Having a Ball: EFL ball games

Another of my articles for ETP on basic TEFL games and their many uses and variations. Not many photocopiables possible for this one, but one example included below.


Although I would put the blocks that I wrote about here at the top of my list of things to buy for a new teacher’s room, a ball would be a clear number two. As well as being useable with lots of different language points, a ball adds a good balance of energy and focus to classes in a way that very few other things can.


Choosing a ball

The ball should be soft enough not to injure anyone or break anything, and easy enough to catch and possibly bounce. For most situations, a beach ball is the number one choice, the only negatives being the chance of getting a puncture, the possibility of spreading germs if many people blow it up, and the amount of bouncing causing too much fun in some classes. The second choice is a soft foam ball. Balls should preferably be about 30 centimetres in diameter, as smaller ones can mean wasted time looking for them under desks, etc, and bigger ones just tend to bounce around without being caught.

For throwing at things, it can also be good to have a sticky ball (also known as a sucker ball), which is a ball with little plastic cups on it that make it stick to smooth surfaces such as a whiteboard or window.


Alternatives to balls

If you want to add even more excitement and/or give the students more time to think and get ready to catch, it is sometimes good to use a balloon instead of a ball. In contrast, a beanbag or something similar, like a pair of rolled-up socks, can take away the bounce factor if bouncing balls might make your students go wild. Screwed-up pieces of paper can also work, with the benefit that the students can make one each and all throw them at the same time if you wish, and for older students it can seem less childish to use a piece of screwed-up paper than it would be to use a beach ball. Particularly if you want to add language related to the thing being thrown, you could also use toys such as soft plastic animals, plastic fruit, and hand or finger puppets.


How to use a ball

As in actual ball sports, the most obvious things for students to do with a ball in class are to throw it (at a target or to each other), catch it, bounce it, pass it, and roll it (across the floor or table top). These different actions can be done individually or together with other people. For example, one student could recite the months of the year as they bounce the ball against the wall on their own, with the other students chanting along or checking for mistakes. In pairs, the students could ask and answer basic personal questions as they throw the ball back and forth between them (either cooperating or competing). In teams, the students could bounce the ball back and forth between two sides of the classroom in a kind of volleyball match, as they test each other on adjective opposites.

Rules for who starts the next round, the scoring of points, when a game finishes, etc can be borrowed from sports such as volleyball, tennis, badminton, table tennis and squash. However, I usually find that using a ball is enough fun on its own, so I generally just get my students to take turns or change the person who “serves” whenever the previous server loses a round, without any actual scoring of points. In the same way, when I tell my students that we are playing “volleyball” and that the ball therefore can’t be caught, I’m rarely strict about how many bounces are allowed, what counts as a proper bounce, etc.

For games where the students throw the ball at something in the classroom, on the board, etc (as they would at a basket or goal in real sports), more fun can be added by having them close their eyes and/or adding a goalkeeper who tries to stop the ball going where it should.

There are also some games which are based specifically on passing the ball from hand to hand, with more relation to party games or sports training than to actual sports. Smaller classes can just pass the ball around the class as they drill the language as quickly as possible, eg saying “What’s this?” “It’s a ball” or “How” “many” “chairs” “are” “there?” “There” “are” “ten” word by word, as the ball goes round the class. A nice variation is to have two or more balls going from desk to desk or around a circle of students at the same time. With larger classes, you can get the students lined up in teams and ask them to pass the ball along the line as they drill the language, perhaps with the person at the end of the line running to the front with the ball to show that they have finished and are ready for the next round. Although it can be time consuming, for extra challenge and/ or fun you can also add variations like the students having to pass the ball only with their little fingers, pass it under their legs, or get to the front of their line by crawling under the other students’ legs or by winding in and out through the other people.

There are also two ball action games described at the end of this article that can involve heading or kicking the ball, but these can have the disadvantage of putting the focus too much on sporting skill and not enough on language.


Starting to use a ball in class

With young learner classes, I often stand at the door of the classroom with the ball and shout out “Are you ready?” to show them that something fun is coming from the very first moment of the class. When they have entered the class and are settled down, we then roll or throw and catch the ball as we ask and answer basic personal questions like “What’s your name?” and “How old are you?” This then naturally leads on to the drilling games, brainstorming games or target practice games outlined below. I often use those games to move smoothly from revision to the new language point of the day, e.g. using the same game to revise “Do you like…?” and then introduce “Do you have…?”

With older classes, the appearance of a ball can have the exact opposite effect, causing the students to doubt that they will be doing something either age-appropriate or useful. Therefore, you need to set up the activity very carefully before you introduce the idea of using a ball. For example, if you put some short answers on the board and get the students to pick ones like “Yes, I do” and “No, I haven’t” and then try to get those answers from their partner by asking questions, this can quickly become too easy and a little dull, so teenagers and even adults might be ready to throw a piece of screwed up paper at the board in order to choose which response they will try to obtain.


