tech-free games in the classroom

Tech-Free Games to Excite and Engage Your Students

By Olivia Rocamora, Teacher, The Weber School

In my hallway at school, I am famous, and it’s not because I have it all together. I plead guilty to zipping into my classroom at the last second just as the bell rings, arms full of papers and mouth full of lunch. I probably don’t have those projects graded yet, and you can bet the whiteboard is still covered with last class’ conjugations in my third-grade handwriting. I am always apologizing to the teacher next door for my students, who are often screaming and thumping their way through Spanish, which brings me to my claim to fame: I am the Queen of Teaching with Games. I may have forgotten to make an extra copy of the study guide and update the parent portal yesterday, but today, you can bank on the fact that if you are coming to my class, you will be playing a game, and the competition will be fierce.

Jump ahead to the list of tech-free games!

Why Play So Many Games in the Classroom?

Too often, teachers dismiss the powerful pedagogical tool of games until the very end of a unit when it is time to review for the test, we then hurriedly throw multiple concepts into a computerized, trivia-style game such as Kahoot or Jeopardy, essentially dumping random questions onto already-anxious students. But how much learning is actually taking place in one end-of-unit review game? By treating games as a cherry-on-top activity, they becomes just that: an optional garnish that you could take or leave. We miss their potential to be meat and potatoes.

In foreign language, and in many other disciplines, games hold an incredible power: fun, and necessary repetition. I say “fun repetition” because the right game can replace and even surpass the dreaded worksheet. I say “necessary repetition” because in our race to finish the curriculum, we omit slowing down to practice a concept and, consequently, omit deep and meaningful learning. We must start seeing games as necessary tools for checking understanding and solidifying learning throughout a unit.

More Fun than a Worksheet: The Benefits of Tech-Free Games

Perhaps the greatest gift we can bestow upon our students is just a new, life-giving way to learn. If you teach during the last block of the day, you know that kids walk into your classroom dead on arrival, and who can blame them? They have sat for hours, listening to teachers lecture and taking notes. The idleness of their bodies mirrors the idleness of their minds, and we must challenge them differently by acknowledging and involving their physical bodies and social needs. In my classroom, my students work with each other a lot in “Spanglish,” and they laugh a lot.

Games often require splitting into groups, and groups can foster collaboration and accountabilityMany of my games require every person in a group to be the expert, which in turn makes the stronger students teach the weaker students of the group so they can win against another group. Grouping also allows for different paces of learning. One group may only get to play one round of a game while another group may play two or three times; what’s most important is that all students are practicing for the same amount of time, and no one sits waiting.

I have noticed that with frequent games, students are less obstinate and more willing to do textbook work when I ask them. Because I don’t beat them over the head with book and paper every class, students see traditional practice as relatively painless (and even meaningful!). I often use textbook exercises as our clarification check before we put it into practice in the game.

Barriers to Playing Games in the Classroom

Playing games often requires group work, which means letting go of control. It means a teacher or administrator might walk by and misinterpret the sea of loud students mingling about. Yet risking being misunderstood is so much more rewarding than idle minds and bodies checked out from learning.

Most importantly to us as teachers, many games require lots of time and work on the part of the teacher. I am entering my sixth year of teaching, and I am just now at a point where I have a stockpile of games ready to go, but there have been many times I have spent hours making a game that lasts twenty minutes. It’s important to type, laminate, rubber-band, and organize games you make so you don’t redo them year after year. You might also consider having students help you make games as an after-school assignment.

I can think of many moments sitting in my bed writing on Jenga blocks and taping pictures to decks of cards. Is it worth it? Absolutely. Because every single time, there is a kid who physically jumps in her seat excited to learn – and that makes those extra hours worth it!

