It may sound like a bit of a cliché to do a ball-throwing activity in a language class, but it can be a great way to add variety and energy to a lesson. I want to share some game ideas that I have used to liven up large classes of low-level university students. Motivation can be low in these classes, so it’s particularly important to use a wide variety of fun activity types to keep things interesting. Ball-throwing games (or any games using balls) are very easy to use because they take very little time to prepare, but they can bring a smile to even the most reluctant of students.I use ball-throwing games in two main ways: as a warm-up activity and as a practice activity. Here are some ideas for each kind.

Warm-up activities

Warm-up activities are typically about reviewing language or getting the students to start thinking about the topic of the lesson. However, perhaps most importantly, they’re also about getting the students in the right mood to use English – and a fun game is a great way to wake up a sleepy class.

Counting game

Lower-level students need regular review of numbers (including numbers with units and dates). Have the students stand in a circle and pass the ball around, counting up in a sequence as they go (this could mean in even numbers, in tens, in hundreds, etc). After they have done this once, so everyone has heard the words they need to use and got the idea of passing the ball around, add some complications to make things more fun:

  • Every time you blow a whistle, the students have to change the direction in which they are passing the ball and the order in which they are counting (so they need to count backwards the first time you blow the whistle).
  • Have the students perform an action on multiples of a certain number – for example, they could crouch down and stand up again, or say the word banana.
  • Add more balls on a different counting sequence to keep the students on their toes (it’s also fun to have some balls travelling the opposite way around the circle).
  • Use all of the ideas above in the same game!

Along the chain

The students have to work together to throw the ball to each other and say either a sequence of words (eg months, colours of the rainbow, days of the week) or words on a given topic (eg clothes, sport, personality adjectives) within a time limit. Get the students to stand in two rows, facing each other, with the width of a desk between them. They each have to say one word in the sequence as they throw the ball back and forth between the rows, moving up the rows as they follow the sequence. The student who completes the sequence has to throw the ball into a box to beat the clock and finish the game. (This game was inspired by watching the joy of footballers heading a ball back and forth between them at www.youtube.com/watch?v=_TVkTYefgy8.)

Letter game

Give each student a sticker (or sticky note) with a different letter on it and have them stick it to their chests. Then give the class a topic, such as countries, food or animals. The first student says a word that fits the topic and begins with one of the letters stuck to a classmate’s chest, at the same time throwing the ball to the student who is wearing the relevant letter. (Each student should be listening carefully for words starting with their letter, so that they are ready to catch the ball!) This person then says another word and throws the ball to the next person.

Password

Split the class into teams of about five people each. You need two teams to compete against each other. Give Team A the ball and tell them to think of words on a given topic (for example, colours). After they have each chosen a word, ask them to stand facing Team B, with their hands behind their backs. One person on Team A has to hold the ball, without Team B knowing who has it. The students in Team B then take turns to guess the words Team A thought of. Every time someone says a word chosen by a member of Team A, Team B gets one point – and they get five bonus points if they guess the word assigned to the person holding the ball. You can set a time limit for guessing, to keep a quick pace going.

Ball mimes

This is a very silly game that should generate lots of laughs. Give the students a topic, and then have them take turns to act out words or phrases on cards – but they must use the ball as a prop. The other students have to guess what they are acting out. For example, you could use activities (talking on the phone, using a computer), housework (washing the dishes, doing the ironing), emotions (happy, sad, angry) or jobs (waiter, doctor).

Practice activities

These activities are all about getting the students to repeat the target language several times as part of a game. They can be used to provide practice of grammar structures or phrases and functional language.

Best answer

The first student asks a question (for example, asking for a suggestion for food to eat for dinner). Three students give answers, and the first student chooses the answer they like best and throws the ball to this person. The chosen student then asks the next question. You could also have someone keep score, to see whose answers get chosen the most.

Suggestions

In this game, the goal is to get everyone to agree about something – for example, about what activity to do, what food to eat or what music to listen to. The first student starts the chain by making a suggestion and throwing the ball to another student. If this next student likes the suggestion, they say so, and then throw the ball to the next person, and so on until everyone has said they agree. If somebody does not agree, they have to make a new suggestion. This game can be made into more of a puzzle by giving everyone a card to tell them when to disagree – for example, cards that say You don’t want to go outside, You don’t want to travel far and You don’t want to do sports. You can add a competitive element to this version of the game by having different groups to finish first.

Yes or no

This game is for practising question-and answer exchanges – for example, asking permission, asking about likes and dislikes or asking about past activities. One student asks a question and throws the ball to another student. The other student has a card that tells them how to answer (for example, they might be told to say no if the student that asked the question is wearing glasses but yes if they aren’t). If the student says no, they throw the ball back to the first student, who then has to ask the same question to another student, who, again, has a card that instructs them how to answer. The questioning continues until someone says yes. The student who says yes then asks a new question and throws the ball to another student.

Swap places

Create cards for individual words that make up a sentence, and give each card to a different student. Have these students arrange themselves into a line in the right order, and then pass the ball down the line, saying their words one-by-one to make the sentence. Some other students will not have cards. These students have to ask the students in the line to repeat the sentence, and they say Stop when they can see an opportunity to swap places with the person holding the ball and substitute a different word to make a new sentence. Set a time limit and explain that the winners are the ones standing in the line at the end. Obviously, you need to think carefully about the sentences to use here. Some good ones are things with modals (You must not sleep in class, You should buy a book for her) or the past tense (I met my friend in London yesterday, I drew a picture of a house yesterday, etc).

Setting the ball rolling

Finally, here is some general advice for setting up these games:

  • It’s best to maintain a quick pace for all these games, so only try something that you know your students will be able to do.
  • Always model what you want the students to do. It’s better to spend some time setting up the game than have them start before they understand what to do.
  • If you have a very big class, try breaking this up into two or more groups. You don’t want anyone waiting too long for their turn to get involved.

Remember that these games are meant to add variety and fun, so try not to use the same ones too much or let the games go on for too long.


Graham Skerritt has an MA in English Language Teaching and Materials Development. He currently teaches English at two universities in Japan. He is also a freelance writer and editor of English language teaching materials. skerrittgraham@gmail.com