Screaming Ninjas: a really fun vocabulary game

In my previous life, before I was a Spanish teacher, I was a Young Life leader. Young Life is a Christian outreach ministry that pairs up adults with teenagers. YL is known for fun: crazy games, loud music, epic relay races, and memorable stories. While I’m not currently involved in mentoring kids though YL, I frequently channel my inner Young Life leader in class.

One of our favorite YL games was Screaming Ninjas, and for years I tried to figure out how to modify it for a language classroom. In the original game,  you basically just scream like a Ninja and try to get people out of the circle, which is really fun but  doesn’t exactly scream “Best Practices for Language Acquisition”.

Late one night, last year, I fell into the black hole that is the Internet and I happened across a Señor Wooly Video Tutorial called Tres acciones. As a I was reading it, I was like OH MY GOSH!! IT’S SCREAMING NINJAS! FOR LANGUAGE CLASSES! SR. WOOLY BROKE THE CODE!! 

So, this idea was inspired by the classic YL game, adapted for language classes by the One and Only Sr. Wooly and then modified by me to keep everyone engaged the whole game. A team effort, really. 

Enough chit chat-what’s the game already?!

This game is basically a classic TPR game…give them lots of reps of the verbs you’re targeting and the only thing they have to do is respond physically.  Oh and there’s zero prep involved. ¡De nada!

The Pre Game:

First,  pick 3 good action verbs to “teach”. Write them on the board and teach a corresponding motion. Just like Old School TPR, say the word, students do the motion. Say the 2nd word, students do the motion. Go back and forth between the words, and students do the motion for each word the teacher says.

Then get everyone up and form a large circle. Tell them you’ll say a word, then point to a student. That kiddo will do the motion. Start really slow….say a word that’s written on the board (with it’s transition visible for all to see) and give everyone a few seconds to think about the word, remember the motion, then the teacher points at a student who does the motion. Then the teacher says another word from the board, waits a few seconds then points to a different student to do the motion. Do this a few times so they’re comfortable with this before you teach the secondary motion…

Let’s say the word is “S/he works”. When the teacher points at a student, the kiddo mimes digging a hole. Then teach the secondary motion: the kids on either side of him have a different motion. So while the kid I pointed at is digging a hole, the students on either side of him are doing the “making it rain money” signal, like they’re the boss, paying him to work. Or maybe the word is “S/he says to them”. The kid in the middle mimes talking to the kids to their left and right with her hand, while the students on both sides exclaim to him (in Spanish) “Seriously?!”

So…teach the primary motion (which the kid you point to will do) and the secondary motion (what the kids on either side of the kid you point to will do). Start with only 3 words, it gets pretty tricky!

If you want to see what the set up looks like, here it is: (Sorry the face blurring is kinda messy…it’s hard when there are so many faces!)

To play:

The teacher stands in the middle of the circle, says a word, then points to a student. The kid who she’s pointing at does the motion, the kids on either sides do the secondary motion and then the teacher says a different word and points to a different kid, who does the new motion (and the kids on both sides of him do the secondary motion).  If all 3 kids do the motion well (the middle kids and the kid on either side) they’re still “in” and stay in the circle. As you speed up a bit, kids will mess up- they’ll either do the incorrect motion, or they’ll freeze or they’ll zone out, so whoever messed up is “out”… here’s how my version differs from Sr. Wooly’s… in his version the kids who are “out” stop playing and students get eliminated until there’s a winner.

In my version, I want everyone engaged the whole time, so… a student who gets out has to stand behind a student who is still playing. The “out” student is still participating, doing the same motions as the person directly in front of him. If a kid gets “out”, and there’s a student standing behind him, the kid  standing behind is now back in the game, and the kid who just got out, goes and stands behind another student who’s still in.  Play for a certain time frame, 3 or 5 minutes. When the timer goes off, everyone standing on the inside circle gets a poker chip, then we start over with round 2. But…before you start round 2, add in a few more words and motions. For round 2, include the 3 round 1 words AND 3 more round 2 words!  Does that sound terribly complicated?! It really isn’t.  Just watch!  

Pro Tips:

  • Write the words and their translations on their board…to help them and help you remember what words you’re playing with!
  • For the winners of each round, I like to pass out  Poker Chips (Hey, I teach in Nevada!) because it’s easier for them to keep track of their points than for me to keep track of their points!
  • I was brainstorming ways to play this with my Spanish 4 kiddos…this would be great for lots of reps of great subjunctive phrases like, “Insiste que trabajen” (The middle partner does the insisting and the side partners work) or “Esperó que ayudaran” or “Recomendó que no fueran” or whatever…
  • If your kiddos are pretty familiar with the words and it’s a beautiful day and everyone is just itching to for sunshine, this would be a fun one to play outside. I’d take the words written on a piece of paper as my cheat sheet…I can never remember which ones we’re playing with off the top of my head!

Now I’ll admit, this game is not exactly rich in Comprehensible Input…BUT it is great for getting a lot of reps of verbs that your kiddos need more exposure to, especially at the end of the year and you’re freaking out because there is only 5 weeks left, and how on earth have I been talking to them ALL YEAR LONG and haven’t taught “sabe” and “sale” yet!


  1. You really have the best game ideas! You are probably my number one blog to turn to when I can’t think or recommend to others. Your blog is such an amazing resource for all us language teachers. Thank you so much for always sharing. This sounds fun and can’t wait to try it out.


    • Thank you, Susan! I’m so happy you’ve found this little piece of the internet useful!! This one’s a fun one, you’ll love it!


  2. So this is Sr. W’s Tres Acciones game, yes?! I LOVE the idea for what to do when kids get out. I have the same problem with Simón Dice. I am going to have them stand behind and keep playing too, and switch back in. Brilliant.


  3. This is one idea I will put into practice. I have several body motions and signs attached to verbs, but was wondering if you have a comprehensive list of verbs and hand signs to share.


    • I LOVE gestures, and find they help the students immensely. I think you have to come up with gestures with your class that you all agree on, and if you teach several sections, find ones that you can use with all your sections. To me it is an extension of body language, and a great way to scaffold for Novice students. Students love to play the game described here.

      Does anyone object to using gestures? I know some language facilitators who feel that it can be too much, but I think most students find it very helpful.


  4. As a former YL leader myself, I have to say your adaptation is brilliant. My 6th graders loved it and won’t soon forget ayudar, cuidar and trabajar. ¡Gracias!


    • Yay for YL!! But, let the record show, Sr Wooly introduced me to the adaptation… I wonder if he even knows the original “screaming Ninjas”! So happy your 6th graders enjoyed it!!


      • Thanks for the idea – and I made one more change, borrowing from yet another YL game. In 7th grade today I randomly appointed one person the jefe of the game. They wore a crown and medal to signify their honored position. The person to the right was #2, the next person #3, etc. all the way around the circle. So the last person was the one immediately to the left of the jefe. When someone messed up, they became the caller in the middle, and the person in the middle went to the last spot, with everyone else moving up. So if person #5 messed up, #5 went into the middle, the caller went to the last spot (directly to the left of the jefe) everyone after number 5 got to move up a spot. The goal was to become the jefe – when he or she messed up, the crown went to person #2 and everyone moved up a spot. It added just enough competition to keep things interesting for my less motivated students.


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