Flashcards and fun in the ESL classroom!

Read on for ideas on how to get the best out of your flashcards in class, these activities and games are for ESL learners aged 3 – 5 years (and older if you adapt them a little).

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Children enjoying flashcard games

Making your ESL or EFL classes fun will make them memorable – activate your students’ limbic systems by zooming in on emotions such as fun and laughter, and this will leave a long lasting impression. Flashcards are a great way to help visual learners absorb vocabulary, so the combination of flashcards and fun – can’t be at all bad!

Most of these esl games and activities I have picked up along the way through my TEFL journey in Spain, I got many ideas from Shelley Vernon’s website, and I’m a big fan of using Kagan  structures in the classroom – to make sure every student has equal opportunity to flourish and Montessori education strategies are something I aspire to include in the ESL world wherever possible.

So here is a lovely list of activities you can use with flashcards to teach vocabulary to your ESL students, conveniently organised into the following sections:

  1. Presenting vocabulary – listening activities.
  2. Consolidating vocabulary – listening/repeating activities
  3. Using the vocabulary – Speaking

Some activities are good for big groups, some better in smaller classes – if you are an auxiliary and you can take a few kids off to play with you – that’s great. Please feel free to leave comments if you have any more ideas, or I’d love to hear from you with feedback after you’ve tried some of these games out 🙂

Presenting vocabulary – listening activities for english language learners.

  1. Illustration or colour dictation

    • Let children make their own set of flashcards by either
      bingo pics
      Homemade bingo card or flash-cards

      colouring an illustration that you give them, or copying something you draw on the board whilst presenting the vocabulary aurally.

    • You can make small flashcards by folding a piece of paper in half 4 times – older students can do this themselves.
    • In the case of a colour dictation give the children the same picture and tell them what colour to use for the different objects. “colour the sun yellow, colour the clouds grey”, etc
  2. Board relay race – fly swatting (individuals working in teams)

    • Present the flashcards and stick them on the board (you could also draw pics if you don’t have flashcards)
    • You will need two fly swatters/rolled up pieces of paper (or tell them to use their hand)

      FLY SWAT
      Fly swat ESL game for vocabulary 
    • Have the children form two lines – they must be quiet and attentive, or they cannot play and have to sit out the game- give the first person of each team the fly swat.
    • Depending on the level of the group, you can either call out the single words or make up a story, each line/phrase containing one of the words on the flashcards.
    • The children, when they hear the word have to race to slap the image with the flyswatter/rolled up paper/open hand
    • They then move to the back of the line or sit down in their place, having passed the swatter to the next in line.
  3. Flashcard search ( group activity)

    • Present flashcards and either place them about the room with the aid of bluetack or on a table (more relaxed version, good for smaller groups).
    • Depending on the level of the group, you can either call out the single words or make up a story, each line/phrase containing one of the words on the flashcards.
    • If you have a huge class, it would help to have more than one set of flashcards or split them into teams – “Team A – find the taxi,  Team B –  find the train” etc.
    • The children rush to find the corresponding flashcards either by running around the room or pointing with their finger to flashcards on the table.
    • When everyone has identified the flashcard you say “Great! This is a skirt!” so reinforce the vocab.

Consolidating – listening/repeating activities for English language learners

  1. Circle time

    • All the children sit in a circle, you present the  flashcards individually and give one  to each child, or pair of children, making sure they know what their flashcard represents.
    • You chant the vocabulary and the children repeat after you like an echo.

      Sunny – Sunny, Sunny – Sunny, Today is Sunny – Today is sunny!

    • The child (or pair) with the corresponding flashcard enters the middle of the circle and proudly shows it to all their friends as everybody chants.
  2. Animal Noises

    • If you have time, make headbands and stick the animal flashcards on the band, or just tape the paper animal flashcards to the children’s foreheads ( I would say superglue- but I hear this may have its drawbacks)
    • Children sit in a row or circle, you call out the first animal, all pupils with that animal on their forehead stand up and make the sound, then sit down.
    • Call the second animal, children with that animal taped to their head stand, make the sound and sit down.
    • Get faster and faster
  3. Bingo

    • You need to prepare bingo cards with smaller versions of your flashcard words.
      • you can use the illustration/colour dictation above to guide students on how to make them themselves
      • fold a piece of paper in half and divide this into 6 sections fobingor 6 images (more for older children).
      • hand draw or you could use a computer to copy images from google
      • for children who can read – if you are teaching them to read, you can write the words!
    •  Choose a flashcard, call out the word, give them a chance to think about it, show them the flashcard and repeat the word.
    • Remember you need to make the cards different so that you have a winner, but for younger kids especially, call out words until all children have filled up their card.
  4. Memory game

    • Put 5 or 6 flashcards on the board in a row
    • chant through them in order a couple of times, pointing at each card as you say the word
    • take one away (in any order)
    • chant through again, pointing at the space where the missing flashcards is
    • repeat, taking down one card at a time until you have no cards left and you are just pointing at blank spaces on the board
    • hopefully this helps kids memorise the vocab and builds muscle memory as they repeat the chant!

Using the vocabulary – Speaking activities for English language learners

  1. Guess the flashcard

    • You can play this several ways
      • literally flash the card – show it to the children for one second
      • keep the flashcard covered, and reveal a small corner of the image, show a little bit at a time
      • you can describe the flashcard: ‘I’m looking at a flashcard that has a room with a window, a stove, a fridge
    • Go through a class register/list of names choosing children to say what they think it is.
    • As an extension you can ask them to form sentences using the word ‘I can see a window in the kitchen’ or ‘I can cook a pizza in the kitchen’
  2. Which one is missing?

    • Stick up 6 flashcards on the board (presenting new ones as you play activity 1 guess the flashcard)
    • Ask the children to close their eyes and cover their faces
    • Tell them to open their eyes – and pretend to be shocked that one is missing – ask them ‘Which flashcard is missing?’
    • rinse and repeat
    • As an extension you can ask them to form sentences using the word.
  3. Round/Rally robin (kagan structure)

    • Have the children work in small groups (round robin) or pairs (rally robin)
    • Students take turns to recall one of the new vocabulary items you have introduced
  4. fan-N-pick (kagan structure)

    • fan out the flashcards face-down
    • students take turns to choose one
    • they have to name it and/or make a sentence containing it.
  5. Mix -N- Match (kagan structure)

    • Students circulate in the room with cards, quizzing each other and then finding their match.
    • They cannot show their card to their classmates.
    • Examples:
      • the person who has the picture of a shoe searches for the one who has the word “shoe.”
      • all the children have to group together according to their flashcards – so members of the family together, weather conditions together, fruit, vegetables, numbers, colours etc.
      • they can either ask ful questions such as “Have you got a fruit?” or just say their word to their friends “banana”




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