10 small group card games for ESL / EFL young learners

10 small group card games for efl esl young learners

In the young learner and very young learner classroom, we often use flashcard games to present and practise new language. Very often, these are whole class activities with the teacher managing the interaction.

As a teacher of preschool and primary students, I’m always looking for ways to help my young learners become more independent and increase the amount of interaction (and therefore language practice) taking place. This means increasing the amount of time the kids can practise in pairs and small groups.

This article will highlight ten of the best pair and small group card games that I use in my classes with children aged 5 and up.

Some things to bear in mind:

  • They need to know the game first. Before playing any of these games in pairs or small groups, you should play them as a whole class first. This way the children will be confident about what is expected of them.
  • Tell them what to do when they don’t know a word / phrase. Obviously, when the children are playing in groups, you can’t be there to help them with unknown vocabulary all the time. I like to encourage them to ask each other first, and if they still don’t know, then ask me.
  • You’re learning so much from them. By handing over control, you are giving the children the valuable opportunity to experiment with the language. Monitoring the children playing by themselves, gives you a fantastic insight into what they know and what they don’t.

1. On your Head

On your head game for small groups

This is a fun game to play that keeps all the children engaged. In most guessing games, it is the child with the card who holds the secret. In this variation, it is the rest of the group that knows the secret, and the child with the card that has to guess.

Good for:

  • Practising short questions and answers.
  • Adaptable to many structures.
  • Any vocabulary.

How to play 'On your Head':

  1. One child shuffles the cards and the other children shout ‘STOP!’
  2. The child takes the first card from the pile, without looking at it, and hold it above their head so the other children can see it but they can’t.
  3. The child with the card asks questions to try and guess the card. This could be as simple as, ‘Is it a ….?’, with the children responding, ‘Yes, it is’ / ‘No, it isn’t’ OR they could practise other structures such as, ‘Can it (fly)?’, ‘Has it got…?’, ‘Does it like..?’, ‘Is it (big / green)?’ etc.
  4. They continue until they have guessed correctly then one of the other children be IT with the card on their head.

2. What's Missing?

what's missing small group card game

This is a version of Kim’s game, where the children take turns at being the person who hides or disappears one of the mini-cards. 

Good for:

  • Memory and recall.
  • Any vocabulary.

How to play 'What's Missing?':

  1. The children lay out all the cards face up on the table.
  2. One child tells the others to close or cover their eyes. It works even better, if the children turn around. That way there is less chance of any cheaters sneaking a peek!
  3. The child leading the game, turns over a card so that it is face down. They could also pick it up and hide it behind their backs.
  4. The other children open their eyes, or turn around. They try to identify the missing card.
 
You can make this more challenging by letting the winner keep the card. This means that the ‘guessers’ will have to not only identify the missing card, but also remember the cards that have already been identified.

3. Questions, questions, questions!

questions, questions, questions small group card game

This is a simple guessing game, where the children ask questions to identify the cards. You can play it so that only only one child has a card that the others have to guess, but I like this variation so that every child in the group is practising both questions and answers.

Good for:

  • Practising a range of different questions.
  • Consolidating new vocabulary.
  • Involving all the children.

How to play 'Questions, questions, questions!':

  1. The children shuffle a set of cards and each child chooses one of the cards. They must keep it secret! Make sure you demonstrate this when you set up the activity.
  2. The children take turns asking each other questions to try and guess the flashcards. They can ask simple questions such as ‘Is it…?’ OR you could practise other structures depending on the level of your group. Make sure each child has a chance to both ask and answer questions by controlling turn-taking.
  3. The game continues until everyone’s cards have been guessed.

 

You can vary the activity by:

  • Allowing the children to ask each other for clues.
  • For literate children, elicit question prompts on the board to help them think of different questions.
  • Including points to make it competitive – points for good questions, good guesses etc.

4. Rock, Paper, Scissors

rock, paper, scissors small group card game

This is one of my all time favourites. Most children are familiar with the game in their first language, and can easily engage with it in the English classroom. It’s adaptable to almost any language and you can combine it with other activities, such as mime, conversation practice, and run and point activities.

I also like that the person who ‘wins’, isn’t always the one who is strongest at English. It’s a great game for creating a sense of achievement for those kids that might be a bit weaker in your class.

Good for:

  • Encouraging spoken production.
  • Practising a range of different vocabulary and structures.
  • Giving a fair chance to every student.

How to play 'Rock, Paper, Scissors':

  1. Organise the children into pairs and give one set of mini-cards to each pair. The children can also play in threes – they just need to do a couple more ‘rock, paper, scissors’ to decide who wins the card.
  2. The children call out ‘rock, paper, scissors…1,2,3!’ at the same time, while making the actions with their hands. On ‘3’, make a hand gesture with one of the items (scissors, paper, or stone). Scissors beat paper, paper beats rock and rock beats scissors.
  3. The winner takes one of the mini-cards and performs the action that you decide. This could be doing an action, e.g., jump OR say the phrase indicated by the picture, e.g., ‘It’s a fish’ OR ask their partner a question, e.g., ‘Do you like icecream?’ If their partner agrees they did it correctly, the winner keeps the card.
  4. Play continues until the cards are finished. The winner is the child with the most cards.

5. Mime it!

This is a classic that I was more used to playing in front of the whole class, but it works very well as a pair or small group activity too. It’s also great for you as the teacher, to see how your learners conceptualise different things.