Tips for Successful Implementing Classroom Games

1. Strongly tie every part of your classroom games to deep learning.

Games should not be seen as fillers and, sometimes, they are not worth the time spent playing them. Just because I am teaching my students medical vocabulary doesn’t mean I should play Operation; but before I move on, I should challenge myself: can I manipulate the game of Operation to involve more than just pulling objects out of a body and, say, make students speak Spanish using specific grammar/vocabulary I have taught them when they pull the objects out? The answer is almost always yes.

2. Do not play for points.

I have never once played a game for extra points on an assessment. Each year at the beginning of the year when I explain our first game, I have a student ask, “So what do we get if we win?” This is a consumer mentality that I quickly change from the get-go. What students get is meaningful, fun learning, and if you stick to your guns and help students see this, they will buy into learning for learning’s sake, all while avoiding the bloodbath that is one group getting extra points on the test while everyone else doesn’t.

3. Provide Structure, Rules, and Goals that Keep Students on Task and Held Accountable.

How do you know the students in the back corner are using Spanish during Operation and aren’t just getting carried away in childhood nostalgia? You can certainly be walking around, but that’s not enough. Create structure and rules to create accountability when you can’t be there to oversee (i.e.- a student can call out another student for not using Spanish when they removed the butterfly from the stomach, and so they have to put it back).

As you teach your game, ask your students, “What do you think my Teacher Fears are for this game?” They will preempt all of the devious activities they could do: “We’ll throw the ball too hard!” “We will lose the pieces for next class!” “One person will do all the work!” Yes, yes, and yes.  Having them point out what can go wrong gets it out of their system and lets them author the learning.

4. Model to Avoid Meltdown.

Students like to argue with each other, and if you’re in a foreign language classroom, there’s nothing like kids fighting over the rules to drag down that Spanish-speaking environment. Before you pass out a single game card or piece, call up a few volunteers and model the game, demonstrating possible scenarios where confusion might arise. This takes time you may not have accounted for, but without going over expectations, you risk the game flopping or turning into war.

5. Classroom Games are a Privilege, not a Right.

Students know that all of my lessons are interactive, but they also know that if they don’t follow directions and do not meet learning goals during the game, the game will stop and traditional exercises will be assigned, increasing their homework load. Students also know that we build our way to a game, and the foundational building blocks require taking notes and doing exercises first. If students sit back during tutorial time, they don’t get to play the game.

6. Familiarity Breeds Contempt.

Don’t overplay a particular style of game. I never play the same game more than once a month. It will be tempting to play a game again immediately after it is a hit (especially when students beg for it), but it’s important to teach students that our plan does not revolve around their requests. This also makes the game super special when you surprise them with it again a few months later.

7. Consider Tech-Free Games First.

The internet is a very powerful tool for games, but I have found that it interrupts and detracts from collaboration and overall student engagement. A Spanish game, no matter how creative, cannot compete with the temptation to check social media on a different tab. I very rarely have students use devices to play games.

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The List: Tech-Free Games for Your Learners

Now that we’ve reviewed best practices for using games in the classroom, are you ready to incorporate more games into the classroom? Looking to engage your students in a meaningful, fun way?

Check out the list of classroom games below, ranging from Password to Avalanche, for interesting ways to emphasize listening comprehension, vocabulary confidence, and foreign language fluency. While these games have been field tested in the Foreign Language classroom, feel free to modify them for learning English and Science vocabulary, for drama class, or just for fun! They can easily be adopted for a wide range of subjects.

