28 Must Have Vocabulary Games For Every Teacher’s Back Pocket
“Teaching is a walk in the park… If that park is Jurassic Park.” — Unknown
You’re there again. Your students are staring at you with a blank, bored look on their faces. They look like they’re ready to throw tomatoes at you.
You take a few steps back and hit the whiteboard, looking left and right, wondering how you can fix this. How you can make learning vocabulary fun. It’s your worst nightmare as a teacher!
I’ve been there. All too many times. Teaching vocabulary can be like pulling teeth sometimes.
For this reason, I’ve accumulated a list of games that I use while I teach English vocabulary to students, but these games could work for any language really!
These games are great because most of them require no prep at all! It’s something you can quickly whip out of your back pocket. They’re invisible cards to you being the best vocabulary teacher with no effort or time on your end!
I also recommend making a lot of these competitive and breaking the students into teams. Students love competition and go nuts for it, especially if there are points, stickers, or prizes involved!
“Being a teacher is easy. It’s like riding a bike. Except the bike is on fire. You’re on fire.” — Unknown
Kids LOVE drawing. Especially on the teacher’s board! Special privileges, yes please!
Write each vocabulary word on a small piece of paper, fold it up, and stick it in a hat. Students take turns to come up to the board, pull a vocabulary word from the magical hat, and draw it on the board. The winning student gets a point! Each student takes a turn until all of the vocabulary words are finished.
2. Odd One Out
This one practices the spelling of the vocabulary word.
Divide the classroom into two teams. Two students from opposing teams will stand from their seats in front of their desk.
Write three versions of the vocabulary word on the board, but only one of them should be spelt correctly. The student who can pick the correct one gets a point!
3. Race Writing
I’ve been using this one for almost a decade in the classroom and it never gets old!
Divide the class into two teams. Divide the board into two as as well. One student from each team comes to the board with a board marker in their hand. The teacher says the vocabulary word and the student that can write it the quickest (with the correct spelling, of course!) gets the point!
To take this to the next level, I normally ask the student to tell the part of speech (noun, verb, adjective) as well as definition of the word for a total of 2 extra points!
4. Story Chain
As a teacher, time is of the essence. I love this game because you kill two birds with one stone: it’s a creative approach to teach vocabulary and helping the students build stories altogether!
Using the vocabulary words at hand, the class creates a verbal story together. This story could be any genre that you set, but I find a humorous one works the best as students remember the silliest ones that make them laugh the most! Sometimes, I don’t assign a genre and see where it takes a surprising twist! Some stories start as an adventure and end with horror!
The first student makes the first sentence of the story using one of the vocabulary words. The second student uses another vocabulary word, and so on and so forth until all of the vocabulary words are used up!
5. Tic Tac Toe
Who doesn’t love playing Tic Tac Toe?!
There’s a few ways with this one:
First, you can put the vocabulary words in the squares. When the students play, if they want to put an x or o somewhere, they have to read the word and say the definition. If the definition is wrong, they can’t put their x or o there.
Second, you can put the word definitions in the squares. When the students play, if they want to put an x or o somewhere, they have to read the definition and then say the word. If the word is wrong, they can’t put their x or o there.
*Cues Jeopardy theme song*
The class should be divided into 3 teams, equally if possible.
Each point value card will have a word and a definition. A student picks out a point value card and the definition appears. The student must say the matching vocabulary word to win the point!
If the student is correct, the student can proceed and pick another pocket to read.
I normally play this game when I have to review a bunch of words at the end of a unit.
A fellow teacher recommended this one to me for any subject, and it works so well!
It’s time to get in front of the classroom, practice your acting, and get real silly!
Write each vocabulary word on a small piece of paper, fold it up, and stick it in a hat. Students take turns to come up, pull a vocabulary word from the hat, and act it out. No talking allowed! The winning student gets a point!
This game is even funnier if you have two students partner up to act out a scenario to demonstrate the word and the other paired teams have to guess in order to get the point for their team.
My classroom gets so many laughs with this one!
8. Fly Swatter
Do you remember using the fly swatter for fun as a kid, or was that just me?
You’ll need two fly swatters (or pointers of some sort) for this game.
Break the classroom into two teams.
Write all of the vocabulary words on the board, giving a decent amount of space between each word.
Invite two students up to the board. Say a vocabulary word and the first student to swat the word gets the point for their team!
9. Hot Seat
If you want to be extra dramatic with this one (and which teacher doesn’t?), print some fire, laminate it, and stick it on that chair!