Good for:

  • Catering to mixed abilities. If they can’t produce the language, they experience success being the actor.
  • Practising questions and short answers with ‘be’.

How to play 'Mime it!':

  1. One child picks a card and acts the word or phrase for the rest of the class to guess, e.g. ‘Are you playing tennis?’ / ‘Are you a penguin?’
  2. The children take it in turns acting / miming different words / phrases.

 

You can make it competitive by either:

  • letting the child who guesses correctly, win the card.
  • setting a time limit and seeing how many cards each group manage to mime and guess.

6. Basketball

This is another really fun game, that is normally played whole class in teams. Again, I think it works very well in small groups because everyone gets the chance to participate more. Basically, it combines language practice with throwing a paper ball in a basket.

Good for:

  • Encouraging production of new language.
  • Providing opportunities for success for all levels of ability.

How to play 'Basketball':

  1. The children place a set of mini-cards face down on the table.
  2. One child takes the first card from the deck and says the word or phrase indicated on the flashcard. They could also ask the others a question, depending on what instructions you give them.
  3. The child now has the chance to try to score a basket. Give them a ball and they try to throw it into the wastepaper basket. If it goes in, they score one point.
  4. Play passes to the next person.

 

Vary what they have to do, before getting the opportunity to score a basket. They can spell a word, write a word, make a sentence, do the action, etc. You can also add in a timer element. How many baskets can their group score in 5 minutes? 

7. Happy families / Go fish!

This game requires 4 sets of mini-cards per group of 4. If you have 3 learners per group, they need 3; if you have 5 learners, they need 5. The objective of the game is to try to form groups of the same card. The player with the most groups (or families) of cards at the end is the winner.

When the children play this game, they get multiple opportunities to use the new language, while practising asking questions.

Good for:

  • Encouraging production of new language.
  • Practising questions and short forms with ‘have’ or ‘have got’.
  • Adapting to all vocabulary.

How to play 'Happy families' or 'Go fish!':

  1. Shuffle the cards and deal all the cards equally among the players.

  2. Children take turns asking each other for cards, i.e., ‘Germán …have you got a guitar’. They can ask anyone in the group, not just the person sitting next to them. If the person asked has the card, they must give it to the ‘asker’. If they don’t have it, they say ‘No, I haven’t’ and play passes to the next person.

  3. The game ends when either your set time limit is up OR when all groups have been formed.

8. Pair it down

This is a simpler version of ‘Go Fish’, which requires less card sets. You only need two mini-card sets per group.

The objective of the game is to win as many pairs as possible in the time given.

Good for:

  • Encouraging production of new language.
  • Practising questions and short forms with ‘have’ or ‘have got’.
  • Adapting to all vocabulary.

How to play 'Pair it down':

  1. Prepare 2 sets of mini-cards per group of 4 children. These could be 2 sets of picture cards OR 1 set of picture cards and one set of matching word cards.
  2. Deal out the cards between the children.The children find any pairs in their hand and place them face up on the floor / table. They hold the remaining cards in their hand so the other children can’t see what they have.
  3. The children take turns asking each other for cards to try and make pairs with the remaining cards in their hand., e.g., ‘Have you got a giraffe?’, ‘Yes, I have. Here you are.’ OR ‘No, I haven’t. It’s your turn.’

 

The game can end at different points:

  • when the first player is out of cards.
  • when your set time limit is up.
  • when all the cards have been paired up.
  1.  

9. Memory pairs / Pelmanism

This popular classic is still a hit with kids today! The children take turns trying to find matching pairs.

Good for:

  • Developing spatial/visual intelligence.
  • Encouraging language production and drilling new language.
  • Aiding recall of vocabulary items.

How to play 'Memory pairs / Pelmanism':

  1. The children mix the cards and lay them out face-down in a grid pattern on the floor / table.
  2. Children take turns turning over two cards. Encourage them to say the word or phrase each time, e.g., ‘It’s a cat.’ / ‘She’s playing football.’ If the two cards are a match, the player wins the pair. If they don’t match, the player turns them over in the same place and the turn passes to the next person.
  3. The game ends when all the cards have been matched up.

 

The traditional way of playing this game is competitive, but I have found that my 5 year olds are just as happy playing this when it is a group effort. In fact, they often want to help each other find the matching pairs.

10. Snap!

snap small group card game for young learners

I used to love playing this game as a kid. It’s fast paced and engaging, and the concept is easy for even the youngest ones to understand. You can easily play it with a language focus too.

Good for:

  • Developing sight reading skills.
  • Practising any vocabulary or structure.
  • Involving all learners.

How to play 'Snap!':

  1. Mix at least 2 sets of mini-cards together and deal them out equally among all the players.
  2. The children hold their cards in a pile, face-down. They take turns taking a card from the top of their pile, and placing it face-up in the centre. It’s a good idea to show the children how to turn over their cards so that they aren’t getting a long hard look at them before the others!
  3. When two consecutive cards are the same, or a match, ANY of the players can say ‘SNAP!’ and place their hand on the centre pile. They ‘win’ the cards and add them to the bottom of their personal pile.
  4. The game ends when one person has won all the cards.

 

You can use this game to practise literacy skills too. They could be ‘snapping’ a word to a picture, a word to a word, or even a word within a lexical set.