6 Games and Puzzles to Improve Your English

If you’re learning English – or indeed, any other language – games and puzzles can be a great way to practise and improve.

If you are learning English at school, you will probably have encountered some games and exercises in your lessons, using flashcards and other game devices to study. In your own time, you might even have switched the language of your phone, Facebook or favourite video game into English, or taken to watching your favourite films in English (with or without subtitles) to increase your exposure. There are many ways different to practice and improve your English, from speaking to increasing your vocabulary, to improving your spelling, and games can be a fun way of doing this. If you’d like to try more fun ways to practise your English, whether on your own or with friends, read on.

 On your own


1. Wordsearches

What are they?

A square of letters in which words are hidden horizontally, vertically or diagonally. You’re given a list of words and required to find them all. Sometimes there won’t be a list, but instead an instruction, such as “find as many words to do with cooking as you can”, where the wordsearch might include “frying pan”, “mixing” and “oven”.
How do they help you practise your English?
We’re not going to pretend that wordsearches are the most exciting of games. They’re a way to fill a short moment of boredom at best, and on their own they won’t contribute much to your language-learning. But if you make sure to look up any words that you didn’t know from the wordsearch and write down the definitions, they can be a good way of building vocabulary. Even better, you could try making your own and exchanging them with friends.

2. Crosswords

What are they?
A grid of white and shaded squares, which you fill in with letters to form words going horizontally and diagonally. There is a clue for each word, which could be a simple general knowledge question (e.g. 7 across, the capital of Chile) or a harder ‘cryptic’ clue, which involves definitions and wordplay, often anagrams, and are written in a type of code language of their own.
How do they help you practise your English?

Simple (i.e. non-cryptic) crosswords are a straightforward way to expand your vocabulary, especially into the general knowledge realms not usually covered in language lessons. Many clues also rely on synonyms (e.g. a madman (7 letters) might be a ‘lunatic’), which similarly helps in gaining a broader vocabulary. If you’re finding the crossword too difficult, be aware that if you have a letter or two, there are a huge number of crossword solvers on the internet, where you can input the letters you have and they will suggest a list of possible words. For instance, for the example of lunatic, you might have ? U ? ? T ? ? for your seven letters, and a crossword solver would provide audited, curator, Jupiter, lunatic, mutated, puritan and quarter among others, where the exercise of working out which of many options is correct is valuable in its own right.
If you can get up to managing cryptic crosswords, you’ll probably be approaching an impressive degree of fluency. Not only that, but as cryptic crosswords frequently rely on knowledge of puns, popular culture and other ideas not usually taught in a classroom, you’ll also be getting better integrated into English culture as well.

3. Codewords

What are they?

Like a crossword in appearance, but with no clues. Each box is labelled with a number from 1 to 26, which stands for a letter. Normally, one or two letters have already been filled in for you. You then figure out the rest of the letters by looking at which words could fit the letters you already have, and the frequency and placement of letters you already have (e.g. if there’s a repeated sequence of three numbers at the ends of words, there’s a decent chance they’ll be i, n, g).
How do they help you practise your English?
If your first language is spelled very differently from English, codewords are a great way to get your head around common English spelling patterns – learning, for instance, that if you’ve ended up with a word that appears to start sr then you’ve gone wrong somewhere, or that the letter q is invariably followed by u, or that English uses a frankly excessive amount of the letter e. Of course, codeword writers will try to trip you up, too – they have an inordinate fondness for words like rhythm and xylophone. All the same, given it’s very hard to learn English orthography through memorising rules (as you’d mostly be memorising exceptions), codewords help you get a feel for English spelling as it actually operates, so you’ll start to be able to tell when a spelling looks right, even if you’ve never come across the word.

With friends


4. Articulate

What is it?
The official licensed version is described as “the fast talking description game” – but you can improvise your own version quite easily. The basic principle is that one person is given a word (which could be anything from ‘swim’ to ‘condor’ to ‘confession’) and they are then required to describe the
word so that their teammate can guess what it is as quickly as possible. They aren’t allowed to use rhyme, length of word or derivatives (e.g. not ‘it’s what a swimmer does’ for ‘swim’). With two people, you’d have to use a source for the words such as a random generator; with three, you could have one person provide the word, one person describe it and the third person guess. With more than that, you can arrange teams to guess competitively or however suits you.
How does it help you practise your English?
Winning Articulate isn’t about producing grammatically perfect sentences; it’s about getting your meaning across as quickly as possible. So if you’re a nervous English speaker, it’s a great way to get yourself speaking English more confidently and with less fear of making mistakes. A contestant, getting the word ‘wings’, might say something like,
“They’re things that flap… birds have got them. And so do flies, and aeroplanes… they’re things you fly with…”
… which is not grammatically beautiful, but would (hopefully) give their team-mate enough help to win the point. What’s more, the game works for people at all levels of English. You can start with simple words like ‘school’ or ‘car’, and then move on to harder abstract ideas like ‘art’ or ‘confession’ when you’re ready for them.

