Top 5 Games and Activities for Big ESL Classes | ESL Activities

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Do you have a big class of English learners. Do you feel pretty intimidated? Yes?

Then you’re in the right place. I’m going to share some tips and tricks, along with my top activities for ESL group games that are ideal for more than 20 students.

Big ESL Classes: They don’t have to be a Nightmare

50 students in a class? Sounds like your biggest nightmare? I’m not going to sugar-coat it for you-it is kind of a nightmare and in a language class, it’s really ridiculous. However, it’s quite a common situation in universities in Asia, particularly in Thailand,  China, Vietnam or Korea.

Ideally, you’d have between 8 and 16 students. Eight is enough to do pretty much any activity, while 16 isn’t so big that you’ve unable to give any sort of individual feedback. After about 25, it’s mostly just a sea of faces. Not ideal, but it’s often the reality in university classes around the world.

Despite these drawbacks, it really is possible to teach big classes in style. The secret is to design activities that work well with these classes, instead of trying to interact 1-1 with each student. Avoid teacher-centred, and instead have students work in small groups with each other. This will maximize student talking time, and minimize the stress on the teacher.

Check out more details about big classes, as well as some of my favourite activities to use with classes of 20 or more students.

Forget the 1-1 Interaction with You in Big ESL Classes

Even if you have a really big class, you shouldn’t despair. It’s still possible for it to be reasonably stress-free and productive. The key is to forget any sort of illusion you have of personal, 1-1 interaction with the students. There simply isn’t enough time.

Imagine you having a 1-minute conversation with every single student in a 50 minute class. The class would be over before you actually did anything, you’d be exhausted and the students wouldn’t have learned a single thing. Here’s how I organize my lesson, for all classes from 1-50 students.

Big ESL Classes: Lesson Structure

  1. A warm-up activity or game. Usually it’s a lead-in to the lesson, or a review from the last class. See: Warm-up activities and games for some ideas.
  2. A mini-lecture. I usually present some sort of grammar or vocabulary. But, I only hit the highlights and try to never talk for more than five minutes. I make it as interactive as possible as well. More advanced level students can figure out the finer details on their own. In a class of 50, I aim to the middle.
  3. Controlled practice. Start with controlled. Usually something from the textbook will work well. Then, have students compare with a partner and then quickly check as a class.
  4. Free practice. This is when students can use the language in a less controlled way. Check out my list of activities for big ESL classes that follow.

(For more advice on lesson planning, please see: ESL lesson planning template).

Top 5 Activities and Games for Big ESL Classes

Here are some of the top picks if you have larger classes of at least 12 students in your ESL or EFL classes. Keep on reading!

Running Dictation: One of the Best ESL Class Activities

This is one of my favourite ESL games of all time and it works particularly well for big classes. It hits all four skills in a fun, challenging and interesting way. If you have a sleepy Monday morning or Friday afternoon class, pull this one out of your bag of tricks. This ESL class activity gets students up out of their seats and moving around the classroom.

The best thing? It’s the perfect lead-in, or review activity for just about any topic. It’s one of the most versatile ESL activities and it’s certainly one to try out if you haven’t already.

Important note for a big class: Make sure you only allow “whispers” or this game will get out of control really fast for a class of more than six or eight. I make a rule that if you use anything above a whisper, the activity will be over for that pair of students. So far, I’ve never had to enforce it as I usually give a warning to each group if necessary.

Check out more details about this fun ESL 4-skills activity here:

Running Dictation

Board Games: A Fun Game for Classes

I love to play board games, so I design ones for my students to play. Sometimes you get lucky and there’s a game in the teacher’s resource book, but it’s easier than you might think to make your own if there isn’t.

Put the students into groups of four and away they go! Student-centered teaching awesome right there. You can bring a small prize for the winner of each group, but I’ve found that my students don’t really care about this either way. They’re just happy to play.

Perhaps the thing I love best is that board games are an ideal way to review for a midterm or final exam. Students are used to seeing grammar points and vocabulary separately, but you’re able to put them all together in this game, like they’ll be on the exam.

More details about this fun ESL game here:

Board Games for ESL/EFL Students

As far as using it for a big class, there really isn’t any adaptation. Just be sure to bring one board/prize per every four students and this is one of the best ESL group games you can play.

How I Use Board Games with My Students in South Korea

Even more details about ESL board games in this short video below:

Dictogloss: One of the Top ESL Group Activities

This is another one of my favourite ESL activities and it’s well-suited for big ESL classes. You can put the students into pairs or groups or 3-4 and let them get to work! If you do it with writing, you could put in an element of competition, where groups have to submit their paper, you check it between classes and award a little prize in the next one.

Check out this challenging ESL activity here:


This ESL class game doesn’t really require any adaptation for large classes, except the number of groups will be greater. You may also want to pick and choose just a couple of groups to say or read out their answers instead of everyone. This will save time that could be used on more valuable things. Or, students can submit it to you to check later.

ESL Surveys: An Ideal ESL Group Activity

I love me a good  ESL survey activity! Just ask my students-I use them at least once a month in my classes because I think they’re awesome. My students maybe love them less than I do, but they’re usually happy enough to humour me.

Surveys are the perfect way to practice a grammar point or some vocab in a semi-controlled way, they’re radically student-centered, they encourage a variety of conversation partners as well as follow-up questions. Seriously, what more could you want in an ESL activity?

The best part is that doesn’t matter how many students are in the class and actually bigger ESL classes are better for this one. Less than ten doesn’t work that well because there won’t be enough people who will be able to answer yes to each question.

You can find out more about this 4-skills ESL activity here:

Surveys for ESL/EFL Learners

And, if you haven’t tried this ESL group activity, it’s time! It’s one of the best ones out there.

Teach Someone How to Do Something

I call this one, “How to Avoid the Hobby Unit Brain Rot.”  After 10 years of teaching, I feel like I can’t possibly teach another class about hobbies without dying a little bit on the inside.

So, I’ve gone radically student-centered and had students do this interesting activity instead of my more traditional style of class. It gets them talking and asking and answering follow-up questions. And, I just have to supervise and offer a bit of guidance and error correction.

Find out more about this activity here:

Teach Someone How to do Something-Hobby Unit

Want More Ideas for ESL Activities and Games for Big ESL Classes?

esl speaking activities adults

ESL Speaking Activities for Adults

You’ll need 39 No-Prep/Low-Prep ESL Speaking Activities: For Teenagers and AdultsIt’ll make lesson planning easier, guaranteed. There are a couple dozen games and activities that are perfect for big ESL classes.

If you’re serious about having awesome English classes, then you’ll need to check out this book for yourself over on Amazon. There are enough ESL games and activities to get you through the entire semester in style.

The key to happy students who are having fun while learning English is a variety of interesting activities. And that’s exactly what the book is all about. Yes, it’s probably just what you need for your lesson planning.

You can get it on Amazon now for only $0.99. That’s 1/5 of the price of a cup of coffee in South Korea! It’s available in both print and electronic formats, and the e-version can be read on any device by downloading the free Kindle reading app. It’s easy. Seriously.

Check out the book for yourself now:

Get 39 ESL Speaking Activities on Amazon Today

How to Manage Large ESL Classes

Have your Say about the Best ESL Activity for Larger Classes

Do you have any go-to games or activities for classes with more than 10 students? Or, a tip or trick for an ESL class game when you have a lot of students? Leave a comment below and let us know.

Also be sure to give this article a share on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. It’ll help other teachers, like yourself find this useful teaching resource.


Fun ESL games for large classes

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