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Grammar Sets – a grammar game

Think back for a moment to when you were a young student in school learning your own native language. Remember how much you loved studying grammar, how much you cherished your grammar book? Remember how much you looked forward to your next grammar lesson? How excited everyone in the class would become in anticipation of it? 

Yeah, me neither. 

If only … If only there were some way to teach and to learn grammar that was interesting, engaging—maybe even fun. Something that would both require and motivate the students to notice and figure out grammar patterns for themselves—but in a way that they enjoyed. If only … 

Hey, wait a minute!—I know! Let’s make a game of it! And let’s call the game — Hmmmm, let’s see now … 

… let’s call it Grammar Sets. 

 

 

                                                                     

 

Hold on to your hat now, and gird your loins. It’s going to take me a lot of words to explain this—but it really isn’t that complicated. 

Really. 

Besides, there’s a link at the end of this blog post to a YouTube video in which you can see the game in action. So trust me, and stick with me. 

 

                                                                     

 

A grammar set consists of several tiles, each tile with a word or short phrase printed on it. Properly arranged, the tiles will make a sentence. In addition to these tiles with text, the grammar set also includes one tile with an image depicting the sentence. 

 


So one grammar set = one sentence + an associated image. 

Each family of Grammar Sets includes several sets, each set addressing the same specific grammar point—for example, present simple, or present continuous, or yes/no questions. 

 


This is the
future (“be going to”) Grammar Set family. The color coding (in this case, blue borders) makes it easy to keep it separate from other families. 

You can design your own Grammar Sets, or print out and use mine. I will give links to printable PDFs of mine at the end. 

 

A single game of Grammar Sets uses the sets from one Grammar Family. In the course of play, each player seeks to acquire tiles that will complete a set and form a sentence. Of course, the player must also figure out the correct order into which to put the pieces. 

Grammar Sets is meant to be played by a small group class, and you want to have at least one set per player so that each player will have the opportunity to solve at least one set, forming one sentence. The classes at my language classroom have a maximum of six students, so each of the grammar families I have made for my own classes consists of six sets to be solved, and therefore six sentences to be formed. If you have larger classes, you could have duplicates of some of the sets so that there is at least one set for each player. 

I have also made some simple tile holders to hold the tiles so they will not be seen by other players, but these are optional.  

 

 

                                                                     

 

HOW TO PLAY

I have two ways of playing Grammar Sets that have worked well. 

 

“PASS TO THE LEFT” PLAY

“Dealing” the tiles 

I like to put all the tiles face down in the middle of the table. This is called the pot. Then, together, we all count the tiles, then count the players. I then ask, “What is [the number of tiles] divided by [the number of players]?” This is natural, meaningful communication that brings a touch of math into the activity. For example, 24 tiles divided by 6 players means 4 tiles per player. (24 ÷ 6 = 4) 

Each player then takes that many of the face-down tiles. (It’s fine if the numbers don’t work out evenly. Some players can have one more tile than some other players.) 

Passing  

Decide on a set time (let’s say 10 seconds—I recommend using a timer) for the players to look at their tiles and decide which they wish to keep, and which one they wish to discard. When the timer beeps, each player passes the tile they don’t want to keep, face down, to the player on their left, all players passing in the same direction at the same time. (A player must pass one of the tiles in their hand before picking up the tile passed to them.) 

This continues, every 10 seconds each player passing a tile they don’t want to the player on their left, and receiving a tile from the player on their right. The goal is to keep tiles that go together, and eventually complete a set: a sentence plus the associated image tile. 

Declaring solutions 

In my classes, when someone completes a sentence, I have them show it and read it to the other students. I ask the other students if they agree with the solution. I usually then confirm their judgement or correct it. 

Note that this is the point where new learning takes place. If someone doesn’t know the target structure, seeing another student’s solution introduces them to the pattern. Seeing more solutions, as they are presented, further familiarizes them with the new pattern. 

Even if no one in the group knows the pattern at the start, they can take their best guesses (there are no penalties for incorrect solutions) until someone hits on a correct solution. 

If you know anything about my teaching philosophy, you know that I believe in giving the students the precious opportunity to figure out new language for themselves. This game does exactly that. 

Play can continue until all the grammar sets in the family are completed. 

TIP: In some cases, if all the students agree on an incorrect solution, you may wish to allow the mistake to go uncorrected. As the game progresses, someone will eventually get stuck, unable to finish their set. The students can then work together, with some guidance from the teacher if necessary, to figure out where they went wrong.

 

“POTLUCK” PLAY

The Potluck version of the rules can be used from the outset instead of the Pass to the Left rules. But I often begin with Pass to the Left play, and then switch to Potluck play later if things get bogged down. Pass to the Left seems to get everyone in the group on the same wavelength; switching to the Potluck rules usually gets things unstuck and allows the game to be finished without undue frustration. 

