Games for Teaching Vocabulary in the Classroom

Mary Poppins, the fictitious, magical nanny said, “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” To many children, learning to read can be a bitter medicine to swallow. As a tutor, I have often used games to help that medicine go down! The games, of course, vary depending on the age and the level of the child(ren) involved.

A beginning reader has so many things to learn, it can seem overwhelming. A first-grade reader, for instance must not only learn the relationship between letters and sounds, but also learn to memorize many “sight” words or commonly used words such as the, is, and, who, etc. Since most children like to draw and color, I have them draw big letters which can be colored and decorated with drawings, then cut out. Then we make words out of the letters. I start with short words such as cat or one of the short sight words. As skill improves, we move on to longer words. The letters are kept in a recipe box for reuse. Along the same lines, children also enjoy making letters and words out of clay or play dough.

The above activities may also be used with the “silly sentence” game. For word sounds I use tongue-twisters such as “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” or “She sells sea shells by the seashore.” Children love these sentences and seldom tire of repeating the sentences endlessly. Sometimes I will leave a word out and have them spell it out with their special letters or with clay. This game not only teaches combination sounds but also increases vocabulary. A similar game is reading and/or making up poems using rhyming sounds. “The cat ate the rat.” “The hen is in the pen”. I will often leave the rhyming word off and see if the child can come up with it.

One of my student’s favorite games is “Word Concentration” similar to the TV game. For this I paste pictures of things on plain index cards. On another set of cards I print out the words matching the pictures. When I am with the student, I spread out one set, (usually the word set) face down on the table in rows of three or four. The other set, (generally the picture set), is stacked in front of the student. S/he draws a card from the stack, and then turns over one card on the table. If the two cards “match” both cards are removed from their stacks and set aside. If they don’t match, the picture card is placed at the bottom of the stack to be redrawn later and the word card is turned back face down in the same spot it was. The game continues until all the cards are matched. I can also reverse the process with the word cards in the stack and the pictures on the table. This game can be replayed as often as the child wishes until s/he knows all the words. Then a new set of cards can be made. I find with small children that it is best to start with only six or nine cards. This game helps with word memorization and word sounds.

Word searches and simple crosswords puzzles are popular with most children and are great ways to teach words and vocabulary. A good web site for finding and/or creating these puzzles is

Another fun way to promote reading pleasure is to cook with children. Have them read simple recipes to cook. This not only helps make reading fun, but they also learn to follow directions and receive an introduction to measuring. In the way of fun activities, don’t forget making books or scrap booking. There are so many varieties of clip art, pictures and fonts on-line and in many stores, making personal books can turn kids onto word fun.

Getting a child over a reading “hump” not only avoids future problems in learning, but also increases a child’s self-esteem and confidence. Reading games can be the spoonful of sugar a struggling child needs!