Clusters and Islands – An improvement on the classic game of “Criss-Cross”

Wouldn't it be great if students always thought this when you asked a question? photo credit: via Baubauhaus


…Basic Rules…

This is a two-part review game that takes 5-10 minutes. The first part is called “Clusters.” You can transition into this game from the class greeting, so tell students to stay standing.

In this game, teachers will switch off asking questions, ideally based on a grammar point that the class just learned.

Students will raise their hand if the can answer the teacher’s question. Call all a student that raises their hand. If the student gets the question right, he/she can sit down as well as 4 friends standing around them (i.e. in a “cluster”). If not, ask the same question again and allow another student to respond.

****With the exception of this “Cluster Rule” it sounds exactly like the criss-cross game you’ve always played, huh? Well, as the game progresses and more and more students sit down, the magic of this game reveals itself.*****

Because of this 5 person “Cluster Rule”, about 5 to 7 students who don’t have anyone standing around them will gradually emerge. These are the “islands.” and this is were the second part of the game starts.


At this point, you can switch to one-by-one questions, where each of the remaining students need to answer one question. So, 1 correct answer = only 1 student gets to sit down.

The following rule is key to a succesful “Islands” game. Since the remaining students can sometimes have trouble speaking English, tell them each person will answer the same question, one-by-one. For instance, “What is fun for you?” — a question for 3rd grade JHS students. This style reduces the stress and gives the remaining students a chance to practice the grammar point, and allows the game to end smoothly without any tears or frustration.

So, have students raise their hands to answer the question when they are ready. “Islands” finishes when all remaining students have answered the final question and have sat down.

What’s the point of this variation?

It may not be clear at first, but the structure of this game is actually pretty clever, for this English activity is secretly geared toward getting students that may tend to have trouble with English (i.e. the “islands”) participating in English class games. Think about it. In the standard criss-cross game, the strong English speakers  can answer all the questions and take down whole lines of students, allowing 4-5 students who never make a peep to slip through the cracks every time. If you have the final line that remains answer questions one-by-one, you can accomplish a similar affect of geting the “islands” to participate, but in my experience this can easily become a tedius and stressful experience that lowers the mood and the pace of the entire class. The standard version of criss-cross then, allows the strong students to benefit from the game every time, while only putting pressure on the unlucky students that remain standing.

The balanced format of “Clusters and Islands”, however, allows high-level students to particpate at the begining, while giving space for other students to participate in the end. Unlike the high stress, one-by-one endgame of standard criss-cross, the answer-the-same-question-format of “Clusters and Islands” removes the stress from the equation.

Also the “cluster rule” makes the outcome of who will remain standing for the “Islands” part of the game less predictable, and therefore more interesting. With few exeptions, criss-cross can be fairly predictable, especially if there is large gap in a class between strong and weak English speakers. So, “Clusters and Islands” allows many types of students to participate with a different outcome of remaining students each time.

What questions to ask?

This game can be used to reinforce a grammar pattern.

The third year JHS students just learned “It’s difficult for me to…” so we played “Clusters and Islands” recently, using this grammar. The first question, then is “What is difficult for you?” A correct answer, therefore, is “It is difficult for me to *fill in the blank here*”

More question examples are:

  • Is it difficult for you to play soccer?
  • Is it difficult for you to get up early?
  • Is it fun for you to play games?
  • Is it interesting for you to read comics?

PRO-TIP: Don’t be afraid to ask a question two or three times in a row. If it is a good question, and many students raise their hand to answer, just say, “Same question” or repeat the quesiton for the students.

Please put comments or questions in the comments section below. Please let me know if you use this game in your class.

Clusters and Islands: Demonstrated

Thanks to one of the staff at my school that wanted to practice her English, there is this really great slide show, demonstrating how this game is played for all those visual learners out there. Check the slide counter in the bottom-right hand corner of each image and view the slide show from the beginning (i.e. Slide 1). From there, you can use the arrows in the gallery box to click through the slideshow.

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