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Low prep games for ELLs

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The absolute worst is when you realize your lesson isn’t going to take as long as you thought, or the lesson completely flopped and you are stuck thinking, now what? This is even worse with ELLs because especially with lower-level ELLs sometimes you aren’t getting any feedback from them. Standing in front of a group of students, talking, and getting crickets is the WORST.  I learned early on in my teaching career that I need a few lo prep games for ELLs that were easy to teach that I could pull out in these moments of “oh no, now what?!” Here are some games for ELLs to help during those moments. These are all non-digital games that I like to use to get kids moving and thinking and to get them off their devices. They are also great for community building. Once you teach them you can use them for the rest of the year. I like to introduce them one at a time during the first few weeks of the year.

Games for ELLs:


Materials: A crumpled-up piece of paper (trash), a bin, individual whiteboards, markers, and erasers OR paper and pencils (You can also do this without any materials except a “hoop” and a ball of trash). You can also use a ball instead of “trash”.

Duration: 5 to 15 minutes (or longer!)

Directions: This game for ELLs requires you to place a bin or basket on the floor as the “hoop,” and make a mark on the floor a few feet away from the bin for the students to shoot the “ball” from. Depending on the athletic ability of your students make this farther or closer to the hoop as needed. Students line up behind the mark. Before they can shoot they have to answer an academic question. If they get the question right, they get a point. A right answer earns a shot with the “trash ball” in the bin. If they make the shot they get a point. So, each time they are up they can earn a total of two points. (Teacher keeps score on a separate sheet.)

Variations: You can also do this in teams. Have two lines behind the mark, one for each team. Ask the question, whichever person answers correctly first get a shot at the hoop. One point for answering correctly first and then another point for making the basket. (This is better for advanced ELLs, they get too nervous if you do it with newcomers and the stronger English speaker will almost always overpower the weaker speaker.)

Notes: You can literally use this game with ANY academic content. However, for ELLs, an easy thing to do is use spelling and/or vocabulary words. Either give students a word to spell from a list that you are working on, or give him/her a sentence with the vocabulary word left out of it and ask them to fill in the blank orally. (It works best if you have a word bank posted somewhere so they will know which words they are choosing from). Making sentences is great because you can easily differentiate the level by giving simpler sentences to lower English level kids and more complex sentences to higher level kids.


Materials: Paper and a pen  OR a whiteboard and marker for each student

Duration: 5 minutes

Directions: This is a pretty language-specific game, but you could limit allowable words to different categories for more specific academic content. To start, the teacher chooses a word and writes it on the whiteboard. The students then are given a piece of paper and a pencil or a whiteboard and marker. They have a set amount of time (usually 1 minute) to write a word that begins with the last letter of that first word, followed by another word that begins with the last letter of the word they wrote, and so on.

For example: snake, ends in an “e” so the next word would need to begin with “e” like elephant. Your paper would look like: snakelephantree (that’s: snake, elephant, tree). All words in the list must be unique (that’s a key direction). It works for beginners because they can come up with any English word. It works for advanced students because it is a time challenge. When the timer stops, the kids count up all the unique words they have on their list. The person with the highest number wins the round. You can use this for a quick warm-up, especially at the lower levels. With higher levels, I like it as a fun quick activity for a brain break or with a few extra minutes at the end of class. You can play for several rounds. Keep track of who wins each round.

Variations: Pair up the kids and have them generate words together. You could also set a theme for what kinds of words they can use (e.g. clothing words). Lastly, you could break the class into two teams and write the first word on the board twice, one spot for each team, then form lines with the teams where each person takes a turn adding to the snake written on the board. You can also extend the amount of time.

Around the world

Materials: None

Duration: 10 minutes

Directions: You may have heard of this one before, but I like it with ELLs to practice vocabulary. My kids usually have a list of vocab that they are learning weekly. This is a great way to review before the test. In a large class, you could break into two groups. You would need to prepare the questions ahead of time and have an assistant scorer if that were the case.

