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Developing Number Fluency Using Geography

If there’s one thing that baffles me, (and I’ve been told one is a low estimate), it is the difficulty that my EFL students here in Japan have when dealing with large numbers. Even among my advanced classes I rarely come across someone who can easily read numbers greater than 10,000. Simply reading and writing numbers in English should not be difficult. After all, if you can count to 100 you only need to learn 4 more words to get into the trillions, which is as high as most of us really need to go. I assume that a lack of practice is holding people back. So, how to get people to say lots of big numbers in a meaningful way without getting bored…hmm…

Admittedly, I’m a bit of a geography geek. At the age of 8, for no apparent reason, I began drawing fully labeled maps of Australia from memory; borders, states, capitals, seas, bights, Mt Kosciusko, everything. I’m Canadian. Never been Down Under. Not big on kangaroos. My grade 2 teacher was amused (or possibly concerned). Of course I realize that perhaps not everyone shares this passion, but I have always been surprised by the lack (at least among my friends) of even a rudimentary feel for where things are on the map. Is it even useful to develop such spatial skills? Everyone I know seems to get by just fine not knowing that the highest point in Maldives is 2.4 meters, or that Russia borders North Korea, or that Nambia is not even a word, let alone a country. I would suggest that, yes it is indeed useful, at least for those of us who want to understand and have a positive impact on the world.

After years of growing concern at this state of affairs, I decided that something had to be done. I decided that, for my school at least, everyone would learn a little about every country on the planet. Remembering that I was still looking for ways to encourage large number practice, I developed a series of compelling card games that develop both of these skills.

Here’s what we do at my school from about age 9. First, to learn the English names of countries and to practice good pronunciation we play The Holiday Game. Next, for extensive question practice and number reading we play War. Finally, after students have developed familiarity with the various geographical data presented, we play the strategy game Link. I’ll briefly describe the games below.


Materials: large blank map, map key, cards for each country, 1 counter per player
2-5 players
5-10 minutes

Get yourself an unlabeled map of about 50×50 cm of your target region. I like to start with Europe. Have a small labeled map available for an answer key. Make yourself country cards (name and map location for each country).

Game Play
Using Europe for our example, everyone places their counter on Turkey on the unlabeled map. By turns players draw a country destination card, roll a die, and move that many spaces (countries) on the map board, naming each country passed through. When the destination is reached, the player heads back to Turkey and upon arrival, draws a new card. At the beginning, the teacher will need to prompt the country names, but due to the massive amount of repetition a lot of information is quickly internalized, and soon the students are able to play without prompts. At this point players must correctly name every country they pass through. Their turn ends at the last correctly named country. Precise pronunciation should be stressed at all times. The game is short, simple, promotes good pronunciation, and is surprisingly effective at quickly developing map skills even in pre- or semi-literate students.


Materials: country cards, map board, country key, small flag cards, question cards
2 players
5 minutes

Make some country cards with various geographical data utilizing numbers of varying orders of magnitude. My cards use ordinals (land size, world ranks, 1st to 257th), highest point above sea level (2.5 to 8850 meters), population (1000 to 1,367,485,388), GDP per capita (233 to 103,199 dollars). Non-numerical data you may want to include: capitals, national animals, agricultural products, nationalities, languages.

Here’s the design I use:

Game Play
Both players draw a card and declare their country. Player 1 asks a question from the question cards. If player 2 answers correctly, or has the better rank or larger number, player 2 wins and keeps both cards. Play alternates until a fixed number of rounds is completed. Questions can be chosen by the players based on their existing geographical knowledge, or in a fixed order, or randomly. A subset of the questions to be used is decided before play begins.

Player 1: I’m in Sweden. Where are you?
P2: I’m in Lithuania.
P1: (Doesn’t remember exactly where Lithuania is but thinks it’s one of the small Baltic nations)
How big is it?
P2: Lithuania is the 123rd biggest country in the world.
P1: Sweden is the 56th biggest country. Sweden is bigger.

Player 1 wins the round and keeps both cards. New cards are drawn. The next round player 2 asks a question. For beginners I focus on only 1 question per game. This gives the students a chance to familiarize themselves with the data, proper pronunciation, and conversation structure. The conversation template above focuses on comparatives. When 2 or more questions are used the game becomes strategic and recall and inference skills are developed. The questions I use are grouped into 3 levels.

How big is it? (World rank)
What is the population?
What is the highest point? (meters above sea level)
What is the GDP per person? (International dollars)

What is the capital?
What language is spoken?
Point to (my country) on the map.
What is the national animal?

Name one major product.
Name two neighboring countries.
Point to the flag.
What are citizens called?


Materials: country cards, flag cards, map board, map key, small pieces (20 per player)
2-5 players
15-20 minutes

Game play: Same as WAR but the winner can either keep the card they are holding or change cards with the losing player. Then both players place a piece on the map board. Play now continues with player 2 and player 3. The game ends when all the country cards have been used. Points are scored for linked countries (1 point for each contiguous country, minimum 3).

This game develops strategic thinking in addition to consolidating geographical knowledge and providing number reading and conversation practice. It can chew up a lot of time though, so we use it outside of scheduled class time.

There are plenty of sites where you can get decent maps and data for free. I use Wikipedia, CIA Factbook and I get high quality plastic cards made at

Or you can save yourself some time by visiting the RESOURCES page of this site ( and downloading (for free) detailed rules and options; map boards for Europe, Asia, Africa, Japan, USA; flag cards; question cards; and map keys. You can also get all 54 of the Africa country cards as a free download.

For those of you who have read this far, I have some extra decks of high quality plastic cards from last year. The design and data are slightly different but the game play is the same. I would be happy to ship them to you at my expense in the hope that you would provide some kind of feedback (good or bad) to help me make the games even more useful. If interested, please contact me through the website contact form. I only have about 10 decks left so let me know as soon as possible.

Plato said “Do not then, my friend, keep children to their studies by compulsion but by play.” (Republic). High levels of student engagement through, for example, games is not on its own sufficient for learning to take place. However, well designed activities can facilitate incorporation of large amounts of information in a fun and compelling way. I think the games described above are just such activities.








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Welcome to Compelling Games

Do not keep children to their studies by compulsion but by play. ( Plato)

Compelling Games is a collection of downloadable and shipped resources developed to provide intensive learning experiences in a fast-paced, enjoyable environment.

Downloadable items can be accessed from the ORDER RECEIVED page after checkout or from the MY ACCOUNT page. Also, the download link will be sent by email. To receive your order we only ask you to leave a first name and email address, but please include what country you are in.

The States of the World series of board and/or card games are excellent at getting students to rapidly incorporate large amounts of useful geographical data while honing strategic skills. The games are also a valuable resource for the ESL/EFL classroom as academic  vocabulary, ordinals, large numbers, and questions are extensively practiced.

The games and activities on this site were developed with the kind support of Mike’s House of English in Kitakyushu Japan.