The best game ever! (How to increase student talking time)

11128056_10204932516485743_3420885650259449598_nOne of the rewards of teaching a class of 16 talented, motivated 12-year-olds is that you feel that almost every activity turns into something really valuable. Not that you don’t feel the same will other classes, it’s just that with young learners it’s somehow more tangible.

Today, a classic game-like activity – originally meant to be just a warm-up to start the class – changed itself into a complex, meaningful and authentic lesson. I deliberately said ‘changed itself’, but I should probably say ‘the students changed it so’. I had come up with an unexceptional idea, but it was them who changed it into a pure gem.

I’m sure everybody is familiar with Categories (aka The Alphabet Game). You divide your class into small groups (preferably groups of three or four). On the board, you write a few categories related to the current topic or syllabus of your course, and each student copies them on a separate piece of paper (A4). One of the team members randomly chooses a letter. Each member of the team must quickly write down a word for each of the categories that starts with that letter. The first member who has completed all the categories shouts ‘Stop’ and the other must stop writing immediately. The whole team then goes over the words together and each member gets a certain amount of points for each correct word.

Normally, it can get pretty complicated because the team members (or the teacher) often have to verify if a word actually exists, or if it’s spelt correctly. Also, the team members are competitors and they don’t want to accept each other’s answer – for obvious reasons. This time, the game took a totally different direction, though. A few minutes after the game started, while monitoring the class, I overheard a girl explaining her choice (I should stress that I hadn’t pointed out to the students that they should justify their answers). Anyway, the girl, Tereza, had chosen the word ‘doctor’ for the ‘future’ category. Normally, you would expect students to opt for spacecraft, robots, galaxy, or other words that are clearly related to the future world. But I heard her say (in English!): I chose ‘doctor’ because, in the future, I want to become a doctor. 

Now, her seemingly commonplace remark took my breath away. I stopped the activity immediately and told the students that Tereza had just inspired me and that we could make the game more interesting by adding a new aspect to it. From now on, you can choose whatever words you wish, but you will only get points from your peers if you can justify your choice. You must only speak English all the time. 

Then a miracle happened. From then on, the students seemed less restricted by their vocabulary repertoire. At times, they chose crazy, seemingly inappropriate words for the categories. The crazier the words, though, the more effort they had to put into the justification stage. The student talk time increased dramatically because, all at once, they felt they needed to explain each of their choices, even the most obvious ones, such as I have ‘dog’ for the ‘animals’ category because …  Also, they were suddenly more tolerant and supportive of each other, and everybody was nodding in agreement all the time, even in cases I would have rejected out of hand.

It’s not always ideal if a warm-up activity extends across the whole lesson, but I couldn’t help letting it last for longer than originally planned. I did so because the students were fully engaged and creative, they were using the target language, thinking critically, revising vocabulary, and they were supportive of each other. I’m fully aware of the fact that it was not a sign of decent classroom management skills when all of a sudden, I interrupted the activity and changed the existing rules. But I just grabbed the opportunity and I didn’t regret it later on.

When the lesson was over, I thanked the students for having turned the lesson into such a meaningful activity. Upon leaving, one of the boys remarked enthusiastically, in English: This was the best game ever! 

Published by

Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages and levels for almost 30 years. You can find out more about me and my passion for teaching here on my blog.

13 thoughts on “The best game ever! (How to increase student talking time)”

  1. Wonderful adaptation of the game.

    When my students in the university choose this game for their lessons, I always tell them that the game only works words and these words are not in a context (sentence). I tell them that it is a funny game, but it should be only used as that, not thinking that our pupils will improve their English.

    Now, with your (or Tereza’s) adaptation, you make it become a truly communicative game that is full of personalization.

    I will certainly recommend your version of the game in my future training sessions and classes.

    Thank you very much for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for reading and leaving a comment, Edward. I’m happy that you liked the game adaptation and that you are thinking of using it with your own students/trainees. That’s one of the reasons why I wrote up the post – to share an idea that others might find useful.


  3. Besides being a great activity, I thinks it’s also wonderful sign of classroom management skills. A good teacher knows when to adapt and to “let go” and allow lessons be student-centered. Your students felt their input was valued and important. Great job and I’ll certainly be using this activity in the near future!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for your words of support and encouragement, Michele. I have a tendency to imagine what a teacher trainer/observer/inspector would say in such a situation. You know what it used to be like when we were trainees – we had to stick to the rules and the lesson plan. Once we deviated from the plan or the lesson objectives, we had a hard time justifying our choices. That’s why all the worries, I guess. It’s pretty ridiculous after so many years of experience, isn’t it? 🙂


  4. Many thanks for your comments and words of appreciation, EnglishCentral, noukk10 and Emily. It means a lot to me; it encourages me to keep writing and sharing.


  5. Hi Hana!
    I tried this with my B1 students and they loved it. I also used a ‘future’ column and they put in words that they associated with their future (nothing about space and galaxies though). They loved this game!!!
    Joanna 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Greetings from Colorado! I’m bored to death at work so I decided to browse your website on my iphone during lunch break.

    I really like the information you present here and can’t wait to take a look when I get home.

    I’m shocked at how quick your blog loaded on my mobile .. I’m not
    even using WIFI, just 3G .. Anyhow, excellent site!


  7. Thanks for sharing Hana! I don’t often think of games to use unless they relate very directly to the lesson we’re covering and this game would adapt to many different areas. The “winning” student could also be asked to use each of their words in a sentence.

    Liked by 2 people

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