Riding the White Elephant toward Proficiency Palace

In December 2005 I came the closest I’ve ever come to owning a jewel-encrusted dagger. This happened during a game of White Elephant, convincing me forever of that game’s potential for good. More recently, I’ve become convinced of the game’s power for a specific type of good: the acquisition of a language. I like it all the more because it simultaneously performs another type of good: me not having to work very hard.

Playing in Brattleboro, VT, August 2016

Playing in Brattleboro, VT, August 2016

Though it’s most commonly played in winter, a version of White Elephant (a.k.a. Yankee Swap, as I learned this week) makes a high-interest, high-efficiency, low-prep activity any time of year, and you might find it especially useful near the beginning of the school year.

You can read up on the classic party game here, but I’ll describe a simplified version I played at Express Fluency last week, as well as several variations:


Have a bag, bin, or pile of stuffed animals ready. That’s it.


In your target language (TL), invite a student to go to the bin–I like to play in a circle with the bin in the center–take one of the stuffed animals, and return to her seat. Whatever she takes, announce it to the class in the TL (or ask her to, if she’s willing and able) and ask the student and the class verification and follow-up questions like these:

[to the student] What animal did you take? What animal do you have? Do you like ferrets [or whatever type of animal it is]? Do you have a real ferret at home? Do you like it? What is it like? Do you wish you had one? Why? Do you have a different type of animal at home?

[to the class] What animal does she have? What color is it? Who (else) has a ferret at home? Who wants one?

Ask further follow-up questions, keep probing, Circle, etc.

This can already be pretty fun, but it gets better. Invite another student to get up and take a stuffed animal. But this student may either take an animal from the bin OR steal the animal the first person took, guaranteeing juicy drama.

Again, ask questions of the individual animal-holders as well as the class, compare what the animal-holding students have and want, and so on. If there has been a steal, play up the drama, ask the victim how she feels about it, ask the class if it was mean of person 2 to steal, and whatever else seems interesting. If there was no steal, talk about what a nice person the student is, ask person 1 what she would have done if person 2 had stolen her ferret, how glad she is that this did not happen, and so on.

Continue playing in the same manner for as long as it’s interesting enough–ideally, until everyone has an animal. (Students whose animals have been stolen can pick a new one immediately or after all other students have picked. Sometimes it’s necessary to implement a 2-steal limit, i.e., any given animal can be stolen only twice; after that, it is ‘safe’ with whatever person last stole it.) Feel free to have students recap what happened and what information was discovered, with you or with each other, orally or in writing, or not at all.

If it sounds simple, that’s why it’s so good. Here’s what I especially like about it:

To become a Master Questioner equipped with even more ways to form and use questions to sustain compelling interactions, check out my recorded webinar It’s All about the Questions!

Why White Elephant is so good

1. It’s easy to limit the total language involved. Other than the names of animals, which are often pretty fun, all the language can be really high frequency language.

2. It’s easy to target certain language at certain levels–or not. Everything from This is a dog to How would you have reacted if Donny had stolen your stuffed tortoise? is fair game, and students can say as much or as little as they’re up for. Other high frequency language that gets included might be your/her/his/my, want, have, give, take, same, different,

3. It’s a good way to get to know students better. Not just regarding their animals: Let’s say you find out that Laszlo doesn’t have a pet and doesn’t really want one. Well, what does he want? Why would it be nice to have that? Or, let’s say he has a Huskie. What does he like to do with it? For what things that he likes to do would he take the Huskie along? For what things that he likes to do would he leave the Huskie behind?

4. The stealing option adds just enough drama to boost interest without feelings truly getting hurt. Students tend to play along. Other fun stuff happens–thieves relent, selfless students give a stealing victim their own prized animals, a surprisingly stubborn stuffed sauropod refuses to be stolen,…

5. It’s easy to turn the conversation into a classic quest via storyasking (see below).

How else White Elephant can be so good

Consider these variations:

1. Use some other type of item than animals–trinkets, books, clothing, instruments, equipment. Science, theater, and athletic departments often have old stuff they’re willing to part with. The Dollar Store has stuff it’s willing to part with for a dollar. You’ll have to decide how much low-frequency vocab you want to admit.

2.a. Have students brings items to use.

2.b. Do an actual White Elephant gift exchange for which students bring wrapped gifts.

3. Use the activity to find out something that a particular student doesn’t have, but really wants, and ask a story to help her or him get it.

4. Put the items in a container that players can’t see inside (such as a big garbage bag or canvas bag). This creates a different type of suspense and allows you to interview students about what they hope to pull out of the bag and why.

