6 Great Board Games to Use for ESL Classes

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Spending yesterday at a local gaming event got me thinking about board games.

I’ve had a bit of a board game obsession over the last few years, largely thanks to watching Tabletop on Geek&Sundry. Mostly for fun, to play with friends and have some gaming in my life when D&D wasn’t possible. But when I was teaching in Japan, I also did my best to work board games into my classes whenever possible.

Since a few people have asked me about the games I used, I’m putting the list here for future reference. I mostly taught junior high, but most of them would work for any age group with minimal tweaking.


1) DIXIT
When I got written goodbye messages from graduating students, a bunch of them wrote, “I enjoyed playing games with you, especially the card game!”

Dixit is a beautiful little game that’s completely language independant. In the normal game, each player has a handful of cards illustrated with weird and wonderful pictures. On your turn, you choose a card from your hand, and describe it with a hint of some sort. Everyone else chooses a card from their hand that best matches your clue, in the hopes of stealing points from you. The cards are mixed up, and everyone has to guess which card was yours.

For classroom play, I put the students in grounds and simplified the rules. Each group gets 15 cards. I pre-select my own cards and prepare all the clues in English ahead of time (anything from a single word like “Blue” to a phrase like “I am the hero who will save the world!”). Each group has to understand the English enough to choose an appropriate card AND guess which card is mine. 3 points for guessing my card, 1 point for every vote on their group’s card.

This is an awesome game to use in a classroom. The students love the weird illustrations on the cards. It lets them use their imagination rather than just repeating things. And as a bonus, you can use the cards for tons of other activities. (PROTIP: invest in plastic card sleeves. You’ll thank yourself for it later.)

 

2) DIXIT JINX
This little game is in the Dixit family, but it’s a very different game.

In Jinx, the cards are replaced with tiles with much more abstract images. The goal is still the same: one person gives a clue to describe their tile, everyone else has to guess it.

I used this game with small classes, mostly. It’s better in a setting where all the players can sit around in a circle. Because the pictures are so abstract, it’s a lot easier to have the students take turns coming up with the clues, even if they only know a little bit of English. Use this one if don’t have enough students to make groups, or you want the students to be more involved in the game.

 

3) BANANAGRAMS
This game is sort of like Scrabble with no board. You use letter tiles to make words, connecting them like a crossword.

For the classroom, I had the students make groups, then gave each group a bag with about 40 letter tiles in it. They have to use as many of the tiles as they can to make English words. The group that uses the most tiles wins (optional: give some bonus points for the longest word).

(PROTIP: tell the students they can’t use names, Japanese words, or products names. The number of kids who thought they were being clever by using “Sony” and “PSP” made the rule mandatory in my classes pretty damn fast.)

 

4) UNSPEAKABLE WORDS
Really, this could be ANY game that uses letter cards to get points. I initially used a game called Quiddler that was exactly that: letter cards with point values. Students make a word, bring it to me to make sure it’s legit, get the points for their team, and then get new cards.

Unlike Quiddler, Unspeakable Words has a push-your-luck element. Whenever you make a word, you roll a d20. If you don’t roll high enough, you lose 1 sanity point (I just said it was “HP” when I did it in class, since most kids have seen it in video games). Lose all your sanity/HP, and you’re out of the game. I set a 5-minute timer. At the end of the 5 minutes, the remaining group with the highest points wins.

The reason I switched to Unspeakable Words was because the kids got a kick out of the theme and the push-your-luck risk-taking in the dice rolls. Lots of weird monsters on the cards + dice rolling = instant success with junior high kids. Most of them have never seen roleplaying dice before, so they’re totally fascinated by a DIE WITH 20 SIDES, OMG!

 

5) APPLES TO APPLES JR.
Apples to Apples Jr. is pretty much the same as the original Apples to Apples, but with easier words. Each round, one person acts as the judge, and draws a card with a noun on it (say, “waffles” or “Superman” or “Italy”). Everyone else puts down a card with an adjective that best describes it (maybe “delicious” or “awesome”). The judge picks the card they like best, and that person gets a point.

I used this game in my adult English class, and they enjoyed it a lot. The Jr. version of the game means a lot of the cards are easy enough for people with a low level of English to understand. If you want to use it in a junior high or high school classroom, just go through the cards and remove any that are too weird or too difficult.

 

6) TICKET TO RIDE
A very simple board game that’s completely language independent. Collect coloured cards, use them to lay down trains along various routes, try to connect cities for points. It’s just that simple.

This one is a bit of a cheat, since I used my tablet version of the game for pass-and-play. It’s also not a game you can really play in a big class, so I only used it in the special ed class, since there were only 4 or 5 students. But they absolutely LOVED it, so there you go.

 

BONUS RECOMMENDATIONS: CATCH PHRASE, SAY ANYTHING, WITS & WAGERS
I didn’t own these games in Japan, so I didn’t get to use them myself. But some of my ESL-teaching friends have used them in their classes, and had a lot of success with them.

There you go, ESL teachers. It’s easy to get board games into your classrooms. They’re great teaching tools, require little or no preparation, and they’re a hell of a lot more fun than doing worksheets or playing Bingo for the millionth time.

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