Using Games to Develop Language with Middle and High School ELs

By Valentina Gonzalez

Recently, a member of the Facebook Group Advocating for ELLs asked colleagues for suggestions on games to play with middle school multilingual learners. This question reminded me of the magical power games have for our learners. 

Gamifying learning has a unique way of increasing engagement, motivation, and participation while at the same time helping students learn content and acquire language. That truly is magical. 

In fact, many studies show the value games have on teaching and learning. Tracy Retherford’s very recent research (2020) examined the effects games have on English learners’ vocabulary and motivation. Her study found that ELs using gamification had an overall growth of more than 40% on vocabulary assessment compared with ELs that were assigned traditional worksheets.

Games can provide multilingual learners with repetitive everyday and academic language practice. No matter the age or content area, games can help learners participate and connect with peers. They can be a highly motivating, low-stress option for instructional time. 

Many language teachers enthusiastically responded to the question above, and a few shared details of the games they play with their students.

Imposter(s) Among Us

Natalia Heckman, former secondary ELA teacher and current educational consultant, shares a game called Imposters Among Us, which hits all four language domains (listening, speaking, reading, and writing). Her students loved this game because it created a low-stress environment during learning. 

The steps:

  1. Distribute the same question to most of the class except one or two students (these will be the imposters) who will get a different question. Heckman suggests putting the question on strips of paper.  
  2. Give students two to three minutes to independently write their responses to the question in their notebooks. 
  3. Call on at least six students (including the imposter(s)) to read their written responses aloud to the group. 
  4. Have students listen to their peers’ responses with an ear for who the imposter(s) might be. The imposter(s) is finally revealed at the end. 

Sometimes Heckman has done a variation of this game by having students mingle with one another to read their written responses instead of calling on them (Step 3). 


If you are searching for a fun and helpful game for English learners at beginning proficiency levels, Beth Wolff, a high school newcomer ESOL teacher in Maryland, has one that she describes as simple, repetitive, and easy to learn. GUESS WHO?™ is a barrier game (opponents sit across from each other with a barrier between them) that provides listening and speaking opportunities for learners. Many teachers have used the board game version; however, there is also a digital version available. Some teachers create their own version of the game around a unit of study. 

The steps:

  1. Two players or teams sit across from each other with their own set of mystery cards. A barrier, such as an opened folder or an easel, is placed between the teams. In the board game GUESS WHO?™, the cards are people’s faces. Some teachers create custom cards related to the content and curriculum studied.
  2. Each team draws a card without sharing it with the other team. This is their Mystery Card. 
  3. Teams take turns asking one yes/no question at a time. Wolff recommends using sentence frames and picture-word banks as extra scaffolds. For example: 
  • Does your ___ have…
  • Does your person have…
  • Does your landform have…
  • Does your mystery card have a living/nonliving thing?
  • Is your animal a mammal?
  • Does your character have…
  • Does your math problem…
  • Is the answer…(positive/negative, odd/even, below 50)

Adjective Bingo!

Sheltered Instruction Reading and Language Arts Teacher Nancy Turbyfill plays her own version of Bingo based on adjectives with her high school multilingual learners. Through this game, they relax and have a good time practicing listening and reading while strengthening and learning new vocabulary.

The steps:

  1. Provide each student with a card that has pictures on it. Some teachers use free clipart and a simple table in Word to create this.
  2. Call out an adjective. Read it aloud to the class and write it on the board. 
  3. Have students cover one picture that is described by each adjective called out. 

Games are Multifunctional

“Group games like Pictionary, Jeopardy!, and Kahoot motivate students through competition,” says Linda Vinay, a transitional bilingual humanities teacher working with sixth, seventh, and eighth-grade multilingual learners. Vinay adds that “board games like Monopoly, Life, and Uno require students to negotiate rules, read task cards, and follow multi-step directions.” Vinay loves the smaller group sizes that games offer, allowing more students to interact and practice speaking. But not all games are effective for developing language, nor might they be worth our limited time in the classroom. In this article, Dr. Katie Toppel, co-author of the new book DIY PD, shares the criteria for games to be effective in developing language. 

Kay Elizabeth, one of two English learner teachers for Portage Public Schools in Portage, Michigan, compiled an extensive list of games and shares them with us here: Good Games for English Learners…and Where to Find Them. Among her list are a few of my favorites: Headbands, Mad-Libs, Charades, and Pictionary. Another favorite is Kahoot, and longtime Kahoot ambassador Dr. Carol Salva explains how she uses the digital game to motivate newcomer ELs, build community, promote language development, and increase academic success. 

Language teachers around the world are harnessing the power of games to increase language acquisition. You and your students likely have a favored game as well, and we would love to hear about it in the comments below. 

Want to read more from Valentina about supporting English learners? Check out Reading and Writing with English Learners, co-written by Valentina Gonzalez and Dr. Melinda Miller.

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