by Chris Elvin


The three activities in this edition of The School House may look very different at first sight, and perhaps my students would endorse that point of view. From a pedagogical perspective, however, they all share enough common features for them to be considered virtually identical.
Although the format of the games may differ, all entail students listening to short descriptions of words, with the object being to understand the description and access the word in English. All the games are played on the chalkboard and require little preparation once you have made your word list or lists.
According to Ur, "Tasks should be success-oriented. This not only improves motivation... but also ensures the effectiveness of the listening practice given. Listening exercises are meant to train, not to test; and the best practice is obtained by having learners do the activity more or less successfully, not by having them fail." (1984, p. 27) I make sure that I am not testing by being on the students' side as much as possible by encouraging their guesses and clarification queries. It may be argued, since there are losers as well as winners, that these games are actually fail-oriented, but by the demeanour of my students when we play, I don't believe that that is likely.
All games require concentrated listening, so I limit Blockbusters and Attack 25! to about twenty minutes playing time, and Hangman to no more than five minutes.


Blockbusters was first introduced as a quiz game show in Britain over twenty years ago, and has been a favorite among my students for several years. You may be familiar with it as a classroom activity, as it appeared in a recent edition of The Language Teacher (Cribb, 1991).
Although the original game uses a five by four grid, I use five by five because it is fairer and allows for greater coverage of vocabulary.

How to play

Draw the grid on the chalkboard (as shown on page 14). I have found that the best way to do this quickly is to draw the five columns of horizontal lines first, and then the vertical zigzags. Then write a different letter of the alphabet in each hexagon.
Divide your class into two teams and nominate a student to choose a letter. From a previously prepared word list, choose a word whose first letter matches the student's choice, and explain this word to your class. The first team to guess the word correctly claims the hexagon and chooses to continue either vertically or horizontally. (I mark the hexagon with a squiggle of colored chalk corresponding to the team's color). One team must go horizontally and the other team must go vertically. To win the game, a team must connect all the way from top to bottom, or from side to side. The ensuing conflict as teams vie for a winning route is what makes the game so fun and exciting.
One good alphabetically sorted general word list such as The General Service List (West, 1953) may be all you will need, but I prefer to use customized lists; textbook words from present and previous years, words that students have written and passed to me, incidental words that have come up during class, and topical or useful words that I think may be fun to use.
If an an end-of-term test is drawing near, I use the present textbook words, because this is most useful for review. This list also includes a reference to the unit from which the word was taken, as occasionally I may ask students to scan their textbooks for the answer. This is good reading practice, it helps students remember and relate to the word, and it helps me get a feel of where we might need to do more review.
At other times, I may use one of the other lists such as the topical words, or the word list made by the students.


In the introduction to Five Minute Activities (Ur & Wright, 1992), the authors state that they left out activities such as Hangman from their suggestions because they believed that having the class spending several minutes over the spelling of a single word had little learning value. If I remember rightly, it was at the 1997 JALT Conference in Hamamatsu that Penny Ur demonstrated its pointlessness. Before the game, most teachers were still reading the conference brochure. During the game, we duly lifted our heads up, bleated out loudly letters such as "x" and "z" before burying our heads in the brochure again, once the activity had finished. She was clearly right, but at least she demonstrated how great an attention grabber Hangman is!
I include it as one of my suggestions because it doesn't necessarily have to be a bad activity. If the focus is on listening comprehension, rather than the spelling vagaries of decontextualized words, as it usually is, it can be both fun and worthwhile. In order to keep students' motivation high, I find that it helps if the word or phrase is carefully chosen, perhaps topical, and will challenge students.

How to play

I draw the dashes on the chalkboard and start talking about the word or phrase. Often students become so preoccupied with listening to these hints that they forget to ask for a letter, and I have to remind them to do so! The dashes on the blackboard end up being merely a focal point for their listening concentration.
If you find that your students call out indiscriminately, as we did at the teachers' conference, and do not want to listen to your explanations, nor change over time, then perhaps it is not a useful activity. For me, with five minutes at the end of a lesson, but no more, Hangman is a good option.

Attack 25!

Attack 25! is a popular Japanese TV quiz game show that is based on Othello and is broadcast on Asahi TV on Sundays at 1:25 pm.
One difference between Attack 25! and Blockbusters is that there is no first letter hint in this game, so it could be perceived as more difficult. Another difference is that students may already know the rules, which can save time explaining. I sometimes use the word lists from Blockbusters for this game, but usually I use the topic list generated by the students. If one of these topics is about Japanese culture, then the game is not useful for vocabulary review, but it is still very good for listening practice. Occasionally, I may have to do a little homework to become familiar with my students' choices, but I think they appreciate this effort. I believe that the positive spirit this sharing of worlds engenders when we play the game with students' topic words more than compensates for its lack of utility as a vocabulary review. Attack 25! works well if words are pooled together from various grades and classes, and if the time between students writing their suggestions and playing the game is long enough for at least some students to forget their words.

How to play

It's the same as Othello. In the TV game, four people compete to win as much territory on the board as possible, by being the first to press a buzzer and answer the question correctly. In class, it is the first student to raise her hand and name the subject of description who can claim a square for her team. I play between three groups, because this is how the students' desks are arranged, and because it works just as well as a four-team game.
I draw the grid on the chalkboard and use colored chalk corresponding to team colors to mark each team's squares. If you have colored magnetic markers, they are better, as territory often changes hands during the game, and it's quicker to move markers than to erase and juggle colored chalk sticks.
There is one important difference between Attack 25! and Othello. When the game is reaching its climax, the quizmaster announces, "Attack chance!" This means that the person who answers the next question correctly can choose to make any square already won live again. The person who answers the following question correctly can claim that square. Games are often won and lost at this point, so good timing by the quizmaster is the key to making it fun and stimulating to the very end.


One way to evaluate these activities may be to hand out slips of paper to students for them to record their responses, but that would be a test! Students are not required to produce anything individually during these games, so it may be argued that some will just sit back and do nothing. I can't say for sure whether this is partly true or not, but at least everyone looks as if they are listening very intently. The games are certainly popular, which is not enough, I know, but as long as I make sure that I provide challenging yet accessible language, these activities should continue to be winners.


Ur, P. (1984). Teaching Listening Comprehension. (p. 27) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Ur, P. & Wright, A. (1992). Five-minute Activities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Cribb, M. (2001). Blockbusters. The Language Teacher. 25:6. (p. 52)
West, M. (1953). A General Service List of English Words. London: Longman, Green & Co.

Chris Elvin has a Master's degree in TESOL from Temple University, Japan. He is the author of Now You're Talking, published by EFL Press, and the owner and manager of EFL Club, a children's language learning website. He can be reached at celvin@gol.com .

Return to http://www.eflclub.com/elvin.html .