Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Games for Vocabulary Development

Tamara Jones is an ESL Instructor at Howard Community College, Columbia, Maryland

One of my all-time favorite ELT quotes comes from Keith Folse’s 2004 book, Vocabulary Myths. He is summarizing Lewis (1993) when he points out that “[w]ithout grammar, little communication may be possible; without vocabulary, no communication is possible.” (25) This quote always reminds me of when I lived in Korea and wanted to buy rice at the little corner store. I knew the word for rice when I ordered it in a restaurant, bap, but I didn’t know that Koreans use a different word for a bag of uncooked rice. The shopkeepers kept saying they didn’t have bap. I did not believe that a corner store in Korea did not sell rice, but because I didn’t know the right word, I eventually left frustrated, perplexed and empty handed. Clearly, words are absolutely necessary for language learners.

Unfortunately, however, there is often precious little time in class devoted to vocabulary development. In fact, one of the eight myths discussed in Folse’s (2004) book is Teachers, textbooks, and curricula cover second language vocabulary adequately. Research clearly shows that if we are to help our students become more capable communicators, we need to provide them with more exposure to and practice with new words. In a previous blog, I summarize one of Folse’s TESOL presentations on the topic (Words, Words, Words) that contains some practical suggestions for helping students build their word banks. However, I also wanted to share a couple of fun games I’ve used with great success in my classes.

Joanne’s Line Up Game

Years ago, I used to work with a woman named Joanne, and I was observing a lesson of hers once in which her students played this game. I loved it so much, I’ve been using it ever since.

Before the Class

  1. Write target vocabulary (at least 1 or 2 words per student) on the board.
  2. Make sure you have several colored markers.

During the Class

  1. Divide students into teams.
  2. Have the teams line up facing the board, like this:
  3. Designate a colored marker for each team. (Hold on to the markers. They just differentiate the teams. The students don’t do anything with them.)
  4. Call on the first student in the first line. (In the picture, this would be the student with the red number 1.) Give the student a few seconds (you decide how long based on the difficulty of the words and the proficiency level of the student) to choose a word off the board and use it in a sentence.
  5. Judge the sentence for accuracy. Is it grammatically correct? Is it used correctly? Is it pronounced correctly?
    – If the student’s use of the word is correct, cross the word off the board with that team’s marker. In the picture, if the speaker was the red number 1 student, you would cross off the word with the red marker. Have the speaker move to the back of the red line and the others move forward, so that red number 1 student becomes red number 3 student and red number 2 student moves up into the red number 1 spot.
    – If the student makes a mistake, the student still moves to the back of his or her team’s line, but the word is not crossed off. If it’s an interesting mistake, I make a note so we can discuss the error after the game.
  6. Call on the first student in the next team. (In the picture, that would be the students with the blue number 1.)
  7. Repeat the steps above, crossing words off the board with the team colors as students use the words correctly in their sentences.
  8. When all the words have been crossed off the board, count the colors of the Xs. The team with the most words crossed off with their team color is the winner.

Words on the Wall

In 2010, JJ Wilson delivered a wonderful presentation at IATEFL in 2010 about listening instruction. He demonstrated several activities, but one really stuck in my mind, and I have had a lot of fun using this game in my classes. Technically, it is a listening activity; however, the focus is on helping students to develop anticipatory listening skills, which have roots in collocations and lexical chunks. For instance, if I say, “Would you like a cup of …” and you have to guess what word will come next, you might guess tea or coffee, because those words have strong collocations with the word cup. You might also guess soup, though that probably wouldn’t be your first guess because cup of soup is a weaker, though still possible, collocation. You probably wouldn’t guess thumb tacks, lotion, or sand, even those words would be grammatically correct and would technically fit into a cup. So, the idea is that when proficient English speakers are listening, we don’t just listen word by word. Our minds are always formulating theories about what will come next based on what we know about the world and which words go together more often. To me, this is not just a listening challenge, it’s really a vocabulary challenge because part of knowing a word means knowing what words collocate with it.

Before the Class

  1. Find a level-appropriate text that contains chunks of language. (You won’t need to really search far and wide for this. This is just how English is, so pretty much any old text will do.) For intermediate level students, I like a story from Chicken Soup for the Couple’s Soul:
  2. Select several words from the text and write them on big slips of paper or larger Post It notes. These words should be part of collocations and be stressed, content words. There is no point in having students struggle to listen for unstressed function words because we don’t say they clearly in English anyway. From the above story, I have pulled: highway, gas, station, attendant, oil, legs, conversation, admitted, dated, lucky, married, dear.
  3. Create enough sets of the words (on paper or post its) so that there are enough sets for groups of 3 or 4 students. I usually put the sets on different colored paper, so I might have 3 sets of the words: 1 on pink, 1 on blue, 1 on green. That just makes things more organized for me when I set up the game in the classroom.
  4. Mix up the words in each set.
  5. Before the class starts, stick up the slips of paper in sets on walls around the room. If I have 3 sets, I might stick the pink set up on the wall by the door, the blue set up on the white board, and the green set up on the wall at the back of the room.

During the Class

  1. Put students into groups of 3 or 4.
  2. Tell students you will be reading a story and their job is to pull the word off the wall as they hear it or, even better, slightly before. (They will have already been introduced to the notion of anticipatory listening.) Stress that they are working with their teammates and competing with the other groups, but they are actually competing within their group. So, it doesn’t matter how the other teams are doing; they need to be faster than the people in their group.Have each group stand by the sets of words on the wall.
  3. Read the story somewhat slowly, but not word … by … word. Try not to laugh as the students grab at words. The winners are the people in each group with the most words by the end of the reading.
  4. If time permits, have the students work in their groups to put the words in order and recreate the story.


So, these are a couple of activities I really like to use to help my students build their English word banks. If you’ve ever tried either of these, I’d love to hear whether or not you like them as much as I do. I’m also curious about your “go to” vocabulary games. What do you do in class that works for you?

Folse, K. (2004). Vocabulary Myths. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Lewis, M. (1993). The Lexical Approach. Hove, UK: Language Teaching Publications.
Wilson, J.J. (2010). Great Speakers Need Great Listeners. Paper presented at the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL) Conference, Harrogate, UK.


Comment from Claire McLaughlin
September 7, 2018 at 12:19 pm

I just tried the Line Up review with my students before their vocabulary quiz. Thank you for another engaging way to review. I’m definitely adding it to my bag of tricks.

Comment from Tamara Jones
September 7, 2018 at 1:08 pm

Yay! I love to hear success stories like this!

Comment from Amanda Muri
October 27, 2018 at 6:59 am

My students loved this activity! Such an awesome way top develop listening and vocabulary skills. Thank you!!

Comment from Tamara Jones
October 29, 2018 at 5:59 am

Glad your students enjoyed it!

Comment from Paul Murphy
December 16, 2019 at 3:15 am

A couple of excellent activities! Thank you for sharing.

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