16 Ways to Play The Hot Seat Game

One of the most popular TEFL activities for practising and reviewing vocabulary is called ‘The Hot Seat’ game. You have probably played it with your learners, although you may know it as ‘back to the board’. The procedure is simple:

  • One student sits in a chair with his or her back to the board.
  • The teacher writes a word on the board, which the student sitting in the chair cannot see but the other students can.
  • The other students define the word to the student with his / her back to the board. They cannot say the word.
  • When the student guesses the word or time runs out, he / she returns to his / her seat and another student sits in the hot seat. The teacher writes another word on the board.

This game/activity is great fun for learners of all ages and is an entertaining way to review vocabulary. I’ve even done it with Business English classes and they loved it, albeit they tend to get a bit too competitive and argue over every point!

Many teachers play it at the beginning of a lesson/week (to review vocabulary learned in previous lessons/week) or at the end of a lesson/week to practise the new vocabulary. I like to use a vocabulary box (or a digital equivalent) so I can access the new vocabulary items easily.

It’s also a good way to review vocabulary based around a specific topic.

If you want your learners to make the most of the game, you should also consider the pedagogical aspects of the game:

  • It’s great for practising the skill of explaining, describing and defining things and concepts using structures such as: It’s used for / Its’ made of / People do this when they need to / It’s a type of…. /defining relative clauses.
  • It’s also useful for practising simple metalanguage (It’s a verb used for / It’s a noun we use when we want to describe.., synonym, antonym)
  • As well as managing the game, you should also monitor what your learners said and record some common errors and examples of useful and correct language. Don’t forget to have a quick feedback session at the end.
  • It’s ideal for helping learners develop one of the key coping/communication strategies: circumlocution. This is what we do (native and proficient speakers too) when we forget the precise word for something. For example: it’s a thing we use when we need to….

It’s a simple game to play and requires very little preparation, except for a list of vocabulary items. Most teachers have a time limit (30 seconds / 1 minute / 2 minutes) for each word. However, there are several problems with the way the game is normally played:

  • individual learners sitting in the hot seat can feel rather exposed and embarrassed if they fail to guess the word
  • louder and more confident students tend to dominate when defining the word to the hot seat student
  • it’s not a particularly effective way of ensuring all learners get the chance to speak and define the words.

So, there are many ways of playing the game and ensuring all students get involved. Here are some variations – some of them don’t even require a seat!.

1: Two Teams

Divide the class into two teams and put two seats at the front of the class. Draw a vertical line on the board to divide the board into two sections. Group A defines the word to the student in Seat A and Group B defines the same word to a student sitting in Seat B. The smaller groups generally results in more students defining the words. Also, students who fail to guess a word can still be on a winning team. Finally, the element of competition increases motivation as it provides a clear purpose for playing the game.

2: Three or more teams

Why stop at 2 teams? If you have enough learners, you could play the game with several teams.

3: Post-its or mini-whiteboards rather than the main board

You can play the hot seat game with post-its, mini-whiteboards or sheets of paper if you don’t have a large board. Mini-whiteboards are particularly apt for this game if you have a small class.

4: Two Teams but with different words

One of the problems with asking teams to define the same word is that a student in one of the hot seats may actually guess the word correctly by listening to  another team’s definition. The problem can be resolved by selecting a different word for each team.

5: Two Teams but each team chooses words for the other team

There is no reason why you (the teacher) need to choose the vocabulary items. When your learners know the rules of the game (which are very simple), they can select the words themselves, which also increases learner autonomy. You will probably want to check the words before you play the game to confirm that they are words which have been recently studied.

6: Two Teams but each team has to define words related to a specific topic or word class

If you have been studying vocabulary items related to specific topics, you could ask Group A to define words related to one topic (food) and Group B could define words related to another (drink). You could also do the same with word types (verbs / nouns). To ensure that all groups get the opportunity to practise and review both topics, you could switch topics after a specific time. The winning group would be the one with the highest total of words guessed within the time limit.

7: List of words on the board rather than a single word

Extend the time limit (say 5 or 10 minutes) and write a list of words on the board for the groups to define. The students have to define as many words as they can to the student in the hot seat. You might want to appoint two judges to tick each word off the list as they are guessed correctly.

8: Pairs rather than groups

Put the students into pairs and ask one student in each pair to sit with the backs to the board. Write the word on the board and award points to the first pair to guess the word correctly.

9: Pairs with a list of words rather than single words

The procedure is the same as 6 but you have to trust in the learners’ honesty. You don’t need to use the board if you play the game in this way as you could just distribute a list to each pair. It’s a good idea to give Student A a list of words to define to Student B and vice versa so each student gets to define and guess. A good way to prevent / reduce cheating is to ask the guessing students to write the words down.

10: Parallel lines

You could ask the learners to form two lines. One line cannot see the board and the other line can. Students then define the words to the person facing them in the line. You could ask your students to stand up while they are playing.

11: Moving tracks

This is the same idea, but one of the lines moves. After a word is guessed, all the students move to the right or left (make sure the direction doesn’t change) and the student at one end of the line moves into Line B and the student in Line B at the opposite end moves into Line A. It’s more difficult to keep the game competitive if you use moving tracks but it means that the learners are not stuck with one partner.

12: Inner and Outer Circles

This is similar to 9 and 10 but you don’t write the words on the board. Instead, use sheets of paper or mini-whiteboards (some of them have a magnet on the back) and stick them around the class. The students in the inner circle define the words closest to them to the student facing them in the outer circle. When a pair has defined the word, you can ask the students in the inner circle to move to the next word. The problem with this option is that students often overhear their classmates’ definitions and guesses so ask them not to celebrate when they guess a word correctly.

13: Phonemic Script hot seat

If your students are learning (or already know  how) to use the phonemic script, you could write the words in phonemic symbols.

14: Images rather than words

You could use images rather than words. As you will probably want your students to practise the written word, you could add a rule that students only get a point if they guess the word and spell it correctly.

15: Phrases, phrasal verbs, collocations, idioms, proverbs etc

There is no reason why you need to limit the game to defining single words. Why not ask the learners to define longer items?

16: Taboo Hot Seat

Do you know the game ‘Taboo’? In this game, you have to define a word, but you have to do so without using 3-5 other words which are usually associated with the word on the card. Look at the example below. Playing Hot Seat / Taboo takes a bit more preparation (and more time to write the words on the board) but you could always ask the learners to choose the taboo words.

How do you play the Hot Seat Game?

There are lots of ways you could play this simple but effective and useful game for English language learners. I’d love to hear about some of the ways you play it.


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