Divide the classroom into two teams (or more teams if you have a large amount of students).
Put the hot fire chair facing forward in front of the board at the front of the classroom.
Have a student from one team come up and sit in the chair. Write the vocabulary word on the board. That student that’s sitting in the chair has their teammates help them figure out the word by giving definitions and examples, but not the word.
If that student gets the word, they win a point for their team!
Then, a student from another team goes, and so on and so forth until the vocabulary words have all been played with.
This game gets the kids up from their chairs and really energized, especially when the stakes are so high!
I remember making dozens of flashcards for school that I never ended up using, but I promise, this is different!
Make large flashcards for each vocabulary word with their definition on the back. If you have extra time, you could assign a vocabulary word to each student and they can make the flashcard.
Divide the classroom students into two teams.
You can play this game two ways.
First, let the students read the definition side and then guess the word. If they guess correctly, they get a point!
Second, let the students read the word side and then guess the definition. If they guess correctly, they get a point!
NOTE: I normally don’t make the students memorize the definition word to word, but have them say it in their own way. I highly discourage memorization in education in the traditional sense that it has always been used.
Who doesn’t love getting a bucket load of points at once?
Pair up the students. For each pair of students, say a definition to them and they have to say the word back at you. Whichever student in the paid says the correct word the quickest gets a point. I use a points system in my classroom called Class Dojo. It’s a great website to use for a points system. Whatever points system you use would work.
This game could also work the other way. Instead of asking for the word while giving the definition, you could give the word and then ask for the definition instead! The student who gives the most accurate definition the fastest would get the point.
A lot of times, the pair might blurt the word out together, so I just give them both a point in that case!
12. Would You Rather
I love Would You Rather and try to incorporate it in different ways in my classroom!
Students use the vocabulary words to make funny would you rather statements together. You could put the classroom into teams and assign a few vocabulary words each to them and then have them read it out loud and the rest of the class has to answer them.
13. Five Questions
This one is like Twenty Questions, but a quicker version.
Divide the students into teams.
One team goes first and picks a word that they don’t share with the rest of the class. The second team asks questions about the word to try and guess it. If they guess it correctly within 5 questions, they get a point!
Depending on the level of the students, you can make this into however many questions that the students might need.
14. Word Chain
This game really tests the students’ previous vocabulary that they’ve learned.
Provide a category like ‘fruit’ and then provide one word in that category like ‘peach’ and because it ends with h, the next word has to be a fruit that starts with h like ‘Honeydew fruit’ and that ends with t, so the next student has to think of a fruit starting with t, like ‘tangerine’.
15. Classmate Speculation
We’ve all been there as well as our students. People watching. Whether you’re sitting in a mall, park, or subway, wondering about their lives!
Students use the vocabulary words to make speculations about each other and their lives.
For example, one student says out loud, “I think Harry appreciates Marvel because he’s always wearing Marvel T-shirts.” Then, Harry responds, and then uses another vocabulary word to speculate something else about another classmate.
If the students use it in the correct way, I give them points for that! The students have a lot of fun with this because they can get as silly as they want with the speculations, as long as it’s within boundaries which you can set beforehand.
This is a really fun game. The students come up with a lot of interesting and sometimes questionable speculations that are sure to make everyone giggle!
16. Mystery Sound
This is a quirky one and can be a bit of a challenge!
Play a sound related to the vocabulary word, if applicable, and the students have to guess what word it relates to.
If they guess correctly, they get a point!
This game really depends on the set of words.
17. Mad Libs
Pick any Mad Libs story (perhaps a themed one if it’s near a holiday!) and tell the students that they have to use at least 5 or however many of the class vocabulary words in them.
Then, the students take turns and read their Mad Libs.
This always loosens and cracks the students right up!
18. 5 Second Rule
A quick game with time pressure involved!
Pick a category and the students take turns to go. Each student must take no more than 5 seconds to say a word in that category, and then it’s another student’s turn.
If they fail to say a word related to that category in 5 seconds, then they’re out.
19. Use the Words Again
One of my fellow teachers recommended this one to me recently and it has been a huge hit!
After learning the new vocabulary words, encourage the students to use the words throughout the day. If a student uses it in a correct way randomly, during a history lesson for example, I give them a point!
This game made me realize just how quickly kids pick up new vocabulary words. Somehow, I felt so shocked when the students use Julius Caesar and a difficult vocabulary word in the same sentence.
Let me tell you, you really feel accomplished as a teacher with this one.
