How to Play ESL Jeopardy!

At the Henan Institute of Science and Technology, our classrooms had individual monitors for each student. While this was horrible for trying to get them to look up and make eye contact, it was great for activities that required instructions I would’ve usually written on the board. Plus, then everyone who had poor eyesight or listening comprehension could always read what I was saying.

I found the best way to teach Chinese college students ESL was to make it fun so they’d forget to be nervous. Most of them had had English training since they were children, but still weren’t confident enough to speak. While brainstorming ways to help them practice their oral English, I came up with this.

To play ESL Jeopardy!, start easy. I split my class of 30 students into groups of four or five and orally explained the rules, which were also written on a slideshow on their monitors for those who struggled with listening comprehension.


  • Each group can only guess once per round
  • Each guess must be asked in question form
  • Only the group spokesperson can tell me the answer
  • The group spokesperson must raise his or her hand

Then I had slides with three clues on them. I’d show one clue and read it a loud, wait a bit, and then if no one guess I’d show the next clue until a group got it. The earlier the group solved the clue, the more points it would receive. I think I gave 5 points for solving with the first clue, 3 points for solving with the first and second clue, and 1 points for solving with all of the clues.

Be prepared for things to get crazy. In all of the excitement, spokespeople would often forget to raise their hands and instead would stand up waving their arms and shouting “What is a tiger?! What is a tiger?!”

Once I knew my students had caught on to how the game was played, we switched to the harder more realistic version. I wrote six categories and point values ranging from 5-50 points on the board. This time we went in order instead of whichever group member raised his or her hand first. In addition, if a group guessed the wrong answer, then the other groups could answer so everyone could be involved.

I taught this lesson six to seven times and saw an interesting trend: The groups that didn’t do very well in the first half of class dominated the second half of the class. My assumption is that the first version of Jeopardy! was easy for quick thinkers who were risk takers (willing to guess as quickly as possible no matter what) and the second version was for those who thought things through and know their facts. So it evened out and the game pretty much appealed to every student, which I can’t say is a common thing while teaching.

I came up with each question, but you are free to choose some of your own based on your students. In general, every class knew all the US History questions and thought they were super easy, but many struggled with household for 5, sports for 5 and 10, and American culture for 10. World facts for 50 was tricky too, because technically Australia is an island, but it is a continent so I didn’t count it. Anyway, have fun!

US History

5— The two states that don’t border any others. “What are Alaska and Hawaii?”
10— The first president of the United States. “Who is George Washington?”
15— The city in which the White House is located. “Where is Washington D.C.?”
25— The war that ended slavery in America. “What is the American Civil War?”
50— The year the Declaration of Independence was signed. “When is 1776?”

Household Items

5— Something soft to lay your head on. “What is a pillow?”
10— A piece of fabric used to dry off with. “What is a towel?”
15— Without me, you wouldn’t be able to read in bed. “What is a lamp?”
25— A device used to turn the TV on. “What is a remote control?”
50— The machine used to heat your food quickly. “What is a microwave?”

ESL students


5— Shooting a ball into a hoop is the point of this game. “What is basketball?”
10— Bump, set, spike are a part of this sport. “What is volleyball?”
15— There are wheels involved, but no one is driving. “What is roller skating?”
25— A game where the opponents are allowed to push each other on ice. “What is hockey?”
50— Tackling other players is important in this sport. “What is American football?”

Global Mannerisms

5— Giving a clock as a gift is not a polite or appropriate in this country. “What is China?”
10— In this country, teenagers are encouraged to date many people in order to find the best spouse. “What is America?”
15— It is rude to talk about age, weight and salary with a person you don’t know well in this country. “What is America?”
25— The thumbs up sign is an insult in this country. “What is Germany?”
50— A country where calling someone fat or discussing their weight could have you end up in court or put in jail. “What is France?”

ESL students

American Culture

5— A piece of meat in between bread. “What is a hamburger?”
10— Laying in a special bed to darken your skin. “What is a tanning bed?”
15— The way to greet someone in a business setting. “What is a handshake?”
25— Giving someone money when they do their job well. “What is a tip?”
50— This sport and apple pie are America’s favorite past time. “What is baseball?”

World Facts

5— Where all roads were have supposed to led. “What is Rome?”
10— Considered “unsinkable” for most of its maiden voyage in 1912. “What is the Titanic?”
15— Known as the greatest poet, playwright and writer of the English language, despite not being recognized in his time. “Who is William Shakespeare?”
25— Where the first modern Olympic Games were held in 1894. “Where is Athens, Greece?”
50— It’s the world’s largest island. “What is Greenland?”

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