Description Bingo
  • Learning Goal(s): Vocabulary acquisition; listening comprehension
  • How to Play: Increase the difficulty of your standard game of BINGO by moving away from basic English-Spanish translation (i.e., the teacher says “fish” and student looks for “fish” on their BINGO board) and toward challenging listening comprehension of Spanish description (Teacher says “An animal in the ocean that swims; we often eat it.”). Playing BINGO this way taps into the joy of childhood nostalgia for BINGO while also providing a challenging game.
  • Special Considerations:
    • Always have copies of BINGO sheets ready to go in your classroom in case you finish a lesson early and have ten minutes to fill.
    • Giving each student a sticky note to shred into pieces for “tokens” removes the need for buying actual tokens.
    • Always give students a limited word bank from which to draw (use students’ vocabulary lists, or words you project on the board).
    • Keep students accountable! If they call out “BINGO,” make them not only say their words in Spanish, but also their translation into English. You can even make them say a description back to you. You can play single rounds or, play “blackout” by covering the entire board.
    • This is a great game if you put “description in the target language” on your assessments.
Who Am I?
  • Learning Goal(s): Vocabulary acquisition; forming descriptions in target language
  • How to Play: The teacher will walk around the room and put a sticky-note on the forehead of each student. Written on the sticky-note is either a famous person (if your goal is to practice adjectives) or a vocabulary word (i.e., toothbrush, tree, journal). In groups of 3-5, students must guess their identity by asking “yes” or “no” questions.
  • Special Considerations:
    • This game works best when you choose the groups. There is too much potential for distraction/bickering.
    • Tell students they are playing for a particular amount of time (15 min, 20 min, 25 min), and if they guess their identity, they are to raise their hand and get a new one from the teacher.
    • Using standard sheets of mailing labels is better than sticky notes, since they stay on better. I use the label setting in Microsoft Word and even print out my labels.
    • You must provide a word bank. This game can be challenging in one’s native language, so it’s important to provide a finite list of possibilities. My “list” is anywhere from 25-40 words long.
    • Very important: Students can only guess their identity twice before they’re “out.” This is to avoid students not practicing skills and only asking, “Am I X? Am I Y? Am I Z?” The point is for them to independently form descriptions, not for them to read off names on the word bank.
    • I tell students that just because someone in your group has Taylor Swift on their forehead doesn’t mean you don’t have it on yours, too. Don’t let them rule out anything unless they have asked a question.
    • Provide scaffolding by not only modeling a round with students beforehand, but also giving them sentence stems or categories to use if they seem lost. Example for famous people: consider asking about age, physical characteristics, personality.
    • Create a “penalty” if students use “Spanglish,” since they will want to use it every time. My penalty is that they are skipped if they use English. The goal is to focus on what they do know how to say, rather than what they don’t know how to say.
    • The “yes” or “no” questions often result in more than “yes” or “no” responses from the rest of the group. Kids will often say things like, “Well, you used to be this way, but not now.” This kind of answering is not allowed. I tell the kids if it is mostly “yes,” you say “yes.” If it is mostly “no,” you say no.
Password
  • Learning Goal(s): Vocabulary acquisition; word association
  • How to Play: Students work in groups of four. They are to sit across from their partner. They are trying to get their partner to say a vocabulary word by giving only a one-word description. Just like the traditional game of password, the first pair begins, and if they get the word right, they get 10 points. Otherwise, the next pair gets to go, and they not only get to hear a new one-word clue, but they also get to use the previous pair’s clue to figure out the vocabulary word. It’s now worth 9 points. The pairs go back and forth until a pair gets it right.
  • Special Considerations:
    • This is not charades, so students aren’t supposed to physically act things out.
    • This is a really important game to model. One might even show a clip of the Password TV show.
    • A word bank is needed.
Trashketball
  • Learning Goal(s): Vocabulary acquisition; listening comprehension
  • How to Play: Crumble up a few pieces of paper and wad them together into a ball, securing it with masking tape. Use your trash can (a recycling bin is too easy) as a basketball hoop, and put it on a desk at the front of the room. Students are divided in teams, and in the same style as the buzzer game, they take turns representing their team to both answer a question and shoot. This is a game of speed—the first person to answer a question correctly earns the right to shoot. Using masking tape, create different shots that are worth different points based on their difficulty.
