How to Tutor Unmotivated High School Students

Last year was my first year as a language assistant (or auxiliar) in Madrid, Spain. I was assigned an elementary school and worked primarily with first and second graders. Outside of my placement school, I also worked at another language academy which included a conversational class with high school boys: unmotivated, sassy, typical high-schoolers. Madre mía

I didn’t have to take on the class whatsoever, but I accepted the challenge after convincing myself I should gain some experience with older students.With much trial and error, I learned quite a bit about how to motivate a group of boys…a group of boys who would rather do anything else than take an after-school English lesson with a random American.

In retrospect, ESL games were my lifesavers and ended up making the classes more fun and engaging. The students weren’t big on participating in discussions and critical thinking, but I managed to squeeze in similar exercises a few times. My only form of feedback was seeing how my students responded to my lesson plans. At one point, my boss gave me some feedback, “His mom said he doesn’t complain about going to class as much as last year, so you must be doing something right.” ¡Olé! 

With help from Pinterest, YouTube, and advice from other auxiliares, I’ve formulated a list of the best ESL games that worked for my classes. Obviously these games will vary in success based upon the students’ level of English. My students’ language abilities varied significantly, but we managed!

Word Chain

Begin with writing a word on the board. The students have to take the last letter of the word you wrote and write a new word. This continues for one minute and the team or player with the most correctly spelled word wins. For example: rabbit, table, elephant, trip, playing, great, train…

This is a great warm-up exercise or a way to review vocabulary if you want to play with a specific theme. 

20 Questions

20 Questions is a good way to get the quiet students to participate. I often gave one student an English word and let the other students work through the activity without my help. It’s also good practice for speaking in full sentences, Is it an animal? Has it got fur? Does it live in the jungle? Can it run fast?/Yes, it can. No, it can’t. Yes, it does. No, it doesn’t…


Students of any age LOVE writing on the whiteboard or chalkboard. My students jumped at any opportunity to stand up to participate. Pictionary is another great game for reviewing vocabulary in a fun and engaging way. I often gave the student a word rather than them using one of their own. 


Classic Hangman is always a favorite and is more challenging when you play with full sentences. I often played Hangman with my high schoolers for vowel practice because they still had trouble saying which letter they wanted.

The English vowel sounds are difficult for Spanish students, especially i, a, and e. Even though Spanish and English share the same vowels, they have different pronunciations. For example, the “i” in Spanish is pronounced as “e” in English. This is a consistent struggle with my first graders…no matter how many times we repeat it. 

Name Scramble

Another warm-up game is Name Scramble. I wrote each student’s name on a piece of paper and ripped each letter out separately. The goal is to see how many words they can spell, rearranging the letters in their name. If a student’s name was short, I added their last name as well.

I also had each student write a list of all the words they were coming up with. There were a number of words spelled incorrectly, so it was a good way to review spelling. My students loved competition, so I timed them as well. 

Name Chain

Similar to Word Chain, you can start the game with each student’s name and continue creating new words with the last letter. Álvaro, owl, lightning, grow, water, race, earring, giant…


I didn’t play Jeopardy with my class until I got to know their level a bit better and they felt more comfortable with me as a tutor. You can create dozens of categories and questions: animals, means of transportation, celebrities, English verbs, world capitals, etc. I had enough students to play in competing teams, and they loved totaling their final scores. 

Flash Card Stories

My placement school has a storage room full of books, flashcards, and other materials. I borrowed a handful of flashcards with people, animals, plants, vehicles, etc. To play Flash Card Stories, I lined up the cards on the chalkboard and gave the students 5-10 minutes to come up with a story involving at least three of the flashcards as characters. I thought this would be a disaster, but they responded quite well despite their varying levels. 

Once each student was finished, we went around and shared our stories (I participated as well) out loud. I helped each student correct any verb conjugations or sentence structure if needed. 

Weird Drawing Description

Another creative speaking exercise can be accomplished with a weird drawing. I drew a scene with obscure situations, for example: An elephant on top of a house with no door is gazing down upon a group of people who each has three arms. You can draw anything. Each student takes turns describing the situation. This is more fun than describing a picture out of a book or a scene that is ordinary!

Music and Lyrics

Towards the end of the year I brought in my iPod and worksheets with the lyrics to the song, Wavin’ Flag (the 2009 World Cup Song) by K’naan. I swear, every Spanish student I have is obsessed with fútbol. We listened to the song a few times so everyone could fill-in the blanks to the words I left out. 

After everyone completed the lyrics, we talked about the meaning of the song and how words such as “fire” could be interpreted as “passion” or “energy” on the fútbol field. 


While it’s not a game, reading stories and engaging in writing/reading outside of textbooks is important and under-practiced. One day I brought in a long version of Robin Hood and we each took turns reading a page. This helped them with pronunciation and we stopped periodically to discuss new vocabulary such as “bow” and “arrow.” 

While I’m generally more comfortable with younger students, I ended up liking my high school class and the challenges it brought trying to maintain a composed and engaged class. With more activities up my sleeve, the hour-long class went faster and faster throughout the year, and I think I was able to help my students improve their language skills.

Do you work with high schoolers? What are some ways you make English engaging for them?

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  1. Carol Fisher

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