5. Just a Minute

What is it?
Just a Minute uses some of the same skills as Articulate, but is much harder. The game is based on a Radio 4 quiz show of the same name, but listening to that first is likely to terrify you. The principle is that you take two to four people and an organiser. The organiser provides the first player with a topic, which could be something like ‘my favourite summer holiday’. The player then has to speak on that topic for a minute (though beginners might want to start with a shorter time period, like 30 seconds) without hesitation (no pauses – you could set an acceptable pause length if your English is at a lower level), repetition (no saying the same word twice, except very basic words like ‘and’ and ‘the’, or the words included in the topic) or deviation (no changing the subject).

If the other players spot hesitation, repetition or deviation, they can challenge the first player. If the organiser agrees that the challenge is valid, the challenger then takes over on the subject for the remaining time. Whoever is speaking at the minute mark gets a point. So an example game might go like this:
Organiser: Player one, you have one minute on the topic of ‘my favourite summer holiday’, starting now [starts the clock].
Player one: My favourite summer holiday was when my family and I went to the south of France. Nice is really very beautiful at that time of year. We had never been there before but the sea was wonderfully blue and there was lots of swimming which I really enjoyed –
Player two: Challenge, repetition of ‘really’.
Organiser: Challenge accepted. One point to player two, and player two has 40 seconds on the topic of ‘my favourite summer holiday’.
Player two: My favourite summer holiday was not in the south of France nor in the east of Spain or the northwestern of Norway but in the very exact precise middle of the USA where nothing very much –
Player one: Challenge, repetition of ‘very’.
… and so on.
How does it help you practise your English?
Playing Just a Minute has many of the same advantages as playing Articulate, though it’s much more challenging, even if you water it down by allowing brief hesitation or cutting the time limit to 30 seconds. It’s particularly good if you’re inclined to rely on the same sentence constructions again and again, as it forces you to try new things or risk being challenged for repetition.

6. Would I Lie to You?

What is it?
Another game based on a BBC panel show, Would I Lie to You takes a little bit of planning and, ideally, a larger group of people (one of whom needs to be content to organise, rather than play – though that can be just as much fun). Everyone sends the organiser two unlikely truths about themselves (e.g. ‘When camping one time, my family couldn’t find the campsite so we put up our tent in the middle of a motorway roundabout’), and the organiser compiles a long list of similar-sounding lies.

The players are then split into two teams and given a series of notecards, which they are not allowed to look at. The cards might contain the player’s unlikely truth, or they might contain a lie the organiser made up. Play then starts with the first player reading out whatever is on their first card. If it’s a lie, they want the opposite team to think it’s true; if it’s true, they want the opposite team to think it’s a lie. The opposite team can ask lots of questions (it might be wise to set a time limit) to figure out if it’s a lie or not. If they guess correctly, they get a point; if not, the player gets a point. This then goes around the players and the teams until everyone has had a chance to read at least one card (though you could do two or three depending on how many players you have). Whoever has the most points at the end wins.
How does it help you practise your English?
Stripped down to its essentials, this game isn’t much different from any boring roleplay or question-and-answer session you’ve done in lessons to practise speaking English confidently. You speak for a short while about something you may know lots about, or may have to bluff your way through, and then other people ask you questions to try and call your bluff. The difference, of course, is that this is a lot more fun – the unlikely truths tend to be quite funny stories, and someone trying and failing to bluff their way through a particularly dodgy lie can be good fun too.

This game is even better with a group of people who are only acquaintances, rather than good friends (as good friends are likely to know all of each other’s odd stories already), and can be good as an ice-breaker, too. The element of not knowing whether it’ll be a truth or a lie you have to tell makes it better than its more common alternative, Two Truths and a Lie.
At the same time, you don’t need to have a high level of English to make this work (unlike, say, Just a Minute). You probably don’t need a command of more than the present and simple past tenses, and so long as your organiser takes the level of English of the group into account when inventing lies, you shouldn’t need too much by the way of vocabulary either. You could try lies like ‘I once ate so many carrots that my skin turned orange’ or ‘When I met Taylor Swift, I loaned her my jacket and she never gave it back’.
Do you have any suggestions for games and puzzles that helped you learn English?