1, 2 or 3).

Next, call out ‘Monkey 2.’ The Animals team responds by calling out ‘Monkey’ on Steps 3 and 4 of the clapping sequence (Not Steps 1 or 2)

Then, call out ‘Yellow 3.’ The Colours team responds by calling out ‘Yellow’ on Steps 2, 3 and 4 of the clapping sequence (Not Step 1)

Finally, call out ‘Dress 4.’ The Clothes team responds by calling out ‘Dress’ on all four steps of the clapping sequence.

Playing the Game

Ask the captain of one team to start. If they are in the Food team, they can choose any vocabulary word and number between 1 and 4 for an opposing team of their choice –

Animals, Colours or Clothes.

If the responding team ‘answers’ correctly and stays in rhythm, the responding team’s captain then chooses any vocabulary word and number between 1 and 4 for an opposing team.

If the responding team ‘answers’ incorrectly, or answers out of rhythm, they get a penalty point.

As students get better at the game, you can increase the tempo of the clapping sequence.

At the end of the game, the team with the fewest penalty points is the winner.

It’s important to focus on keeping your young learners happy and engaged. These ESL activities are an excellent way to make sure you achieve that goal.

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