“Dealing” the tiles 

Potluck starts off the same as Pass to the Left: all the tiles are put face down in the center, creating the pot. As with Pass to the Left play, each player draws the same number of tiles, depleting the pot. 

Passing

Again, as with Pass to the Left, players look at their tiles, decide which tiles they want to keep to try to complete a set, and which tiles they wish to discard. 

But here’s where Potluck differs: Instead of passing one tile to the left at specified time intervals, each player can discard as many of their tiles as they wish, face-down, into the middle of the table—the pot. And they can do so at any time. However many tiles they discard, they can take up the same number of tiles discarded by other players. (This is why it’s called Potluck!) 

It is important that a player picks up only as many new tiles as old tiles they have already discarded. In this way, a player may never have more tiles in their ‘hand’ than they started with. 

Declaring solutions 

You can do this the same way as you do for Pass to the Left play. 

To clarify and confirm:  In Potluck, three things are different from Pass to the Left: 

• A player may give up any number of tiles at once, 

  picking up the same number of new tiles. 

• Unwanted tiles are put in the pot, not passed to the left. 

• Each player may discard tiles at any time, independent of other players. 

 

FOLLOW-UP: 

● Once all the sentences are complete, I like to go over them all again briefly with the students. Then I show the students one image tile at a time—all other tiles out of view—and ask the students for the sentence that describes each image. 

In this way, the students are challenged to recall and produce coherent, meaningful sentences that follow the target grammar structure. This reinforces the learning while the memory of the solutions is still fresh in their minds. 

To push for fluency, you could play ‘Beat the Clock.’ Simply time how long it takes the students to produce all the sentences orally, using the image tiles as cues as explained above. Then go around again, encouraging them to try to beat their own previous time. I usually do this three times altogether. 

● You could also have the students write the finished sentences (and perhaps draw the images) in their notebooks. 

● If the students are up to it, have them make up new, novel sentences (and perhaps draw images) of their own, using the target structure. 

 

                                                                     

 

Before we get to the links for the printable PDFs, here are two links for YouTube videos:

a video showing the game in action 

and 

a video showing how I make game tiles 


And now, as promised, here are links to printable PDFs of some of the Grammar Sets I have made for my own classes: 

PDF for present continuous tense 

PDF for “have / don’t have” 

PDF for “There is / There are” (including prepositional phrases) 

 

You are welcome to respond to this blog entry with any questions or comments you may have.

Alan Miesch

Alan Miesch

After years as a ‘professional dabbler’, Alan Miesch found himself drawn into teaching English to non-native English learners. He has experience in a wide range of milieus, both in the United States and Japan, teaching young children, teens, and adults. He is now the proprietor and sole teacher at a private English classroom in Numazu, Japan.
Alan Miesch

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7 Responses to Grammar Sets – a grammar game

  1. Thank you for showing these games. Looks fun and interesting! Can’t wait to try them with my students.

    P.S. Are there more grammar sets available by chance?

    • Hi, David. Thanks for commenting.

      I have made a total of 23 sets for my classroom. For most of the targets I have covered, I have multiple sets. For example, I have made three sets each for “have/don’t have”, future using “be going to”, and present continuous.
      On the other hand, I have just one set for “Why?” and a complementary set for “Because …”
      And so on.

      I didn’t post all of them because … well, “mendokusai” for one thing. And I didn’t know how many people would actually bother to download them for their own use. I figured a lot of people might prefer to make their own, to suit their own needs and preferences.
      If enough people expressed interest, I would be willing to post more of the sets I have made. Anyone can make requests here in this comment section, or email me at alan@english-alive.net.

  2. Corinne Shinozaki

    These are great! Thanks Alan. I think you could use the tile holders from a scrabble game, but not sure of the size. How did you make your tile holders?

  3. Hi, Corinne! Thanks for you comment.

    You are absolutely right–Scrabble tile holders are perfect for this, as long as the game tiles fit on them. So it depends on the size you make your game tiles. (Mine are 3.2 cm high.)

    I looked around for something like Scrabble tile holders, but couldn’t find them. So I just bought some lengths of wood with a triangular cross-section (90, 45, and 45 degree angles) and cut them into lengths of about 22 cm. Then I got lengths of wood 1 cm x 1/2 cm, cut them into strips of the same length, and attached them to the triangular pieces. You can use glue, two-sided tape, or even small nails or screws to attach them.

    I hope that helps!

  4. Hi Alan, thanks so much for sharing these incredible resources. I’ve been making something similar with sets of dice but I’m sure my students would love & benefit from these sets of yours. I’d be really interested in the other sets too. In exchange perhaps you’d be interested in my dice games. Have a look: https://bilingual-communications.weebly.com/blog/the-proven-value-of-games-songs-for-learning-english-due-to-their-repetitive-nature-which-favours-memorisation
    Looking forward to receiving other sets of yours,
    Best regards,
    Susan Brodar

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