Practising classroom English through games

Most classes have their staple classroom language phrases, ranging from the teacher giving instructions to the pupils asking if they can go to the toilet or borrow a crayon. But is this where these useful language chunks begin and end? Maria Toth suggests some easy-to-manage activities to help us really make the most of our classroom language.

Author: Maria Toth


Classroom English has often been loosely defined as the language used both to organise activities in the class and to interact with students socially. This definition is too limited for classes of many younger learners of English, as sometimes the classroom language is the language of the activity. For example, imagine doing a TPR activity with the children giving instructions, such as Point to the door or Open your books. This is similar to the language we might use to set up another activity (eg Open your book at page 6).

In the young learner class, classroom language forms an integral part of the language curriculum as, for many children, the classroom is their main point of contact with the language. With older agegroups, the children may have access to English through other settings such as listening to songs at home, reading or even through the Internet, whereas for a much younger learner, the language only becomes meaningful through the activities that are done in and using the classroom.

There are certain expressions, essential to communication in a class of young learners, that are often dealt with if and when the need arises. However, some children need specific practice in this language for it to become part of the child's natural repertoire. Here are a couple of ideas to practise classroom language through games.


The picture card game

This is a useful game that can be used to practise any area of vocabulary (for example, classroom objects) along with the question What does X mean?

  • Divide the class into pairs or groups of three.
  •  Give each group a pack of picture cards.
  •  Ask one child (Child A) to shuffle the cards and to put them face down in a pile in the middle of the table.
  •  Child A takes the top card without showing it to any of the other children and asks Child B on his/her left What does X mean?
  •  Child B either says the word in the mother tongue or gives a definition (depending on the level of the class). If it is correct, he/she takes the card and keeps it. If it is incorrect, the card is shown to all of the children in the group but it is placed face down at the bottom of the pile in the middle of the table.
  •  Child B now takes another card and asks Child C and so on, until there are no more cards in the middle of the table.

The same cards can be used to practise the questions How do you say X in …? (the children's mother tongue) or How do you spell X? The cards shown here include pictures and words so that if a child takes a card and doesn't know the word, they can still play the game.


The sticky label game


The game is used to practise giving instructions. It takes no preparation, but you will have to buy lots of sticky labels. If you want to take advantage of larger sticky labels by cutting them into smaller pieces, beware! Make sure they can still peel them off easily otherwise you might end up with a class of very frustrated children!

  • Divide the class into groups of four.
  •  Give each group a blank sheet of A4 paper.
  •  Give each child four or five sticky labels.
  •  Each child writes one instruction on each sticky label, for example, Sing a song or Point to the door. If you think some children are having problems, you can write a couple of instructions on the board for them to copy.
  •  Children take it in turns to stick one sticky label on the A4 sheet and then pass it along for the next child to stick on another label, and so on until all of the sticky labels are on the sheet of paper. Ask a child to write 'START' or 'FINISH' and, if necessary, to number each label to show the route of the board game.
  •  Give the groups dice and they can use anything they like as counters.
  •  The first child throws the dice, moves along the number of labels shown on the dices and lands on a square/label. The child should carry out the instruction, while the rest of the group decide whether he/she has followed the instruction correctly. The child can then remain on the square and it is the next child's turn.
  •  The game ends when a child reaches FINISH.

Sticky label games are flexible and can be used for lots of different language areas, depending on the age and level of the children (colours, pictures of word groups etc). They are usually successful as the children feel involved in the making of the game.

Times are changing, and there is much more literature on teaching English to children and, hopefully, some of the areas that, up to now, have been defined in terms of adult/teen classes will change to encompass a huge and growing market in language teaching. Classroom language is much more than just the language around activities.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2000 edition of Children And Teenagers, CATS newsletter, the publication of the Young Learners Special Interest Group IATEFL.