Vocabulary games can be a fun break from regular class activities and can liven things up in class with a little competition.
In this post, I’ll describe three games that I’ve used successfully with my students. These vocabulary games encourage students to use any words they know; they are not intended as a way to review a specific set of vocabulary words (though you could adapt them to use them that way).
The primary way people acquire new words is by hearing them used in meaningful contexts. These games don’t really do that. But I think these games have value by helping students recall words they already know and by giving them a chance to produce the words themselves. I sometimes use these games as a kind of break during the middle of class, especially if the students have been doing a lot of reading and/or listening. It helps break up the class time and can re-energize the students. I also sometimes use these games at the end of class if we have an extra 5 or 10 minutes. They are very low prep, so it’s easy for me to always have them ready to go in case we have time. (The only exception is the last game I’ll describe, 3 Things, which can take much longer than just 5 or 10 minutes.)
These games are recommended for students at least at the low intermediate level since they need to already know a fairly high number of words in order to play successfully.
The three games:
For this game, the teacher thinks of a category (for example: fruits, vegetables, items of clothing). The students then race to see who can write the most words in that category within a certain amount of time (I usually give them either two or three minutes). After the set amount of time is up, ask students to count up the number of words they wrote. Whoever wrote the most words must read their list to the class so the teacher (and the whole class) can check to make sure that they didn’t repeat any words and that all the words fit the category.
This game can be played individually, in partners, or in teams.
When I’ve used this game while teaching in person, I like to do it as two teams. I have everyone stand up and line up in their two teams facing the whiteboard. I draw a dividing line down the middle of the board to make it clear that each team gets one half of the board to write on. Each team gets one dry erase marker for their whole team to use. They have to pass the marker between people on their team, and everyone takes a turn to write a word. After everyone writes one word, they keep going through all of the teammates again until their time is up. If someone can’t think of a word, their teammates can help them think of a word to write. When the time is up, the team with the most words wins.
Of course, if you don’t have the space for students to come to the board, you can just have students work either individually or with a partner to write their list on a piece of paper.
If you’re teaching online using Zoom or a similar platform, you can play this game by putting students in breakout rooms. Again, you could either have them work with a partner or a large team. The students could work together on a Google Doc to write their list with their teammates. Or if that’s too technologically complicated, they can also just talk about the words with their teammates and then each write their own lists on a piece of paper. When the time is up and the whole class comes back together, one of the students from the winning team can read their list aloud to the whole group.
Ideas for more categories: foods, drinks, things in a park, things in a refrigerator, things in a classroom, kitchen appliances, country names, names of U.S. states, animals, body parts, jobs, sports.
This game is based on a Japanese word game called Shiritori. To start, the teacher writes a word on the board. Then, students need to think of a word that starts with the same letter that the original word ended with. For example, if the teacher starts with the word table, since table ends in the letter e, the next word needs to start with an e. So the students could write the word egg. Since egg ends with a g, the next word needs to start with a g. Students continue writing words like this in a long chain. I usually tell my students they’re not allowed to repeat any words.
The teacher gives students a time limit (I usually do two or three minutes), and whichever student or team wrote the most words in that amount of time wins. It can be played in the same variations as the Categories game—either individually, in partners, or in two teams. And, again, students can either write their words on a piece of paper, while standing at a whiteboard in teams, or in breakout rooms online.
If you don’t want to make it a competition between students, you can also just work together as a class to come up with a chain of words. One student starts by saying a word, and then each student takes a turn to come up with the next word. If you want, you could count how many words the class comes up with within a certain time period and then repeat the activity again (maybe the next day) to see if you all can beat your previous score.
In this game, the teacher divides students into small groups of about 3-4. This game is similar to the Categories game because the teacher starts by giving the students a category (same as the categories above, e.g., fruits, vegetables, etc.) But this time, students only need to think of three items within a category. And this time, their goal is to think of unique answers that no other group thought of. For example, if students are thinking of words in the category of fruits, one group might write down oranges, bananas, and pineapple. Another group might write down bananas, apples, and peaches. The word bananas was mentioned by both groups, so neither group receives any points for that word. They only receive a point for a word that no other group wrote down.
You’ll probably want to tell your students they can’t use their dictionaries for this game so they have to rely on what they know.
This game can be fun since it challenges students to be creative and try to think of unique, rare words that the other students probably won’t think of. With some of the categories—like fruits, vegetables, or other food words—it’s especially fun if you have students from a variety of different countries because they often know obscure foods that the other students don’t know. I recently played this game in one of my classes in which almost all the students are Chinese and one student is from Colombia. When we did the category of fruits, the Colombian student taught all of us about some new fruits we’d never heard of that are from Colombia. And my Chinese students taught me about some new fruits, too. It was fun to all be learning new words together.
One warning: This game can take a pretty long time, depending on how exactly you do it. Sometimes I give my students two or three categories at a time to work on, and then we go over their answers all together. But you can just give them one category to make the game shorter. Also, the amount of time it takes depends on the number of groups you have. Since you have to ask each group what their answers were to see if there are any of the same answers, it can take a while to go over the answers and see which group won. Plus, if some of your students think of rare words that other students don’t know, you’ll probably want to quickly explain those words.
Like the other games, this game can also be played online on Zoom using breakout rooms for each group so they can discuss their answers together. When I play it online with students, I make sure to write down which students are in which group while they’re talking in their breakout rooms. That makes it easier for me to call on students and report their group’s answers when we come back together as a whole class.
I hope these games can bring some fun and joy to your classes!