Drawing on Drawing Games Part One – Pictionary

Here’s my second ever MET article, fortunately without the awful drawings they insisted that I had to include to prove that I had as little skill as I said I have. I think the editor was shocked that I wasn’t being modest at all!

The idea of using drawing games in EFL classes is well known but underexploited, so I have written three articles including some variations on and alternative uses for popular games, along with some less familiar ones. These ideas should hopefully make drawing an option in almost all your classes. Reasons for using drawing games include:

– Providing another way of learning

– Helping memorization

– Giving a chance to artistic students to shine in class

– Giving all the students some practice in an important emergency travel communication skill

– Providing fun and variety

Drawing is also the best way of presenting, practising and remembering things like groups of idioms based on metaphors (e.g. water = money) and some grammar points (see below). There is also the possibility of leading onto discussions on art or language learning tactics such as visualisation.

I have found these games to be popular with absolutely all ages and levels, including less obvious classes for drawing like Technical English and Medical English groups.


In this popular TEFL game, the teacher or a student draws something (without speaking or gesturing) and the class compete to guess what it is. This can be done on the board as a whole class or team game, or on paper in pairs or groups. This game is commonly used when focusing on vocabulary and is a great way of revising words and phrases. It can also be used at the presentation stage and for almost any other language point, as shown below.

Tips to make Pictionary work well

Most of these tips for how to use Pictionary also work for all drawing games (and indeed language games in general):

– Give lots of examples before expecting students to try it

– Start with some easy examples

– Don’t expect too much creativity from them until they get into it

– Have a back up plan if they run out of ideas or need some help

With Pictionary these tips could mean starting with words or phrases on a worksheet or the board from which the people guessing can choose. You can then move onto slips of paper with things to be drawn and guessed that are not on the worksheet or board. At the final stage, ask students to come up with their own ideas, maybe giving out extra slips of paper if they can’t think of anything.

Another kind of help you could give students is ideas for the actual pictures, e.g. a Clipart image or sketch to copy, or a description of what kind of picture they could draw (e.g. “You could draw on eyeball on a book” for “Keep an eye on something”).

Another common ingredient of good language teaching games is personalisation, which for Pictionary would mean students drawing things representing words, phrases and sentences connected to their own lives and ideas. The easiest way of doing this is to have a stage (perhaps after the “drawing their own ideas” stage described above) in which they are asked to personalise the things they draw, e.g. “Now continue drawing things connected to hobbies, but this time only things that you use in your own free time. The other students should make a whole true sentence about you and that object, e.g. ‘You play softball with this bat every Sunday’”

Humour is another element that is always worth adding. A good way of putting this in to Pictionary is to prepare sentences to draw that have an unusual combination of words, e.g. “They caught Queen Elizabeth with her fingers in the till” or “An absolutely tiny nose”. Students might have problems coming up with similar sentences off the top of the heads, but you can give them time to prepare the sentences or give them two words on slips of paper to combine in a drawing (e.g. “bad” and “elephant”). The latter idea is explained in more detail in Variations on Pictionary below.

The final thing to try and add is context, to make the language both understandable and memorable. For example, if all the vocabulary is related to nature, get the students to draw on a worksheet with a picture of a countryside scene on it or on a whiteboard with a similar scene projected on it. You can also add context when using Pictionary to teach tenses, e.g. by students drawing on a timeline, or in a crystal ball for predictions (see below for more examples).

A negative factor that comes up in many kinds of games and particularly stands out in drawing games is embarrassment, as students can be less than impressed to find that they first time they have been asked to draw since school leads to drawing that are worse than those they produced at the age of 15. The best antidote for this is to show them your less-than-perfect drawings when you demonstrate the game. Luckily I don’t have to fake a lack of artistic skill and have found my natural sketches are more than enough to put 99% of students at complete ease! Other techniques that I have found useful are:

– Make it possible for them to clean the board or change the paper they are using after each go, so that their efforts soon disappear

– Let them work in small groups with people they are comfortable with

– Give them pictures or ideas of what to draw

Connected to this embarrassment issue is the tendency of some students to spend too much time on perfecting their drawings. Turning the game into more of a race (see ideas below) can help undo this tendency and also give them an excuse for any imperfections in their sketches. Having at least one person in each group who is happy to draw quickly and in a slapdash way can also help the others along. Alternatively, you can reward each kind of student by giving one point for the quickest drawing and one point for the best.

