Games for Teaching Vocabulary in the Classroom

When I was a speech and language pathologist, most of my students had language delays, so improving vocabulary was a top priority in my student’s IEP’s, which are individual education plans. If you do the research, you can find a list of vocabulary words that are accepted as the words your child needs to use and comprehend at any certain phase of development. I’d use a list like this to have a goal in mind, but it’s wise to keep in mind that different cultures in our diverse society will have different vocabulary needs. The key for the individual child is to have the ability to communicate effectively in his or her community.

Below I’ve listed the steps to use when working to improve a child’s vocabulary and ultimately his language development. I’ll also list some of the vocabulary games and activities I used in speech and language therapy.

Word Recognition:

This goes hand in hand with reading, which is just another reason vocabulary building is important to teach at every age. For vocabulary word recognition, I’d get a list of the teacher’s theme for the week or her spelling list. Sometimes I’d use holiday or seasonal themes. It’s good to categorize vocabulary lessons with a theme in mind to facilitate better comprehension.

I’d make dozens of file folder games, which appeared to be like any board game. There would be squares or shapes which led to a finish line, where the child would always win in the end, but the key was to win quickly. Most of the time it would only be the child and I, so in essence the child was not competing, but learning. Still, every child prefers to play a game, even if it’s not a competition. Vocabulary is more fun when there’s some action, so I had to use my ingenuity.

The child would roll the dice and move to that number of spaces. Whatever word he landed on was to be described by telling me the definition, or using it in a sentence. If he was correct, he got to roll again. If not, I’d give him the answer and he’d need to skip a turn and I’d move my marker ahead of him. He would try to, “beat me,” but I wasn’t really competing, but just teaching.

As he listened to me take my turn, he in turn, was learning the new vocabulary word. When his turn came up again, he’d be more likely to remember the word he’s missed the time before. This was a great way to explain the meaning of word and how they are used in a fun way.

Sometimes I’d bring a stack of picture cards and another stack of cards with the word of the picture printed on each, so that the child could match the picture to the word. Some children have difficulty with particular words, so I’d have a story or a group of sentences for him to go through and find the, “mystery word.”

Find Meaning Through Context:

Teach the meaning of a word through it’s use in a sentence is another way anyone learns new vocabulary. I used to write a sentence on the board each day and underline the new word I wanted to introduce. The sentence should give clues as to what the word means, and you can use that sentence to create a story. Your vocabulary lesson can be included into every subject you teach, just by using this teaching technique.

Make the word a part of your daily routine and use it over and over again when you teach. You can divide your class into groups and play Pictionary, password, the matching game, charades, or create your own vocabulary game. The students could match words to categories of word tense, noun, verb or adjective. Use the vocabulary words in every way you can to facilitate the use of it. Here’s a great game for building vocabulary skills.

Play the Pictionary Game:

Pictionary is a game of drawing and guessing pictures. This game works great with large groups as an icebreaker.

Before the first day of school, the teacher should prepare several words written on individual note cards. These are the words that will be drawn, and that teammates will try to guess. Each word or words should be labeled within one of five categories.

1. Living Things: people, plants, animals.
2. An action: dancing, singing, jumping, swimming, etc.
3. An Object: School supplies, house hold objects, etc.
4. A challenge category: Historical figures, states, countries, etc.
5. All Play Category: A group of pictures which include pictures from all of the above categories.

Divide the group into teams of at least three. Give each team a name. The first team chooses someone to draw a card and the teacher uses a one minute timer or stop watch and gives the player a card. The teacher says, “Go,” and starts the timer. The player begins to draw a picture of that word on the chalk board. The children on his team try to guess what the picture is within one minute. If the team guesses, they get a point, and you go to the next team. The rules are that the artist can’t make any gestures or other clues, but the picture. The artist can’t use numbers or letters. When a teacher chosen time frame is up, the team with the highest points is the winning team. Kids love to play pictionary and it builds their vocabulary!

Here are a few more games that will be a fun way to improve vocabulary.

The Name Game:

The Name Game can also be called the adjective game. It starts with one person in the room picking a word that describes himself or herself as a person. The catch is, that the word must start with the first letter of their first name.

So the girl names Suzie would say to the group, “Hello! My name is, “Silly Susie,” or whatever adjective she picks from a list that you’ll already have for them to choose from. The child after Suzie must say her adjective and name before saying theirs. The next child would say, “Hello, Silly Suzie, my name is Serious Sam.”

The third child would say, “Hello, Silly Suzie and Serious Sam, my name is Jubilant Jack.” This continues on until all of the students have introduced themselves. Being last is hilarious in this game, because they must remember everyone’s name and adjective before stating theirs, but by the end of the day, everyone can remember all the names. After the game, you can take your adjective list and define each to see if it really does fit with each person.

Twenty Questions:

Divide the class into groups of five to play this game. The objective of this game is to guess the person, place or thing in 20 questions or less. It’s a stationary game so you can play it inside no matter what it’s like outside. Little or no movement is needed and it takes about 5 minutes per round to play.

Choose one student to begin the game and this student is designated as, “It.” For each round, this student must choose any person, place or thing from a pre-written vocabulary list. After the student has chosen a person, place, or thing, the guessing begins. The other players take turns and ask “yes” or “no” questions in an attempt to figure out what the chosen answer is. The questions can only be answered with “Yes” or “No.” After each guess, keep track of the number of guesses that are used until it reaches the limit of 20.

Once 20 questions are used up, players may not ask any more questions. If a player correctly guesses the object before then, they become “it” for the next game and choose the next person, place, or thing. Otherwise, the answer is revealed.

You can also use flash cards put into categories for animals, school things, last names, street names, place of birth, parent’s occupation or any number of answers to use in the game.


Every teacher must find a way to evaluate what words have been learned. Can the child identify the word? Can he define its meaning through use of context clues? Can he use the word in a complete sentence with meaning and comprehension? If so, you’ve done your job very well.

Cross word puzzles are a great way to evaluate a child’s progress. You can also use any word search and you can download any word search group from the Internet. Technology puts vocabulary teaching ideas at your finger tips.

Things to keep in mind when teaching vocabulary:

We’ve all grown past those days where a teacher handed out a work sheet with vocabulary words for the child to define, so please don’t use the easy way for you, but the hard way for a child to develop the vocabulary he needs in life. Take the time to make learning interesting and fun.

Make every vocabulary lesson into a game, or use some way to motivate learning new words. Field trips and other real experiences are great ways to teach vocabulary. The more a child uses the word, the more he comprehends it, so provide every opportunity that you can dream of. Use your teaching skill to help your students become fluent and language literate.