Making Classroom Games Awesome

It’s no secret, I love to play games in my classroom. But I think it’s a pretty fine line between a game that’s a wild success and a tremendous flop.  What are the secrets to making games work? And what are the pit falls to avoid? And which are your favorite ones to play in your class? I’m so glad you asked, dear reader, read on!

The secrets to success:

  • Check your objectives:  What do you want to get out of this game? Is it to blow off some steam and have a good time? Is it to give them exposure to specific vocabulary or grammar structures? Is it to have them work cooperatively? Is it to impress your evaluator? For me, the primary answer is to give them more input, so the games we play focus on reading or listening. Our class time is so limited that it’s not worth giving up the minutes to play a game, unless my Little Darlings are still getting input.
  • Crystal Clear Instructions: If there’s confusion about how to play the game, you can bet it’s going to be an epic fail and a big waste of time. So, before you play, ask yourself how’s the best way to explain it. Sometimes I explain the game in English, if I want my instructions to be quick and concise so we can get to the fun part. Sometimes, explaining the instructions in your target language is an outstanding opportunity to give them more input, and they’re super motivated to understand it, so they can play! I love this video of Jodi Stokdyk explaining how to play Manotazo in slow, comprehensible Spanish. The whole point of her lesson is to explain how to play the game, and she loads them up with such great input- then playing it at the end is just the icing on the cake! And I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE how she writes out the instructions, in Spanish, as she goes. Brilliant!!  Either way, explaining the game in Spanish or English, I always do a little demo so they can SEE what the game is supposed to look like before we get rolling.
  • 100% Engagement, the whole time: Don’t even get me started on the old Spanish Teacher standby: Matamoscas. You know, the one where 2 kids have fly swatters and smack the whiteboard? They’re having a jolly good time while the other 32 students are off in LaLa Land, with their brains turned off. Not OK, man!  Unless you have 100% of students engaged 100% of the time, it’s not a good game. Either find a different game (I’ve got lots of suggestions below!) OR figure out how to get everyone involved.
  • Just one judge: Nothing goes downhill faster than a bunch of teenagers arguing with their teacher. And when they’re arguing with their teacher, they’re not getting comprehensible input, so precious class time is ticking away. I tell my Little Darlings, There’s only one judge, and that’s the person who when to college for this. And I remind them before we play. And if anyone starts arguing with me (He was faster! She didn’t translate it right! He answer wasn’t totally correct), I just smile, remind them that there’s only one judge  and that pretty much takes care of the problem.  (If they keep arguing with me, the game is suspended, and we switch gears to something not as much fun….more on that below!) Don’t let them argue with you!
  • Element of Luck: This is a proven fact: every game is more fun if there’s an element of luck! I live in Nevada, the home of slot machines in the grocery stores and airports, so trust me on this one! Winning 1 point for each correct answer, for example, is not as much fun as drawing a card or rolling a dice to reveal their points. I love having different colored tokens that are worth different point values. The element of luck engages the kids who are not winning, or aren’t particularly good in Spanish or don’t really care that much. Everyone wants Lady Luck on their side!
  • Keeping score: It is so much easier to GIVE students SOMETHING than tallying points on the board. I usually reach for my Poker Chips (because it makes it feel more high stakes!) or sometimes I use these adorable little bears  or fake money.  Giving them something does 2 things: 1. It’s more fun to get something than just a mark on the board AND it makes it harder for the teams to keep track of who is winning…which keeps everyone engaged. At the end of the game, they return their bears or euros or chips and I award the winner(s).
  • Motivation: They’ve got to have a reason to want to win. In my class, my Little Darlings play for stamps on their Stamp Sheets. All semester long they collect stamps and then  submit their Stamp Sheet with their final for a few extra credit points. This motivates my kiddos, doesn’t cost me anything, and (don’t tell them!) really doesn’t do much to their overall grade. If your school doesn’t allow Extra Credit, or if you’re looking for something else, I had lots of fun with Aplausos Especiales for our winners in our Adult Language Lab at iFLT this summer.

Avoid the pitfalls:

  • When they’re little trolls: Maybe your Little Darlings are perfect, by sometimes my Little Darlings turn into Little Trolls who don’t play my game appropriately, or are mean to each other or argue with me or start throwing the adorable little bears.When they are naughty, you have to stop the game. It doesn’t matter how much you want to play it or how long you spent creating it the night before, playing a game in class is a privileged and if they can’t handle it, don’t be afraid to pull the plug!  If they’re really bad, I’ll just stop, tell them to take out a paper and we’ll either do a dictation or a quiz on the same input they were getting in the game. If they’re not awful but it’s heading in a direction you don’t like,  I’ll give them 1 tally mark on the board and tell them if they get to 3 marks, we will stop playing and “do something not nearly as fun”. The nice thing about that tactic is that all you have to do is reach for the marker to make that second mark and they’ll settle down. And I promise you, if you stop a game when they’re naughty, they’ll be WAAAAY better behaved next time you play! (And the next time you play, start out by saying, “you remember when we were playing X? What happened? Why? Here’s what I need from you for us to be able to play this game…Set them up for success!)

