Document 498

Language Games and Activities

Author(s): James McGonigal, Andrew Philp

Copyright holder(s): University of Glasgow: re-use of Crown Copyright material


We know that young human beings learn and practise much of their early language through the co-operation and friendly competition of play. We can also recognise that ‘playing with words’ in tongue-twisters, puns, jokes, rhymes, crosswords and word-searches remains an enjoyable part of social life through childhood into adulthood. Why then should learning about the grammatical patterns of language be so often equated with boredom and repetition?

Here is a selection of language games which provide valid and entertaining contexts in which pupils can experience the way words work in phrases and sentences, and through which teachers can introduce and reinforce the grammatical rules (and their terminology) which underpin all of our language.

We start with letter games and move gradually to more complex structures. Many of the games are derived from current classroom practice, others from publications listed in the bibliography which provide a rich source of activities, with helpful details on organisation and in some cases photocopiable sheets. Since games, like jokes, can easily cross boundaries of age and background, it is difficult to assign ownership to them: readers may know or already use them under a different name or with a variation in the rules.

Letters into words

a Word structures

‘Tops and Tails’
The teacher chooses a category of nouns e.g. towns and cities. The first town must begin with A (e.g. Aberdeen), the next town with the last letter of the previous town (e.g. Nairn) and so on (Montrose, Edinburgh, Hamilton, etc). Players can lose up to three lives. This game can be played using glossaries and indexes to develop skimming and scanning skills.

‘Scrabbling Around’
Scrabble-type letters are put in a bag, and one member of the class chooses nine letters. The class is then given 30 seconds to make a word, using as many of the letters as possible, and scoring 9 marks for 9 letters used, 8 for 8 and so on.

This practises the division of words into syllables. Pupils construct pyramids with one syllable words at the top, two syllables in the level below, three syllables next, and so on. Credit can be given for the tallest pyramids within set categories: Animals - cat, puma, elephant, rhinoceros etc. Pyramids can then be decorated and displayed.

‘Prefix Trees’
For older pupils, prefix and stem are established. The class, in pairs, are given a prefix by the teacher (e.g. con, trans, non, anti, mono etc.)

First the pairs have to establish the meaning of their prefix, then make a list of as many words as they can think of, or find, beginning with it.

b Words as parts of speech

‘Name Search’
Children are asked to write down the names of all the people and pets in their home. Then they are asked to say whose name is longest and whose shortest. This can lead on to discussion of proper nouns, diminutives and nicknames, most frequent initial letters, and structure of words into parts, e.g. And/rew, And/y

Children are asked to think of another name for themselves that they would like to be called, write it down and draw a picture of themselves with a new name. New names can then be surveyed for class favourites, reasons for choices discussed, and most frequent initial letters and number of syllables determined.

‘The Naming Game’
After teaching the function of nouns as naming words, the teacher selects a topic, such as fruit or transport, defines a letter and sets a time limit. Pupils list as many as possible examples of nouns they can think of within these parameters.

Variations of this game include listing as many names for animals or flowers or whatever, within a time limit, then selecting the best for making an illustrated booklet in alphabetical order.

‘Describing Cartoon Characters’ (Adjectives)
Pupils are given pictures of cartoon characters to cut out, or they can draw their own favourites. The children in teams of three should then, within a set time, write a descriptive sentence about as many of the characters as they can, using at least one adjective (‘describing word’) in each sentence: ‘Tom is a big black-and-white cat and Jerry is a little grey mouse’; or ‘The Road Runner is too smart for the Coyote’. (They should use the adjectives in Predicates as in the examples, rather than as Modifiers, without any need for discussion of Subject and Predicate).

Teams gain one point for each adjective used appropriately and one for each correctly identified by underlining. They also may be awarded an extra point if the character's name and adjective begin with the same letter, or if they rhyme: ‘The Pink Panther is pink and polite’; ‘Bugs Bunny is really funny’. The sentences, written on strips of paper, can then be attached below the pictures as captions, and class and teacher can then compare and discuss the sentences and how the adjectives are used in them. If any pupils suggest another appropriate adjective for another team’s sentence they can gain an extra point, provided they have not used it in their own sentences.