One other little issue connected to confidence is to make sure that you try some difficult or impossible examples as well as the easy ones when you first demonstrate the game, so that the students aren’t too disappointed when people can’t guess what their drawings mean.

You will also need to put some time into choosing vocabulary etc that is easy (or at least possible) to draw. For example, if there is a list of vocabulary you want to revise, probably only half of it will be possible with a drawing game. To make sure that you have chosen words that can be drawn, you could draw (or at least imagine how you would draw) each word, phrase or sentence that you are thinking of using. If you have students who are easily embarrassed, you might also want to look out for things that could be misunderstood as pictures of something rude (e.g. cactuses).

Variations on Pictionary

Pictionary races

The easiest way of organising Pictionary as a race is for the person who is drawing to try to get as many correct answers from the people watching as possible within the time limit (e.g. 2 minutes), moving on to a new drawing each time the last one has been correctly identified. A variation that encourages people to guess more quickly is also to give one point to the person who correctly shouts out what the picture represents. Alternatively, you can time each person trying to draw one thing and make the winners the person who guessed quickest and the person who drew that thing. All these versions can also be done in teams, with the person in each team drawing for a fixed time or until their teammates guess, then changing roles. A less competitive version that still stops students spending too much time on their pictures is for each person to try and beat their own previous best time.

Slow Pictionary

This is kind of the opposite of the race ideas above. Students draw very slowly or a line at a time to make guessing more difficult. This is good for the language of probability and possibility, such as “It must be…” or “It’s probably…” If you want to give points, the person drawing could get one point for each second that they draw (without pausing) before the correct answer is given, one point for each incorrect guess, or one point for each line or shape drawn without a correct guess. All these scoring schemes do away nicely with the problem of students feeling depressed if the others never guess what their pictures represent! You can also do something similar by asking students to just draw a tiny detail of a larger thing.

Identify and respond

Instead of or as well as saying the thing that is being drawn, students say what they would do or say if they came across that thing, e.g. “Pleased to meet you” if the drawing is of an outstretched hand, “Are you okay?” if the picture is of a crying face, or “I think you should put your foot up” if the picture is of a swollen ankle. You can give points for the quickest and the best response, or only give points for being exactly the same as the sentence that is on the card or worksheet (even if the other sentences are correct).

Finger back drawing

Instead of drawing on the board or paper, the person whose turn it is “draws” with one finger on the back of the person guessing. The things they draw will need to be much easier than things you use in normal Pictionary, e.g. only shapes, or pictures that can be made from a couple of simple shapes such as a house or a snowman.

Air drawing

This is similar to Finger Back Drawing above, but with students moving their finger about in the air in the shape of the thing they are drawing. This works even better with a point of light in a darkened room, or something similar can be done by “drawing” with a laser pointer on a whiteboard.


You can design the game so that each word, phrase or sentence can be drawn by deleting a small part of the picture on the board. For example, if there is a picture of a stick man on the board the person whose turn it is can show “He can’t walk” by erasing the legs and “He can only hop” by rubbing out one foot.


This is another way of playing the game without actually drawing. Students just circle part of a picture that is already there or draw an arrow on it, and the people guessing try to identify that part.


The student drawing copies the picture from a magazine, either by drawing or using tracing paper. One nice activity with this is to have the class try to guess the real caption or headline next to the picture.

Random Pictionary

A student picks two random cards and has to draw something combining them, e.g. “I was eating breakfast” plus “when I broke my leg” or “pat” plus “a tree”. Depending on the words you are using, you might need to have two packs of cards and have students take one card from each.

Some examples of Pictionary for specific vocabulary points

Family vocabulary

A student draws one section of their family tree and the other students try to make a true sentence about that part of their family,e.g. “You have three younger sisters”. The same thing can be done with a picture of a family standing together. As well as relationships, the pictures could show appearance, ages, names, jobs etc. More complex sentences that they could try and elicit include things like “Your brother has curly hair”, “Your younger sister is married” and “Your father is a doctor”. Students can write these sentences before they start drawing, select a sentence that is true for them from a worksheet, or just have a sentence in their heads.


