Fourth in my recent series of articles in English Teaching Professional. See bottom of the page for links to a couple of photocopiables, two other articles on the topic, and lots more posts on classic TEFL games.
A set of blocks is my number one aid for most young learner classes with students aged from three to seventeen. Blocks are the next most fun alternative to ball games, but they are much easier to control than balls and it is easier to focus the class with them. In addition, blocks can provide the perfect ending to a game when a tower that the students have built falls to the floor or they run out of blocks. You can also use blocks as a reward to improve effort and behaviour, for example giving out one block per correct answer during the first half of the class to be used in a stacking game later. And when your students become bored with stacking, there are also plenty of other blocks games you can use, such as making shapes by putting the blocks together.
The blocks you use can be large or small, but they should not be too difficult or too easy to stack. So it is probably best if they don’t have smooth hard sides or rounded corners, but they shouldn’t be the interlocking kind like Lego. They can be plain or coloured, or have pictures, letters or numbers on the sides, depending on the activities you want to do.
The most obvious activities to use with blocks are stacking games. In these, the students use the blocks to build one or more towers. In order to add a block, each student has to perform some kind of language task. I often start using blocks from the very first class with young learners, usually with simple personal questions. In the first stage, the students stack the blocks while asking and answering the usual personal questions like “What’s your name?” and “How are you?” Once they run out of suitable questions, we often move on to asking “What colour is it?” and “What’s this?”, perhaps talking about pictures on the blocks. When the tower eventually falls, in the next round we do the same but with the students not allowed to copy any previous questions, instead having to ask something different each time. In the final round(s), I then do the same with more targeted language, like just “Do you …?” questions if the last class was on Present Simple or “Do you want to …?” if we are going to spend the lesson on future desires.
Rules which you will have to think about before using stacking games in class include:
- Are the students allowed to stack their blocks next to, in front of or behind the present tower, or will they be building a single one-block-wide tower?
- Are they allowed to straighten up the blocks that are already there, or must they just place their next block without moving any previous ones (for more challenge and more fun)?
- If only part of the tower falls, will they destroy the rest of the tower and start again, or just carry on stacking on top of whatever is left?
- Will you have some kind of scoring, e.g. one point for the last person to place a block successfully before the tower fell down?
The stacking games I use can be classified as:
- Counting higher and higher stacking games
- Maths challenge stacking games
- Drilling stacking games
- Question and answer stacking games
- Making statements stacking games
- Giving instructions stacking games
These are described below, with a few variations and some of their many uses.
Counting higher and higher stacking games
As the students take turns adding a block to the top of the tower, they also take turns continuing to count up a sequence, e.g. the first student saying “One” and placing the first block, the second student saying “Two” and placing the second, etc. Alternatively, one person can stack and count on their own and see how far they can get before they make a mistake or the tower falls down. The students can also go through the sequence more quickly by going up in twos, fives, tens, etc, or going up as much as they like each time as in the “Don’t reach” variation below.
This game works for any language that gets higher and higher in some way, including days of the week and names of months, and also less obvious points such as adverbs of frequency (“Never”, “Almost never”, “Rarely”, etc) and adverbs of degree (“Very slightly”, “Not very”, “Fairly”, etc). For any of these, you can also get the students to say whole phrases or sentences like “There is one block”, “There are two blocks”, etc.
You can also combine counting higher and higher with some of the other games below by asking the students to make true statements about their partner with the next word in the sequence so that they are allowed to place the next block, e.g. being able to place the third block if they say “You have three sisters” and it is true. The same thing also works for questions, e.g. getting the answer “Often” to the question “How often do you get up late?” to be able to place a fifth block on the tower (after the blocks representing “Never”, “Almost never”, “Rarely” and “Sometimes” have already been placed).
The students race to stack a tower to a given height, trying again if their tower falls or if they stacked to the wrong height until someone manages it successfully. For example, if you say the word “September”, teams of students have to race to make a tower that is nine blocks high to represent the ninth month of the year. This also works for more than one number, e.g. making one tower of three blocks and a second tower of fifteen blocks for “Quarter past three”. For towers higher than about 15 blocks, the students will need blocks that fit together, such as Lego, but there are ways around this. One possibility is for each column to represent one figure in the number, e.g. three blocks then five blocks then two blocks for “Three hundred and fifty two”. For times, you could also have one block in the minutes tower for each five-minute segment of time, e.g. three blocks and then nine blocks for the time “Three forty five”.
