Using Minecraft in ESL with young learners

I teach ESL to very young learners aged three to ten years, and one of my favourite teaching tools is Minecraft! Many teachers are already using Minecraft with older students, but how can we utilize this valuable tool with very young learners?

Minecraft as Flashcards (Introduction of Vocabulary Focus)

I saw the potential of using Minecraft in my classrooms within minutes of playing it! I had been doing some lessons with my K3 (kindergarten 3, ages five and six) students where the key vocabulary included words like; stream, hill, bridge and river. I realized right away that I could use Minecraft to demonstrate these concepts in ways that would be more meaningful than flashcards could ever be.

I created a simple map that contained all of the features I needed for my lesson, hooked my laptop up to a projector and taught the vocabulary as ‘Steve’ navigated his way through my simple world, stepping over streams and swimming across rivers, walking over bridges and up and down hills.

To my delight, all 33 children (I teach in Hong Kong!) were completely engaged and, to my surprise, many were already familiar with the game, even if they hadn’t yet played it themselves.

Checking Understanding (Dipsticking)

The litmus test is, of course, checking understanding and we do this constantly throughout our lesson by ‘dipsticking‘. My lessons are typically 20 to 45 minutes long, so I don’t have a lot of time, but I always make space to backtrack and check that my students are with me…Minecraft makes that fun and easy!

I will backtrack through the map and ask questions: Q. What this? A. It’s a …! For the youngest: Q. Is it a …? A. Yes/No! A technique that is very popular is having one student use the Wi-Fi mouse and keyboard to find places on the map according to my (or my students) instructions.

Activities and Games!

It’s very easy to come up with meaningful activities and games in Minecraft and most ideas that you’re used to using with flashcards and realia are readily transferrable to Minecraft. One of our favourite maps is 5 Fennels Road that is based on a traditional English 3-bedroom Victorian house that I actually used to live in! (It was actually a semi-detached home, but I removed the neighbor’s house and installed a garage.)

The house contains all the rooms one would expect as well as appropriate furnishings and it’s no coincidence that it lends itself to teaching vocabulary from the Cambridge English YLE Wordlists.

Chests are installed in each room and students follow instructions to place or retrieve items in the correct chest. We play ‘hide and seek’ where the students are only ‘found’ if the seeker can tell me where they found them! I use Creatubbles and signs to add custom pictures and words to rooms and ask students where they are: Q. Where is the picture of the car? A. In the … room.



Worksheets (Show me the evidence!)

I know what you’re thinking…nobody (parents/head-teachers) is going to take this seriously, right? One way to think of your Minecraft maps is like a field trip, and what field trip would be complete without worksheets!

Many of our students take the Cambridge YLE tests and I create worksheets and maps that tie directly the YLE curriculum or the general curriculum at the school I teach at.

We have several maps for teaching ‘animal vocabulary’ and the simplest is ‘Old McDonald’s Farm’. Worksheets are tailored to the level of my students…so the very youngest will have worksheets with pictures (see how to grab screenshots here) of the various animals and copy the word from the sign, for older students, the word might be jumbled or deliberately wrong!

What’s this?

It’s a ______.


I wrote this to speak to teachers who may be wondering how they can use this wonderful tool with very young learners; learners that, perhaps, don’t know how to use a computer well or don’t speak a lot of English. You know, I am a computer science geek and, on the weekends, with my older students, our maps are full of wonderful redstone creations and complex constructions…but there is something there for students of all ages and ability.

Teaching with Minecraft has helped me to grow, not just as a teacher, but as a person! It has allowed me to tap in to a creative side of myself I didn’t know existed and given my students the chance to have truly immersive language learning experiences.

We create everything from stories to music videos! We use Minecraft to teach everything from colors to prepositions! Your main takeaway should be that you don’t have to create hugely complex maps or be redstone whiz to make great lessons using Minecraft! Minecraft is a tool, adapt it to your needs, have fun, and happy crafting!

Tony Bryant (@bryantenglishTV) is a Global Minecraft Mentor, ESL instructor, and avid musician.