Tips and Games For Foreign English Teachers Taming Large Classes of Young Learners

Tips and Games For Foreign English Teachers Taming Large Classes of Young Learners
Sep 28, 2022 By Harriet Petty ,

Foreign primary school English teachers in China do not always have an easy task. Their students' young age, short attention spans, disparate English levels and the overall excitement of having a foreign teacher can make classes a little chaotic. Here are some top tips and games for foreign English teachers taming large classes of young learners in China.

Tips and Games For Foreign English Teachers Taming Large Classes of Young Learners
Source: World Bank Photo Collection

General tips

• Don't speak Chinese to your students, even if you’re fairly good and are finding yourself getting frustrated with their lack of English comprehension. Obviously speaking only English is better for their learning, but Chinese Children can also be very unforgiving with foreigners’ attempts at their mother tongue. You may find yourself being laughed at.

• Make or buy a set of flashcards. They can be used over and over again for an endless amount of ESL exercises and activities. They’ll be well worth any expended effort or money, but you can also download and print some for free from here or here.

• Establish a routine early on, such as singing a welcome song, reviewing vocab from the last lesson, introducing new vocab, an exercise/game, followed by a goodbye song. Obviously you can mix it up occasionally, but having a routine is a comfort to young learners and will make them much more likely to contribute in class.

• Finally, gauge your students' level as soon as possible and don’t expect too much from them. Encourage them to use vocabulary they already know and only add in a few new words at a time.

Stuck for ideas for games and activities? Here are some of my tried and tested favorites for big classes of young English learners in China.

Action games 

Vocab with feeling: Introducing new vocabulary to your class can be a little dry, so mix it up by using simple adjectives and adverbs and asking your kids to act it out. For example: "Show me a sleepy elephant.”

Charades: Charades work particularly well with emotions, musical instruments, actions and daily routines. Split the class into teams and initiate a point system if you need to encourage participation.

Dress up: Introduce the topics of clothes and colors in a fun way by using regalia from your own and/or your friends’ wardrobes. The more eccentric the clothes, the better! As you introduce each new item, put it on over your own clothing and you’re guaranteed to have the class in fits of laughter. Gradually ask the students to recall the items and colors on their own, rewarding correct answers by launching the item of clothing at the student in question and inviting them to put it on themselves. You can extend the fun at the end by organizing a fashion runway and allowing the kids to strut their stuff.

Card games

Rock, Paper, Scissors, Stone: Divide your flashcards between two teams and instigate a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, Stone between a student from each team (swap students each time). The winners of each round can ask the other team for a flashcard of their choice. “We want the duck,” for example. The aim of the game is to win all of the cards.

Slap!: Split the class into pairs and lay out a selection of flash cards in front of each pair. The teacher calls out words while students in each pair race each other to slap the right card first.


Beat the Clock: Split your students into teams and have them race against the clock to complete a task. They may have to arrange sequential flashcards (e.g. days of the week, months of the year, the ABC) as quickly as possible, have to say as many words in a category as possible, or name as many flashcards as possible. Given the competitive nature of most young learners, beating the clock, beating their previous scores or beating other teams gives them a great incentive to improve.

Run and Touch / Write / Ring: Split the students into teams and have them line up in their teams at the back of the classroom. Call out a word and have the students at the front of the line from each team run to the blackboard to touch the relevant picture or draw a ring around/write the correct word.

Drawing Games: One thing that unites nearly all children is a love of drawing. Whether you hand out individual sheets of paper, work in teams or work as a whole class on the blackboard, it’s a great way to get everyone excited and involved. You can dictate instructions, such as "Draw an orange rabbit,” or describe a scene for the kids to approximate, such as "Draw a tree. Next to the tree is a cat." Invite questions like "What color is the cat?” One of the most successful drawing activities I've used with young learners in China was for a lesson on body parts. I invited the students to give me drawing commands like "Draw 16 blue eyes,” "Draw a big yellow toe,” etc. The students found the resulting blackboard drawing hilarious and spoke nothing but English for 20+ minutes.

Speaking and listening

Questionnaires: Class Questionnaires are great for getting everyone talking. Higher level students can come up with questions on their own, while younger students can ask variations on one question (e.g. "What's your favorite ......?"). Split them into pairs or groups or get involved yourself by brainstorming question words and topics on the board before inviting them to quiz you. You’ll probably find they’re keen to find out more about you. Follow up with a class questionnaire where each student must ask five of their classmates five questions, recording their answers in writing or picture form, depending on their level.

Bingo: A go-to for most language teachers, bingo is easily manipulated to fit any vocabulary. Prepare bingo sheets with four to six squares containing numbers, words or pictures within a topic. Students mark off the squares they have on their sheet as the teacher calls out words. The first to fill in all their squares wins.

Guessing Game: Create a simple guessing game on the board or on PowerPoint by producing a selection of numbered pictures within a topic. Announce a word related to the pictures and have the students race to shout out the right number first. Too easy? Point to a picture and invite the students to say the correct word. Still too easy? Provide a description of the picture or related vocabulary.

Any other great games or tips for foreign English teachers taming large classes of young learners in China? Drop them in the comments section below.

Related links:

7 Tips for Teaching English to Very Young Children

What’s With the Stigma for ESL Teachers in China?

How to Avoid a Mismatched Teaching Job in China

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