Variations on Go Fish: Making the Most of an Old Game for the Language Classroom

James Fieser, Sunshine College, Tokyo School of Social Welfare and Business


  • Key Words: speaking, asking questions
  • Learner English Level: all
  • Learner Maturity Level: all
  • Preparation Time: 5 to 10 minutes before class to select key vocabulary
  • Activity Time: 20 minutes to demo/explain the first time; 10 minutes per game

Go Fish is a card game in which players try to collect all of the cards of a set (eg., four nines). Players take the other players' cards by asking them, for example,"Do you have any nines?" If a player who is asked this question has a nine or nines, she must give it/them to the player who asked. If she does not have a nine, she tells the player who asked to "go fish," i.e., to draw a card from the remaining cards in the deck (with a chance to find the card he was looking for). The player with the most sets at the end wins.

For almost any language item involving a question, you can use Go Fish to give students structured practice that is fun and relaxed.


First, in small groups, students need a deck of cards. By substituting a regular deck of playing cards with cards made from pieces of paper on which students can write, you make the game a tool for practicing a target language. To practice countable and uncountable nouns, for example, a card that says "milk" prompts the question, "Do you have any milk?" A card that says "apple" elicits "Do you have any apples?"

Have the students make a deck with sets of three, and give them only ten sets to work with. So with countable/uncountable nouns, students create a deck with 5 sets of countable nouns and 5 sets of uncountable ones, each set made of three identical cards, thus making a deck of 30 total cards. With a group of three to five students, the game will take about 10 minutes.

To begin, shuffle the deck, then give each student three cards. Yuko starts. She has two "milk" cards and one "apple" card. She can only ask another player from the cards she holds. She asks Noriko, "Do you have any milk?" Noriko says, "No, I don't have any milk. Go fish." Yuko draws a card from the deck, and the turn passes to Hiroki, who has the other milk card. Grinning, he asks Yuko, "Do you have any milk?" Yuko must give both her milk cards to Hiroki, who now has the complete set and can place it face up on the table where it cannot be taken.

The game continues in this way until there are no more cards remaining in the deck and the last set is collected. As long as cards remain in the deck, any player whose hand becomes less than three cards must draw a card from the deck. When no more cards remain in the deck, the game continues as usual, except nobody "goes fishing," and students gradually have all their cards stolen or they form complete sets.


Depending on the deck, a variety of questions can be asked. For the deck we created above, for example, we can ask, "Do you like milk?" If the student who was asked has a milk card, it means he likes the item and so must give it away; not having it means he does not like it, and the other player must go fish. "How much milk do you have?" If the student has one milk card, she has a little milk, and if she has two milk cards, she has a lot of milk. The important point is, you must decide what having or not having a card means in the context of the questions and the prompt cards you create.

Using the game to practice "do you have any ______?" kinds of questions is the easiest because the students actually have the card. But if you restrict the game to such questions, the value of the game is limited. Almost any kind of language can be practiced if it has a question. Below are some examples. (Each question below represents only one set from a possible deck. For each question, you would have to make nine other similar sets to form a deck. The italicized words are the prompt words you would have the students write on a card.)

Is the cat under the table?

Are you a teacher?

Are you from Japan?

Is there a convenience store in your neighborhood?

What does architect mean?

Can you play tennis?

How do you spell acupuncture?

Did you go to Kyoto last week?

Don't you like natto?

Do you know what time it is? (card: What time is it?)

Another variation: change the rules completely. At the end of the game, the person with the fewest sets wins. Instead of collecting cards, students try to give them away. Yuko asks Hiroki, "Would you like some milk?" Hiroki has a milk card, and so he must answer,"yes, please," at which Yuko can get rid of her milk card or cards.

The answers you require students to use can be varied too. Short answers are more natural to conversational flow, but full answers are better for practicing verb tenses. And sometimes I require the students to use clarification requests as part of the game. For example, Yuko asks Hiroki, "Could I have some milk, please?" He responds, " I`m sorry, can you repeat that, please?" Yuko repeats the question, and then Hiroki can respond as usual.

Finally, the game can even be used to practice open-ended questions, such as "What are you going to do tomorrow?" It is Yuko`s turn, and she has a card that says "study English." She motions to Hiroki, who then has to start the exchange by asking, "what are you going to do tomorrow?" Yuko says," I`m going to study English. How about you?" If Hiroki has the same card, he answers, "Me too," and hands over the card, or if he does not have it, he says, "Nothing special. Go fish."


As a controlled practice activity, the game is good because students use both listening and speaking skills, in an atmosphere that is fun. Students love taking cards from others and hate having them stolen. It can be played by all levels of students. I have played with children as young as five. And the most advanced students even like it, especially for language that is difficult to get used to, such as embedded questions. It can be played by as few as three people, and after the game and rules are demonstrated, large classes of students can play if they can be separated into smaller groups.