by Hall Houston

Some of my favorite teaching activities are ones that are easy to set up, they’re student-centered, and they offer students additional practice with the language focus of the current lesson (or previous lessons).

Tic-Tac-Toe (also known as Noughts and Crosses, or Xs and Os) is a great way to help students review language in a simple competitive game.

I first came across Tic-Tac-Toe as a language learning activity in a book by Natalie Hess and Laurie Pollard, Creative Questions (Pilgrims), which includes a few Tic-Tac-Toe activities. In one activity, the teacher writes answers to questions about a text in the squares and students must create appropriate questions to gain an X or an O for their team. In another activity, the teacher writes question words (Who? What? When?) in the boxes, and teams must create a grammatically accurate question to get an X or O.

I have used these as filler and review activities in my classes at universities in Taiwan, and have always had a good response. Students really enjoy competing in teams, and strategizing how to win the game.

So far, so familiar - I’m sure you know these Tic-Tac-Toe variations. Let me tell you about what you can do to take your games further.

Recently, I played Tic-Tac-Toe with a group of undergraduate students and I added a twist. Halfway through the game, I changed the rules. According to the new rules, the teams wouldn’t choose their own box, but had to choose a box for the other team. If the other team could answer correctly, they would get the box. However, if they got it wrong, the first team would get the box.

It’s remarkable how big a difference such a small change can make. This altered approach revolutionised the game - it became more of a challenge, and whenever things get challenging, your students need to communicate more. That’s exactly what happened with my students.

Other Tic-Tac-Toe Games

Let’s look at some of the other things you can do with Tic-Tac-Toe.

Although Hess and Pollard focus on using the game to practice questions, I can imagine other language areas that can be used:

  • vocabulary use – each box contains a word or a phrase, and teams must create an error-free sentence using the word or phrase
  • collocations - each box contains a word and each team must list a common collocation of the word (for example, the boxes might contain verbs such as go, make, do and have, and students must say a collocation - go swimming, make the bed, do homework, have a party)
  • verb tenses - each box contains a verb and teams need to change the verb to the specified tense (for example, each box might contain the base form of a verb - run, sleep, watch - and students need to give the past tense - ran, slept, watched)
  • syllable stress - each box contains a word of at least two syllables and teams need to indicate which syllable is stressed (with certain words, such as record or perfect, you might need to specify if the word is a noun, an adjective or a verb)
  • phrasal verbs - each box contains a sentence with a phrasal verb, with a word missing from the phrasal verb, and teams must supply the missing word
  • spelling - each box contains a word misspelled, and teams must correct the misspelled word
  • word order – each box contains a phrase or a sentence with words in the wrong order, and teams must put the words in the correct order
  • intonation - each box contains a question, and teams must identify if the question should end in falling or rising intonation (for example, some boxes might feature a yes/no question, and other boxes might feature a who/what/when/where/question, and students must identify which questions end in falling intonation, and which questions end in rising intonation)

Addressing the Core Complaint - Tic-Tac-Toe is too easy!

One thing that many people dislike about the game is that it becomes very predictable, as experienced players can frequently win easily.

Here are a few variations that might raise the challenge level or at least make things more interesting:

  • Try a 4X4 grid, or even 5X5 - this makes the game last a bit longer and probably makes it less likely the game ends in a stalemate.
  • Separate the game from the questions – leave the grid blank. Ask a student from each team to come forward. Read out a review question, and the first student to ring a bell/hit a buzzer can answer the question. If the answer is correct, the student can write the team’s symbol in any box.
  • Be extremely strict with the team's answers - don't allow for the slightest error, which means that it's not always easy to get an X or an O on the board.
    If one team gets the wrong answer, give the other team a chance to answer and take the box.
  • Establish a rule for games ending in a tie – decide how you will handle ties, such as asking an extra tiebreaker task, or counting the number of Xs and Os and declaring the team with the most boxes the winning team.
  • Change the rules about halfway through the game – As I mentioned earlier, you can change the rules to something more challenging.
  • Set a timer – Use a kitchen timer set for a specified amount of time (2 minutes? 5 minutes?), but keep it hidden from your students. Each time the timer goes off, the team that is currently engaged in a question is allowed to remove one X or O from the board. Repeat several times.
  • Play several games at once. You can create two or three boards on the blackboard/whiteboard, and students can choose which board they want to put their X or O on.
  • Play an online version – websites such as tabletop TIC TAC TOE allow you to play the game online, but I personally enjoy using the blackboard and chalk.

Even More Variations!

Thanks to some diligent Googling, I discovered these variations you might wish to try with your students:

  • Random turn Tic-Tac-Toe - a flip of a coin determines which team can play each time
  • Revenge Tic-Tac-Toe - the team who gets three in a row wins, unless the other team gets three in a row on the next turn, in which case, the first team loses
  • Misere Tic-Tac-Toe (also known as avoidance Tic-Tac-Toe or reverse Tic-Tac-Toe) - the team that gets three in a row LOSES the game
  • 5 X 5 Tic-Tac-Toe - teams take turns filling up the board with Xs and Os. They stop when they have one square left over. The teams with the most three-in-a-row sequences wins.
  • Wildcard Tic-Tac-Toe - this is like a regular game, but each team has three wildcards they can use to steal the opponents spaces. For example, let’s say that to win one of the boxes, you have to think of a word consisting of at least 6 letters and that begins with A. If one team says APPLES, the other team can use their wildcard and say APOSTROPHE to steal the box. But the first team can use one of their wildcards and say APOSTROPHES to claim it back!

I encourage you to try out tic-tac-toe with your students. Use the game to give students a chance to review vocabulary you want them to remember, as well as a fun change of pace.


8 Tic-Tac-Toe variations

Tic-tac-toe variants

11 Disadvantages / Downsides of Tic-Tac-Toe

Author Biography

Hall Houston teaches undergraduate students at National Taipei University of Nursing and Health Sciences in Taipei, Taiwan. He has a Master’s degree in Foreign Language Education from The University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of several books about ELT, including Provoking Thought and 101 EFL Activities for Teaching University Students.