Board Games & Card Games for the ESL Classroom

A group of students sitting around a table playing a board game

This is not a "best" board game list since I haven't tried all ESL-related board games in existence. Also, as a teacher, I tend to focus on speaking activities that get students moving around, not seated. Nevertheless, it's good to have a couple of board games on the shelf for the end of term when students just want to have fun.

Here are the games that are my favorites in the ESL classroom. The common theme among them is they are educational AND fun.

Anomia (Intermediate+ ESL)

Number of players: groups of 3-6 people

Keywords: vocabulary, matching, speed

This a great fast-paced game for ESL or non-ESL environments. Each card has a symbol and a category, such as "types of fruit" or "famous landmarks." When two players draw cards with matching symbols, they have to quickly name something from the category on their opponent’s card. The first to do so wins the round, and the game continues until all cards are played.

The game is great for the ESL classroom because it helps with vocabulary expansion (facilitated through the wide range of categories), quick thinking (students learn to think on their feet), and fluency. Also, it's a lot of fun.

Anomia is available on Amazon in Original and Party Edition (both are great for class.)

Wavelength (Upper-Intermediate+)

Number of Players: 2+

Keywords: vocabulary, discussion, getting to know your partner(s)

This is a cool party game that leads to great conversations. (I would actually play this in my free time.)

Firstly, a dial is set to a particular area on a spectrum (watch the video above to get an idea of what I mean by this). The players then select a card with two opposite concepts, e.g. "expensive--cheap." The player who knows where the dial is on the spectrum then gives a clue to his partner, who must then move the dial according to where he thinks the clue should land on the spectrum. For example, if the category is "under-rated--overrated", the player might say "Taylor Swift", hoping the player will think she is overrated. However, their partner might think she is not overrated at all, and therefore set the dial in the center. In short, the game is about trying to guess where your partner thinks a certain word lands on a spectrum. This can lead to hilarious discussions and (fun) arguments.

Watch the video above for a (better) depiction of gameplay.

Wavelength is available on Amazon.

Taboo (Intermediate+ ESL)

(This video shows how one ESL teacher in Germany uses the game with his students.)

Keywords: vocabulary, creative thinking, speed

Taboo is a pretty classic card game for ESL. Either in groups or with the whole class, a student takes a card and then must describe the word atop (e.g. "cookbook") without saying the Taboo words (food/how to/kitchen/manual/guide). Students aim to see how many words they can elicit from the group while the hourglass counts down.

Even with the standard version of the game, there will be some words intermediate students do not know. Therefore, it's good to let them pick about three cards. They can then choose the word they know (the most confidently). Also, the first time playing the game, I let students use the Taboo words in their descriptions. After a few short rounds, then introduce the concept of a 'taboo' word and disallow students from using the listed taboo words.

This game is great for ESL learners because it focuses on vocabulary development by encouraging students to think of alternative ways to describe a term. This also encourages them to think creatively. Lastly, if you play it in teams it can promote teamwork.

Taboo is available on Amazon.

Codenames (Upper-Intermediate+)

Number of Players: 4+

Keywords: word association, vocabulary, strategy

Codenames is a popular board game that uses language, strategy, and teamwork. For detailed instructions, see the above video. In short, each team has a spymaster who provides one-word clues to help their team guess the words on a grid that belong to their team of spies. The challenge is to avoid the words that belong to the opposing team and the deadly “assassin” word that ends the game if guessed.

This game helps students build word associations. It also requires critical thinking so it can be fun for the more cerebral-type of students.

Advice: Get the picture version instead of the original version for language practice. The original version has some lesser-known vocabulary and words with duplicate meanings that can throw students off.

Charades & Pictionary (All Levels)

Keywords: creativity, vocabulary, speed

These games have similar concepts. In Charades, a student must act on a word or phrase (e.g. "") to his partner or class. In Pictionary, the student must draw pictures on the board until his partner or classmate gets it. Generally, each player is timed and students see how many words they can elicit in the designated time.

While Charades and Pictionary do exist as products, you can easily design these games on your own. It's even better if you do because then you can review the vocabulary that your class has studied.

What about Scrabble? This game can take a long time and is only played with two people, so I've never felt it was very useful in a group environment. I've also tried Bananagrams and Apple to Apples, which were moderately fun but inferior in my opinion to the games featured above.

That's the end of the list. I hope you find this list useful for your English class or school.

- Matthew Barton / Creator of

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