Developing EFL activities for the English Language classroom is a big part of teaching English. I’ve found classic childhood games to be a great source of inspiration. One example of a classic game turned EFL activity is Battleships!

The Rules

Battleships is a two player game. Each player has an identical grid onto which they place various “ships” of differing lengths. The positions of the ships are kept secret from the opposing player. Then the players take turns in attacking each others’ fleet by calling out grid coordinates. The winner is the player who sinks all of the other player’s ships.

I remember playing two different versions when I was a kid. One was the travel edition which had two slim clam-shell cases, one for each player. Each case had two grids; one for you to place your ships and track where your opponent’s strikes landed, and one for you to track your own attacks. I also had a hefty electronic version at home that was bigger than a modern laptop and required a handful of chunky batteries. It played sounds and lit up when attacks landed. As well as placing your ships you also had to key in their positions, so setting it up often took just as long as playing!

I loved that thing, despite how ridiculously unnecessary it was for such a simple game.

As An EFL Activity

Now, however much I’d like to lug that cumbersome electronic beast out of storage and bring it to the classroom, there’s really no way it would be an effective EFL activity as it is. After all, there’s only so much students can learn from giving map coordinates. To make Battleships ready for the classroom I stripped it down to its core mechanics and made a simple 12×12 grid with only three types of ships. Instead of coordinates I want my students to practice real English vocabulary so I left the rows and column headers blank, to be filled before the lesson with whatever vocab we may be practising on that day. It looks like this:

Right Click and “Save Image As …” to grab your own copy!

And here’s one mid-game:

I chose these words at random but I usually use words from the textbook.


How to explain it simply and clearly was something that held me back from using this ESL activity. Finally, I decided the best thing to do would be to give an example that everyone could see and follow step by step. When doing this activity with a class for the first time I draw the whole grid up on the board. I then explain that they each have three ships they can place anywhere on their grid and I draw my ships onto my grid in various positions, highlighting that they can’t be placed diagonally.

After giving students time to place their ships, I ask for a volunteer. The volunteer joins me at the front and I whisper some coordinates for him or her to attack. Once they’ve said the words I draw a mark in the relevant box (“X” for a miss, “O” for a hit) and get the class to repeat my joyous or anguished cry. Next I try to attack my volunteer, preferably using the simplest vocab on the grid. I mark my success or failure on the grid on the board. We do this once or twice more depending on how well I think the class are picking it up and then I tell them to crack on in pairs.

PRO TIP: The astute reader will have noticed that the grid above is singular, unlike the original game which has one grid to place your ships and another to mark your attacks. Originally my Battelships worksheet was similarly laid out but I realised that many students didn’t use or understand the second grid. So, I simplified the design by telling students to use two colours; one for your attack, the other for your opponent’s attack. Of course I make sure to also use two colours on the board during the example.

A Whirlpool Of Time

Battleships as an EFL activity utilises speaking, pronunciation, listening, retention, and it’s genuinely a fun game. Plus, once you have the base design it takes mere minutes to ready the activity for the classroom. However it does take time. From explaining the game, to playing long enough for a few pairs to have finished, can take nearly thirty minutes. That’s more than half of the average lesson. Seeing as how it’s only practising vocabulary this might not be considered the best use of time.

This being the case I wouldn’t recommend playing this game regularly, and it’s important to consider what it will lead into; a reading activity seems obvious but a listening or performance would also work well. The explanation stage can be sped up or shortened the more often the activity is run.

LEVEL UP: For higher level classes why not try adding some kind of cohesion between the horizontal and vertical catagories? Like adjectives and nouns, or sentences split in two (that would take some thought!)? The activity could be adjusted for lower levels or younger students by simplifying the categories back down to letters and numbers.

Hit or Miss?

I always got the impression that my students enjoyed playing Battleships, even when they had to check a pronunciation or two with me before continuing the game. So I’m sure that other English Language classrooms will enjoy this childhood game turned EFL activity.

Are my instructions clear? Do you have any hints or pointers to add to this activity? If so please let me know in the comments.

For more wondrous EFL activities, click here.



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