Teaching ESL with Playing Cards

The standard pack of 52 cards is thought to have been invented in Persia. The back design usually looks like a Persian carpet.

Many English speakers do not realize that a club was a soldier's symbol for war. Act out the use of the club (bonk! Bonk!). The spade or shovel is a symbol of the farmer, the economic foundation of feudal society (Act out the digging. The heart symbolizes romance or love and the diamonds symbolize wealth or commerce.

Some (very few parents or bosses) object to using cards in class but I always defend this stance by saying "We do not gamble and we do not play poker. After that I have had no problems.

I introduce the cards by asking:

How many are there? (52 or 13 x 4)

How many colors? (2)

How many kinds or sets (4)

First Class:

In the first class I just throw down random cards and the kids call out the kind. This is challenge enough for beginners. Korean kids typically drop the s off the ends of the words and pronounce with their Konglish saying heart-uh, spade-uh, di-a-mond, club-uh. So the first game or class is a lot about re-teaching pronunciation (hard going voice coaching).

Teach them to say diamonds, hearts, clubs and spades correctly. I do not introduce the word suit. Kinds or sets is enough for ESL learners.

Next teach that the cards make a pack or deck. You can also tell them a pack is like a backpack or a wolf pack. Tell them about shuffling or mixing (be-bim in Korean) the cards.

Finally have the kids call out the Ace 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Jack Queen and King. This is easy. The Jack is a royal servant. Ace is generally not known. Most kids call it A. Teach them ace driver, ace shooter, ace golfer etc. Royal in Korean is roughly translated as yang-ban.

First Game:

The first real game I play with kids is SNAP where a kid has to say "snap" and slam down his hand on the cards as I deal them out on a pile.

They love the exciting anticipation of this game. To start just play the game and do not explain rules. When teacher shouts SNAP and slaps down his hand down on the first pair of cards the kids catch on fast.

This game is best played around a small table with the children standing. They will fight for space. If they speak Korean I kick them out for one round of cards. They find this funny.

Sometimes they kick me out for speaking Korean. They find this even funnier!

Second Game:

We sometimes play the Go Fish game with regular playing cards. It implies short dialogue like this: "Do you have an Ace? No, go fish." If readers do not know the Go Fish game then do a search on internet or ask another teacher. It is very useful.

Older Kids:

I do play poker or 21s (Blackjack) with older kids / adults but we use my token coins and these are returned to me at the end of the class (then not gambling). Kids learn: betting, cheating, cheater, bluffing, bluffer, the kitty, close, fold or out, hit me, bust, I'm out, I'm the winner. All of this is common English, just like many sporting terms, and kids need it to fully understand the language.

Cards are a wonderful way to motivate students and teach English. They do not even think it as class work. The fascination with card games is that they involve mental math, chance, skill, social interaction and sometimes cheating or bluffing. They combine these things and have the appeal of interactive computer games. Young kids are amazed and shocked that teacher cheats sometimes. Hee hee,: o). You will be surprised at their indignation.