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What are circle games? (And why they’re great for ELT)

What are circle games? (And why they’re great for ELT)

A group of students sitting in a circle, engaged in a whole class activity. It’s an image that easily comes to mind when thinking of a classroom situation. Circle games work well as warmers (to centre focus), icebreakers (at the start of semester), or as a counter-point to pair and small group work (any time). They give ample opportunities for vocabulary and speaking practice and are particularly excellent for young learners—although teens and good-natured adult learners will also get value from them. Don’t have a go-to list of circle games? Here are some of our favorites…

Circle games for the English language classroom

1. Change places if…

Yes, this—also known as “Have you ever…?”—is definitely a classic ELT game! To play, make a circle of chairs with one chair less, leaving one classmate to stand in the middle. That student says “Change places if__________ (e.g. you ate toast for breakfast today)”. Then, all the students who did must get up and change chairs. Whoever is left without a chair provides the next instruction. This activity can provide practice for describing people, talking about preferences, as well as the present, past, and present perfect tenses, e.g.:

“Change places if…”

  • …you are tall.

  • …you don’t like anchovies.

  • …you live close to school.

  • …you went to the beach last vacation.

  • …you have eaten kangaroo.

2. Shopping list

This is a much-loved memory game. To play, the first student in the circle begins: “I went to the shops and I bought a bag of flour.” The next student must add their own idea to the list: “I went to the shops and I bought a bag of flour and a kilogram of walnuts.” As play continues and students start forgetting the list, you may choose to have them sit “out” to arrive at an ultimate winner.

Variation: Students are only allowed to choose items that start with the first letter of their name. “We went the shops, and Tim bought a tart, Emily bought an elephant…”

3. Past simple memory

The same memory structure can be used to practice the past simple in an activity that is especially relevant after a long weekend or end of semester break: “On the long weekend, I went to the beach, cooked lasagne, swam in a lake, learned to play the piano…” Students must add to the list plus remember all the items that came before.

4. That’s the rule!

One student briefly leaves the room. While they’re away, the class decides on a “rule”, such as ‘cough every time someone says “ummm,”’ or ‘clasp your hands in your lap when answering a question’. The student comes back inside and begins asking their classmates questions. As they do, they watch the students’ behavior and try to discover the rule that was decided upon.

5. Tangled hands

Standing in a circle, students out and each take hold of two different hands, therefore creating a tangle. Then, they work together to untangle themselves. Can they do it without letting go?

6. Balloon up!

The idea is that the class must keep a balloon up in the air at all times. Increase challenge and interest by creating limitations: they can only use their noses (or elbows, shoulders, thumbs…).

Tip: This game works better with a smaller class size. If yours is on the larger side, have them play seated or on their knees.

7. Wink murder

While one student—the “detective”—is outside, the others decide on a “murderer” who will kill by winking. When the detective  comes back inside the murderer begins silently winking at their classmates. When winked at, the students are allowed to die as spectacularly or quietly as they like. The detective watches and guesses who the murderer is.

8. Conditional practice

The teacher provides the first sentence in the conditional structure currently in revision. For example “If I was Japanese, I would eat Japanese food every day.” The first student in the circle continues, taking the end of your sentence to complete the conditional. “If I ate Japanese food every day, I would be very happy.”

  • “If I was very happy, I would dance and sing”

  • “If I danced and sang, I’d perform in a musical”

  • “If I performed in a musical, I’d live in New York”

  • “If I lived in New York, I’d eat hotdogs every day”

After a time, remind students how this crazy story began (in this case, “If I was Japanese, I’d eat hotdogs every day,”). The end points can be extremely amusing!

9. Vocabulary practice

Assign a vocabulary term from your current lexical set to each student in the circle. Now, to the a basic, chantable rhythm, the students call and respond to each other using their “name” followed by the name of another student. Practice the beat for a while as a whole class, then begin. The idea is not to lose the beat.

E.g. (lexical set: pets)

Student 1 (Puppy): “Right-o, let’s go, Puppy-Goldfish.

Student 2 (Goldfish): Goldfish-Mouse.

Student 3 (Mouse): Mouse-Parrot…

A student is “out” when they lose the rhythm, can’t remember another student’s “name” or call out to someone who is already out. Make the game harder by preventing students from calling back to the person who first called them, and by picking up the tempo as play progresses.

The potential for circle games is huge—it just takes imagination. As with any other activity, clear instructions and set up make for a smooth game, and the counter point to pair and group work is so valuable. Good luck adding them to your class!

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