  • Special Considerations:
    • Be funny and challenging, making them laugh and repeat funny Spanish. I have the “Little Child Shot” (10 pts.- Close-range shot. They have to say “I’m a little child” before they shoot), the “Wall-Booger Shot” (25 pts.- they stand against the wall, put their finger in their nose, and say in Spanish, “I have a booger!” before shooting), the “Teacher Shot” (50 pts.- they sit in my desk chair, proclaim in Spanish, “I love Ms. Rocamora,” and shoot), and the coveted “Bathroom Shot “(100 pts.- they stand outside of the room, cry out in Spanish that they have to use the potty, and shoot. If they make this shot, they get a picture of their face on my Wall of Fame. If they make this shot, expect roaring and teachers coming by to complain). If they forget to say their required phrase, the shot doesn’t count.
    • This serves as a great end-of-unit review. My kids will ask for this game constantly, especially my athletes, but stick to your guns and do it no more than one time per unit.
Fly-Swatter
  • Learning Goal(s): Vocabulary acquisition; listening comprehension
  • How to Play: Write vocabulary words all over a large white board. Split the class into two teams. One student from each team goes to the board with a fly swatter in their hand. Representing their team with no outside help, the two students face the class with their back to the white board. The teacher gives a clue (either the English translation, a description in the target language, the word’s antonym, etc.) and then says “go!”. The two students are then allowed to turn around and look at the words. The first person to swat the right word wins.
  • Special Considerations:
    • Do not allow students to randomly hit as many words until they get the correct one. You may want to create a rule that they are only allowed to have so many swats.
    • This game works best with dozens of words on the board so it’s challenging to find them.
Verb Relay
  • Learning Goal(s): Verb conjugation accuracy
  • How to Play: Have students sit in small groups either in a circle or in a row (one student behind another). Each group has one piece of paper and one pencil with three blank conjugation charts (I, you, he/she, we, they/you all). When all groups are ready, the teacher writes three infinitives on the board. Student then compete against other groups to conjugate those verbs as fast as they can in a specific tense. Students must pass the paper within their group so all students are participating.
  • Special Considerations:
    • A student is allowed to write one conjugation at a time. If the verb is “bailar,” one student writes “bailo.” The student must then pass the paper to the next student. Writing more than one word leads to a 10 second penalty in which the teacher collects the paper for 10 seconds.
    • No waiting student is allowed to tell the writing student the answer. If a student sees that their group member is writing an incorrect conjugation, they must wait until it is their own turn to erase and correct their group member’s mistake. This counts as that student’s turn, so when they make the correction, they must then pass the paper. Cheating results in a 10 second penalty.
    • After the conjugations are complete, one student from each group brings the paper to the teacher. If there are no errors, the group wins. If there are errors, the teacher says the number of errors they have, and the group collectively must review and discuss their answers and correct the mistakes. The teacher should not tell the group where the mistakes are! The group should review together.
Dicey Conjugation
  • Learning Goal(s): Verb conjugation accuracy
  • How to Play: Project/Draw on the board two columns. In the left column, write 6 verbs in the infinitive and number them #1-6. In the right column, write 6 subject forms (I, Carlos, Carmen and me, they, we, you, etc.) and number them #1-6. In pairs, students roll two dice. One dice is for the left column, and one dice is for the right. If students roll a “2” and a “3,” for example, they will conjugate the second verb in the third form. This game can get old quickly, so see ways to change it up below.
  • Special Considerations:
    • Set up the room like speed dating so partners are sitting across from each other. Continuously switch up partners after playing a few rounds.
    • Set up the room so two students are sitting across from each other, and the rest of the class is behind these two students. The winner gets to stay seated while the loser has to get up and join the back of the line.
    • Continuously change the slides so there are always new verbs.