Students can draw words and phrases like “wavy hair” and “big nose”, whole sentences like “He has long legs” or personalised sentences like “I hate boys with long hair” or “I had long hair when I was a child”.

Idioms and proverbs

Pictionary can be a great way of presenting idioms to make them memorable and manageable, and is also good practice for guessing the meanings of other idioms that they come across. The teacher or another student explains the meaning of the idiom and then draws a representation of it being taken literally, e.g. someone pushing a donkey for “as stubborn as a mule” or presenting a huge hand to someone for “give someone a big hand”. This works particularly well for idiomatic ways of talking about trends, body idioms, colour idioms and animal idioms. The same thing works for proverbs.

Places in town

Students draw a plan of the inside of a shop, bank etc until the others guess what it is. You can then move on to elicit the names of things inside those places, e.g. “aisle” and “cash register”

Food and drink

This is a nice topic to make odd combinations with, e.g. “banana” plus “pizza”.


Students can either draw a face with a certain expression or a situation that would make you feel a certain way. The two can also be combined in sentences like “He is feeling tired because it is 3 a.m.”

Some examples of Pictionary for specific grammar points

Future tenses

Students can draw in a diary for “Present Continuous for future arrangements”, in a crystal ball or on tarot cards for “Will for predictions”, in a thought cloud for “Going to for plans”, and pictures of things just about to happen like a jar just about to fall from table for “Going to for predictions with present evidence”. Pictionary is particularly good for contrasting the different ways of talking about the future, especially if you combine it with personalisation.


For third and mixed conditionals, students can draw the past as a tree with dotted lines for the choices they didn’t make and drawings next to the choices they did make. These can be true sentences, made up sentences, or ones from a worksheet. The students watching them draw try to make a sentence about the choices they didn’t make, e.g. “If you hadn’t gone to university, you would be working in a factory now”. The same thing can be done for the first conditional with the future as a tree of choices.

Possessive adjectives and possessive s

Students draw possessions or body parts of particular people, e.g. their classmates, family and friends, famous people, animals etc to elicit sentences like “It is his shoe”, “It is Michael Jackson’s nose”, “It is an eagle’s foot” and “It is your father’s forehead”.

Countable and uncountable nouns

This is another one where Pictionary can be used in the presentation stages of a Test Teach Test lesson, by asking students to draw “some chocolates”, “some chocolate” etc and then discussing the differences.

Modals of permission and obligation

Ask students to draw the school rules, cultural rules and taboos, rules in particular places etc as street signs with and without a red cross through them.

Can for ability

Students draw stick men doing the actions successfully or unsuccessfully (falling off a bike etc)

This that these those

There are two ways of doing this, both of which are fun. One is played with students drawing all the pictures in a cone shape drawn diagonally on the board or a piece of paper. “This” and “These” things are drawn very large in the big circle (perhaps with just a detail of them showing as if it’s a very close up photo) and “That” and “Those” things are drawn absolutely tiny in the circle near the point of the cone. The other way is to ask students to draw single and multiple things that are in the classroom or visible through the window and ask the other students to make true sentences with this/ that/ these/ those dependent on how many things there are in that place and where they are, e.g. “Those are pot plants”.


Students draw both things and show the comparison between them, e.g. “An elephant is heavier than a mouse” (both on scales or sitting on opposite ends of a seesaw) or “An alien is scarier than a lion” (a lion looking at an alien and screaming).


Students draw something representing a particular film (maybe copying a DVD cover from Amazon) that you have chosen because it is a good example of the use of articles, e.g. The Reader or Three Men and a Baby.

Prepositions of position

Include crazy ones like “The cat is in the snake”, “The pyramid is on the house” etc, perhaps by students choosing three cards with two nouns and a preposition and trying to combine them in a picture.

An edited version of this article was first published in Modern English Teacher magazine. Exclusively republished here with the permission of the author and publishers.

This entry was posted in pictionary, TEFL, TEFL games. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Drawing on Drawing Games Part One – Pictionary

  1. Alex Case says:

Leave a comment (link optional and email never shared)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s