 Speaking of games, I’ll be sharing some fun and games at Comprehensible Online this year! Use code “AnneMarie20” for $25 off before January 15!

Wanna play? Here are some of my favorite games:

Art Memory A listening/memory game to introduce culture or to lead into a picture talk.

Prep- Minimal- Find a picture, write some questions

Duration- 15-25 minutes

Materials- A painting, image, or picture with lots of details, a list of questions


POP UP/ Palomitas   A differentiated Listening Game

Prep- None

Duration- 10+ minutes

Materials- Vocab list or story and the scorecard


Quick Draw  A reading game

Prep- Minimal

Duration- 10-20 minutes ish

Materials- 15-20 sentences that students can illustrate, Mini whiteboards, markers, erasers  


The Lucky Reading Game   Lots of reading and re-reading!

Prep- Minimal/ Moderate

Duration- 40+ minutes

Materials- Something for them to read…a story, a chapter from a novel, an article, 5 mini whiteboards, markers, erasers and a deck of cards. 

Project- Point Values (The blog post has this slide in Spanish, Latin, French, Chinese, German, Italian, Portuguese and Japanese!)


Details, Details, Details    A writing game for after storytelling

Prep– None

Duration- 20+ minutes

Materials- Paper, pencil, marker


20 Questions, CI Style  Listening game, for the last few minutes of class

Prep- None

Duration-5-10 minutes

Materials-Project this powerpoint (If you’d like to translate this into your Target Language and share it with me, I’d be forever grateful!) 


Parejas   A listening/ reading/ memory game to review a novel, story or telenovela

Prep- Minimal – Moderate (depending if you make the cards or have students do it…)

Duration- 40+ minutes 

Materials- 15-18 questions and answers written on construction paper (each paper has 1 question or 1 answer)


Cierto/Falso   A reading/listening/ guessing game.

 (Great to target specific vocab or grammar structures)

Prep- Moderate

Duration-30 minutes, over 2 class periods

Materials- Powerpoint of 20 True/False statements about the teacher.  Powerpoint of True/False statement, one for each students.


Screaming Ninjas  A action packed vocabulary game with tons of repetitions

Prep– None

Duration- 15-30 minutes

Materials– timer and something to pass out for points


¿Cómo se dice?  A listening circumlocution game

Prep- Minimal to set up your envelope, then none.

Duration-  5-10 minutes

Materials- Youtube Timer and Envelope of words


Scrambled Sentences An Easter Egg Reading Game

Prep- Intense. This one is kinda a pain in the you-know-where, so I only play it once a year, but they LOVE it!

Duration- 30-45 minutes

Materials- Easter eggs with cut apart sentences, Easter basket, slide show and answer sheet.

Telephone- Telephone-  A quiet listening and reading game

Prep- Minimal. Type up a few sentences then copy and paste.

Duration- 15-25 minutes

Materials- Whiteboard, different colored whiteboard markers and sentences.


3-D Guess Who– A listening guessing game targeting clothing vocabulary

Prep- None

Duration- 5-10 minutes

Materials- Your students!


Mafia- A listening game that students LOVE!!

Prep- None

Duration- 30-45 minutes

Materials- Deck of cards and project this slide


Number Shuffle- A number listening game that’s fun to play outside!

Prep- Minimal the first time you play, then none

Duration- 10-15 minutes

Materials- Number cards and poker chips


Feeling Techy? Here are some games that use technology and pack in the CI:

Kahoot Jumble

Quizlet Live Reading

Foto Frenzy


  1. Wow! Thank you for sharing effective input games for MFL learners. I will use some of them with my KS4 learners (UK) alongside other input activities described in G Conti and S Smith’s research based book, Breaking The Sound Barrier- Teaching language learners how to listen.


  2. Thanks so much for the great ideas– I’m going to play “Wie sagt man das?” (Como se dice) Halloween addition– all Halloween words today. I love your idea of an element of chance. I’ve successfully used the classroom game “Bomb”– 10 numbered cards on board with points under except under 1 – 3 cards is a picture of a bomb that blows up the teams points. Kids love it.
    Here is a Flippety Bomb board:


    • Oh my gosh!! I love this- both the Halloween themed circumlocution game AND ‘bomba’. Thanks so much for sharing, I’ll definitely be playing with these Flippity cards. Thanks so much for sharing these ideas and I hope you have a great day!


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