    • Add a third die and a third column so students practice more than one tense: present/present progressive/preterite/imperfect/future/present perfect. If students don’t know this many tenses, repeat them over so #1-6 reads “1,3,5 Present, 2,4,6 Present Progressive.”
What Are You Doing?
  • Learning Goal(s): Verb conjugation accuracy (present progressive); listening comprehension; improvisation
  • How to Play: This game practices the present progressive. In a circle, a student begins by asking the person to their left, “What are you doing?” The student responds with “I am _____ (activity).” Let’s say the student has said, “I am playing basketball.” The student who originally asked the question must now act out that activity. They will pretend to dribble, shoot etc. for a few seconds before the next person will ask them, “What are you doing?” The person playing basketball must tell what they’re doing, and they can say anything except, “I am playing basketball.” They may say, “I am dancing the Tango.” The “asker” will then dance the tango until asked, “What are you doing?”
  • Special Considerations:
    • Smaller circles work better (no more than 10)
    • Have students do a pre-exercise first, practicing both the present progressive and privately brainstorming different activities in Spanish. This keeps the game flowing, and it makes it less likely for a kid to say, “I don’t know what to do.”
    • Encourage students to be creative and not just list sports, hobbies, etc. Of course, remind them that inappropriate suggestions will result in termination of play.
    • Don’t be afraid to jump in for one yourself!
Story Train
  • Learning Goal(s): Forming sentences in target language; using vocabulary in context
  • How to Play: Students are each given a piece of paper with a sentence written on it. These sentences are story starters and are all different, but the main subject is underlined. Students are required to add onto the story by writing their own sentence below it. The catch is that they are to use the same subject and underline it (to keep the story intact), and they are to use some targeted requirement (the past tense, specific vocabulary, etc.). This requirement can be the same requirement each time they write a sentence, or it can be a new requirement each time. They then fold the original sentence the teacher wrote and pass it to the person next to them so that all the next person can see is the sentence the previous student just wrote. Play for however many rounds you want, and then have students open up their paper-fans and read the stories.
  • Special Considerations:
    • Use a timer to keep the pace going so students feel accountable not to procrastinate.
    • Make sure you make it clear that this activity that encourages creativity, but not inappropriate responses.
Avalanche
  • Learning Goal(s): Translating whole sentences into target language
  • How to Play: Take 20 index cards and divide them into two stacks of 10. For each stack, on one side of the index cards, #1-10.
    • On a white board, tape each stack of cards in its own column so that the numbers are facing up and #10 is at the top while #1 is at the bottom. These cards serve to cover up sentences you write on the board or print and tape to the board. Underneath each card, have sentences written in English that you want students to translate into Spanish. The sentence for card #1 should be easier than the sentence for card #10. IMPORTANT: The sentences should not be identical for both columns of #1-#10, but they should be equal in difficulty.
    • Ex: #1 in one column could say, “I like to eat bananas.” and #1 in the second column could say, “You like to drink milk.” Students are split into two teams, and they are to form one single file line in front of their column on the board. They will only work with their assigned column.
    • When the teacher says go, the first student from each team takes off the #1 card at the bottom of their column, and with a dry erase marker, translates the English sentence into Spanish. While they are writing, their back is to their teammates and they cannot have any help. To tell the teacher they have “locked in” their answer, they turn around.
    • Once they have turned around, it is the teacher’s job to check the sentence. If any single part of the sentence is wrong, the team receives an “avalanche”—a white out—and the teacher erases their whole answer.
    • The next student has to then attempt the translation over. If a student gets the translation correct, their sentence stays on the board—for now. If the next student incorrectly translates sentence #2, both sentences #1 and #2 are wiped out, hence the name “AVALANCHE!”
    • Students will end up rewriting the same sentences over and over, which helps them learn them. Students may work together to translate sentences only when it is not their turn and only if the person at the board can’t hear them.
    • Any cheating, hinting, etc. receives an avalanche. Once a sentence is “uncovered” once, it stays uncovered, so students can think and help each other when it is not their turn.
  • Special Considerations:
