Classroom Games for the Post-Lockdown Language Teacher

This article is targeted toward ESL professionals. However, the principles described here could be used for teaching any language. You can find other articles for SLA professional on my profile.

School’s open. Are you ready for what’s to come?

For many in the ESL profession, your language schools are now opening up. You’re having meetings, getting together, and making plans for what form the coming term will take.

No matter what structure your administration has decided on, I’m going to guess that two elements are universal: reduced class sizes and social distancing in the classrooms.

When I first heard that we’d have 10 students in a class from the admin at my school — with no group work and no sharing of materials—one of my first thoughts was how destructive that would be to my approach to the classroom.

I’m a good CELTA-diploma holder, an apostle of the church of CLT. But how are you supposed to do group work when desks can’t be pushed together? A board race when markers can’t be shared?

Why go back to school when all the things that make in-person teaching fun and functional are, for now, not an option?

Questions aside, if you’re going back to in-person teaching, you’re going to need to find ways to make the new norm work for the language classroom.

Gather Your Resources

One extremely adaptable game that I hope will work for you is something I call phrase chain. Rather than describe it, let’s go with a quick demo:

Second Conditional

If I changed the direction of my apprenticeship, I might have more diversity in my life.

If I had more diversity in my life, I would have a better social life.

If I had a better social life, I would meet more interesting people.

If I met more interesting people, I might be able to work on more interesting projects.

If I worked on more interesting projects, I could earn more money.

If I had more money, I could invest in technologies I believe in.

Essentially, take any grammar structure that involves two tenses/moods and chain them together one after the other thereby forcing students to transform the previous phrase.

The previous was an example taken directly from one of my online classes on Preply. Clearly the game can be done with conditional phrases, especially types 2 and 3, but in truth it can be done with any phrase linked by a “connector word.” In the conditional, that phrase just happens to be “if.” Here are a few other applications:

Present Perfect / Imperative

Once you’ve gone to the store, get the groceries you need.

Once you’ve gotten the groceries you need, head to the check out.

Once you’ve headed to the checkout, pay for your items.

Once you’ve paid for your items, bag them.

Once you’ve bagged them…

Past Perfect / Simple Past

After I’d gotten to school, I realized that I’d left my homework at home.

After I’d realized I’d left my homework at home, I freaked out.

After I’d freaked out, I went to talk to the teacher.

After I’d gone to talk to the teacher, she told me she couldn’t help me.

After she’d told me she couldn’t help me…

In an online setting, students and I take turns typing into a document before I slowly reduce my presence and they take over typing independently. My role is then to supply missing items in their vocabulary (e.g., past participles).

Pre-Covid, I used to demo the exercise on the board as students shouted out parts of the phrase chain. Then I’d split them into groups and they would continue the exercise as I monitored.

But post-Covid? In a world where monitoring is actively discouraged and group work impossible?

It’s not as difficult as it may seem. The demo can stay the same. Demo it on the board, writing out the phrases your students give you.

Then rather than writing a chain in groups/pairs, do the whole thing orally. See how far you can get. Try having timed competitions between three students. Try setting a time limit and see how many phrases/rounds you can get in before time runs out—which has the additional perk of making the activity extremely repeatable.

In the end, we’ve taken a grammar/writing exercise and dialed up the difficulty a bit. Now we’re engaging listening and speaking skills. With the right amount of scaffolding, I think the post-Covid version is actually better than the original exercise. Go figure.

I guess there really is a silver lining if you look for it hard enough.

Next Steps

If you were lucky enough to make a full online transition to sites like Cambly, Preply, or the myriad of China-based distance learning platforms, consider yourself blessed. However, not everyone can make the full transition. Online teaching may come with independence over your hours, but it also comes with its own problems. Good luck getting your online gig site to pay for your health insurance, for example.

For those who haven’t made the online transition, be it by choice or by force, I hope the skills shared in this article and in coming articles are useful to you.



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N.G. Rees

N.G. Rees


Teacher trainer and ESL instructor based out of Morocco. Head of Training and Development, Resilient Communities NGO. hmu @rees_is_