Drilling games with balls

A ball is perfect for making the drilling of lists of things like days of the week and months fun, either with one student trying on their own or with different students continuing the list as they throw a ball back and forth. This also works for:

  • numbers (including big and small numbers in sequences like five, ten, fifteen, etc)
  • ordinal numbers (first, second, etc)
  • the alphabet, phonics and example words (“Zed” “zzzz” “Zebra”, etc)
  • times (one o’clock, quarter past one, etc)

To make it more like real competitive ball games, such as tennis, the students can also test each other with an infinitive that their partner should “return” with the past simple form, or an adjective which their partner should return with the comparative and/or superlative form. This also works for:

  • cardinal and ordinal numbers (“Twenty” “Twentieth”, etc)
  • opposites (“Hot” “Cold”, etc)
  • pronouns (“She” “Her” “Her” “Hers”, etc)

Another possibility for something to do after asking questions back and forth is to split the questions and answers up into individual words as the ball goes back and forth: e.g. “How” “many” “windows” “are” “there?” “There” “are” “three”, as the ball is passed eight times. This is more fun if the students have to think carefully about and/or react to the answer, for example running and touching the object that the last student says at the end of a sequence like “What” “is” “it?” “It” “is” “a” “table”.

All these games work well with some version of volleyball, meaning that the students can’t catch the ball, but have to continue bouncing it until they think of the next word or response, perhaps using a balloon if it is too challenging with a ball. Passing games are also good for both drilling and the brainstorming ideas below.


Brainstorming with a ball

A slight variation on the drilling games above is for the students to brainstorm examples of a category as the ball is caught, or bounced, e.g. “Apple” “Banana” “Orange” etc if the category is “fruit”, or “Wanted” “Needed” etc if the category is “Past Simple with -id”. A student who says something that doesn’t match the category, repeats what someone said before or drops the ball loses that round. Then you can try again with the same or another category.


Target games

The easiest things for the students to throw balls at are words written on the board, and that is also often the place where a sticky ball sticks best. In that way, the students can select:

  • what response they will try to get from their partner when they say something to them (“That’s too bad”, etc)
  • the topic or language for which they have to get a “Yes” answer from someone else (“like”, “food and drink”, etc)
  • the language they should use to try to make a true sentence about someone else in class (“have got”, “often”, etc)
  • the topic they have to ask someone about, talk about or do a roleplay on
  • who they are, where they are, what they have to talk about or what tricky situation they have to deal with during a roleplay
  • which of two sounds they think they heard (/l/ in “lead” or /r/ in “read”, etc)
  • the topic they want to answer a quiz question on
  • how difficult a quiz question they will try next (and, therefore, how many points they might be able to score)
  • what word will be deleted next from the “disappearing text” on the board (to be remembered when the next person tries to read out the whole thing)

Parts of the classroom can also be used in the same way. For example, for minimal pairs practice you can tell the students that the wall at one end of the classroom represents the first sound of “yet” and the other wall represents the first sound of “jet”, and get them to throw screwed-up pieces of paper at the correct wall for the sound they think they have heard or have seen silently mouthed. However, I more often get my students to aim at actual things in the classroom. After practising common questions at the beginning of the class ending with “What’s this?” “It’s a (sticky) ball”, I then move smoothly from that to getting the students asking each other and me “What’s this?” “It’s a whiteboard eraser” etc as they throw the ball at those things around the class. They could also ask additional questions about those things, such as “How many windows are there?” “What colour is the book?” and “Where is the sticky ball?” The last question can then lead smoothly on to a game in which the students use cards to make sentences challenging each other to put the ball somewhere in class, such as “Throw the ball under the window” or “Balance the ball on your head”. There is a link to further instructions for this game and a photocopiable set of cards for classroom vocabulary, body vocabulary and prepositions of place below.

You can also play a game in which one person throws the ball, and the other students compete to be first to shout out correctly where it has ended up, in order to win the right to be the next person to throw it. All of these can also work with pictures of the inside of a house drawn on or attached to the board. Another variation is for the students to aim at one particular thing on the picture or in the classroom and to say where it actually ended up, in order to be able to try again.

A very specific variation on throwing at things is for the teacher or a student to show the angle at which they are planning to throw a ball and getting the other students to predict where it will end up, with sentences like “(I think) it will land under the table” and “(I guess that) it will land next to the door”. They could also listen carefully with their eyes closed while someone throws the ball somewhere in the classroom and try to guess where it is with sentences like “It is under the whiteboard” and “It is near the door”.


Ball action games

You can also do a “listening with eyes closed” game with the students guessing things like “You are kicking the ball (against the door)” and “You are bouncing the ball (on the teacher’s desk)”. To practise can for ability, they can also outbid each other for things that they can do with the ball (“I can head the ball 12 times”, etc). Just the top bidder tries and then wins or loses points depending on whether they can actually do what they said.


Related links

Using Ball Games to Teach English on UsingEnglish.com

Picking cards ball game pdf

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