    • Be sure to narrate yourself erasing in the applicable language; for me, that’s “AVALANCHE!” but for you, it might be “L’AVALANCHE!”
    • Be careful to make sure sentences are equitable, meaningful to what you’re studying, and progressively challenging as you go up. Know your audience and your students’ abilities.
    • Laminate your numbered index cards so it’s easy to replay this game. Also type and save your sentences so it’s easy to modify and use sentences in subsequent years. Once you have played this game once in a chapter, your only prep should be printing, cutting, and taping.
Behind the Door
  • Learning Goal(s): Vocabulary acquisition; listening comprehension; verb conjugation
  • How to Play: This game requires a Smartboard (or similar). Have multiple slides ready ahead of time that have four doors. These could be square shapes or actual pictures of doors. Students need to be able to walk up to the Smartboard and, with their finger, move a “door” aside to see what’s behind it. Your pre-made slide needs to be variations of the same idea: behind one door is 100 pts, behind a second door 50, behind a third door 0, and behind a fourth door -25. You can also play with pictures of vocab words—a whale could mean 100 pts, a dolphin could be 50, a jellyfish 0, and a shark -25. Create about 20 slides with the point values mixed up each time behind different doors (although I like to keep some consecutive slides the same). Break up the class into two teams, and ask questions of players representing their team. These questions can be vocabulary words, facts about the target language’s country, or simple conversational practice. They cannot get help from their team, so other students should be studying until it’s their turn so they don’t let their team down. The winner of each question, like a Trashketball, gets a chance to score points for their team by choosing a door. They slide open the door to find a point value. This game is fun because they can both win and lose points, so it keeps the game interesting.
  • Special Considerations:
    • Give this game a chance. I don’t know why, but my kids 14-18 years old love it.
Puzzle Pieces
  • Learning Goal(s): Vocabulary acquisition; verb conjugation; verb differentiation
  • How to Play: Take an 8.5 x 11 piece of paper and fold it four times. When you open it up, you should have 16 squares. Use this folded paper as a template for a puzzle. For every creased line, write both above and below it with two words that go together such as “tomato” and “el tomate.” You do not have to be consistent about putting English above and Spanish below or vice versa. Do not write on the line itself. Once you have filled up all creased lines (a total of 24 words/translations), you should have completely blank edges bordering the paper. Don’t stop there! To make this puzzle harder, use the blank edges to have students practice conjugations of a tense by writing “yo/bailar” or verb differentiation such as ser v. estar (“Yo ____ un doctor”). When you fill the edges and the puzzle is complete, first make copies of the puzzle, then laminate them, and then cut them out along the now invisible creases. In groups, have students assemble the puzzle on a desk covered in butcher paper. Then have students “answer” the questions along the edges, writing their answers on the butcher paper. When they finish, they should call the teacher over to have them check their answers.
  • Special Considerations:
    • Print different sets on different colored paper so one puzzle is green while another is blue, etc. This keeps pieces from being mixed up in groups.
    • Photocopying often cuts off the questions on the edges, so make sure you leave some space and not write too close to the border of the puzzle.

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Olivia Rocamora got her B.A. in Spanish and English at Oglethorpe University and her M.A.T. in Secondary English at Agnes Scott College. She is Spanish Department Chair at The Weber School, a Jewish  independent high school in Atlanta, Georgia. Currently in her sixth year of teaching, Olivia has primarily taught in foreign languages (Spanish I-IV), but she has also taught Writing Seminar and 9th and 12th grade English.

She co-led a Spanish immersion program (LITA) in Spain for American high school students from across the country, and this meaningful experience inspired her to begin a traveling program back at Weber. She led a group of students on a trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and she is currently planning a trip to Havana, Cuba for January 2017. In addition to learning and practicing Spanish, Olivia hopes to inspire her students to be open-minded, critical thinkers who learn to empathize with people outside of their own community. In addition to teaching, Olivia loves being a part of book clubs and volunteering for animal rescues. She lives in Tucker, Georgia with her husband Daniel, their dog Comet, and their cats Frankie and Baby.

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