commentary Tyson Seburn  

Play cards with students. Yes, I do.


I’m a fan of cards. When I get together with my family for the weekend in my hometown, I look forward to us getting together to play cards. In highschool, cards were a huge part of spares, lunch time and a way to kill the day to tunes at picnic tables in summer. So naturally, I brought them into my language classroom full of teenagers.

One we played over and over and over for hours and hours as a teen was Asshole (aka President, Scum, etc). Maybe we loved it partially due to the name’s appeal (it certainly wasn’t because of the game’s complexity), but more likely because it involves competition (no one wants to be the “asshole”), luck (you may be dealt good cards or bad), strategy (you learn what cards to hold on to and when to pass as your experience grows) and hierarchy (the order in which you exit the game determines your ranking in the next round).  Plus, there’s a lot of sitting around mixed with minimal movement after every round (everyone must get up after each round and move to the chair of your ranking)–all characteristics rampant in teenage dynamics. For this and the game’s simplicity, I knew it would work well with language learners. Although one could argue that I play it with my teens because I love the game too, I shall argue that the process results in some strong benefits for our students.

How I use card games in class


  1. I bring in the cards and familiarise students with the suits and the names of the cards (many have never played with this type of deck, nor have any idea what a “jack” is).
  2. I identify the basic actions involved in playing card games: shuffling the deck, dealing the cards, a hand, your turn/your go, pass, etc.
  3. I talk about the object of the game: to go out first i.e. get rid of all your cards first.
  4. I show them how the game is played, orally reinforcing the rules as we play, but not writing anything down. Students can ask questions as I demonstrate.
  5. Over and over, we play the game until everyone gets the hang of it, either as a class or in smaller groups (Asshole works best with 5 – 7 players).
  6. Once everyone’s played throughout the class and feels confident they know how to play, I task students in pairs with writing out the rules of gameplay to give to someone who does not know how to play the game nor anyone to teach them how. I give no advice on how to do this, only requiring that it is clear and brief.
  7. I give the rules to students in another class to read and try.

Benefits of this process

  • Practices listening comprehension and reinforces the importance of clarification questions.
  • Students learn from experience, rather than from reading about it.
  • The fun keeps students interested and engaged while learning.
  • The competition to not be in the next round “asshole” by moving up the ranks to “president” involves critical thinking on strategy.
  • Composing written rules requires disseminating key information from distracting details best determined by experience.
  • It also involves a number of revisions regarding the organisation and concision of rules for future learners. Here’s a sample of one of the better student-written rules.
  • There is a surprising amount of transferable expressions that come out of gameplay (e.g. wild cards, pass, have the lead, etc.). For fun, try out this quiz. Can you figure out the card game expressions?
  • Discussions about why the emphasis in the title is on “asshole” position and why variations suggest the title is actually “president”.
  • The other class tries out peer editing and feedback.

Surely this can be adapted to any game you like yourself, no need to learn how to play Asshole to involve your students in this process, but I highly suggest you try. And try not to be an asshole.

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14 thoughts on “Play cards with students. Yes, I do.

  1. Tara Benwell

    This post brought back so many memories! I was working at my first ever job as an ESL teacher, and one of the teachers got fired for playing cards with her students. She tried to explain to the head of the school that she was teaching English through the card game she was teaching them, but he didn’t believe her. She was a great teacher and the students loved her. Too bad there were no blogs back then. We could have used a post like this.

    1. Tyson Seburn

      Yes, I can see how that scenario would pan out. What’s interesting is when I first began teaching in Seoul, my “training” involved me shadowing the teacher I was replacing as he played poker with his kids. Let it be known that his use of poker did not go beyond simply playing it.

  2. Anh Thu

    i think it is interesting game! thanks !

  3. dilano71

    Great post. I’ve also played darts with elementary learners (the plastic ones which stick to the dartboard of course) which is a great way to practise numbers.

    I did a blog post a while back about using dice in class. Here’s the link:

    1. Tyson Seburn

      Thanks for the link to your post, dilano71. Perhaps I’ll reconsider use of dice in future classes.

  4. davedodgson

    This post goes to show that almost anything, if well thought out, can be an effective classroom resource. It’s just a shame that there are incidents like that which Tara describes… Still, you’ve given me a good idea for my next private lesson 😉

    1. Tyson Seburn

      Haha. You know my first reaction was an implication that playing cards is generally one of the worst things you could do in classes, but… if thought out well, –even it– could be good. Maybe that’s true, actually. 😉

  5. Naomi Epstein (@naomishema)

    Love it! Any game you can get the kids involved in works! Adults too, of course. With deaf students you miss out on the conversational aspect so I have a piece of paper and I point to the phrases “your turn, you lose a turn, wait patiently please, etc”, so they can be read.
    Have never heard of the card game asshole…

    1. Tyson Seburn

      It’s a pretty easy game to learn, which is one reason I choose it for classes. Only a couple rounds of 5 minutes each and strategy starts to take over in development from basic gameplay.

  6. […] table and are given very simple rules to play the game. If you played our popular, mindless, teenage game of “Asshole” during your lunch in high school, you’ll already be an expert. In a nutshell, the player who […]

  7. Lexical Leo

    I’ve played Monopoly with some of my Business English students but never played cards. I think I’m going to try after reading this.

    1. Tyson Seburn

      What card games do you play in Israel? Anything that seems particularly relevant for ELT? I liked this one because it included some nicely transferable vocabulary. I suppose most card games would though. The upside to cards compared to board games: it can be short and sweet.

  8. Margaret Hurley

    At a previous school (all adult learners, many different L1s), there was an after-school poker club, facilitated by a teacher. It was by far the most popular club the school offered. There were lots of regulars – but always a beginner table, with teacher instruction, for those who hadn’t played before. Chips for placing bets (no money). There were lots of reasons for the popularity; of course, it was fun, first of all. And it helped with all the linguistic points you mention. But other factors in the popularity were surely the acquisition of a social skill (poker is played everywhere), the development of a community (lots of regulars), and the ability for all levels to actively participate. It’s a great idea. Rather than “learning English,” it’s learning something you want to learn – in English.

    1. Tyson Seburn

      Thanks for including your experience here, Margaret! I have to admit, I’ve never once played poker. Isn’t it a sort of CLIL?

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