While this site usually looks at how teachers can extend their repertoire of games, this post examines ways to bring new life to a game you already use. I mentioned this idea in a recent article I wrote for Voices and wanted to go into more detail here.


Every teacher has a few reliable and effective games or activities that they use a lot. While it’s important for teachers to build strategies they know they can rely on, if you keep reusing the same activities your lessons will become predictable and your students may get bored.

Also known as ‘hot seat’, backs to the board is extremely versatile game that most teachers probably know well. If you’re not familiar with it, you can follow this link to a quick description from teachingenglish.org.uk

Here are some ways to change how the game is played to make it more interesting, challenge students in different ways and test different skills. Think about other variations you could try.

Alter the Set up

It’s usually played with two teams, with each team describing the same word to a single guesser. Here are some alternative arrangements, each one solving a potential problem with the standard format:

  • Each team has a different word. Three points for being first, two points for second.

This prevents teams copying each other and means they will still keep trying after the other team has finished. Each team should go through the same set of words, but in a different order.

  • Three students work together to give clues to the rest of the class. They have 20 seconds. Change the group of three after each word.

This takes some pressure away from individual guessers and makes the game more cooperative. Great if a few students missed the vocabulary you’re revising.

  • All of the words on the board. Students play in pairs, taking it in turns to face away from the board. After the game they pick three words they found most difficult.

Once students know how to play the game they can play it independently. By having access to all of the words it’s easier for students to guess, but they can’t rely on other students doing the work for them. You can then do a quick follow up activity with the words students found most difficult.

Alternatively, if you have a few early finishers, you could throw in some words that lead into the next stage of the lesson, for example: words that you’re about to pre-teach for a reading or some clues about the context for the next topic.


Change the clues

The game normally allows students to describe the words any way they want, but with some restrictions you can encourage students to think more creatively and prevent them from taking shortcuts.

  • Students have to give their clues with their hands behind their backs.

The combination of description and mime can make the game too easy. With this rule students can’t act things out with their hands or with body language, they have to think more carefully about their descriptions.

  • Students mime the clues or give their clues silently with deliberate mouth movements

For lower levels and with words that have obvious actions, like sport for example, miming is a practical way to add meaning and help make the vocabulary more memorable.

Alternatively, ask students to focus on their mouth movements as they make their silent description. Then allow them time to explain what they were saying after each round. This could help students focus on the shapes they’re making to pronounce various sounds.

After seeing Adrian Underhill present in Toruń last year I’ve been keen to incorporate a wider range of pronunciation activities. If your students played this variant of the game and you monitored carefully, you could identify where students may be having difficulties with certain sounds because of how they are trying to form them.

  • Students can only give one sentence clues. Once a student gives a clue, they have to wait until another student speaks before they give another clue.

This restriction is intended to stop some students from dominating the game. It should encourage students to think before speaking and enforces turn taking. You could go further and limit students to single word clues, asking them to focus on collocations rather than descriptions.


Customising and adapting games

The changes above are far from extensive and you can find plenty of other adaptations online. When I was preparing this post I found a great article from Dylan Gates: 16 ways to play the Hot Seat game.

All of the adaptations above were designed to solve a problem. When you’re thinking about changes you could make to an activity, think about your class. What problems come up when they play it? How could you make it more challenging for them? What do they enjoy most about it?

Thanks for reading!

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I’ve written about adapting games before – here’s a link to some previous posts.