The Question Game: Ask Questions to Guess what I'm Thinking about

The Question Game (also called 20 Questions, the Yes or No Game, or Guess what I'm Thinking of) is one of the most useful (and fun!) language games I know. It lets you practice asking and answering questions, and it makes you think about so much that you already know, both the names of things and the categories they fit into.

The Question Game (20 questions): a person saying
The Question Game (20 questions): a person saying

One person (the “thinker”) starts the game by saying, “I’m thinking of something (or someone) that (or who, if a person) is...” The thinker then tells the other players the category they will guess from. It can be an animal, a plant, a food, a household or classroom object, an occupation, an historical figure, a famous actor, or even a mutual friend-- anything or anyone known to all the players. (It’s not fair to choose something some players might not know!)

Then other players ask questions to see who can be first to guess what the “thinker” has in mind. Before trying to guess the exact answer, players ask questions to “narrow down” the possibilities. The challenge is that the “thinker” must answer truthfully, but will only answer “yes” or “no” (or “sometimes,” “possibly,” etc. He or she may also give hints, if necessary.)

The Question Game is sometimes called 20 Questions because in one version each questioner is only allowed 20 questions. If no one can guess before everyone has “used up” their questions, the “thinker” wins. In my classes we usually don’t count questions. We just want to “narrow down” the possibilities and discover the answer as quickly as possible. The fun is in the thinking and guessing, anyway.

There’s also a version of this question game called “Animal, Vegetable (meaning a plant, or made from a plant), or Mineral (meaning a non-living material like metal or stone.) The thinker announces one of those categories and players guess the object made from one of those. (Animal might be a pig, bacon, an eagle, an alligator, or an alligator purse, etc.)

Here’s an example:

The thinker says “I’m thinking of an animal.” (“An animal” means some kind of living creature, not a meat or things made from leather, etc.) Players ask questions about various categories to eliminate some possibilities. Useful categories include:

-- where the animal usually lives (continent, habitat, etc.),

-- what it looks like (size, color, wings or scales or fur, etc.),

-- what it eats,

-- its abilities and usual activities, etc.

Remember that the Question Game requires yes or no answers. So if we want to know what color it is, we may not ask “what color is it?” Instead we can ask, “Is it brown?” (or “Can it be brown?” or “Is it partly brown?”) So different people might ask:

-- Is it native to North America? -- No.

-- Is it native to Africa?-- Yes.

-- Does it eat meat?-- No.

-- Is it bigger than a big dog?-- Yes.

-- Is it a giraffe?-- No.

-- Does it live in other places besides Africa (not counting zoos?)-- Yes.

-- Is it an elephant?-- Yes.

The person who guessed the right answer is the winner of this round, and will usually be the next “thinker.” Players (or the teacher, if in a class) can decide beforehand if all the questions today will be about animals, or if each “thinker” can choose a new topic. (“I’m thinking about a famous inventor...”)

The thinker tries to find something that all players will know without being too easy to guess. One of the best-- and hardest-- games my class ever played was with “foods” when the thinker chose “chocolate.” Someone asked “Is it made with beans?” The thinker told us yes, so we started guessing soy beans and tofu, refried beans and green beans. We forgot all about desserts!

I love the Question Game! It can be played anywhere, without preparation or equipment. Because it requires imagination, it’s a favorite game for native speakers as well as language learners. It’s a good party game, useful as an “ice-breaker” for getting to know people.

It can “save the day” when children start getting restless at the doctor’s office or on long car rides. (I kept two children amused at the airport with it once.) It can be played with a whole class or just a few friends-- even with just two players, though more make it faster and more exciting.

Try the Question Game with a few friends, using whatever categories you are interested in (space, your country’s history or geography, favorite foods...) Just remember, ask questions like “is it...?,” “does it ever...?” not Wh- questions like “what is...?” or “where does it...? Use your imagination-- and your English!

Return from the Question Game to ESL Games.


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