‘Dashing Dad’
Children can focus on the function of verbs as doing words by making simple sentences about members of their family or their friends or pets, using verbs with the same initial letter, for example: ‘Dad dashes’, ‘Mum mutters’, ‘Gabrielle grumbles’, ‘Andy asks what the time is’, ‘Rover runs away and hides’. The fact that the second words are all ‘doing words’ can be discussed with the class. They can then make drawings of their characters in action, or the sentences can be laid out as a poem with a title: here perhaps ‘Our Family’s Late for Work Again!’

‘What do you do with -?’ (Verbs)
This is another game which focuses on the nature of verbs as doing words. It can be played in teams of four and is modelled on the television quiz show ‘Family Fortunes’. The teacher selects various materials or objects which can be used in various ways, such as water, snow, sand, a ball, a stick, a piece of string, etc. ‘With snow we can make and throw snowballs, build a snowman, or make a slide; we can ski or sledge on it, or even shovel it away from our paths!’

The teacher has earlier asked two other classes to write down their favourite answers for each subject/material, and built up a list of four suggestions in order of preference. In the game a team gives answers in turn for an object/material, trying to suggest the four most popular answers. If they have three ‘wrong’ answers, the other team can ‘steal’ the game by giving a correct answer from the captain after discussing it with the team. Teams score points according to the order of their answers (four for top answer of the four, and so on) and a team who ‘steals’ successfully gains the other team’s points. They then go on to another game, with another subject/material.

Apart from the attraction of playing a version of the television game, pupils will gain from having to use various verbs appropriately, and at the end of each game the teacher can focus on the specific verbs used, and later create a wordbank of the names of the object/materials and the words or phrases describing how they can be used, identifying the verbs used.

‘Adverb Charades’
After the function of this part of speech has been introduced, pupils select one secret adverb. A volunteer comes to the front of the class, who then choose actions to be done in that manner, until the adverb is guessed.

'Where is my…? (Prepositions)
The children in pairs should imagine that one of them has lost their schoolbag or lunch box and should together write down all the places, in the classroom or elsewhere, that they would look. They should write these down in a list and the winning pair is the one with the largest number of places: ‘In the cupboard; under the bed; on the train; inside the desk’ etc.

Teachers could also provide further practice in the use of prepositions by displaying a large drawing of the classroom or a room in a house and requiring one partner in each pair to place a cut-out of an object on to the drawing in a particular spot and the other partner to attach one set of preposition stickers beside the appropriate object.

'Linking Bingo' (Prepositions and Conjunctions)
This is developed with pre-printed cards of sentences, with missing spaces for those parts of speech which link parts of sentences. The teacher calls out prepositions or conjunctions, and pupils have to fill in those which fit their sentences. Winners have to call out all their completed sentences on the card for checking.

Words into phrases (noun and verb phrases)

a Noun Phrases

'What Did You Get? (The Yum Yum Game)'
Children are presented with three sentences with gaps to be filled with nouns or noun phrases:
For my Christmas dinner last year I got....
For my dinner today I am probably having....
When we go to McDonald' s next time I would like to get....

Answers are collected and then categorised: into those with adjectives or numbers before the noun (‘two tasty cheeseburgers’); those with several nouns in a list (‘sausage, egg and chips’); and those with phrases added after the noun (‘a strawberry icecream with chocolate sauce’).

This activity can easily be varied by focusing on names for toys or clothes or….

‘Getting It Wrong’
One enjoyable way of focusing older pupils’ attention upon the structure of noun phrases is to collect examples of ‘howlers’ where the structure has gone wrong. The following show difficulties relating to headwords, modifiers and qualifiers respectively.

Notice is given that, after this date, owners of any fowls on land tenanted by Mr Roger Manning of Hill Farm will be destroyed.
Any owner whose dog shows signs of illness should be chained up securely.
Our motto is to give our customers the lowest prices and quality.

For sale – an absolutely perfect gent’s cycle.
Lost – almost all white cat.
A well-rounded ladies programme is now being arranged.

