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Author: Gemma Fanning, EAL specialist

Play is a crucial part of language development and ideas for play and games are an essential part of any teacher’s toolkit. One of the most informal and obvious contexts for language development takes place in the playground for any child (Pinter, 2006). Children will often pick up every day language from their peers and this can be an essential part of their learning. Pinter (2006) explains that when a child moves to a new country, after the initial silent phase, children will then start to pick up phrases, conversation language and so-called playground language fairly fast. With this in mind, it is worth considering how to structure play both in the playground or the classroom. Langer da Ramirez (2017) explains that games and fun activities help children to feel excited on an effective level, as they will be enjoyable and rewarding, and this allows for acquired language to be on both a cognitive and developmental level.

Perhaps one of the first things to consider is what is a game and when should we use it in the classroom setting? Martin (1995) explains that the activity should be fun, while giving the child an opportunity to practise the target language in a relaxed and enjoyable way. Playing games takes very little preparation; however the following materials are an ideal part of you teacher toolkit:

  • Dice
  • Mini-whiteboards
  • Pictures
  • Word or sentence cards
  • Counters
  • Number cards

There are various ways to play different games; some will be competitive while others will be more cooperative with teams or pairs having to work together to find their goal.

When considering how to use games within the language classroom consider some of the following questions during your planning:

What is the target language I want the students to use?
Is this game age appropriate? i.e is it suitable for the students’ cognitive ability?
Is the purpose of the game to focus on fluency or accuracy?
What skill do I want this game to focus on; reading, writing, speaking or listening?
Is this game suitable for the level of the student?
What materials and classroom organisation do I need to consider?
Is this a quiet game that settles the learners or is an active game to liven up the learners?

Once you have this in mind, you will need to consider how you are going to form your groups or teams. This is also an opportunity for learners to be able to work with all their classmates throughout the year. The table below shows some simple activities you can use to form groups for your classes.

Name Straws – For forming pairs
Procedure 1. The teacher holds a group of straws and the learners take one straw out. The straws have all been cut to different lengths.
2. Once the learners have taken their straws, they then need to match their straw with a person who has the same length. The learners will then work with that partner.
Resource Cut straws into different lengths
Name Numbering
Procedure 1. Give each learner a number until half of the class have number one and start again from one.
2. Then tell the learner to all match up, e.g “If you’re number one, find the other number one” etc.
Resource None
Name Height
Procedure 1. As the learners to stand in height order.
2. Select pairings/groupings from the line.
Resource None
Name Names in a cup
Procedure 1. Put all the learners name in a cup – you could do this using wooden coffee stirrer sticks.
2. Pull the sticks out and form your groups

NB. This is also a good tool to use for asking learners questions at random
Resource Coffee Stirrer Sticks

Adapted from Young Learners Resource Books for Teachers.

Download our associated resource that offers a list of games which can be adapted and played with your learners.


De Ramirez, Lori Langer. The Imperative of Play in the Language Classroom. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Jan. 2017.

Mertin, Patricia, 2013. Breaking Through the Language Barrier: Effective Strategies for Teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) Students in Secondary School Mainstream CL (World Class Schools Series). Edition. John Catt Educational

Phillips, Sarah, (1999). Young Learners – Resource books for Teachers. Oxford University Press, Oxford

Pinter, Annamaria (2006). Teaching Young Language Learners. Oxford University Press, Oxford

Further learning - Blog

Created: Mon 21st Apr 2014

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Lego blocks
Created: Tue 27th Nov 2018

The National Learning and Work Institute (2018) completed a randomised controlled trial of a Community-Based English Language intervention aimed at people with very low levels of functional English proficiency. Findings showed “a strong and clear positive impact that attendance on an intensive 11-week Community-Based English Language course has on both English proficiency and social integration for those with relatively low levels of English proficiency.” (Integrated Communities English Language Programme, 2018).

Created: Mon 3rd Mar 2014

Teresa has worked at St John’s C of E for over 2 years. She differentiates for all ability levels but, up to now, she has never had to consider the needs of a child new to English in her class. Teresa admitted to initially feeling a little anxious, however, after seeking advice, referring to the new arrivals procedures at the school, working closely with her teaching assistant, Rumena Aktar, and giving a lot of careful thought to her planning, Teresa put the following in place:

Before arrival: