Pathetic Excuses

Talk about practical life-skills …


  • future in the past
  • making excuses


  • Level (CEFR C1-C2)
  • Ages 15 yrs and up


When we talk about developing our students’ language skills, as ESL / EFL teachers we often neglect that most valuable of skills: making excuses for the things that we were supposed to do, but didn’t.  The remedy?  Pathetic Excuses: The Card Game.

Pathetic Excuses is a freer practice activity best used with advanced learners after doing some more focussed work on form and function of future in the past.

You will need:

  • A set of double-sided Trouble cards per group (of 3-4 students)
  • A set of Excuses cards per group
  • 1 scaffolding handout per student
  • 20 minutes
  1. Put the students into groups of 3-4 students (at a push, the game will work with 5, but the down-time will be longer).
  2. Explain that the goal of the game is to get through the whole Trouble deck, collecting as few Trouble cards as possible.
  3. The starting player is the person in each group who most recently got in trouble.  Give the students a minute to work out who this is.  Once decided, play will go in a clockwise direction around the group.
  4. Deal each player 5 Excuses cards. (for more creative students you can reduce this to 3-4 cards)
  5. The starting player takes a Trouble card and reads it to the player on their left, asking them why they haven’t done something which they were supposed to.
  6. This player, using the cards in their hand and the scaffolding handout for support, makes an excuse about why they didn’t do this.  The other players need to agree that the excuse makes sense for the excuse to be successful.  Once an excuse has been used, it cannot be used again.  If the player is using an excuse card, they must discard this, but they can make up a better excuse if they wish to.
  7. If the player is successful in making up an excuse, the Trouble card is discarded and the next clockwise player takes over.  If the player is unable to think of a decent excuse after 5 seconds, or they reuse an excuse which someone has used previously, then they get in trouble.  They collect the Trouble card and place it, red-side up in front of them.  They draw an additional excuse card, to help them next time.
  8. Repeat points 5-8 until the Trouble deck is empty.
  9. For feedback, you can ask each group to volunteer the best Trouble + Excuse combination from their group.


A simple but fun little card game, with plenty of support for less creative students.  It’s also nice to get students to reproduce some more authentic intonation for these excuses (i.e. “I was goooooiiiiing to but…”) and the weak form of “but”.


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