1-on-1 Games to Play With ESL Students

Ariel Blaser
6 min readAug 7, 2020
Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

When I first started teaching, I was pretty dismayed at how difficult it was to find ideas for fun games to play with my ESL students.
See, my classes are 1-on-1; I do private tutoring.
Most educational games are created for groups — for entire classrooms — to play. The problem I kept running into was that many, many, many of them were not especially adaptable for when you only have one student.

However, between modifying others’ ideas, creating my own, and collaborating with my students (and not a small amount of trial and error), I’ve slowly curated a list of ESL games and activities to use in my classes. Hopefully sharing this list will give other online ESL teachers a place to start when encouraging learning with games.

All of these games are as easy to play online as they are face-to-face.

Most of my students are children and so my suggestions may not fully engage adult learners, but it is absolutely worth trying!
I’ve successfully used these games when tutoring Spanish, so I believe they can be adjusted to work in any language classroom.
This list will be particularly helpful for those teaching online because all of these games are as easy to play (and equally as engaging) online as they are face-to-face.

I hope this goes without saying, but just in case…
You, the teacher, will be playing and participating in each of these games and activities.
After all, our goal here is
e n g a g e m e n t.

My apologies that my ESL activities don’t have the, uh, catchiest of names.
In almost every case my students (remember, they’re kids) were in charge of naming the game. The names they created are easy and descriptive, but please let me know if you have alternatives!

Without further ado:

Popcorn Reading

Photo by Felipe Cardoso from Pexels

While this is definitely on the activity side of the scale, popcorn reading is very popular with my students, is easy to learn, and fosters engagement.
You and the student read together and take turns reading. This is wonderful for taking the pressure of reading alone off of students- especially great for shy students!
To initiate a change in reader, the current reader simply says “popcorn”.
I’ve found that this often creates a bit of a game within itself to see who can make the funniest sentences and phrases with the word popcorn. Again, my ESL students are kids so silliness is kind of built-in. Saying things like “Mr. Popcorn” amuses them… and me too.
I set a rule with my students that they (and I) must read at least three (3) words each turn. This has rarely been a problem, but it’s good to have in place for resistant readers. You could increase the number if you want, but I recommend keeping it small so that it’s easy to tell (at a glance) whether the minimum has been met.

Supplies needed?
A book or any other skill-level-appropriate reading material. That’s it.

Popcorn reading is very scaleable to groups of any size.
Instead of only saying “popcorn,” each reader could indicate whose turn is next by saying “popcorn [name].”
Or, to make sure the number of turns is evenly distributed, establish the turn order before you begin. For example, clockwise around the group.

Wanna make it harder?
- Challenge your student to only say popcorn before a single type of word — nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.

The Alphabet Game

Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels

I told you these names aren’t the most creative; again, please suggest new or alternative names in the comments!
The alphabet game is a memory game. It’s silly, it’s fun, and I highly recommend discreetly keeping track of the words just in case ;)
This game is a great tool for introducing new (and increasingly more difficult) vocabulary!
To play, each player takes turns saying a word that starts with the next letter of the alphabet- after listing all the previous words that’ve been said.
1 [A]: apple
2 [B]: apple, brother
1 [C]: apple, brother, cry
And so on.
We usually play so that after the letter Z the next player has to list all of the words.

Supplies needed?
NONE

This game is easily scaleable to a group.

Wanna make it harder?
- Restrict the type of words for the game (some letters will be more difficult than usual in this version), so that for one round of play perhaps everyone must say a noun.
- You can play rounds with rules like “no nouns”, “no color words”, “no food words”, or “no present tense verbs” if you find your students are leaning on a particular type of word or category of vocabulary.
- As your students’ English becomes more advanced, start incorporating more details into the words you contribute; try mixing it up by alternating between plural and singular or varying verb tenses.

First Letter, Last Letter

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels

Another awesome game for building vocabulary — with spelling layered in! Player 1 chooses a word and then the next player must think of a word that starts with the last letter of the previous word.
1: apple
2: elephant
1: tired
And so on.

Supplies needed?
NONE

This game is easily scalable to a group.

Wanna make it harder?
- Have each player spell, out loud, the word they have said.
- You can also have your students classify words by type here. Is it a noun, verb, etc.? If you want to take it a step further for higher level identification skills, try asking things like “Is it a present or past tense verb?”, “A singular or plural noun?”, etc.
- If your student needs more opportunities to create full sentences, have each player say their word and then create a sentence with their chosen word.
- Additionally, ALL of the tips for increasing the difficulty of The Alphabet Game are applicable here as well, so please re-visit the section above for more!

Dice and Nouns

Image by annca from Pixabay

This is a fun, simple game. You can play with just nouns or you can expand to have rounds with subsections of words like verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc. It’s a good way to practice categorizing words and to introduce new vocabulary.
Play is easy: each person takes turns rolling the die and then naming X number of words from whatever the pre-determined category.
For this example, let’s say you’ve chosen VERBS.
1: *rolls a 3* run, bakes, cooked
And so on.

Supplies needed?
Dice. You can get by with one, but it’s definitely more engaging (if you’re teaching online) for you and your student to each have one.

This game is easily scalable to a group.
Simply pass around the die for everyone to have a turn.

Wanna make it harder?
- Make rules like “plural nouns only”, “no animal nouns”, “no color adjectives”, “past tense verbs only”, etc. to customize according to what students need to practice.
- Go beyond word categories and have players make the same number of sentences as whatever they roll. Roll a 3? 3 sentences, please! And you can make that even more difficult by making this an opportunity to exercise knowledge of specific tenses or new vocabulary.

Of course this is not an exhaustive list of all the games I play in my classes.
To avoid making this article way too long, I’ll post another list soon.

Have your own suggestions? Let me (and other readers) know in the comments below — thank you!

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Ariel Blaser

A curious writer, linguist, and tutor living as a tumbleweed on the North American continent. Can’t seem to settle into one niche or genre.