Don’t reach …
In this variation on stacking, the students can go up as much as they like each time they say something, e.g. in the sequence “One o’clock”, “Twenty past two”, “Twenty one minutes past two” and “Quarter to four”. To make them think more about what they are saying, I also tell them that there is a limit that they should not go beyond, e.g. that all dates must stay before Christmas Day. The game stops if the tower falls or someone goes beyond that limit, and a student misses their turn if what they say is actually lower than the previous thing that was said.
Counting higher and higher stacking games work for:
- Simple numbers
- Big numbers
- Small numbers (fractions and/or decimals)
- Ordinal numbers
- Days of the week
- Adverbs of degree
- Adverbs of frequency
- Frequency expressions (twice a week, etc)
- There is/There are
Maths challenge stacking games
For some of the language points above you can also play a kind of maths challenge game. For example, one student might say “Plus 20 minutes” when the previous block was “Eleven oh five” and the next student then needs to work out that the answer is “Eleven twenty five” in order to be able to place their block. The students can also set each other longer and longer challenges, e.g. “Ten” “plus” “twelve” “minus” “seventeen” “times” “two” “equals”. Especially with this version, I tend to make the person who challenges their partner also lose a point if they don’t know the answer either. Maths challenge games work for:
- Simple numbers
- Big numbers
- Fractions and decimals
Drilling stacking games
As the students add blocks to the tower, they test each other by, for example, saying the infinitive of a verb for their partner to say the Past Simple, saying a gradable adjective for their partner to say the corresponding extreme adjective, or saying a character adjective for their partner to say the opposite of. This works best if the number of students or teams means that the person who is challenging and the person who is being challenged naturally changes each time, e.g. three students if they are practising appearance adjective opposites (“Tall”, “Short”, etc), or two students if they are practising comparatives and superlatives (“Big”, “Bigger”, “The biggest”, etc).
Drilling stacking games work for many points including:
- Infinitive and past simple and/or past participle
- Adjective and comparatives and/or superlatives
- Gradable and extreme adjectives
- Cardinal numbers and ordinal numbers
- Simple and more complex ways of saying times (“Three forty five”/ “Quarter to four”, etc)
- Opposites (appearance opposites, etc)
- Since and for expressions (“Since 1998”/ “For 30 years”, etc)
- Decimals and fractions (“A half”/”Zero point five”, etc)
Question and answer stacking games
As explained above, I often get my students asking and answering basic questions while stacking blocks from the very first class and then do the same with questions related to the language point of the day. Before playing such games, the teacher needs to decide if the blocks will be placed on the tower by the person asking, by the person answering, or by both. The advantage of having both the questioner and answerer add blocks is that the tower quickly becomes tall and so more likely to fall over, adding to the excitement of the game. However, it can mean that rounds end very quickly, particularly with classes who aren’t good at stacking or can’t be bothered to place their blocks carefully, in which case it’s better to add only one block per question and answer pair. You can also slow the tower down further by adding other rules on when blocks are placed, such as the “Make me say yes” game below.
Make me say yes stacking games
The students ask each other yes/no questions and blocks are only added if their partner says yes. If they enjoy placing the blocks, let the questioner do so as a reward for getting a yes answer. Or if they get nervous about placing the blocks in case the tower falls, a better rule is for the answerer the place the block on if someone makes them say yes.
If the blocks are coloured and/or have pictures, numbers or letters on their sides, the questions can include that aspect of that block, eg “Do you like cats?” if the block has a cat on it or “Do you have four chairs in your kitchen?” if the block has a figure 4 on it.
You can then play later rounds of the same game where only no answers mean that a block is added and/ or where they try to get the answer “I don’t know”.
Stack the answers game
The students ask each other questions, and the answers that they receive decide how many blocks are placed, what colour blocks are placed, etc. For example, if their partner answers “Three” to the question “How many brothers and sisters have you got?”, then three blocks are added to the tower, and if the answer to “What colour is your pillowcase?” is “Red”, they can add that colour block (if it is still available).
Answer me stacking game
As explained in the “Stacking higher and higher” section above, you could also ask the students to get the next word in the sequence as an answer in order to be able to add the next block, eg having to get the answer “Quite a lot” to the question “How much mess is there in your bedroom (right now)?” to be able to add the fourth block (after the blocks representing “none”, “very little” and “not much” have already been added to the tower). If your blocks have pictures, numbers or letters on them, the students could also ask questions to try to get those things in their partner’s answer, e.g. asking “What’s your favourite fruit?” and getting the answer “Apple” to be able to stack the A block.
