How to Teach English Vocabulary Using Games

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Here's a quick cure for student insomnia: Hand out a list of definitions and say, "Start memorizing." Fortunately, vocabulary enhancement can be achieved by a range of more interesting methods. One effective and entertaining way to increase vocabulary is to use a variety of games, which works for both children and adults. Try some of the following and see how quickly word power grows.


  1. How to Teach English Vocabulary Using Games

    • 1

      Play a game of "Unscrambling" to enrich vocabulary in particular categories, such as animals, transportation, fashion, sports, or media. For example, list four short, scrambled animal names, including one unusual name you want to teach. Let students work in small groups with the goal of being the first group to unscramble all four. With a dictionary at hand, "BEXI" will fairly quickly be unscrambled and turned into "IBEX." Once students get the idea of the game, give them an opportunity to create their own lists for challenging their classmates.

    • 2

      Challenge students to a session of "The Prefix Relays." After presenting six prefixes, let students put the lesson to the test. Divide them into two relay teams. Provide each team with a pile of root words written on large cards. Also provide a pile of prefixes. The first player races to the finish line with a root word. The second player races with a prefix to attach to the root. If an actual word is not created, the player must race with the prefix back to the team, and the next player must try to complete the word. Play continues until one team has created six valid words. Following the relay, challenge students to write sentences using the words they created. (See site below in the Resources section for ideas.)

    • 3

      Show students how English words often derive from other languages; explain that those words are called cognates. Play a guessing game by writing an assortment of foreign language words on the board (or listing them on a handout) and asking students to try to figure out what the words mean in English. Take a moment to mention the language from which the words come. Then make a simple game of "Concentration" by using 3-inch-by-5-inch cards, creating pairs of cards such as "sel" (French) and "salt," or "mapa" (Spanish) and "map." As in the traditional concentration game, players keep any pairs they match, and the player with the most matches wins. See some ideas for pairs of words in the Resource list below.

    • 4

      Play "Synonym Standoff" to increase vocabulary while learning to use a thesaurus. Have students draw pictures of simple objects like cats or houses. Then pair students and have them challenge each other to describe the objects, going back and forth and consulting the thesaurus when necessary. For example, "That cat is fat." "That cat is overweight." "That cat is obese." The last player to come up with an appropriate synonym is the winner.

    • 5

      Play "The Case of the Disappearing Vowels," a game that involves matching, spelling and increasing vocabulary. Make up a list of vocabulary words in one column, and leave out the vowels in each of these words. In the opposite list, and in a different order, write the definitions. Provide teams of students with dictionaries. Challenge them to be the first to write all the words out--complete with vowels--and then match the words to the definitions. For example: "nvrs" would match "opposite" when the vowels are added to make the word "inverse." For young students, use words with only one vowel (e.g., "lck" matches "fortune" once it becomes "luck").

Tips & Warnings

  • Select words for vocabulary games from current classroom reading selections.

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