You’ve got what you think is a great activity for your ESL students. You prepare them to do it. You’re enthusiastic and motivated about your class. And then—your students don’t take to it. They are tired, distracted, and they show no interest. Or, your semester starts out fine, your students are interested in you, your lessons, and their classmates. As time passes, they appear to lose interest and motivation in your class.

Are these problems unique to you as a teacher? Definitely not. Teachers everywhere - teaching in language schools, public schools, colleges, trade schools - confront, at some time or another, the problem of motivating their students. Let’s take a look at what your ESL lessons need in order to assure student interest, and some ways to keep that interest by having your adult students play games.

C. Ray Graham and Mark M. Walsh, in their “Adult Education ESL Teachers Guide” suggest that three ways to keep students motivated enough to come to class are 1) to assure that students feel they are making progress toward their goals, 2) to make sure there is the opportunity for enjoyment in the classroom, and 3) to offer lessons that are relevant to them.

Stephen Lieb, in “Principles of Adult Learning” states that students “must be interested in the subject…adults must see the benefit of learning in order to motivate themselves.”  This appears to me to be a fairly straightforward recipe for adult student motivation. What is evident when considering these keys to motivation is that you as the teacher must know your students in order to provide learning opportunities and activities for them that will hold their interest. You will need to know what their goals are for learning English, what they might find pleasant and exciting as classroom tasks, and how these two elements can be integrated into your lessons as you also make your lessons relevant to your students’ lives and experience. This relevance issue, by the way, is extremely important, and translates into a student asking herself, when she sit down in your classroom, “What is in this for me?” or “What am I going to get out this that will benefit me?”

Why use games in the classroom? Alex Case in “Why does my teacher use games in an adult class?” makes a good case for offering games to ESL adult students. He claims that games provide a “natural way of learning” and provide competition and motivation. Provided that the games have serious goals, both “serious” and “less serious” students can find benefit in playing classroom games. Interestingly, Case also offers “bad” reasons for using games in the classroom. One of these is the idea that adults learn in a manner similar to how children learn—an idea that quite a bit of research has shown not to be true. Lieb summarizes the characteristics of the adult learner, and clearly many of these characteristics do not apply to children.

Wright, Betteridge and Buckby (“Why Use Games to Teach English,” from “Games for Language Learning,” Cambridge University Press, 1984) explore the benefits of using games in the ESL classroom and how they might be used to motivate students. In a survey of a number of articles focusing on using games in the ESL classroom, this website emphasizes three areas related to the use of games. First, games do not just have to be for fun (as extracurricular activities), they can be a main part of an ESL curriculum. Second, games can be meaningful and relevant. (To gauge meaningfulness, observe how your students react to certain language. A lack of reaction may indicate a lack of meaningfulness.) Finally, games encourage competition, and they offer a “plausible incentive” for students to use the target language.

Some researchers and teachers emphasize that games should not simply be secondary to the focus in your classroom, but should be the main activity. So, is it a good idea to center your classroom teaching around games? Children will love it, but some adults, particularly older students whose previous language learning has been more strict and indeed much less “communicative,” may view classroom games as a distraction, or, if a game is not well-designed, as a waste of time. (I have met older ESL learners who told me, at different times, of having been put off by their teacher using games in their language class.)
In a nutshell, some adult students will resist. This does not have to be the case in your classroom, depending on how you design and execute your games. One, classroom games need to be focused and related to the material being taught. Adult students (and children) look for structure in their teachers’ lessons; by keeping a game clearly tied to other material being taught in a more formal manner, you will maintain your students’ confidence in you.
Second, the game doesn’t need to involve a lot of movement or excitement or cheering, but it does need to be intellectually challenging.
Third, games played by the whole class run a greater risk of alienating quiet or shy students, so have your students play games in small groups or pairs. Even shy students can participate; working in pairs may encourage students to speak who otherwise would be reluctant to do so. Learners will have fun, be challenged, and be competitive, and in pairs or small groups they will avoid the full exposure in the classroom that might embarrass them.
Finally, games create an authentic situation for use of the language. If it seems a little odd that a game creates an authentic situation for language use, then think about this: since the goal is to win the game, that moment is shared by all students in a particular competitive group. Games encourage (and indeed, require) students to interact and cooperate, using the target language as their vehicle. And games also encourage students to be creative and spontaneous in using the language.

There are many websites on the internet dedicated to ESL games for adults. ESL Activities ( offers quite a few useful and interesting activities/games for learners of all ages. Do a search and be sure to use a critical eye in reviewing the material you find.

A common exercise for ESL student teachers is ranking a list of teacher characteristics according to how important they are in making an effective teacher. “The teacher is knowledgeable of the English language,” “The teacher is friendly,” “The teacher is well-organized,” “The teacher can speak a foreign language” are some on the list. Invariably, “The teacher knows her students well” does not rank very high on the list. I point out to the student teachers that until you the ESL teacher know your students, you cannot know what motivates them, what their reasons for learning English are, or what interests and excites them—key elements toward motivating your students to learn and use English, and applicable to young and not-so-young learners.

From experience we know that people are motivated by motivated leaders. A teacher who is not motivated cannot hope to motivate his students. The same is true for confidence—a teacher who lacks confidence cannot hope that his students will have confidence in him. With this in mind, games, as a motivating tool, must be accompanied by a show of confidence and motivation by the teacher.

If I know what my students’ individual goals are for learning a language, I can tailor the games I offer them to help them make progress towards their goals. If I strive to assure that my classroom will always be a place of enjoyment, I won’t risk “losing” students who might have “better things to do” than come to my class. And if I keep my lessons and games relevant to my students, culturally, intellectually, professionally, I can avoid ever having a student feel that there is nothing for him in my classroom. So we go back to what I see as the basis of good teaching: the best characteristic that a teacher can have is the ability to know and understand her students. From this starting point, motivating them becomes an art.

I would like to offer my own tips for using games in the adult ESL classroom. I will limit this to ten, though with a bit of brainstorming a group of teachers could surely come up with many more points for teachers to consider when preparing to use games in the classroom.

1. Know your students—what interests them, what doesn’t interest them, how they interact with each other, how you think they would accept a game as a classroom learning tool.

2. Since you are dealing with adults, prepare games that are intellectually challenging and have some “substance.”

3. Give very clear instructions to your students. You will get off on the wrong foot with your game if the instructions are not clear.

4. Make sure that your students understand very clearly what the goal of the game is (don’t underestimate how important this is), and remember to tie it into other work you are doing in the classroom.

5. Be motivated and enthusiastic yourself. Enthusiastic teachers generally will motivate their students so lead your class by example.

6. Be professional when executing the game. Professionalism is never out of place in the classroom. Your older students will appreciate it and all of your students will respect you for it.

7. Put your students in pairs or groups according to personality, that is, who you think will work best with whom. A bad pairing or matching of personalities is a sure way to discourage one or more students.

8. Monitor, monitor, monitor. Help your students play the game, and help them keep in mind the goal of the activity.

9. As long as students are speaking English, allow them to use the language freely as they play. If you try to “force-feed” certain target language, you may take some spontaneity out of the game. A well-designed game with require the students to use the target language anyway.

10. Monitor your time. Once students have finished the game, don’t let them sit back and do nothing while they wait for others to finish. Keep them busy—perhaps even have them play again.

11. Have fun, and make sure all of your students are having fun.

Okay, well that’s eleven!