Wanted – man to take care of cow that doesn't smoke or drink.
Wanted – up-to-date gas cooker suitable for single girl with enamelled sides.
Smith stated in his complaint that the defendant owned a large dog that walked the floor most of the night, held noisy parties and played a radio so loud that sleep was impossible.

b Verb Phrases - and More Noun Phrases!

‘Elastic Sentences’
For younger pupils, this is a grammatical development of the sort of alphabetical word game known in Scotland as The Minister's Cat:

The Minister's cat is an able cat. The Minister's cat is a black-faced cat. The Minister's cat is a cute cat. And so on.

In the Elastic Sentence game, however, all the elements of clause structure are involved, the children taking turns at making extensions to these basic elements; and thus developing their command of noun phrase and verb phrase structure, within a clause pattern.
My cat eats beans
My old cat is eating baked beans
My very old cat has been eating mouldy baked beans

At each turn the teacher indicates which element is to be altered and any pupil can challenge a ‘bad’ sentence, such as ‘My cat didn't eating beans’, in this case demonstrating awareness of the structure of verb phrases.

‘Time Frames’ (Tense in Verb Phrases)
The teacher introduces a picture of a scene such as that of a girl with her friends going to a cinema, accompanied by a sentence such as ‘Lorraine went to the pictures with her friends’. She then specifies a time or condition, and teams have to complete the sentences appropriately:
Next Saturday…Lorraine will go to the pictures with her friends.
Last week…Lorraine went to the pictures with her friends.
Every Saturday…Lorraine [goes/would go] to the pictures with her friends.

This activity and the following one (both obviously intended for older pupils than those aimed at in the previous work on verbs and verb phrases) take pupils into the subtler distinctions within English tenses, which are dependent upon the context created by the whole sentence, and also use much more of the resources of verb phrase patterning.

‘All Our Yesterdays (and Some of Our Tomorrows)’
Children are shown how to make a timeline of their own lives. A railway track with ‘stations’ for important events or changes (such as moving house, or the birth of a brother or sister) can be a good device, since it also allows for ‘junctions’ to be indicated where something might have happened (‘We nearly moved to Hamilton’). They should also project the line into a possible future: e.g. ‘Age 27, I land on Mars’.

This time line can then become the context for work with tense and also conditionals in verb phrases, when pupils are asked to complete (by reference to their own or their partner’s chart) such sentences as: ‘When I was 5, I…’, ‘By the age of 7, I was/had already…’, ‘When I am 18, I will/might be…’, ‘Next year, I will…’ .

Phrases into clauses (clause patterns)

The game ‘Dashing Dad’ above, where pupils make simple Subject/Predicate patterns like ‘Dad dashes’, can lead older pupils to work on how statement sentences are structured, as in the next two games.

‘You'll have to make a statement’
Players make up grammatical and meaningful statements, with one providing a Subject (dealt from a pack of ‘safe’ subjects prepared on cards beforehand) and the player on his or her right, within 10 seconds, providing a valid Predicate to make a grammatical sentence.

‘Topic Whist/Rummy’
These are card games based on sentences from a novel or topic, cut into cards for Subject and Predicates, with the pupils playing Rummy-type or Whist-type card games to create meaningful grammatical sentences. In Rummy-type, pupils exchange cards on each turn and try to build up as many grammatical sentences as they can. The person with fewest sentences on each round is out. In Whist-type, one player plays a Subject and another tries to take a trick with a Predicate, or vice versa.

‘Silly and Sensible Sentences’
This card game provides a lively alternative to the above Subject/Predicate games. The players is dealt a number of cards containing Subjects and Predicates, not distinguished by colour etc. In turns, the players set down a sentence (statement) made up from their cards. They gain two points for a ‘silly’ but grammatical statement, such as ‘My granny’s ginger cat plays football every Saturday’. They gain one point for a sensible and grammatical, but not necessarily true, sentence; but no points for an ungrammatical sentence, containing two subjects or two predicates. The winner of the game is the player with most points. The sentences agreed to be the funniest by the whole class could be displayed as a list of ‘Our Nonsensical Sentences’.