5. Allow students to create a story about their animal(s), or create one with them. (Ideas 4 and 5 were inspired by a lesson Bob Patrick described to me.)

6. In a large class, for which playing the normal way may be unwieldy, you can establish an inner circle and an outer circle. Only the inner circle has animal-picking-or-stealing participants, but the outer circle also answers any questions you ask about what is happening or about the students (including themselves). Members of the outer circle can play next, or some other time.

7. If there are multiple similar items, e.g., three different stuffed dogs, you can compare not only students, but also the dogs, discuss why different students like different dogs more or less, etc.

8. You can fake-interrogate the animals to see which owner they prefer.

9. Their chosen animals can become students’ personal mascots throughout the day, week, or even year, either just to be enjoyed or to be used for various tasks and interactions. (Another idea inspired by Bob Patrick.)

10. See the Comments sections below for further variations. (And maybe leave a comment yourself!)

Have fun!

Posted in Lesson Plans, Teaching and tagged , , , , , , .


  1. PURE GENIUS!! I love this idea!!! Thanks so much for sharing, and I wish I had been there to play at Express Fluency! I wonder if I can convince Alina to play this with us in Romanian this evening??? Hmmm…

  2. Thanks, as always, for this fun idea, Justin. My middle school students loved it when I brought in a bin with my boys’ action figures to play
    ?Como Es? In this activity, Mu students had to describe the action figure’s appearance, personality and what the action figure liked and disliked doing. Now that I am getting more comfortable using TPRS in my classroom I can take it to the next level.

  3. Thanks for sharing, I love it! I will definitely use it this year. I will pass the link to my colleagues. Gracias! 🙂

  4. Love the variations and extensions you list at the end! I play it with my 4th graders the day before Winter Break, as we work with “I want”, “is nice”, and “gives”. We even have printed pictures of cars, a TV, etc and a few “unpopular” items, which actually becomes quite popular. Thanks for sharing!

  5. JSB… this is GREATNESS! Thanks for sharing. I look forward to doing a version of this with my middle schoolers in the near future!

  6. “Elephantus Albus” will be immediately implemented in my Latin classroom. Thanks for all of the variations and extensions! Gratias!

  7. This is great! I’ve had fun with small children with just a basket full of stuffed animals and other things I threw in, but never thought to make it into a game like this. Thank you.

  8. I love this idea! Kind of reminds me of the magic of Mafia in the CI classroom that I’ve read about extensively but which I’m still kind of afraid to implement it bc I’ve never played it is seen it played in person! This, I can do! Thanks!

  9. Pingback: Class Pet | discoveringci

  10. This is a great activity!!! I can’t wait to try it! I have tons of beany babies and other animals that I use to teach animal names. This year is my first with tprs, so the kids have been saying “can I have a …” In French. They love holding them throughout class…this game adds just the perfect amount of drama and more TL possibilities!! Thank you!! (9-12 graders still love stuffed animals!)♡

  11. Loving the White Elephant game idea! I’m dipping my feet into CI/TPRS this year within a legacy methods department (trying to find that balance), and we have a vocab list of clothing coming up – I’m thinking this could be a great way to use CI to both target high frequency verbs and help them acquire the clothing vocab. (Does it sound like I’m on the right track? 🙂 Be gentle – I’m a newbie, lol!)

  12. I read this non-targeted game idea one day last week and tried it the next, in 2nd grade Spanish. We had just finished processing their artwork on the doc camera – Map of my Heart – from Valentine’s Day – with their little drawings of a few favorite things (in categories), including foods.
    In a circle at the rug, I had some hi- and low interest (Spanish cognate) plastic foods – pizza, cauliflower, yogurt, asparagus, cake….They LOVED relieving their classmates of the foods! Every 3 passes or so, we reviewed who had what. The kids were highly engaged and following the action for the remainder of class (prolly 20 min?) I used verbs like: has, wants, likes, prefers, passes, gives, & takes. They were definitely in the ‘flow’ – unaware that we were using Spanish to track the passing of the fake foods.
    What a simple and elegant context to wrap around this foundational/survival language.
    I can see using it with stuffed animals (as in your example); with other toys – i.e., I have a collection of vehicles (including a unicorn and a Barbie bathtub); with hats and other costume elements – the possibilities are endless! We can add other language such as: Choose/select; need; And rejoinders, too (¡Caramba!)
    Thanks so much.

  13. Pingback: Preposterous Props and a Puzzle Maker | Puentes to CI

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.