Game-like activities in young learner classrooms

20 May 2019

The basics we need to know about activities

In the last few years, we’ve been doing surveys with teachers across Asia to see where their real challenges lie in their daily teaching and what kind of training session they might find most helpful. Among the options, ‘Not Enough Activities’ stands out from all the challenges and ranked No.1 in the list. In the training sessions ‘Introducing Games and Activities’ is most wanted by teachers across Asian countries.

Therefore, in this session I’d like to talk about the basics about activities, especially game-like activities in young learner classrooms. As we are all aware of, young learners are more likely to be engaged and participate when playing games due to their nature. It is essential to attract their attention and raise their interests in learning language by integrating more game-like activities in class. And as teachers, we all long for a fun and engaging learning experience that students enjoy, which in turn gives us far more rewarding moments and a sense of achievement as well.

What is an activity like in an English lesson?

The basic building block of a lesson is the activity or task. We’ll define this fairly broadly as ‘something that learners do that involves them using or working with language to achieve some specific outcome’. The outcome may reflect a ‘real-world’ outcome (e.g. learners role play buying train tickets at the station) or it may be a purely ‘for-the-purpose-of-learning’ outcome (e.g. learners fill in the gaps in twelve sentences with present perfect verbs). — Jim Scrivener, 2011

In essence, an activity is designed to make students achieve some specific learning outcome, regardless of the format and procedure. Traditional lesson planning has tended to see the lesson as a series of things that the teacher does. By turning it round and focusing much more on what the students do, we are likely to think more about the actual learning that might arise, and create a lesson that is more genuinely useful. In order to get the students to participate in the activities and achieve the expected learning outcome, we can use games to play a key role here.

Categorizing games and game-like activities

Games are indeed magical, but it’s not enough to realize the benefits they bring our learners. We need to think about which games and when to use them according to the opportunities and challenges they give to small children, this means we really can harness the magic that games and game-like activities bring to our classes. From the recent pre-primary NILE course I took by Sandie Mourão, games can be categorized into the following 5 types.

  • Category 1: A group physical response.

We know listening comes before speaking, so game-like activities which allow a physical response will be those we begin a unit with. These games are often categorized as total physical response (TPR) games and are led by the teacher. It is key to ensure the early TPR activities involve the whole group, not individual children so that confidence will develop at a greater pace.

  • Category 2: A group choral response

Insisting children respond orally as individuals can be hugely detrimental. For example, one of the reasons we use songs and chants is so that individual children can respond as they feel most comfortable, some just mime, others say/sing the last sound or word of a line, others are able to say/sing a bit more. It is the same with choral responses. Often accompanying a physical response, children enjoy chorusing new English words and expressions with their peers and we need to ensure we provide lots of opportunities for this at the beginning of a unit. Again, these activities are led by the teacher.

  • Category 3: An individual physical response

Following a group choral response, we can gradually request individuals to respond physically to instructions. They will have gained confidence by responding as a group physically and orally. Even though these activities are still led by a teacher, a child is becoming more confident as an individual.

  • Category 4: Teacher to children – An individual oral response

Not all children will be confident to use English by themselves, so as teachers we need to be sensitive to this stage, but this is one of our main objectives that children become comfortable about using the new English words and expressions as individuals. In this stage children tend to answer questions and respond to prompts.

  • Category 5: Child to children – An individual oral response

Again as teachers we need to be sensitive, but if certain children are confident about responding in English they may also be confident about taking the lead and asking questions or giving instructions. We need to get as many children as possible to this stage.

Every time we play games with students, class management seems to be a big challenge for most teachers. Taking these 5 categories into consideration might be of great help to better understand what responses and behaviours are expected at each stage of the game and how to better manage them.

Now let’s do a quick quiz to check your understanding. Please put the following 5 classic activities into the right category.