20. Simon Says
A simple game, but always one that can be relied upon! It’s easy to make variations with it, too!
Students stand up and do whatever you instruct them to do as long as you say ‘Simon says’ before it. However, if you instruct something without saying ‘Simon says’ and a student does it, they’re out.
For older students, use more difficult vocabulary learned in class. For example, “Simon says perspire!” and the students pretend to perspire (a vocabulary word learned in class that day).
For younger students, keep it simple by using easier vocabulary for review.
21. Person, Place, Thing
I remember an era when this game was played for fun.
Print out a template of this or get a piece of paper and divide it into three sections, naming one section ‘person’, ‘place’, and ‘thing’.
The teacher calls out a letter and the students must quickly write down a person, place, and thing that starts with that letter within a matter of seconds. You can pick the number of seconds they have depending on the age group of the students.
To make it more difficult, add a fourth column called ‘animal’.
There are many ways to make it more challenging by adding super specific columns for subjects or topics that you’ve been teaching such as ‘Earth science’ or ‘gemstones’ if you’ve gone enough in depth about it.
This is a really fun one. The students are secretly overcoming stage fright with this one and they don’t even realize it since they’re having loads of fun!
Pair up the students or put them in groups of three or four. Give each group a vocabulary word (or more for advanced students) and they have 5 minutes to come up with a scenario that will mostly be improv when the present it in front of the class. The rest of the class has to guess the vocabulary word based on the scenario that their classmates are presenting in front of them. It’s different than charades because they can talk in this one, as long as they don’t blurt the vocabulary word!
23. Describe and Draw
The end result of this game will have everyone rolling on the floor and laughing (it literally happened in my classroom)! Someone even got to their knees to catch their breath.
Pair the students up and give each student a paper and pencil.
One student in a pair uses vocabulary words to describe a photo to the other student that they must draw. One student paints a picture with her words while the other student translates that into an image.
For example, if the vocabulary words are: perspire, appreciate, and core, then the student who is speaking could say ‘Once upon a time, there was an alien who perspired by eating apple’s cores. That’s why she could never appreciate Earth’s nature when she came down to visit.’
When all of the vocabulary words have been used up and the photo is finished, then the student who drew shares the photo and the two students have a good laugh about it. Then, students swap and do the same again (one is listening and one is speaking).
You’d be surprised at the humourous art the students create during this vocabulary activity!
24. Musical Chairs
I know, you’re probably wondering, but how?!
Set up chairs in the middle of your classroom the same way you would for musical chairs.
Play the music as the students walk around the chairs in a circle.
Stop the music.
The last student standing has to either give the definition for the word or the word for the definition, depending on which one the teacher says.
Who doesn’t love a good old game of bingo?
There are websites that have templates that you can edit and make your own.
I use My Free Bingo Cards.
If you make one board, websites will automatically make several different boards with the same vocabulary words for you. Here’s an example of a site:
Give each student a bingo card. Call out the vocabulary words, one by one, keeping record of which ones you called out so the little buggers don’t trick you! Once a student has a row, that student wins a point!
26. Comic Strip
Alright, when I was a student and my teacher asked me to make a comic strip, it was one of the BEST days ever!
Print blank comic strips in advance. The number of boxes can depend on how much or how little time you have allocated for vocabulary.
With this, I also print onomatopoeia pages for the students to add. This will really energize them up!
Give the students a blank comic strip and ask them to create a quick comic strip using all of the vocabulary words! Comic strips are always a fun way to learn for the students.
You can let them pick a genre, or you can assign a genre as well.
Afterwards, they can present and share their comic strip to their classmates!
A relaxing melody always soothes everyone in the classroom.
Take a popular song that everyone in the class loves and change the lyrics together, making sure that the vocabulary words are in it. Keep the instrumental, but change the words.
If you want to keep this easy, print the lyrics in advance and give each student a copy. Then, decide which words to replace. You can either replace a few words, sentences, or whatever works for that set of vocabulary words. This part also depends on how much time you have!
This gets so many laughs in my classroom!
Use the game Telephone to get all your kids laughing the entire game through!
One student whispers a sentence into the ear of the next student using a vocabulary word. That student whispers it along to the student next to them, and so on and so forth until the it’s the last student. The last student has to say what they heard out loud.
The goal is to keep it the same all the way around. There’s no clear winner, but it gets so many giggles and lightens up the air a lot!
All of these games been such a hit in my classrooms and I hope they’ll be in yours, too! Good luck!
“Teacher? I prefer the term educational rockstar!” — Unknown