Hands on activities are always great for the ESL classroom.
The more your students use their bodies when they use English, the better they will remember what they are learning. And nothing is simpler than having students handle playing cards while they learn. They are small, simple and can be used in a variety of ways in ESL classes. Plus they are easy to find and inexpensive. The following activities are ones you can use in your classroom that need little to nothing more than a standard deck of cards.
Discover Some Simple and Brilliant Games for Your Classroom

1
Go Fish (Yes/No Questions, Numbers)
Go fish is a simple card game that will give your students a chance to practice simple question formation as well as numbers in English. Group students by fours, and give each group a deck of cards. Have groups shuffle the cards and then deal seven cards to each player. On his turn, a student asks another student in his group for a card that matches one in his hand. To do this, he should form a simple yes/no question. “Do you have any eights?” If the student has a card with that number, she gives it to the person who asked and the first student takes another turn. If she does not have that card, she says, “Go fish!” and the first student must draw a card from the discard pile. The game ends when all the cards have been matched. The student with the most pairs wins.

2
Give Me an Example (Content Vocabulary Generation/Review)
You can use a deck of cards to challenge your students’ vocabulary recall. Divide your class into four groups. Each group will work together to generate lists of examples/vocabulary words. Ask your class a question that elicits the target vocabulary. For example, you might ask, “What do Americans eat for lunch?” Then draw a card from a standard deck and announce the number to your class. (Jacks are worth 11, Queens 12, Kings 13 and Aces 1.) Groups work together to be the first to come up with that number of examples to answer your question. In this example, if you drew a five a group of students might list these words: sandwich, French fries, hot dogs, salad, and pizza. When a group has enough words, one person races to the front of the room so you can check their vocabulary. Continue playing until you run out of time or cards in your deck.

3
Prepositions Review (Prepositions of Location)
Reviewing prepositions of location can be fun when you use a deck of cards. Have students lay cards out on a table in a grid, face up. Your grid should be five by four (20 cards) and two cards deep. (Two piles will be three cards deep.) Lay the top cards slightly to the side of the bottom card so players can see both numbers. Also give students several prepositions of location written on index cards. (You should include beside, next to, adjacent to, under, on top of, below, above, and across.) These cards will serve as the draw pile. On each person’s turn, he draws a preposition card and then uses that preposition to describe the relationship between two cards in the grid. For example, a student might say the two is above the jack, the queen is next to the ten, or the five is on top of the six. If a student uses the adjective correctly, he takes the two playing cards and then discards his preposition card in a discard pile. Play continues around the circle until all the playing cards are taken or all the preposition cards are used. At the end of the game, the person who has collected the most cards wins the game.

4
Classroom Market Place (Introductions, Negotiation, Number Review)
Though you won’t find an eight dollar bill in circulation in the U.S., playing cards make a good substitute for money in the ESL classroom. Whether you are role playing an interaction that requires money or you are setting up an imaginary classroom market place, playing cards are a good stand in for cold hard cash. To set up a classroom market place, have each student think of a skill they possess that is marketable or imagine an invention that would be useful to others. Then set up half of your students’ desks in a circle to serve as vendor’s booths. Each person gets the same number of cards. (Giving each student Ace to King of one suit works well.) Half the class acts as vendors trying to sell their services or products. The other half of the class goes around and spends their money. Each conversation between buyer and vendor should start with introductions and an explanation of the product or service. Each buyer then decides if he or she wants the product and negotiates how much they will pay for each item. The buyers circulate the “market” until all their cash is used up. At the end of the interaction, the vendor with the most money is the winner. Then, students switch roles and repeat the interaction.

5
President No One (Asking Questions, Creative Use of Language)
This card game that uses a standard deck of cards is fun for the whole class, and it will challenge your students to use English in a creative way. Deal one card to each person in your class. They should hold that card facing out on their forehead without looking to see what number it is but so the rest of the class can see. On your word, students have sixty seconds to ask their classmates yes/no questions about the number on their head. The classmates can answer any question as long as they do not tell the person the number on their card. After sixty seconds, you call time and students try to arrange themselves in order from King (president) to Ace (no one) without speaking. You should then go down the line and see if all students are in the correct order. If any person is out of order, give the class another sixty seconds to ask questions and determine where they should stand in the line. Students only get three sixty second segments to determine their correct order and win the round. Students may only ask yes/no questions and answer the questions their classmates ask to determine the number on their card.
To get your students moving while they learn English, try using a simple deck of cards. These are just a few of the possible ways to use playing cards in your ESL class and just a glimpse of the fun your students will have when they do.
Do you have any activities that use playing cards in your ESL class?
We’d love to hear them. If so, share them in the comments below.