‘Cheating Bingo’
Individual pupils are supplied with Bingo cards with words arranged to make up a sentence, and a space below each word. The teacher has a list of all the words in the sentence, and some alternatives which would fit into the pattern of that sentence. After the first three calls, the players may ‘cheat’ by substituting any of the other logical or grammatical alternative words called out by the teacher, writing them in the spaces below the sentence printed on the card. Each ‘cheat’ word, however, must match the grammatical function of the word it could replace:
I like to go swimming
watch television
every Saturday with my friends
night at house

‘Crazy Sentences’
This is simply a set of pages, each with a similarly structured sentence written out vertically on each page:

My little old granny
liked to knit
long woollen scarves
with great care.

The savage Doberman
two other dogs

The unshaven rock star
a spangled guitar
on the stage.

These sentences, and others of a similar pattern, are overlapped and stapled down one margin, and then cut horizontally between each element of structure. These can then be flicked back to reveal such surrealistic sentences as:

My little old granny played a spangled guitar ferociously.

Other possible sentences which do not work quite so well can still be discussed as to their validity, even within a whimsical world:

The savage Doberman played long woollen scarves with great care??

A variation of the above. Here the sentence elements are printed out on hexagonal blocks made of folded and sellotaped card, one element to each block. Adverbial elements are added to noun and verb phrases, each hexagonal block containing six permutations of the same element, such as:

Yesterday I met a fierce dog

On the table my dad set knives and forks

Tomorrow the P7 class will meet Prince Charles

Last night we bought pudding suppers

Sadly the family considered their options

Time after time the team lost away games

The hexagonal blocks can then be rolled, and the resultant sentences scrutinised for acceptable variations. Adjuncts such as yesterday or on the table can vary their position as the opening or final elements of sentences (The P7 class will meet Prince Charles tomorrow/Tomorrow the P7 class will meet Prince Charles) but tenses are not always so easily interchangeable:

Yesterday my dad will meet a fierce dog??

Points can be awarded for sentences that make normal grammatical sense, or that make possible sense, or that are funny.

Clauses into sentences

'Why don't you join us?'
This game can be played in groups or circles. There are two sets of cards: simple sentence cards (independent clauses) which are capable of extension, such as
I enjoy going to the pictures…
and conjunction cards which enable that extension to be made, such as
(I like playing on my bike as well/ I hate watching the adverts/we don’t go very often etc.).
or if…
(I have enough money for sweets/there is a really exciting film on/my best pal comes with me etc.).

One sentence card is turned over, and one conjunction card, and everyone has to use that conjunction to make the simple sentence into a compound or complex one. The person with the most interesting or amusing sentence in each round gets to change the cards for the next one.

‘Wobbly Sentences’
From a simple opening in a word or phrase such as ‘The wolf...’, each player has to add a word, phrase or clause, balancing one on top of the other, as it were, until the increasingly complex and wobbly sentence topples over:
The big bad wolf/ with the wicked face/ crept up to the farm/ where the farmer lay snoring/ because it wanted to steal/ a plump chicken/ for its hungry cubs /which were waiting in the den ... etc.

‘The Everlasting Ghost Sentence’
A variant of the last game. The teacher or first player starts off a sentence. Players at each turn extend it by adding a grammatical element:
Yesterday I went to the shops/ to buy some rolls/ because my mum had some visitors/ who were coming to the house/ for a party/ to celebrate her 40th birthday / which I think makes her quite old/so why should people want to celebrate/if ...

Every player who cannot extend the sentence, or who is challenged and cannot complete a satisfactory sentence, or who challenges wrongly, receives the penalty of being ‘one fifth of a ghost’. Thus the game proceeds as the players try to avoid completing the sentence. The winner is the one who remains when the others have become full ghosts.

‘Sentence Dominoes’
Four players are each dealt ten Word or Punctuation cards. The first player lays down a word to start off a sentence. The others take it in turns to add a word or punctuation mark. If they cannot lay a card down that continues a possible sentence, or if they put one down that they cannot justify grammatically, or if they challenge another player incorrectly about such a sentence, then they have to pick up an extra card from the remaining pack. The player who disposes of all her cards first is the winner. On the basis of partially completed sentences and the cards left over, pupils can then predict possible endings to the sentences which are left on the board.

