Card Games


My school's English club is called ESS. Perhaps it stands for "English Speaking Society". In any case, we meet once a week and do activities like card games, board games, watching TV shows or movies, and occasionally arts and crafts and movie making. Games are a great way to relax and have fun while speaking English, and I want to share my favorite games with you. Some of these you probably already know, but even if you know them, perhaps you haven't realized how well they can work for English club or even a small English class. I've successfully played these games with elementary, junior, and senior high school students.


Go Fish

This game is good for three to six players. To paraphrase Wikipedia...

Seven cards are dealt to each player. The remaining cards are shared between the players, usually spread out in a disorderly pile referred to as the "ocean". The player whose turn it is to play asks another player for his or her cards of a particular face value. For example, Alice may ask, "Bob, do you have any threes?" Bob must hand over all cards of that rank if possible. If he has none, Bob tells Alice to "go fish", and Alice draws a card from the pool and places it in her own hand. When a player at any time has a pair, he or she plays it face-up on the table. Play proceeds clockwise. The goal of the game is to run out of cards. The first person to run out of cards wins, the second person takes second, and so on.


This game is good because some English is built into the rules. Players have to ask other players for cards, and when they're passing cards they should also use language like "Here you are." and "Thank you." This is a good chance to practice non-genuine uses of "You're welcome."

Old Maid

Old Maid is a simple game that exists in many countries with different names. It doesn't have many speaking requirements unless you make the rules clear. To paraphrase Wikipedia...

Using a regular deck, either remove three queens or add exactly one joker. The unmatchable card becomes the "old maid," and whoever holds it at the end of the game is the loser. Deal all of the cards to the players. Some players may have more cards than others; this is acceptable. Players look at their cards and discard any pairs they have. Starting from the dealer, each player takes turns offering his or her hand face-down to the person on his or her left. That person selects a card and adds it to his or her hand. If the selected card forms a pair, the pair is discarded face up. The player who just took a card then offers his or her hand to the person to their left, and so on. The objective of the game is to run out of cards. One player will be left with the unmatchable card, the "old maid", and loses.

Although students like this game because it's simple and exciting, there aren't many places where speaking is required. When you're stating the rules, require that players say the numbers and suits of pairs when they play them. Also, only play the game once or twice. It's fun but light on speaking and so should be used sparingly.

Apples to Apples

Apples to Apples is a commercial game, but you can make your own deck if you're on a low budget or enjoy the fun. (For example, here's my deck and word list.) If you make your own deck, you can choose vocabulary that your students are likely to know. Alternately, if you're buying the commercial game, choose a family or kids version, if that suits the level of your students better.

There are two kinds of cards: noun cards and adjective cards. Players are dealt seven noun cards. One player goes first. That player chooses an adjective card at random, says it aloud, and places it face up on the table. Each other player chooses one noun card from their hand that they think matches the adjective and places it face-down on the table. The first player mixes up the noun cards, flips them face up while saying the words aloud, and chooses which card he or she thinks best fits the adjective. The person who played that noun card gets the adjective card, which is worth one point. The table is cleared, and each player who played a noun card draws one more. Rotate clockwise. The game ends when you run out of time or noun cards.

This game is great for junior and senior high school students. It's also a good way to get to know people, because comedy has value, so when you're choosing what card to play, you have to think about what the other person would find interesting.

Crazy Eights

My mom taught me Crazy Eights when I was young. Years later I saw Uno at a friend's house and realized that Uno was a clever commercial variant of this classic game. To paraphrase Wikipedia...

Eight cards are dealt to each player. If there are six or more players, use two decks. The remaining cards of the deck are placed face down on the table. The top card is turned face up to start the game. Players discard by matching rank or suit with the top card of the discard pile, starting with the player left of the dealer. If a player is unable to match the rank or suit of the top card of the discard pile and does not have an eight, he or she draws cards from the stockpile until getting a playable card. When a player plays an eight, he or she must declare the suit that the next player is to play; that player must then follow the named suit or play another eight. The player who runs out of cards first is the winner. Stop when the first person runs out of cards or continue until only one person remains as time dictates.

In this game, when a player plays a card, he or she must say the suit and value of the card aloud. If he or she forgets, and another player notices — "You forgot to speak!" — they have to draw a card.


Uno is just a modern tweak on Crazy Eights. Since it's an international game and students may have played it in using their native language at home, if you play it at school, be sure to create firm rules about speaking English. Whenever a player plays a card, they must say the card and color. If they don't, and another player calls them on it — "You forgot to speak!" — then they have to draw a card.

Playing Uno requires an Uno deck. If I were choosing games, I would choose Crazy Eights, because it can be played using a regular deck of playing cards, and more importantly, students have to listen to your explanation of the rules. Still, from time to time students make specific requests for Uno, and if they request it, I'd say go for it.


Rummy is fun but complicated, so you probably only want to play it with high school students or older in groups of three to five.

Deal each player seven cards. Put the remaining cards in a pile face down on the table, and flip the top card over, face up. The person clockwise from the dealer goes first. At the start of the player's turn, he or she draws a card. Then, he or she can play anything as noted below. At end the turn, he or she must discard a card. Continue clockwise. When a person runs out of cards, the hand ends.

Legal plays:

When the hand ends, it is scored. Cards you played are added to your point total. Cards in your hand are subtracted from your point total.

Rummy gets better with repeated plays. If you only play one hand, that could be a good way for students to practice understanding instructions, but if you have the time and energy to play several, it will get more fun. Tactics and strategy matter a lot, and older students will figure some of them out.


Hearts is a fun game if you play it for a long time. In most ESL situations, your time is limited, and I wouldn't recommend it. Still, if you have the right situation with the right group of students, there are interesting high-level tactics that can make the game fun for people of high school age and up.