The benefits of using games to teach vocabulary
Classroom games can be an excellent way to support the development of a learner’s vocabulary and allow your students to practise in a way that is both interactive and fun.
A learner’s understanding of vocabulary is foundational when learning to communicate successfully; each of these games has a social aspect to engage learners with each other whilst they learn. This encourages the integration of new vocabulary into the language learners use. As well as this, teachers can quickly evaluate the progress of each learner in a spontaneous setting.
Each of these games can introduce new words into the classroom, as well as reinforce those which learners have already encountered. The games can be adapted and revisited to include new sets of words, ensuring your learners have the opportunity to practise their vocabulary in a variety of ways. Games are amusing as well as challenging - much of the time, learners reinforce their vocabulary and learn new words without even realising it.
Here are some fun classroom games you can try out in the classroom!
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Vocabulary bingo is an engaging way to practise and embed new vocabulary. Learners are each given a unique bingo card, and the teacher calls out vocabulary which corresponds to their cards. When a learner hears a word related to their card, they can place a counter on top of it. When they have completed a line, all corners, or covered their card completely, they win.
What appears on each of the bingo cards can be easily adapted depending on the age of your learners. For younger learners, each bingo card can be a set of contextual images, with the vocabulary relating to each image underneath. When you call out the word relating to the image, the student covers it on their card, winning once their card is complete. This is especially useful when helping learners visualise a topic, such as animals or body parts - this can also be used for older learners in subjects with an abundance of Tier 3 vocabulary.
For higher level learners, you can try using suffixes. On each bingo card, write a series of words which are missing a suffix:
When you call out a suffix, such as ‘less’, ‘ness’, or ‘ment’, your learners will need to figure out which words change when this suffix is added. If they get it right, you could ask them to use the word in a sentence. This helps build connections between words, as well as encouraging them to think on the spot. This can also help your students discover how suffixes can change the spelling of words. Merry, for example, gains an ‘i’ when changed into ‘merriment’.
Vocabulary bingo is easily adaptable and can be used with any topics you are teaching. You can use definitions instead of words to help your students fully understand the topic, or you can introduce new words to encourage their listening and spelling.
What is it?
Guessing games engage learners and encourage them to think deeply, which is essential when processing high quality encounters with new vocabulary.
One way to play is to split your learners into pairs or smaller groups. One of them is given a card with an animal, a fictional character, or another noun related to your current topic. The other learners then use yes or no questions to discover clues and, once they have enough information, they can begin to guess what is on the card.
This game can be levelled up by encouraging learners to use ambitious vocabulary in their yes or no questions - for example, if asking questions about cormorants, “Do my feathers have a glossy shine?” or “Do I dive into the water to catch fish?”
This game can also be played with the card placed on a learner’s forehead, and they must guess what noun they are without looking at the card. These words should be those which have been recently introduced in the classroom and, depending on how difficult you want to make the game, a time limit can be introduced.
Similarly, you can play Hangman (or Spaceman, if you’re aiming to avoid the negative connotations) in the classroom to help students review vocabulary they have recently learned - this can support spelling and grammar instruction. Draw a series of lines on a whiteboard and have learners guess which word is hidden on the board. If they guess wrong too many times, they lose. To make it easier, you can add a letter to the word in advance as a clue, or have students work together in pairs.
In Vocabulary Scramble, learners are given a series of jumbled up letters and asked to figure out what the hidden word is. Your learners should be encouraged to spot other words in the jumble as well as the main one.
- ESCAPE -> PESCAE
- CLASSROOM -> ROASLCMOS
- LEARNER -> NELEARR
To adapt this game, you could search for hidden words in advance. When you write the jumbled word on your whiteboard, place hints at other words underneath, and see how many words your learners can find! Points can be awarded depending on the difficulty of the word, with the most points being awarded to the learner that discovers the original.
Depending on how much you would like to challenge your learners, you can introduce long words (eight letters or above) to the scrabble or introduce a time limit to see how many different words a student can find before the time runs out.
We have created two example scramble sheets, one on the vocabulary of rivers and the other on Vikings, available to download below.
I spy is a classic children’s game that your class is sure to know already. Choose an object in the classroom that your class is familiar with, or you can choose an image online which contains nouns from the current topic in the classroom. Start the game by asking, ‘I spy with my little eye’, and provide a clue:
- I spy with my little eye something beginning with S.
- I spy with my little eye something you wear on your head.
