Games to try with technical English learners

This post accompanies a workshop I did as part of the IATET Technical English programme in the Pre-Conference Seminar of the 4th International ESP Conference, 4th & 5th October 2013 in Ulm, Germany.

Here are five good reasons for using games with technical English learners:

Five good reasons to use games in technical English courses:

1. They can help learners to actively recycle and consolidate vocabulary they have learned

2. They can give learners the chance to practise communicating under pressure.

3. They allow learners to experience language in a new way.

4. They can inject new energy into the lesson and change the pace.

5. They can give learners the opportunity to solve problems and puzzles.

This is the game we played at the start of the session:

What have we changed?

– At least one of the learners leave the room.

– The remaining learners make 5 changes to the room where the lesson is taking place, e.g. moving a plant, opening a window, writing something on the flipchart or whiteboard.

– When the learner or learners return they have to find out what changes the others have made through their observational skills and also by asking questions using either past simple or present perfect question forms, e.g. Have you opened the window? Was that word on the board before I left the room?

– The other learners answer these questions, also using the correct verb form, until all the changes have been found.


Here are some other games you can try:

1. Active vocabulary consolidation

a. Matching words with pictures

– Take some pictures and some words and ask learners to match them

matching words & pictures

b. Making connections between words

– Take some vocabulary items you´ve been working with or ask each learner in the group to suggest one word, put all the words up on the board/ flipchart and ask learners to suggest possible links between them. They can suggest any links they like as long as they can give a good explanation for why the words are connected. The aim is to make as many connections as possible. You could also ask learners to draw pictures representing a word next to the word itself as a memory aid and encourage them to be as creative as possible. One of my learners, for example, once drew a picture of a mountain with a letter A on its peak to represent the word ________?

c. Taboo/ back to the board game

– Often taking games you might play in other contexts, e.g. at a party, and using them in the technical English classroom can be effective. Taboo, therefore, often seems to be a popular option. You can give learners cards with target vocabulary on and ask them to describe to the rest of the group without using the word on the card or any other forms of it (e.g. the noun, verb, adjective or adverb forms). The rest of the group has to guess as quickly as possible what the word is. Alternatively, one learner sits with his back to the board or flipchart, another learner writes a word there and the rest of the group has to explain and describe the meaning of the word so that the person sitting in front of the flipchart or board can guess it.

2. Communication under pressure

a. Just a minute

Learners tend to enjoy the game “just a minute” where the aim is to talk about a given topic for one minute without hesitating, going off-topic or repeating yourself. If other members of the group notice that the speaker is doing any of these things, they´re allowed to “buzz in” and point it out, at which time the speaker has to stop talking and the person who “buzzed in” can take over and talk about the same topic for the remainder of the minute. Whoever is talking when the minute is over gets the point(s) for that word. It´s easy to adapt this game for technical English learners by using technical English words/ concepts. Any good examples of words/ concepts you could use here?

b. Call my bluff

The basic principle of call my bluff is finding which of three definitions for something you´ve never heard of is true, the other being made-up or “bluffs.” You are, therefore, under pressure to successfully and convincingly present something which is not true as fact. For the technical English classroom, you could take little-known technical words, give learners the actual definition of it and then ask them to create two other possible explanations for the terms. The other team/ other learner then has to figure out which definition is the actual definition and which two are bluffs.

call my bluff

Tech Talk Intermediate, Vicki Hollett (OUP)    

3. Experiencing language in a new way

One of the advantages of games is that they can also give learners a break from text-based resources and allow them to interact with other learning stimuli.

a. What is it?

safety profiles

Get your hands on a “thing” whose function is not immediately obvious, e.g. these anti-pinch sensors used as safety features in the automotive industry, and ask the learners to ask you or another learner, who knows what the “thing” is, questions to try to find out what it is. Alternatively, you could blindfold a learner and give him/her something to hold which are they are familiar with. Again, they have to ask the rest of the group questions to find out what it is as well as relying on their sense of touch.

4. New energy

Learning technical English is not always easy! Injecting some more energy into the class certainly isn´t a bad thing and getting the learners up out of their seats and moving around can be great. One way you could do this is with the technical English mimes game. Learners are given/ can choose an activity and have to mime it. The learners first have to understand what the activity involves and then find a way of presenting it so that the concept will be clear to the rest of the group, who, in turn, have to activate their passive vocabulary in order to find the right words to describe the activity. A language point here would also be the present continuous and using it to describe activities as they are happening.

Choose one of the activities below and mime it until your partner guesses it

– A pipe is leaking

– The knife is blunt

– The bulb has blown

– The remote control´s batteries are dead

– You are tightening some screws

– You are driving a fork lift truck

– You are drilling a hole

5. Lateral thinking

If you´re taking part in a technical English course, there´s a very high chance that you´re working in a technical field or, at least, you´d like to when you finish your studies. People in technical fields tend to enjoy logic puzzles and lateral thinking and that´s why this game tends to work quite well. Give them a situation and ask them to consider what the possible explanation for this seemingly impossible situation could be. When I´ve used this game with learners, they´ve also been keen to create their own lateral thinking puzzles and I´ve been happy for them to do that as a follow-up activity.

Here is a list of possible situations you could use which I´ve taken from the OneStopEnglish website: You´ll notice that they´ve put in the activities for teenagers section of OneStopEnglish, but they also work well with adults. 

1 Comment

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One response to “Games to try with technical English learners

  1. These are such good games! My favorite game is taboo. I’m currently teaching business writing to a medical staff. And I’m planning on using your suggestions in my next classes. Thanks for the tips!

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