‘Concertina Sentences’
Three oddly random nouns and verbs are selected (e.g. hair, shouted, envelope) and the players have alternately to squeeze these three into the shortest possible sensible sentence they can invent, and then stretch them into the longest possible sentence, like a concertina.

Sentences into paragraphs

One of the most familiar types of activity within this area is where the pupils are given a set of cut-up sentences from a paragraph on a process which they have been studying (say, the water cycle or the life-cycle of bees). The pupils in pairs have to put the sentences in order so as to re-create the original paragraph. To achieve this, they have to draw upon their knowledge of the process being described, as well as their awareness of various cohesive items which serve to link the sentences, particularly linking words or phrases related to time, such as: first, three days later, finally, etc.

Sequencing can, of course, also be used in relation to short accounts or narratives, but the creation of relevant paragraphs within a larger narrative can also be developed through activities such as the following.

‘Where am I? What am I doing here?’
Pupils in pairs are given a picture of a scene with human figures in it, cut out from a magazine or newspaper. They are given a few minutes to study and discuss the picture, and think about the occupation or purpose of the person(s) portrayed there. Then one individual has to give a series of three or four sentences about the setting, and the other give three or four sentences about the person. (These will form the opening two paragraphs of their story.)

The class then gives suggestions about what might happen next, and the authors integrate one or more of these suggestions into their (paragraphed) story.

‘Scrambled Recipes’
Using longer texts, pupils can explore how punctuation works to keep sentence boundaries meaningful when Adverbials vary as the first or last elements in sentences. They have to imagine that talkative Mrs Gittipin has tried to note down a recipe from the radio at the same time as chatting to her friend on the phone. Players now have to unscramble the recipe that emerged for Scrambled Eggs:
Take three eggs with a handle. Take a pan and warm in the oven until soft. A quarter pound of butter throw away. Any eggs that are not fresh you should use. Salt and pepper - add a cupful. Of milk use your creamiest blend and beat all the ingredients together. Serve. Piping hot guests will enjoy this dish any time.

The activity of re-working a paragraph such as this will involve pupils not only in re- arranging punctuation, but also re-ordering phrases within sentences, and thus developing their awareness of noun phrase patterns, as well as the patterns of simple-sentence structure.

Paragraphs into Genres

‘Sudden Death Jigsaw’
A game for two small groups of three or four. The teacher selects and photocopies six different short texts, if possible on a common theme: for instance, a weather report, a poem on weather, an entry from an information text on weather, an advertisement for all-weather clothing, a travel brochure account of local climate, and a scene from a story in which weather features. But varied texts would also work. For the dealer, a complete set of whole texts is necessary.

The six texts are then guillotined into six parts, preferably at paragraph endings, and the strips are shuffled and dealt out between the two teams, one strip to each team member. The remainder are placed face down in the centre. Each team has firstly to identify aloud the genres from their pieces of the jigsaw, and then guess in turn which genre is going to be turned up next by the dealer from the pile in the centre. If they guess correctly, they can keep the piece and add it to their text. If they guess incorrectly, the other team may keep this turned-up piece or opt for another piece to be turned (unused pieces are replaced at the bottom of the pile).

The winning team is the one which completes the opening and closing strips of any two genres, and correctly identifies these (the dealer checking from the original complete set of texts ). A team which misidentifies a genre at this stage loses one of its two lives, and misses a turn.

At the end of the game, some discussion can take place regarding the teams’ decision- making processes, based on their genre awareness of textual clues and cohesion.

‘All Change’
Pupils who have become adept in identifying the key features of genres in activities such as the one above could go on to convert short texts from one genre to another, using largely the same content. For example, the weather report mentioned above could be converted into a narrative about going out in those weather conditions or a descriptive poem about that kind of weather. Similarly, a personal account of a pet or a local farm animal could be converted by a group into a generic description of that animal for an information booklet on pets or farm animals. This kind of conversion activity is useful for developing pupils’ command of written genres and their awareness of the key features of such genres.

Questions for discussion:

• Which of these games seems most useful for your present class? Why is that?

