Teaching ESL: My Top 3 Spelling Games

Grades: Elementary 1st – 4th

Fluency Levels: Beginner to Advanced

When I first started teaching I was always trying to find ways to fill the time. My first year or so was an embarrassing mess. The elementary students became bored more easily than expected. Those early days were spent endlessly repeating words, reading passages over and over, and moving through the books way too fast. I remember my boss getting angry when we finished a book too soon because I didn’t know what else to do. I had to learn some new strategies and techniques for keeping younger children entertained and more importantly, excited to learn English! Nowadays, I could easily fill a three hour block with activities, with or without materials.

Some of the first games I started playing with my students were spelling games. Usually, schools had a list of spelling words or vocabulary for the kids to learn. If not, I would just make a random list. Here are some ideas for your list.

  • Scan the material for the day and find about 10-15 words.
  • No material? Then pick your own words to go along with the theme.
  • No theme either? (Some schools do that…) Make a list up and just have fun with it. An upcoming season or holiday? Local events? It’ll be like an ice breaker!

Introducing and teaching the words can take anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes if you include a definition or part of speech. However, these being spelling games, I usually keep it quick and simple and focus on phonics. Definition games can come later!

*Note: These games were either found online or suggested by other teachers. There’s a whole bunch of amazing games out there, but over the last 10 years these have always been my students top favorites!

1. The Little Man


Grades: 1st – 4th (I’ve found the higher grades think this game is childish)

Level: Beginner to Advanced

Objective: Spell the word on the board and the fastest (and neatest) speller wins. They can erase one body part. When the entire man is erased, the game is over!

Points: You can draw up to 10 body parts for a long game or 6 parts for a shorter game.

Playing the game: This game takes up very little space so sometimes I leave the word list on the board for younger players. For the more advanced, I erase the list and they have to spell it on their own. The students should stand back a few steps and start writing only after a word has been said. Once they are finished writing the word, they should step back to show they are done. For younger students I sometimes have them hold their hands up. If they fix the word again, (or even touch it) then they are still on the board and not finished yet.

Things to consider…

  •  As the students try to go faster, the writing gets messier. If the faster speller is too messy, then the slower speller wins.
  • If they are both messy, I will have them spell a new word. If it happens again, then no points and it’s the next students turn.
  • Students will often complain about the other teams handwriting (even when they themselves are messy writers). This is a difficult problem to fix with students you aren’t familiar with. I will sometimes award extra points for neat handwriting, whether they won the round or not. If it gets out of hand, time to take away points for complaining. If they don’t like how you judge messy or neat handwriting then time to teach them the most important lesson: “Life isn’t fair.”  😦

2. Tic Tac Toe


Grades: 2nd – 5th (young students might not understand, but older ones like the strategy)

Level: Beginner – Advanced

Objective: This game is very similar to The Little Man in that the spellers have to write the word quickly in their chosen square. The fastest speller leaves the word on the grid, but the slower speller has to erase it. You can stop once a team has 3 words written in a row, or you can keep going until the grid is filled if you have a lot of time. A 3×3 grid has 8 Tic Tac Toe lines.

Let the games begin!
Each grid can hold up to 8 lines. The team on the right are the winners!

Playing the game: This game needs 2 grids so it takes up a lot of board space. For younger students I’ll also draw lines inside the boxes for them to write on. The same rules apply for writing quickly so they need to step back to show they are finished writing. If a word goes outside the box this isn’t a problem and I will just erase the part that went too far, not the whole word.

Things to consider…

  • You really need to explain the concept of 3 in a row. Many younger students will not understand that’s how to win the game or they will forget at some point.
  • If you don’t have enough words to continue a longer game without repeating some, you can draw over the words already on the board. Some students will claim it’s not fair if the other team can see a previous word on their grid. 0_o

3. Circle Game

Grades: 2nd – 6th (this game is harder so older students sometimes enjoy it)

Level: Intermediate – Advanced

Objective: Students will stand in a circle and spell out a word letter by letter. This is usually in a clockwise manner (to the left). After the last letter has been said, the next student says the word again and THEN the next student to the left will then be out. If a wrong letter is ever said, then that student will be automatically out. Play until only 1 student is standing.

Playing the game: When students make a circle they should be spaced out evenly to help the game be less confusing. Sometimes the students will group together and then get confused by who said what letter. It can get messy. As the go around the circle, they should say each letter loudly and clearly. If a student is out they can return to their chair or sit on the floor if it is clean. I usually let older students return to their chairs and younger students sit where they stand. You can stop when the last student is standing.

Things to consider…

  • This is a hard game for younger kids to grasp and I start them out very slowly. Sometimes I tell them the letters for the first couple of games. If they get a letter wrong then tell them the correct letter. After awhile they’ll get the hang of it!
  • Older students will get loud and silly for this game so you need to keep them in check, especially when announcing the words. My rule is if you didn’t hear the word then you’re out. I usually raise my hand when about to say the next word.
  • I will play 3 rounds of this game to give students a chance to win. When choosing the 1st player to start spelling, I usually choose the 1st one out from the last game. This makes them happy.
  • You can end when the last student is standing, but some students will get discouraged. It is a game of chance so sometimes I stop at the last 3 students to not hurt their feelings. : /


When teaching vocabulary it’s best to always start small and do the same steps over and over again. Repetition is best for training students on how to learn vocabulary. I’ve been using the exact same techniques for well over 8 years now and students love it. Step by step it looks like this:

  • Write the words on the board and pronounce each one. Have the students repeat and read them. Play some quick reading games!
  • After they have learned how to read them, have them practice spelling. Make sure they understand the phonics and any special rules.
  • Teach them the part of speech and definition. Read a definition and see if they can find and say the word.
  • Finally, have the students try to use words in sentences. Repeat a sentence with the word missing and see if they can find it.

The most important thing to remember is to have fun. The students will enjoy the class, which means you will enjoy teaching them. Don’t sweat the small stuff and if something isn’t working don’t force it, just move on to a new approach.

Happy Teaching!

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