Children love playing games, particularly during school hours. Yet there's no need for alarm — playing is a good use of students' time. Fun experiences are memorable to the brain, which has been shown to help information stick — an especially important component to ESL learning.

The power of games became evident when I worked with teens whose traditional education consisted of book learning, copying information, worksheets and tests. The faces of these young people lit up when they saw that they were going to be able to play games in English class.

While some were able to supply the correct answers to grammatical and vocabulary questions on the assessment exam, they found speaking and understanding what I said particularly challenging. Through consistent game playing over the course of a semester, these students made significant progress in understanding and using the language in everyday situations.

Regardless of what I want to accomplish with my language learners, I have been able to find, adapt or invent a game to help facilitate that aim. Over the past 10 years, I have used a variety of games including a few commercial board games in small groups or centers. Once the students understand how I expect them to play a particular game in the English classroom, they can successfully play on their own while I focus on other students.

Differentiated learning with games

One of my favorites that's adaptable to different levels is a wooden Jenga game. To prepare the game for ESL learners, write the present tense form of one of the irregular past tense verbs on each block with a permanent marker.

I have found this game particularly useful in multilevel groups with up to eight players at a time. Beginners can read and try to pronounce the verb written on the block they extract from the tower. Other players or the teacher can tell them what it means, and they can write it in a notebook while the rest of the players take a turn.

Once they've been exposed to the verb, the next step is to confirm their comprehension by either translating it into their native language or making a sentence.

As students advance, they begin to work on changing the verbs into past tense and using them in sentences. Once they have mastered past tense, it's time to work with the preterit, which I have had students use in sentences in the perfect tenses or the passive.

I got this idea from Matthew Eisen, director of CiCi Idiomas, who uses a different color marker to write commonly-used regular verbs on the other side of the block. This helps students practice differentiating their pronunciation of the -ed ending depending on the preceding consonant.

Adjective-noun order plus

Another game that children regularly request and I've gotten a lot of mileage out of is Guess Who, a guessing by deduction game that has fun little doors you can open and close. I began to use it to emphasize adjective-verb order for students who speak Spanish where the adjectives are used in the opposite order with respect to the nouns.

One side of the card features human faces, which has proven an excellent vocabulary builder for facial features, hair color and accessories. The other side that has animals gives students the opportunity to learn and practice words like whiskers, feathers and reptile.

It has now become my favorite way to help my students practice forming yes-no questions in the third-person singular. In some cases they have to begin using "is," as in "Is your animal a reptile?" In other cases, they must use "does," as in "Does your animal have whiskers?" I write these two options for forming questions on the board until the group catches on.

You can use the classroom edition with individual face cards, as detailed by Minnesota-based education consultant Darice Cunniff, who has even created a personalized version that features school students and staff.

On the other hand, you can use the two-player version and have students work with a partner, pairing a student who speaks little English with one who is more advanced. As they take turns questioning the other team, the more advanced student acts as a coach and reinforces his or her own comprehension.

Empowering learners while reinforcing vocabulary

My staple for teaching all kinds vocabulary is What's Missing? — a memory game where one item in a group of objects is removed and students have to identify which one is missing.

Amazingly, it has been as successful with 4-year-olds as with adults. Teachers can play it with the whole class using large cards on the board at the front of the classroom or with smaller groups of up to 12 students at a table with either cards featuring photos or actual objects.

Children particularly love having the opportunity to select the item and direct the others by saying "close your eyes" and "open your eyes." The student may not yet know the vocabulary well enough to be able to tell the others whether they've guessed correctly or not, but they feel so empowered by being the decision-maker and director that they usually don't notice that I step in to help out.

I would love to hear from you. Share your personal favorites for playing and learning in the ESL classroom.