Talk To Teach

Teach English at Home with Treasure Hunts and Other Fun Games

Why play games in English class?

Games have long been a staple in the ESL classroom, and game play should definitely be on the list of teaching strategies for English teachers who need engaging ways to teach English at home.


Of course young students come first to mind when considering the use of learning games. However, when properly designed/chosen and administered, games work well for teaching many aspects of both productive (speaking, writing) and receptive (listening, reading) language skills to students of all age groups.


Gaming is an educationally sound instructional approach, as evidenced by the embrace of gamification as an important tool in the fields of education and training. Game play incorporates elements of active and problem-based learning. It directly affects student engagement and motivation and, when used in an English teaching program or other instructional setting, promotes both direct and indirect learning.


Go on a treasure hunt.

Treasure hunts are excellent activities for teaching English, particularly when working with small groups. They are exciting and lively from the students’ viewpoint, while teachers will find them relatively easy to set up and flexible enough to support a variety of skill levels and learning objectives.


The basic premise of a treasure hunt is that students will practice and learn language skills while engaging in the problem solving represented by deciphering a series of clues that show the way to a “treasure” (generally a small, age-appropriate prize or reward).


Get a clue.

On the part of the English teacher, production of treasure hunt clues calls for creativity and the ability to design effective learning activities. A treasure hunt clue set can be used to offer general skills practice or present a narrow focus on a specific skill or subject matter. Possibilities are nearly endless.


A common treasure hunt approach is to begin with some initial desk-work on a primary clue that leads hunters onward to other clues located around the learning space. For example, a Word Search puzzle can be used to reveal the words of a clue. How about having students organize a set of Word Search items into a sentence or phrase that forms a clue?


Coded messages are also fun to solve. Make simple number-letter codes or find an International Morse Code Chart online and use Morse to create an initial clue. Be sure to have copies of the Morse chart on hand for student use. Try setting out two coded clues – with and without grammar or word usage errors inserted by the teacher. The error-free version is the accurate clue.


Follow-on clues should get students up from the desk and moving about. Use whatever space is available, including the outdoors if appropriate. Make these clues fairly simple and easy to solve on the fly, with the idea being to keep the hunt fast-paced and exciting. Riddles, anagrams, prepositional phrases, short series of directions, and household vocabulary are just a few clue possibilities. For example, place items in a drawer such that the first letters of all item names can be unscrambled to reveal a clue.


Level up.

Depending on student skill level and class learning objectives, there is no harm in requiring hunters to refer to a vocabulary list, dictionary, grammar notebook, or last night’s homework in order to solve a clue. A strategy for pushing communicative language work to higher levels is to have students ask other people questions then derive clues from the answers. Create number-letter codes based on birth dates, or anagrams from hometown names.


Students can work alone or in pairs on a basic treasure hunt. If larger groupings are desired, consider designing multi-part clues with separate components that must be worked out then fit together in order to yield a solution. To engage multiple teams, create several different clue paths. Let each team’s quest lead to a secondary treasure that incorporates a clue to locating a final “Grand Prize” that all teams compete for.


Developing an engaging treasure hunt may be a bit time-consuming at the outset. However, materials can be designed for reuse and a clever English teacher soon has an inventory of varied hunts with a large collection of associated clues. In terms of generating learning opportunities, student engagement, and fun class time, treasure hunts provide a great return on the effort invested.


Play some table-top games.

Teachers often feel inspired to try out some of their favorite board games in class. Some games, for example Scrabble, seem designed for teaching English. In reality, most board games are tricky to adapt to the purposes of teaching English as a foreign language for several primary reasons:

  • Many games that may seem useful are in reality too complex for all but advanced learners. For beginners, simply understanding playing instructions and rules can present a significant linguistic challenge.
  • Ideal teaching games will be easy and quick to get started with, and they will motivate extensive communicative interaction during play. Games combining these qualities are not very common.
  • Most traditional board games and other table-top games are difficult to use with large groups.

 Chutes and Ladders is one classic board game that does adapt well for use with young beginners. Pair students up and have them alternate between working the spinner and moving the game piece. The player who spins should conceal the results and give the game-piece partner verbal instructions for the move to be made.

Here are some other table-top games that can work well for teaching English at home:

Wildlife Safari – Cards with the pictures and names of animals on one side are dealt around the table. Players go by turns choosing one of their cards and describing (without naming) the animal on it. Audience members attempt identification, receiving the card and “capturing” the animal upon shouting a correct answer. The player with the largest zoo wins. This game design is adaptable for use with various subject matters and all skill levels.

Sentence Scramble – Strips of card stock are printed with sentences then cut in two or three pieces. Set the appropriate difficulty level and arrange for an adequate number of complete sentences per player. Have each player pull an equal number of sentence chunks from a grab bag. A player’s objective is to complete a quota of sentences equal to one-half the number of chunks held initially. Players get their missing sentence chunks from other players via the use of oral language barter only. No showing of strips is allowed. Use a timer to limit each turn at play.

Syntax Bingo – A simple classic with an ESL teacher’s twist, this Bingo game is easy to play once a word inventory is in hand. The teacher is the bingo caller, drawing randomly from a large word collection. Use pages from a variety of texts found online, printed out large, and cut up into individual words. Adjust for difficulty and add in any desired target vocabulary words if no examples are present. Students write the words as they are called out. The first player to construct a correct sentence has a bingo.

Teaching English at home can be all fun and games.

Game play is especially useful for engaging small groups of younger learners. This makes it an essential strategy for the language immersion program host family member looking for effective and exciting ways to teach English at home. If you would like to learn more, check out these games and valuable English teaching tips.