Playing games has many benefits. It is relaxed and fun, making it easier for you to engage with a child and build a relationship, impacting positively on their (eventual) willingness to read. 

Playing helps develops the characteristics of effective learning: exploring, creating and thinking critically, and active learning. It also supports learning in areas directly related to improving confidence and self-esteem.

Playing games allows children to:

  • Succeed
  • Be motivated to develop important skills
  • Understand rules
  • Engage in conversation with ease
  • Develop literacy skills and confidence

Many games are designed to support literacy development, but many others are hidden opportunities for reading practice.

Playing simple word and verbal games can also help literacy development directly.  Many are based on alphabet recognition, the sounds of words, rhyming and help children develop the “building blocks” of literacy. 

Others are great for building vocabulary, increasing fluency, developing comprehension skills, even an understanding, in some case, of how “story” works.

The following simple games require nothing more than a pen and paper to play, but can be extremely effective ways of connecting learning and enjoyment.

Pen & Paper Games

Art Gallery

Each player starts with a blank sheet of paper. Players take turns in naming an object, which all players then have to incorporate into their drawing. The next object shouldn’t be named until everyone has finished drawing the last one. At an agreed point both players reveal and discuss their drawings.


Each person draws the same-sized grid on a piece of paper.

  • Down the left side, put some letters of the alphabet (at random or e.g. spelling out the child’s name).
  • Across the top, write categories (e.g. animals, colours, car makes).
  • Each write in a word that fits the category and starts with the letter in the left-hand column.

Each person scores 1 point for a correct word – the winner is the person with the most points. 

You can agree to give ‘extra points’ for certain words and you can make the game harder or easier by adjusting the number of rows (i.e. letters) and by the relative complexity of the categories. 


One person starts with a piece of paper and writes the first step in a story, before folding the paper to hide the phrase and passing it to their partner who writes in the next step and so on. 

An example of possible steps follows (the things in brackets should be replaced by the chosen words or phrase), but you can decide your own version:

  • (boy's name)
  • met (girl's name)
  • in/at/on (where they met)
  • He said (what he said)
  • She said (what she said)
  • He (what he did)
  • She (what she did)
  • The consequence was (what happened).

When all eight steps, are completed the piece of paper is unfolded and you can read out the completed, usually funny, stories.


Write down one long word, or a phrase, and see how many other words of three letters or more can be made using only letters from that word e.g. from “fingerprint” find small words such as pen, tin, ring. The game can be played collaboratively or competitively.


One player thinks of a word, and makes an anagram of the word. The other player then tries to find the word from the anagram.  To make the game competitive, put a time limit on the person trying to guess the word.  


Players take turns in choosing letters until 9 letters have been named. They then try to make the longest word they can using just those letters.  You can work together or play competitively: the person who finds the longest word scores one point per letter and in the case of a draw both players score. 

Fortune Teller

Start with a piece of square paper (approximately 30mm/12 inches). 

  • Fold in half.
  • Unfold and fold in half the other way.
  • Open out and then fold the four corners into the centre. Turn over and fold the four corners into the centre.
  • Fold the square in half.
  • Unfold and fold in half the other way.
  • Unfold and pull the four ends together, making a diamond-like shape.
  • Pick up each of the four square flaps, and put your fingers inside. You will now be able to move the four parts around.

Now it’s time to make fortunes: 

  • Write e.g. any four colours on the four uppermost flaps.  
  • Allow the fortune teller to fall open and write 8 numbers on the inside (triangular) flaps.
  • Write 8 fortunes inside the flaps (underneath the numbers).
  • Ask the other person to choose one of the four colours. Spell that colour out, while moving the fortune teller in and out.
  • Ask the person to choose one of the numbers that is showing. Move the fortune teller in and out the right number of times.
  • When you finish, the person chooses one of the four visible numbers.
  • Open up the flap they choose, and read their fortune. 


You can select words at random or agree on a theme together. One person thinks of a word and marks out a row of dashes representing each letter of the word. The guesser suggests a letter.  If it is in the word, the other player writes it in all its correct positions, if not they draw one element of a hanged man. The game is over when the guesser gets the word correctly or the other player completes the hanged man.  Other options are to draw elements of a house, a windmill or apples on a tree.


The first person writes a letter on a sheet of paper. The other person then adds a letter to the beginning or end of this stem to form part of a word.  The first person then does likewise but avoiding actually completing a word. The first player forced to create a word, of at least three letters, loses.  The player adding a letter can choose to bluff.  The other person can challenge them to reveal their word. If they cannot name a word, the bluffer loses; otherwise the challenger loses.


The first person chooses a three-letter word. The second person then tries to make a four-letter word by adding a letter and making an anagram of all the letters. The play continues in this way until someone is unable to make a word.


