Filling Time, Not Killing Time: 8 Great Games for the Last Minutes of an ESL Class

Filling Time, Not Killing Time
8 Great Games for the Last Minutes of an ESL Class

Graham Dixon
by Graham Dixon 15,543 views |

If I could give one piece of advice to every new teacher, it would be this: Have in your back pocket a few exercises which are very light and fun, which don’t take much time, which work with any level of class, and which practice or review useful material.

When planning a class, we can never tell how long the assigned material will take; it’s one of the classic unknowns of our profession, but it needn’t worry you. Having some ‘fillers’ to hand is a great way to round out the class while still practicing useful language and giving your student a much-deserved treat.

Two words of warning, though: 1) Treats should be earned, not given automatically; 2) Always be careful to ensure that the activity, whatever it is, isn’t simply intended to run down the clock. Instead, focus on a relevant and useful language point, or a skill which needs practice. I’m a firm believer in keeping the students engaged and on-topic right until the bell rings; they will respect you more, and get more out of the class. It also gives the forty or fifty minutes of class time a certain ‘sanctity’, as one of my colleagues put it, dividing this time very clearly from ‘non-class’ time.

Try These Great Games for the Last Minutes of Your ESL Class

  1. I’m going to refer to these exercises as ‘activities’, which have an educational objective, as opposed to ‘games’, which need not. Feel free to be inventive and take into account the opinions of your students, but some basic categories are:

  2. 1

    Memory Games

    Memory Games, which tend to focus on the recall of a string of nouns, the details of a story or an important sequence of events.

  3. 2

    Fluency Games

    Fluency Games, which emphasize spontaneous production of rapid but unprepared speech.

  4. 3

    Mysteries and Guessing Games

    Mysteries and Guessing Games, in the style of ‘Twenty Questions’, which practice question formation and problem-solving abilities.

  5. 4

    Vocabulary Games

    Vocabulary Games, which rely on the students’ vocab knowledge, and the ability to apply what they know to unfamiliar words.

  6. 5

    Word and Dictionary Games

    Word and Dictionary Games, which practice important dictionary skills and introduce fun, new words in a less formal context.

  7. 6


    Quizzes, which can test general knowledge or specific language points in a competitive framework, and can be very different from those used for assessments or exams.

Try One of the Recommended Activities

  1. These are all classic ESL activities which are set up, carried out and finished inside ten minutes. All are ripe for expansion, but work well in a very short variant for those last few moments of your class.

  2. 1

    Twenty Questions

    Twenty Questions never fails; the students ask closed questions, preferably in a variety of forms, to discover the animal, country, famous person (etc) you’re thinking of, but the only possible answers are ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Some variants include ‘maybe’, ‘not exactly’ and the like, to deal with the gray areas which sometimes crop up.

    My favorite variant of Twenty Questions has become known as The Phone Box Mystery. A man is found dead in a phone box, and the students must ask (up to twenty) questions to discover how he died. They normally ask about his injuries, background and hobbies, what he was doing right before he entered the phone box, and so on, but again the answers must be either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The classic ending is to have the students discover that the man was fishing all day, caught a spectacularly large fish and called a friend to boast about it. While animatedly gesticulating in the phone box to describe its enormous size, he accidentally punched through the glass walls and cut his wrists open. It’s a little macabre, I’ll grant you, but it keeps the students guessing!

  3. 2


    Hangman has a place at almost every level. Adapt the classic game to include or exclude different kinds of help, e.g. providing one or two letters at the outset; revealing the Part of Speech or the number of syllables in the word; providing a clue as to the lexical group the word belongs to (tools, illnesses, modes of transport, etc); describing the word’s origin; or letting the students know how recently you taught them the word.

  4. 3

    Just a Minute

    Just a Minute, the fluency game, is a great stand-by. The student must speak, as the classic rules say, “Without hesitation, deviation or repetition” for sixty seconds on a subject of your choosing, or that of the opposing team.

  5. 4

    I Went to Market

    I Went to Market is a memory game composed by the whole class. The first student claims, “I went to market and bought a pair of ice skates”. The second adds their own purchase: “I went to market and bought a pair of ice skates and a pet lizard.” This is a terrific game, not only for memory, but for practicing measure words (a pint of milk, a kilo of rice, a bottle of wine) and articles (a, an, the).

  6. 5

    Kim’s Game

    Kim’s Game is another memory challenge. Arrange a dozen or more everyday objects on your desk and invite the teams to spend only one minute memorizing them. Then, sit the students down and, without their seeing, remove one or two objects, invite them back and ask which are missing. I play a variant which requires the students to name every object they can see, to practice vocabulary.

  7. 6


    ORCHESTRA, as I call it, couldn’t be simpler. I write the word on the board, checking understanding and the number of repeated letters. I then invite the students, in teams of no more than four, to write down all the words they can make from those same letters. For instance, the repeated ‘r’ gives ‘roar’, but ‘stretch’ requires a missing second ‘t’. I tell my students that the record is ninety-nine words, and see if they can beat it. Typically, they find 50-60 words in ten minutes.

    Dictionary Treasure Hunt invites the students to find very specific words in their dictionaries, either individually or in teams, against the clock. Examples of a category would include:

    • A five (or six) syllable word which they can explain to the class
    • A word with more than three (or more) meanings
    • A word from medicine, astronomy, chemistry, etc.
    • A foreign word or expression which has been imported verbatim (Schadenfreude, coup de grace, wigwam, igloo).
    • A word based on a brand name
  8. 7

    Quick Jeopardy

    Quick Jeopardy is a short variant of the TV classic. For the fastest running of this game, I prepare all the questions in advance, make sure they’re easy enough that we’ll get quick answers, and hand over to the next team immediately the previous team has answered.

  9. 8

    Finish My Story

    Finish My Story is a sentence-building game which is best played either by proceeding around a circle, or by throwing a ball or bean-bag to the next person. Begin with a sentence fragment (e.g. “Yesterday I…”) and invite the students to add just one more word each. The sentence may take a curious turn or become hugely long, and is often pretty funny by the end.

Filling time, rather than killing time, provides very useful extra practice and engenders respect for the teacher, as the students become aware that you’re using, and certainly not wasting their time.

I recommend these treats after successful classes, and hope that you find them useful.

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