One or more of these question and answer games work for:
- Basic personal questions (“How old are you?”, “Where do you live?”, etc)
- “Do you have/Have you got …?”
- “Can you …?”
- “Have you ever …?”
- “Are you …ing?”
- “Did you … (yesterday/on Sunday)?”
- “Will you/Do you think you will … (if …)?”
- “Do you want to/Would you like to …?”
- “Do you like …?”
- “Is there/Are there … (in your house/this room)?”
- “How many …?”
- “What colour …?”
- Questions about friends and family
Making statements stacking games
The simplest way of adding statements is with the students making statements describing the tower as it presently is (“There are four blue blocks”, etc) in order to be able to add one more block. You can also play a game that is similar to the “Make me say yes” game above in which the students have to make a true statement, such as “You have two brothers”, to be able to place the next block or blocks. This works for all the same language points as the question and answer games above.
Giving instructions stacking games
The students tell each other where the next block should be placed, how many blocks should be added, what colour blocks should be added, etc with instructions like “Can you put the blue block between the red block and the yellow block?” or just “Put the blue block between the red block and the yellow block”. This works for:
- Prepositions of position
Other blocks games
Making shapes from blocks
Depending on how many blocks you have, the students can arrange them into two- or three-dimensional shapes to represent:
- Figures (the numbers 1, 2, 3, etc)
- Letters of the alphabet
- The spelling of short words (c + a + t, etc)
- Syllables and word stress (three blocks in a row to represent I-ta-ly, one block and then a tower of two blocks to represent BraZIL, etc)
- (Approximate) shapes, such as square, oval and pyramid
- Some objects with very simple shapes such as animals, nature (flowers, etc), household vocabulary, clothes and body parts
- Some simple adjectives, such as “tall” and “long”
Note that with some of the shapes, such as oval, it is better to make an outline of the shape instead of a solid shape.
Games with this technique include getting the students to race to make the right shape depending on what the teacher or another student says, or racing to guess what the shape represents.
Pictures on blocks games
You can combine the pictures on the sides of blocks with many of the games above. For example, in order to be able to stack the block with a picture of a cat on it, the students could be asked to:
- Answer questions such as “What’s this?” and “What colour is the cat?”
- Get a “Yes” answer with a question such as “Do you like cats?”
- Make a true statement about their partner such as “You don’t have a cat”
- Describe the position of some of the other objects in the tower, e.g. “The dog is between the elephant and the vase”
- Follow a partner’s instructions on where to put the cat, e.g. “Please put the cat in front of the number 2”.
The simplest non-stacking game with picture blocks is simply racing to find the picture that represents a word that has been said or shown. The fact that only one side of each block is on top at any one time can also be useful. For example, the students could make a story from the top picture of each block, either after rolling them like dice or just choosing the best of the six sides each time.
Letters on blocks games
Many blocks have letters on at least one side, in which case the students can try to make true statements (“Your mother can play the violin”, for “V”) or ask questions to get answers starting with those letters (“What’s your favourite flavour of ice cream?” to get “vanilla” for “V”) in order to play the stacking games above. There are also quite a few extra games you can play. For individual letters, the students can race to find the letter that is said or the first letter of the object that is held up (finding a block with “P” on it if you hold up a pencil, etc). If the blocks have letters on all six sides, you can also use them like a kind of letter dice. This makes it possible to play games such as having the students racing to shout out or touch an object that starts with the letter that comes up when the block is rolled.
Combining letters from several blocks, the students can race to spell a given word or the name of an object which you show them. They can also work in groups to try to make as many words as they can from the letters on the blocks you have given them. Depending on what blocks you have and how many and which letters they have on them, it may also be possible to play a version of the board game Scrabble, where the words have to fit together in the shape of a crossword. It is also possible to change the blocks to make any of these games easier, e.g. by putting stickers on some of the sides of the blocks to add more high-frequency letters like “E”.
Numbers on blocks games
With blocks that have numbers on the side, the students can race to find and arrange the right numbers to match things they hear or read, such as “The first of December”. If the blocks have numbers on every side, they can also be used as dice.
Other EFL stacking and blocks games articles
Photocopiable blocks games classroom activities
Making shapes from blocks games (numbers, shapes, nature, household vocabulary, clothes, body and feelings) – NEW
Stacking races game (cardinal numbers, ordinal numbers, dates, days of the week, months and times) – NEW
More classic TEFL games