The directions are simple. First, have one student stand up and go to the desk of another student. That student stands up as well. They are now competing to answer the question first. The teacher says a question related to the topic and both students will try to answer the question, correctly, first. The first person to say the correct answer is the “winner” of that round. The winning person then advances to the desk of the next student in the class, who then stands up to compete against them. The objective is for one player to go “all the way around the world,” and by answering the question correctly before each other student they are competing against until they get back to their original seat. Should a student who has won several rounds lose a round, they simply sit in the chair of the person who beat them (this also mixes up the students’ seats which can be helpful if you are trying to get students to be friendly or get to know new people. I will sometimes have them stay in the new seats for the rest of class or make this the new seating chart.) Once the student loses the round, the winner starts the process of going around the world by moving to each desk and competing with each student, trying to get around the world.

Notes: I usually literally come up with questions about the vocabulary I am reviewing on the spot. If the target word was, “voracious” I might put out the question: “The starving boy was  _________________________ at lunch.” The two competing students would race to yell out “voracious” first.

You can also write out the clues first and project them onto the board (if you do this ahead of time it will allow the students to see them at the same time and save you from having to come up with things on the spot). You could also write them on the board (but this gets tricky as students will read as you are writing and it may give an unfair advantage). This can get pretty heated, but most students really like it. Also, you should have a set list or group of words to practice with. It wouldn’t be fair to ask them to fill in the blanks with any word or answer questions on any word. ELLs benefit from having clearly defined sets of vocabulary when practicing.

Team Challenge

Materials: Whiteboard, markers, and erasers for each time. Tally sheet to keep score.

Duration: 15 minutes

This is a fun game for reviewing content, but it can be used for reading as well, or vocabulary, or well, really anything. The idea is to divide the class into teams. If you have a small class, go with two teams, for a bigger class, break into teams of 4 or 5. The game is simply asking a team a question on your content and having them write the answer on the whiteboard within a certain amount of time (or you can let them have as long as they need), each team then raises the whiteboard to show their answer. If the answer is correct, their team gets a point. If the answer is wrong, it bounces to all the other teams to answer. Whichever team answers the bounced question correctly would get the point. The play then passes to the next team.

Variations: You can also do this with all the teams competing to answer the question you ask at the same time. The team with the first correct answer gets two points and the other teams get one point. This helps increase engagement if you have a class that is having trouble focusing. You can also have the teams say the answers verbally. You would have to come up with review questions ahead of time, but you can use vocabulary questions in the way that I demonstrated in “Around the World”. Another. Another great way to use this for reading comprehension is to project a short passage (they have cards for this which you can get here). The team whose turn it is reads the passage and attempts to answer the question correctly. This is a great way to get kids to do some reading in class because they don’t notice they are reading because it is a “game.”


Materials: Nothing

Duration: 15 minutes

Directions: This is a fun oral language game that is very similar to the game Scattegories, which I have also used with a lot of success with ELLs, but the actual board game works better with advanced ELLs because some of the language required is extremely specific. I mostly use Categories as a warm-up or a brain break, but I’m sure there could be some variations to make it more about reviewing content. The students need to be sitting either in a circle, or an approximation of a circle for this to work. After circling up, the teacher names a category. Pick the category based on the level of the students. If you are reviewing grammar you could choose “adjectives.” If you are playing for fun with beginners, choose something like “clothes,” or “food.” Give the category then have the students go around, one at a time, naming items that fit in that category.

The trick here is that nothing can be repeated. If student A already said, “broccoli” for the category vegetables, no one else can repeat that word or they are “out.” The teacher monitors who is “out”. The “out” person can either withdraw from the circle at that time, or you can keep them in and just be sure to skip them on the next pass around the circle. You can use the same category for each round, or change it up every few, or every round. Once the students get the game and get into they will start suggesting new categories. The play goes on until all but one student is out and that person is the winner.

Variations: You can also do this same thing with writing. Put a category on the board and have students write down every word they can think of in this category in set amount of time. Once the timer is done, go around and share the words, each unique word gets a point. The students keep track of how many unique words they came up with. That’s their score for the round at the end.

Just having a few reliable games that you know how to play, that don’t require much prep and few materials can make you feel more secure when teaching. That way, you’ll know that if your lesson flops, you run out of material, or the kids are getting antsy you have an activity to change things up or provide a bit of fun. Try teaching these games one at a time at the beginning of the year and you will be able to use them whenever needed for the rest of the year!

Happy teaching!

various game pieces

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