  • Flyswatters
  • Guess my card
  • Freeze!
  • Matching flashcards
  • The echo game
  1. Flyswatters

Flashcards are on the floor or the board. Children are divided into two groups. One child represents each group, and is in charge of a flyswatter. The teacher calls out a word or expression and each child runs to the flashcard set and swats the image that matches the call. If they swat the right one, they get a point for their team. Children take it in turns to represent their team.

  1. Guess my card

A child selects a flashcard and holds it so the class can’t see. The child can ask, “What is it?” Children in the class take it in turns to ask, e.g. “Is it a ball?” If they are correct the child responds with “Yes, it is.” and the guessing child gets a turn to select a card. If the guess is incorrect, the child says “No, it isn’t.” and the game continues.

  1. Freeze!

Teacher and children decide upon an action to represent a word or expression they are learning. The teacher calls out the word or expression and the children do the action (they may also repeat the word). When the teacher says “Freeze!” the children stop and become frozen statues, trying not to move. If a child moves they have to sit down and miss a turn.

  1. Matching flashcards

Use two sets of the same flashcards. Sit the learners in a circle and place the flashcards face down on the floor. The children take it in turns to turn over two flashcards and see if they match. They should say what the images represent in English too (e.g. “[It’s a] cat.”). If they turn over two matching flashcards say, “They are the same.”. If they turn over two different flashcards say, “They are different.”.

  1. The echo game

Have the children sit in a circle. Show the flashcard of an image they are learning. Say the word or expression clearly and invite them to echo the word after you. Explain that echoes get quieter, so they should repeat the word or expression four times getting gradually quieter. Help them by counting the echoes on your fingers and praise them when they end quietly.


Flyswatters Category 3
Guess my card Category 5
Freeze! Category 1
Matching flashcards Category 4
The echo game Category 2

Activity Arrangement Possibility

Apart from considering the five general categories, we could always add a few more variations in the arrangement of activities, so that the students won’t get bored of doing the same activities. Even the most familiar games could be something fresh and new by adding a few variations. For example, when asking students to work in pairs,

  • tell each student who he or she must work with (e.g. ‘Super, work with Del’)
  • the students can choose partners for themselves
  • the pairing can be the result of some random game or humorous instruction (e.g. find someone whose shoes are a different color from your own).
What arrangements can you use? A few variations on the arrangements
Individual work  

Students talk together and write nothing; they are permitted to write.


Pairwork You choose pairs; students choose pairs; pairs are randomly selected (e.g. from a game); face to face; back to back; across the room (shouting); communicating in writing only.


Small groups (3 to 6 people) Groups have a secretary (note-taking duty); groups have an appointed leader; membership of groups is occasionally rearranged; groups are allowed to send ‘ambassadors’/’pirates’ to other groups (to compare/gain/steal ideas).
Large groups  

(as above)


Whole class: mingle (all stand up, walk around, meet and talk) Students may only talk to one other person at a time; groups may meet up to maximum pf three/four/five people; time limits on meetings; you ring bell/stop background music, etc. to force rearrangements


Whole class: plenary The conversation/activity is managed by you/ a student/a number of students; whole class work with brief ‘buzz’ intervals of pair work/small-group discussion.

Nowadays, it’s not difficult to find activity resources. There are a lot of activities in the teacher’s book, and we can get access to many online resources for assistance. Macmillan Education also publishes books for teachers like 500 Activities for the Primary Classroom.

I hope you find this blog useful and no matter what activities you adopt for your class, try to start with thinking of the basics before planning and apply some of the arrangement variations into your activities. Happy teaching!



Scrivener, Jim. (2011). Learning teaching—The essential guide to English language teaching (3rd edition). London, English: Macmillan Education

Super Huang is the Teacher Trainer and Academic Consultant for Macmillan Education, Greater China. She holds a Master’s degree in Applied Linguistics from the University of York in the UK, where the focus of her study was on English Language Teaching.

Super has been working for both online and offline schools in China, as a teacher and teacher trainer. She has a good knowledge of the Chinese market and is a dedicated educator.