• IMPROV e English Team


Including games in an English class with adult learners can be a difficult one. Although some students are happy to play at any time, many either don’t want to make a fool of themselves in front of others or in their view waste class time. We as teachers are sensitive to that, so it’s very tempting to just play it safe and stick to more formal language exercises.

The problem with that is you’re missing out on an extremely valuable learning tool. Not only are English games a fantastic way to review recently learned topics, but they’re also the perfect warm-up activity, a great refresher after a period of more intense work, and even a reward once your students get to know and love them!

The trick is learning how to employ them. While in a kids’ class almost any game will go down well at any point, ESL games for adults should be carefully planned, related to current classwork, and have a clear language goal in mind. Not all games are created equal either – we have to make sure we choose the right ones for our audience and classroom set-up.

To help you do just that, I’ve produced this list of the best ESL games for adults. They’re fun and engaging but are chosen to match the needs and sensibilities of older students.

Articulate/Heads Up

In these games, students describe words to their teammates against the clock. It might sound simple, but it’s great fun and a really effective way to review vocabulary. Why not try playing as a warm-up activity, either to see if students remember what was learned in the last session or to refresh knowledge relevant to today’s class?

While in Articulate students come to the front and describe for their team, in Heads Up the team describes for one student who can’t see the words (‘reverse Articulate’). This can suit students who aren’t comfortable describing alone in front of the class. Normally each word guessed correctly is worth one point for the team, but you could also play non-competitively if you think your students would prefer it.

Reverse Charades

It is a guessing game in which players give clues with actions and gestures. It’s a great alternative for lower-level students, who are not yet confident/skilled enough to produce descriptions. The focus here is simply on recognition and understanding of a vocabulary word, and it’s an exercise you can include during the main class to cement knowledge.

Many of us will have played Charades as a party game, but the ESL class version is slightly simplified. Instead of acting out different syllables, students just make the action that corresponds to the word. As such the game lends itself to practicing particular types of vocabulary, e.g. sports and hobbies, emotions and feelings, health problems, etc.

Why ‘Reverse Charades’ here and not Charades? In Charades one student stands up and acts in front of the class, which might be fine with kids, but you don’t find too many adult learners who are eager to do that! In ESL games for adults, you want to reduce the embarrassment factor as much as possible, and in Reverse Charades this is achieved by getting the whole class to act together for one or two students guessing.


If Reverse Charades is a good guessing game for beginners, what about when Articulate or Heads Up gets too easy for more advanced students? Make things more complicated by adding words that students can’t use in their descriptions! This is a great extension once students are comfortable with this type of game, and a really fun warm-up activity. Because they’re forced to use synonyms instead of the obvious words, it helps practice a wider set of vocabulary.

Taboo is most commonly played like Articulate, with one student describing for their team, as it makes it easier to spot the use of outlawed words. One common issue is the time it takes to prepare suitable those ‘taboo’ words for each vocabulary word.

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