Games for adult English as a second language (ESL) classes must strike a balance between linguistic simplicity, so the students will understand the vocabulary and syntax, and thematic complexity, so they don't feel that they are being treated like children. Splitting the class into small groups for games can help with this, because each group can play independently, without the teacher babysitting them. Playing in small groups also helps ensure that all the students participate.

Vocabulary Memorization

Vocabulary-building games for adult ESL students often center on memorization. Here is a sample memorization game: Make a set of pairs of cards. Each pair should include a word that the students already know and a more advanced synonym, and each card should include a visual representation of the word. For example, you might make cards that read "cat" and "feline," each including a picture of a cat. Have the students play Concentration one on one with these cards. They will come to associate the new vocabulary word with the familiar one, and they'll remember the definitions because of the pictures.

More Vocabulary Games

Vocabulary games for ESL adults may also review words the students already know (recall games) or help them practice deducing meaning from context.

A sample recall game would be to give students several categories and have them list words that fit those categories.

For contextual vocabulary practice, have students read scripted dialogues together in groups of two or three, marking each word they don't know, and have them guess what the words mean. At the end of the exercise, compare the guesses from the different groups and tell them the correct definition.


A spoken English class relies on games and conversation to practice grammar, instead of the worksheets that would be more common in a general ESL class. Because spoken English goes by so quickly, though, catching grammatical errors without derailing the conversation can be tricky. To get around this, use a game like a circular story: In groups of three to six, the students tell a communal story, taking turns adding sentences. One person in the group writes down each sentence verbatim. At the end of the story, the students go through the transcript and correct the grammar together.


Many varieties of guessing games can be used to practice conversation in an adult ESL class. Twenty Questions allows the entire class to work together. Alternatively, have each student write down a fact about his culture, and then read out each fact, having the students guess which culture it describes. After each fact, ask the students to compare it to their own cultures. Another option is to have the students say three things about themselves, one of which is a lie, and have the other students guess which of the statements are true.

Related Articles

About the Author

Stephanie Mitchell is a professional writer who has authored websites and articles for real estate agents, self-help coaches and casting directors. Mitchell also regularly edits websites, business correspondence, resumes and full-length manuscripts. She graduated from Syracuse University in 2007 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in musical theater.