One of the benefits of working for EF in China is the great materials and technology. Interactive whiteboard (IWB) games, videos, and songs add to the fun of class, while also helping build important skills and providing opportunities to use language. Variety is the spice of life though, and it's a good idea to keep a few “low-tech” ESL classroom activities ready to go. Simpler games are great for intensive classes, but are useful all year round, in case the computer is on the fritz, you need a fun review activity or if the kids are simply too restless and need a more engaging activity than your original plan.
Here are some of the games I keep in my back pocket. They can be done with almost no preparation and adapted to meet a variety of levels and lessons. I like to call these activities KISS games: keeping it simple and silly!
This is a classic favourite that you probably remember from your childhood. I prefer to divide the class in half and have each team race and distribute points. This is a great game to get the kids speaking to work on pronunciation as well as memorising a grammar pattern. Variations are easy, and add even more engagement from the students! I sometimes ask a question and have the “losing” team answer it or make the student at the end “find” the flashcard that was whispered. I also use a similar game where a student answers my question before asking the next student the same question.
You can use two dry-erase boards, paper or even the IWB. Have two students or 2 teams of students stand at the other end of the room. They have to race to copy or write something, making this an excellent spelling or sentence-building exercise. In a very low-level class, this can be as simple as a letter, building up to words and then sentences in higher level classes. Making it a relay race involves more students and can be good for classes that struggle with competitive activities, switching at each letter or word.
Give a topic and students must come up with words related to the topic. If they can't think of a word or repeat, they're “out.” This can even work with younger students by removing the competitive element or allowing repeats of words. The topic can also change to make it appropriate for many levels. You can use simple topics, like animals and colours, phonics topics like a sound or alphabetical order, or more complex topics like adjectives, countries, or even have them make sentences or questions. You can change the topic each time a student is out or when each student has offered a word for the topic.
These are just my favourite games, but it's important to have something ready to go, just in case! Draw upon your own childhood favourites, games in the teacher notes that go well, or ask other teachers for their popular games to create your own stash of low or no prep games. Try to think about what will work best with your teaching style and students. My preferred style, admittedly, leans towards quieter games, but yours may be louder or more physical.
Just make sure you know what your backup is! You'll be more confident if something goes wrong if you have something ready to go. It should be something you're comfortable with, but remember not to use the backup game as a planned game too often—you don't want the students to grow tired of it!