- I spy with my little eye something that is red.
If a learner guesses correctly, they can choose the next object to guess.
This can be levelled up by introducing high-level vocabulary, such as: “I spy with my little eye a synonym for scared beginning with T.”
Word association is an ideal way to help your learners develop and reinforce prior knowledge they have about a topic. To begin the game, decide on a relevant word and show it to the classroom. This word should be central to the current topic, such as ‘school’, ‘subjects’, or ‘body parts’. From here, the class will take it in turns adding a new relevant word; this can continue until a student either repeats a word or is unable to think of one.
For larger classes, your learners can work in groups to come up with a list of associated words, which can be shared with the class after a set amount of time. You can allow your students to compare their answers and see if any new words have appeared for discussion.
Roll the dice
For this game, you should write a word relevant to the current topic on the whiteboard or state a particular word to the class. Then have your students each roll a die:
- If they roll a 1, they should write a definition of the word.
- If they roll a 2, they should draw an image of the word.
- If they roll a 3, they should write a synonym of the word.
- If they roll a 4, they should write the opposite of the word.
- If they roll a 5, they should write a sentence using the word.
- If they roll a 6, they should write another word which rhymes.
Like Vocabulary Bingo, this game is easily adaptable, and the dice rolls can change their meaning depending on the topic. One roll could ask the students to act the word out, and another could ask them to describe where they might find that word in the world. For younger learners:
- If they roll a 1 or a 2, they should spell the word aloud.
- If they roll a 3 or a 4, they should use the word in a sentence.
- If they roll a 5 or a 6, they should write the word down.
Vocabulary Charades is an interactive game that helps develop a learner’s speaking skills as well as their vocabulary. Students will act out a word or a phrase, and the rest of the class will take it in turns to guess which word it is.
One way to play is to split the classroom into two teams. Each team sends a person to the front of the class to choose a random word from a hat. If the team guesses the word correctly, another word is picked, and the game continues. When the time limit has been reached, the person goes back to their seat, and the next team takes over.
To encourage the class, you can give bonus points to teams who get two or three words in a row. Verbs work especially well for this game, as well as nouns relevant to the current topic.
Pictionary allows your learners to convey meanings of vocabulary through drawing pictures. To play, split your class into teams and provide each of them with a whiteboard and marker. One student from each group should go to the front of the class to receive a word from you, then return to their seat.
Set a timer (between 30 seconds and 2 minutes depending on the word) and tell the student to begin drawing. If their group guesses the word before the time limit ends, they get a point. The game can continue until every student has had a chance to draw as well as guess. As the game requires just drawing, you can also introduce almost any type of vocabulary for any skill level.
You can also develop this game by comparing the drawings at the end of each round. Ask your learners to discuss which is the strongest representation of the word or idea. For higher level learners, you can also try using idioms and phrases.
Crosswords are a fun way to introduce definitions alongside vocabulary within the classroom. A crossword is a puzzle of grid squares into which words cross over vertically and horizontally. Where each of the words cross over, a letter is shared. Beneath the crossword is a series of clues that hint at the missing words.
You can adapt crosswords depending on the ability level of your learners. For younger learners, the clues can be direct definitions. For higher level learners, try making a crossword where all the clues are the opposite of the answer, or a crossword where all the answers rhyme.
This can be quite a controversial topic for some teachers, but truthfully, the internet provides a wealth of online games that can be brought to the classroom. A study by Yip and Kwan (2006) found that online vocabulary games allow learners to retain new words for a longer period, as well as retrieve more words outside of the classroom.
Introducing these online games can make learning vocabulary more interactive for the whole class, allowing them to access a game together without the need for smaller groups or whiteboards. Alongside those presented above, different games can be found online to challenge and engage your learners. Boggle, for example, asks learners to find as many hidden words in a grid as possible. In Text Twist, the website presents an anagram for learners to find words within.
Ultimately, deciding whether to introduce online games to your literacy instruction can be a difficult choice to make. Fortunately, Bedrock's vocabulary curriculum features engaging activities and recap tasks that use the benefits of gamification to elevate learning.
Word searches are not usually the best method for introducing new words to learners, as students must already know the ambitious terms to recognise and find them.
However, we have created a vocabulary word search as part of our vocabulary games pack, encouraging learners to write their own definitions for words they find on the page. This turns what can be quite a blank activities into a rich, meaningful encounter with vocabulary, helping move understanding towards mastery.