Party Animals

My students love parties. I’m always looking for excuses to have a party, so it’s a good fit. It’s also fortunate if you happen to teach English in Japan, where end-of-year parties are already built into cultural expectations for groups.

What I have a hard time with are class parties that use language entirely beyond students’ English level. I don’t have anything against teaching language that comes up spontaneously during activities–that’s some of the best learning. But, bringing in a game that requires 5 year olds to learn 20 low-frequency words (that they did NOT spontaneously request) in order to play is frustrating for everyone. I only see my students once a week–I have a difficult time justifying to myself or to their parents the value of giving an entire class to games or crafts that don’t build on the language the children have been learning. If you read my earlier post about crafts, you’ll know that I’m big on play with a purpose.

So, how do you plan a holiday-themed party for a class whose grand sum of English knowledge consists of:

Numbers 1-10




“It is ~” and “I have ~”

“Please” and “Thank you”

First, we played a game I made to fit the language they had. It’s called “Fill Your Stocking” (or Christmas socks, as my students prefer to call them).


Students roll the die and move in any direction, trying to collect toys (Counting out loud, of course). When they land on a toy, they say “I have a blue doll” then look for and circle “doll” in their stocking (really little ones can circle matching pictures, rather than words). If they land on a toy they already have, they simply describe the toy: “It’s a red ball.” Once students have collected all the toys in their stockings, they aim for the “Stop” sign.


While students were playing the game (with mothers helping), I finished setting up for the next activity–cookie decorating. The cookie shapes are ones that the children know, as are the colors of the sugar sprinkles.


As students decorated their stars, circles, teddy bears, hearts, boys and girls, we talked about the shapes and their decoration choices.


Mothers offered choices of beverage, providing more practice with please and thank you (always a winner with parents!).


Students enjoyed eating their cookies at least as much as they enjoyed decorating them. Most of them saved a few to take home for their dads. At the end of the party, we were all happy. The children enjoyed getting to play a game and eating cookies. I enjoyed hearing them use their English in a natural way. The mothers were happy to see that their tuition money hadn’t been a waste.


Note: I made the game board using reproducible worksheets for Let’s Begin (published by Oxford University Press). Before I started cutting, pasting, and coloring, it looked like this:


You can download these worksheets (and others) free from OUP’s Kids’ Club. They are offered with permission to use for educational purposes. I have links to various global Kid’s Clubs on my Let’s Go page.

Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto

About Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto

Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto has taught English and ESL in the US, and EFL in Japan. An EFL teacher and teacher trainer since 1985, she has conducted workshops throughout Asia, the USA and Latin America. Barbara’s motto is ‘Always try new things’, so these days, when she’s not teaching, writing, or giving workshops, she’s exploring the potential of new technologies for collaboration and professional development. You can often find Barbara online working with teachers around the world as Program Director for International Teacher Development Institute ( or on her new blog for English teaches who work with young learners, Teaching Children English.

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8 Responses

  1. Excellent work, Barbara! I think WE should start feeling envious of your students!

  2. Sheila Ryan Hara says:

    Hi Barb!

    Thanks for the holiday party ideas- all very timely, indeed! I recognize the teaching points you make- they are pretty much the same that I focus on in kinder classes (ages 3-6). Do you have any good game ideas for kids a little more advanced, say elementary grades 1-3 and 4-6? I have only a week to set up board games for our parties, which start on the 21st and run through the 26th! Ho Ho Ho! Happy Holidays to you and yours, and I hope to see you in 2010! (P.S. I haven’t forgotten about my blog entry- just been really busy!)

    • Barbara Barbara says:

      First, CONGRATULATIONS! (This is your first comment on a blog outside facebook, isn’t it? I’m proud of you!)

      Now, party planning for older kids. One reason I like board games without language built in is that I can change the rules, which changes the language. For example, this same board could be used with “I want/don’t want a ___ for Christmas,” “Would you like a ___ for Christmas?”, etc.

      For older kids, I might include pictures of different types of gifts (video game, puzzle, bicycle, book, accessories, candy, etc.). Then give each child a list of family members (mother, father, sister, brother, grandfather, etc.). The “task” would be to buy a gift for each person on the list. The language could be “I could buy a book for my sister,” “I won’t get a book for my brother,” or even the question “Would should I buy for my sister?” When students have collected gifts for everyone on the list they head for the finish. (There are lots of pictures for these objects, too, in the Let’s Go worksheets online–save you having to draw)

      There are a few basic types of game boards–the kind I made, which feels less competitive for little kids (they can go in any direction so no one is ever ahead of anyone else); the board that snakes from start to finish; and the snakes and ladders type board. It’s fun to include some blank “ask your own question” or “make your own sentence” or “perform some task or action” spots.

      One of the key elements for success with a board game in class is to make sure that it doesn’t drag. Things like having to get the exact number to exit the game are killers–you want the game to end while everyone is still having a good time!

      I know you asked about board games, but you can adapt just about any game for holiday parties.

      For example, karuta. You place the gift cards on the table. T: Santa is thinking of a toy. It’s red and white. It’s little. It has four wheels. Students touch the card they think you’re describing and ask “Is it a train?” If they guess right they get to keep the card, and if the class level is high enough they become the next caller. I like rotating callers so that no one student dominates the game (the winning student is automatically out of the next round because he/she is the caller).

      Another teacher, Jane Takizawa, taught me a fun variation for team karuta. The cards are placed on the floor, in the center, and students line up in four teams about 1 meter from the cards (each team forming one side of a square). The play is the same (students touching the cards with their hands or fly swatters) but after each round the team member who just played goes back to the end of the line. Students move fast. What I like about this version is that weaker players can still win as team members.

      Anyway, hope this helps! Good luck with your parties–I look forward to hearing about them.

    • Barbara Barbara says:

      Another teacher friend (Christina Markoulaki) posted a great list of Christmas activities for children on her class blog. You might find some ideas there, too!

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