My top 5: classroom board games

There’s a basic rule for writing and designing successful ELT games: it ought to be something that students would play in their own language. That’s why some of the classics – crosswords, wordsearches, back-to-the-board – are classics. These games are challenging and enjoyable, no matter what language you use when playing them.

Considered, suspenseful board games are also classics in their own right, and a great antidote to the instant gratification that comes from a two-minute burst of a gaming app. And it probably won’t come as a surprise that in my adopted hometown of Oxford (famously slow and considered), board games are a hit.

Oxford is home to Thirsty Meeples, a board game café where you pay to have a table and access to hundreds of games for as many hours as you wish. It’s a brilliant place to spend an afternoon with friends, and the staff members are excellent at recommending games based on players’ interests and attention spans (very important). Even more impressive is the fact that they know nearly all the rules by heart.

Obviously, not all board games are considered, suspenseful or even slow. Quite a few are ridiculous.* But every time I go to Thirsty Meeples, I inevitably stumble across a game that could be used in the ELT classroom. So here we are: my top five board games for the ELT classroom. And if you don’t like these, there’s always Scrabble

1 Bananagrams

I’m a veteran ELT Bananagrams user – and I love it! Lettered tiles are really versatile, and these come in a banana-shaped bag that your young learners will hopefully love as much as mine did. More advanced learners can play the game as it is, but you can easily adapt the format to suit your class. I’m working on a post on adapting Bananagrams for the ELT classroom at the moment – so keep reading!

2 Story cubes

I stumbled across Mike Astbury’s post on Story cubes earlier this week, and have been looking for an excuse to link to it! Like Mike, I’ve mainly used Story cubes for fast finishers, but used thoughtfully they can easily form the basis of a motivating and productive writing class. They’re a handy go-to for the low-resource classroom – and I’ll probably take mine to Kyrgyzstan next summer.

3 Codenames

This is one of my favourite games at the moment – and I’ll have to admit that although I haven’t tried playing this with language learners yet, I can see that it’s got potential. It’s a card game that focuses on language and lateral thinking (there’s a great explanation of the rules here), and is probably best for advanced students. That said, the concept of the game is fantastic – and if anyone had the time to make a B1-graded version then I’d buy it!

4 Concept

Advantage: it’s a game all about describing things, and the options are as great as your learners’ knowledge of vocabulary. Disadvantage: if your learners aren’t on the same wavelength, it can take a long time. Just like the other games in this list, it wasn’t designed for language learners, so you may have to tweak some of the concepts to suit your purposes. But if you’re working in a residential summer school for teens and they’re in a last-lesson-before-lunch slump (hello, summer 2007!), this game could work wonders. The rules are simple, too. For more information, check out this review.

5 Articulate!

Finishing with a classic… Advanced learners could play with the original cards (although you’ll need to have a quick sift through to weed out any tricky ones), but you could also buy the kids version for a more straightforward game. There’s a wonderful summary by Niall Douglas on adapting the game for ELT here – and a suggested version for lower-level learners here.

Happy gaming!


*I’m only bitter because I never win at this.

6 thoughts on “My top 5: classroom board games

  1. tesolconnect January 6, 2016 / 2:39 am

    These are great games. I think the key is to use games in context, have a language point to teach, and integrate skills.


    • carrieljames January 6, 2016 / 8:47 am

      I agree! Thanks for reading and commenting.


  2. Lesley @cioccas January 7, 2016 / 9:08 am

    Terrific list, thanks Carrie.
    Another one that’s very popular with my adult students (and not just because it’s a lot of fun) is Word Up:
    I particularly like that all students try to answer every question, not just the person whose turn it is. I let the students negotiate the rules themselves, mostly around how many hints they’ll give their classmates. And it gives me an opportunity to observe them using English in a very informal atmosphere – and there’s a lot more language used than just the questions and answers.


    • carrieljames January 7, 2016 / 9:20 am

      This is a great idea, Lesley! I might have to make the investment 🙂


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