• Select one of the games, and work out the resources and the rules that would be needed for its successful implementation in the classroom.

• What has this list of games revealed about your own grammatical awareness?

• Can you assign certain games to particular ages or stages?


Bain, R. & E. 1996. "The Grammar Book: finding patterns, making sense." Sheffield: NATE.
Crinson, J. 1997. “Step-by-Step Grammar: Noun Phrases”. "The Primary English Magazine", Vol. 12 No 4, March/April. Sheffield: NATE.
Hunt, George. 1994. "Inspirations for Grammar". Bright Ideas.
Keith, George. 1997. “Teach yourself English Grammar”. "The English and Media Magazine", No 36, Summer. Sheffield: NATE.
Mole, Karen. & Graham Round. "Grammar Puzzles". London: Usborne English Skills Series
Purkis, C.& B. Guerin. "English Language Games". London: Macmillan Educational
Retter, C. & N. Valls. Bonanza: 77 English Language games for young learners. London: Longman.
Watcyn-Jones, Peter. 1995. "Grammar Games and activities for teachers."

This work is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.

The SCOTS Project and the University of Glasgow do not necessarily endorse, support or recommend the views expressed in this document.


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Information about Document 498

Language Games and Activities


Text audience

Adults (18+)
Audience size 1000+

Text details

Method of composition Handwritten
Year of composition 1998
Word count 4502
General description One of a series of position papers on current educational developments in relation to language education

Text medium

Other CD Rom of teacher materials (LILT)

Text publication details

Part of larger text
Contained in CD Rom: LILT Materials
Editor J McGonigal / C Kay
Part of a longer series of texts
Name of series Position Papers: CD Rom: LILT Materials

Text setting


Text type

Prose: nonfiction


Author details

Author id 60
Forenames Andrew
Surname Philp
Gender Male
Decade of birth 1930
Educational attainment University
Age left school 17
Upbringing/religious beliefs Catholicism
Occupation Retired Lecturer in Education
Place of birth Londonderry
Region of birth Co. Londonderry
Country of birth Northern Ireland
Place of residence Airdrie
Region of residence Lanark
Residence CSD dialect area Lnk
Country of residence Scotland
Father's occupation Tool Fitter
Father's place of birth Auchterarder
Father's region of birth E & SE Perthshire
Father's birthplace CSD dialect area Per
Father's country of birth Scotland
Mother's occupation Seamstress in shirt factory
Mother's place of birth Ture
Mother's region of birth Co. Donegal
Mother's country of birth Ireland


Language Speak Read Write Understand Circumstances
English Yes Yes Yes Yes At work, at home
Gaelic; Scottish Gaelic Yes Yes Yes Yes Evening classes and immersion
Italian Yes Yes No No Elementary
Japanese Yes No No Yes Very elementary
Scots Yes Yes Yes Yes Elementary - intermediate
Urdu Yes No No Yes Elementary


Author details

Author id 78
Forenames James
Surname McGonigal
Gender Male
Decade of birth 1940
Educational attainment University
Age left school 18
Upbringing/religious beliefs Catholicism
Occupation University lecturer
Place of birth Dumfries
Region of birth E & Mid Dumfries
Birthplace CSD dialect area Dmf
Country of birth Scotland
Place of residence Glasgow
Region of residence Glasgow
Residence CSD dialect area Gsw
Country of residence Scotland
Father's occupation F.E. Lecturer
Father's place of birth Cleland
Father's region of birth Lanark
Father's birthplace CSD dialect area Lnk
Father's country of birth Scotland
Mother's occupation Primary School teacher
Mother's place of birth Midcalder
Mother's region of birth West Lothian
Mother's birthplace CSD dialect area wLoth
Mother's country of birth Scotland


Language Speak Read Write Understand Circumstances
English Yes Yes Yes Yes Work and home
French Yes Yes Yes Yes Used occasionally
Gaelic; Scottish Gaelic No No No Yes Very limited vocabulary
German Yes Yes Yes Yes Used occasionally
Scots No Yes Yes Yes Work (language study) and creative writing
Spanish; Castilian Yes Yes Yes Yes Used occasionally