One person thinks of a common phrase (or perhaps an object for younger children) and then makes a drawing so that their partner can guess what it is (within a given time limit). You are not allowed to give clues by talking, or drawing letters or symbols!

Why? Because.

Each person writes down a question beginning with why (for example, Why do dogs bark?) then folds the paper over to hide the question and passes it their partner who, without looking at the question, writes an answer starting with Because (for example, Because chocolate tastes good). You then read out both questions and answers.

Word Bulls & Cows (or Word Mastermind)

The Chooser thinks of a four-letter word.  The Guesser then tries a four-letter word, and the Chooser says how close it is to the answer by giving:

  • The number of Bulls - letters correct in the right position.
  • The number of Cows - letters correct but in the wrong position.

The Guesser tries to guess the answer in the fewest number of turns.

Word Ladders

One person chooses a starting word, and the other person then chooses an ending word of the same length. Players can work together or compete to find a word ladder between the two chosen words. [The player with shortest ladder would win]. If neither player can find a ladder the game is a draw.  In each step of a classic word ladder, you must change only one letter to make another word (e.g. change “bear” to “tear”); a variation is to allow a ‘scrambled word ladder’ where you can also scramble the order of the letters to make another word (e.g. scramble “bear” to make “bare”).

Word Square

Each player draws a 4 x 4 grid which they keep hidden from the other player. They then take turns naming a letter. As each letter is named, each player must write it immediately into one of the cells in their grid. Players can choose any letter they like, and letters can be repeated. The object is to make up words as you go along. When the grid is full the players count up the number of four-letter words they have made, reading across, down, or diagonally, and the one with the highest score wins.   A variation of this game is to (quickly) fill up the grid with letters as above, but rather than making words as you go along, have a set time when the grid is full to see how many words you can make.

Verbal Games

Alphabet Challenge

Pick a theme and starting with 'a' then 'b' then 'c' and so on take it in turns to say a word in the chosen category beginning with that letter.  A variation of this game is to think of a word beginning with the last letter of the word the other person chose. For example, if the topic was animals and the first person said ‘anteater’, the next person needs to think of an animal beginning with ‘r’ e.g. ‘rabbit’.

Alphabet Game

Find objects beginning with each letter of the alphabet in turn in the room you are sitting in.

Fortunately/unfortunately (or Suddenly)

Make up a story by taking it in turns to say a phrase or sentence which you end by using the words “fortunately” and “unfortunately” in turn (or “suddenly”) when the story passes to the other person who does likewise and passes it back to you.  For example: “She was walking along the road one day. Fortunately it had stopped raining. Unfortunately, it had started to snow…

I Spy

Guess what word the other person can see when they tell you the initial letter or sound.

Memory games

There are a number of variations of games in which you take it in turns to remember everything in the sequence previously before adding your next item to the list – each has the option to be played in alphabetical order or not:

Doctor’s Dog - take it in turns to say “The Doctor’s Dog is a [blank] dog”, where you complete the blank with an adjective e.g. angry, brown, clever, daft, energetic etc.

I went to market – and I bought “an apple, book, cucumber, dress…”

I’m packing a suitcase – and in it I put “my pyjamas, a torch, my X-box, a Mars bar…

Purple monkey dishwasher

A game almost exactly opposite to word association: this random word game is a sequence of words that have as little connection as possible.  

  • The first person begins by saying a word.
  • The second person must quickly respond with another word that cannot be reasonably associated with the previous word.
  • A player is out when he cannot say a word in time, says more than one word, repeats a word that has already been, or if the other player can make a reasonable association between their word and the previous one.

Rhyming Words

Choose a word to start and then take it in turns to come up with a word that rhymes with it.  Play collaboratively to beat your previous best number of rhymes or competitively to see who can’t come up with a rhyme first.

Twenty Questions

One person think of an object or a famous person. The other person then has 20 questions – which can only be answered 'yes' or 'no' - to help them work out what or who it is.  You can make that task easier by agreeing to give the first letter of the item or person at the start. 

Would you rather?

Take it turns to ask each other “Would you rather…” questions.  The questions can be between two good options (Would you rather have the super-power of invisibility or speed?) or between two bad options (Would you rather lose your sense of smell or sense of taste?), or between two silly options (would you rather wear two odd socks or have two left feet?)!  Always discuss the reasons for your answers!

Word Association

Take it in turns to say what comes into your mind when one person says a word e.g. shoe – trainer – running – sport – football.

And don’t forget there are plenty of classic simple pen and paper and verbal games that will ‘simply’ appeal to and engage children:

Strategic thinking games like: Battleships, Noughts and Crosses, Sprouts, Squares; creative drawing games like: Picture consequences and Taking a line for a walk; numeracy-based games like: Buzz, Number Bulls & Cows (Mastermind).

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