Number Games and Activities for the EFL Classroom
Numbers are something that are taught to students relatively early on. This is not surprising since, without numbers, learners are unable to perform many of the basic functional tasks associated with language learning, such as telling the time, paying for goods and services, or completing forms with dates. Once they have been introduced, numbers often aren’t revised through the course of the students’ studies, other than when it comes to dealing with the kinds of functional tasks already mentioned. This is a shame since it is good to try to get your students so familiar with numbers that their use becomes second nature. Also, because there are lots of fun activities that can be used to practise numbers! We thought we would use this blog to list some of our favourite number-based activities, many of which require little or no preparation, and can be used as warmers and fillers when you have a spare five or ten minutes. We have also provided ideas for one or two longer activities.
1. Quick dictations
Using quick dictations is an easy way to get students to hone their listening skills. Keep the activities, light and fun and vary the pace. There are lots of variations, including:
- Spelling test dictations. Dictate the numbers and have students write them in word form. Have volunteers read back the spellings to check, or have them peer-check with a partner.
- Phone number dictations. This time have them just record the digits. The focus here is on developing listening skills, so try to vary the speed and clarity of the dictation and whisper, mumble, speed up and slow down.
- Number string building. Start by dictating a string of four numbers. Don’t allow the learners to start writing until you have finished speaking. Increase your string of numbers to five, then six, then seven, continuing to lengthen the string. See who can remember and write down the longest string accurately. If you want to be really mean you can get them to try to remember a string of numbers without writing them down and tell them you will test them later. Continue with the lesson and then, when it’s a convenient point in the lesson, have them try to remember and write down the numbers you dictated earlier. This is also a good way of demonstrating the difference between long-term and short-term memory. Most students are unlikely to be able to remember more than seven digits because of the limits of short-term memory – so it is a good way of demonstrating why students need to review and revise and process vocabulary so that it is transferred to long-term storage.
- Silent dictation. Mouth the numbers without saying them, and have the students watch your lips to work out which numbers you are dictating. This helps students focus and encourages the use of visual skills that can help comprehension in real-life situations.
2. Counting rhymes and songs
Younger students love rhymes and songs, and they are a great way of getting learners to have fun and become familiar with numbers at the same time. A lot of these traditional songs have actions too, which will help them to remember the numbers more easily. There are so many traditional counting rhymes and songs that it should be easy to find some that your learners love. Always start by teaching the songs without the written version – so they can get a sense of the natural pronunciation and rhythm. However, once they are familiar with the songs, there are loads of great free printable resources online, so learners can start to associate the words they are singing with the written version.
3. Back writing
Have students draw a number (or series of numbers) on the back of a fellow student using their forefinger. Their partners must guess which numbers are being drawn. To make the activity more challenging, have the finger-writers spell out the numbers rather than just write the digits.
4. List-building with numbers
Use a traditional list-building activity such as ‘I went shopping and I bought...’, but have the students add a quantity to each item: ‘I went shopping and I bought four apples’, ‘I went shopping and I bought four apples and 500g of cheese’, etc.
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I’ve seen this game go by a few different names, but it’s basically a circle counting game, with sounds or actions replacing designated numbers. You can decide how complicated to make it, based on the level of your students – and how confident you are in implementing the rules! With the learners in a circle, start by getting them to count from one upwards, going around the circle, each student saying a number. Once they have gone around the circle once, introduce the first rule. Gradually introduce further rules - it’s important they get used to each rule before introducing the next one. Here’s one version, increasing in difficulty:
- Rule 1: If your number is divisible by three, say ‘fizz’ instead.
- Rule 2: If your number is divisible by five, say ‘buzz’ instead.
- Rule 3: if it’s divisible by three and five, say ‘fizz-buzz’.
- Rule 4: whenever anyone says ‘fizz’ or ‘buzz’, change direction.
- Rule 5: If your number has a three in it, you must also say ‘fizz’; if it has a five in it, you must also say ‘buzz’.
- Rule 6: you must now apply all the rules together. So, for example, 30 = ‘fizz, fizz, buzz’; 31 = ‘fizz’; 32 = ‘fizz’; 33 = ‘fizz, fizz’; 34 = ‘fizz’; 35 = ‘fizz, fizz, buzz, buzz’... and so on.
If someone makes a mistake or pauses for too long, they must drop out.
6. Don’t be twenty
This is another circle counting game, but slightly less stressful! Count around the circle. Each person can say one, two or three numbers in sequence. The object is to avoid being the person who says the number ‘twenty'. Whoever is forced to say the number ‘twenty’ drops out and the count starts again with the next person. Continue until only one person remains. You can use a higher or lower number, depending on the size of your class – or even change the number each round.
Organise your students into small groups and give each group enough tokens for each person to have three. Each person puts their hands behind their back and secretly places zero, one, two or three tokens in their hand. Everyone brings their hands out from behind their backs. Players go around the circle, trying to guess in turn how many tokens there are in total. Once a number has been guessed, subsequent players cannot guess the same number. This is a more tactical game than it sounds, as players’ guesses may give clues as to how many tokens they have in their own hand. For a more sophisticated version, you can use coins of three different values. Players then try to guess the total value rather than the number of coins.
With younger learners, use dot-to-dot activities to provide practice of number recognition and sequencing. You can buy books of dot-to-dot pictures quite cheaply, and there are also lots of free downloads available online. Use pictures related to the vocabulary, topics and themes you are currently covering.
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9. Rank Ordering
Rank ordering activities are a great way of getting students to practise ordinal numbers. Take a series of words or statements and have students discuss and order them according to a given criterion. For example animals (smallest to largest, best pet to worst pet; most dangerous to least dangerous, etc.)
10. Maths Bingo
Bingo is always a popular game with students, but rather than calling out simple numbers, call out sums. Students cross off any numbers that give the solution to the sum. For example, rather than the number twelve, you could call out 7+5 or 3x4 or 20-8.
11. Number Quizzes
Students seem to love quizzes, and number quizzes open up a number of different options. For example:
- Number quizzes can be done like a traditional quiz – just use questions which have numbers for answers.
- Divide students into groups and choose quiz questions with answers that students are unlikely to know but require them to guess. The closest to the correct answer wins.
- Here is a variant of the above, but you’ll need a calculator. Students play the quiz in groups. After each question, each group member writes down their guess. Guesses are revealed simultaneously and the average answer from each group is calculated. Simply add the guesses together and divide by the number of people in the group. Here is an example of a quiz you can download which can be used in this way.
12. Task Sheets
Prepare a task sheet which requires students to practise talking about, measuring and manipulating numbers – depending on the task, you may need to provide tape measures or other measuring devices. Students should work in groups. Examples of tasks:
- How many legs are there in the room? (This is quite a nice task, as they have to think in terms of all different kinds of legs – human, chair, table, etc.)
- Calculate the area of your desk.
- Find out who is the youngest person in the room.
- Total the shoe sizes of the people in your group.
- If your group all write their full names, how many times does the letter ‘e’ appear?
We would love to know in the comments how you use numbers in your EFL classroom.
Written by Mike Turner