My Favorite Vocabulary Activities

That vocabulary is a basis for language learning is a given. When people travel abroad, they take dictionaries and phrase books, not grammar guides. Therefore, every course we teach should have a substantial focus on vocabulary. The more vocabulary one knows, the more families are known, and the more one can both derive and express meaning. Vocabulary is infinite; grammar is not.

So, how best to teach vocabulary? There is no simple answer to this. Some will say in context, in co-text, with collocations, as chunks, not at all, etc. There are as many ways to teach vocabulary as there are teachers. We all have our go-to activities – those activities that we have found to be effective for our context, students, and style. I’d like to share a few of my favorite ways to teach vocabulary.

Part I – Activities

Taboo – Taboo is one of my go-to activities for all levels. I keep a running set of taboo cards for each class, which are added to as our vocabulary grows. It’s a great way to practice and recycle vocabulary, and requires little preparation. To play Taboo, simply make cards for your target vocabulary words. Students sit in groups with a stack of face-down cards. One student draws the top cards and using definition, explanation, and example tries to get the other students to guess the vocabulary word. The student who correctly guesses first takes the card. Play passes to the left (or right) and continues as such.

One variation I play is that, at the end of the game, students take the cards they have won and defines them for the group, or makes sentences with them. Likewise, students can also take the cards they had the most trouble with and do the same.

Though this game is simple, students have always been engaged and it seems to really help them recall vocabulary and gaps in their vocabulary.

Hot Seat – This is a game I have been using more of lately with my students as a vocab review and warm-up. The game is simple. Divide the class into two teams. One student from each team comes to the front with their backs to the board/screen. Show their teams the same vocab and let them start giving the definition or examples of a vocab word. Whoever guesses it first is the winner. This can also be played as a whole class game with one student at the front. You’ll quickly see why this is called “hot seat”. It’s really fun and really effective.

The Popcorn Game – This is an ELT variation of the Korean “Nunchi Game” (눈치게임). In the original nunchi game, one random student starts by standing and saying a number (starting with 1). The next random student says “2” and so on. However, if two students stand at the same time, they are out. If you say the wrong number, you are out. And, if you are last, you are out. There is a basic “ESL version” explanation here.

In my version, which I have dubbed “the popcorn game” (because students look like popcorn while they play) I say the meaning or an explanation of the vocabulary word. Students who know the answer must stand up and shout the word. However, the same rules as the original game apply: if two students stand up at the same time, they are out (even if they both don’t say it). Additionally, if they are wrong, they are out. Students can guess multiple times unless they are out. Play continues until there are a few students left and there is an obvious winner/know-it-all. Then, everyone plays again. This game takes a round or two to get going, but it is a great, fun way to review vocabulary.

Part II – Techniques

The 24 Hour Game – Although this is called a “game”, it’s more of a technique. Basically, I give students the challenge of using 2-3 (or more) vocabulary words outside of class within 24 hours. They must seek opportunities to fit the words into their everyday conversations. What’s more, they must write down (at some point) the sentence they said and the context in which they said it (e.g. they were talking about politics, or asking for help). They bring their sentences to class and we discuss how they were or weren’t able to use the vocabulary.

This is obviously a much easier activity to do in an ESL context, but it is still possible in an EFL context if students have other English classes, speak English with their friends or parents, or even talk to themselves in English. The point is to get students to use vocabulary so they don’t lose it.

Alternatives to this would be something in tune with the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon (or linguistic landscapes) where they have to try and pay attention to their environment and see if they notice their new vocabulary being used (either aurally or visually).

Quizlet – Without a doubt, Quizlet is an essential tool for me as a teacher/learner and for my students. I use Quizlet with almost all my classes and I know that it is effective. I can see which students study, and how often, and their effort is clearly reflected on the assessments I give. If you are not using Quizlet with your students, you should start. If you need some ideas on using it, check out these ideas from Leo Sullivan or this guide from Sandy Millin.

Vocabulary-Integrated Discussions – This is a more serious variation of my “Strangers on a Train” game. For this technique, students briefly review their vocabulary and choose 2-3 words they wish to use during their discussion. They then work in a small group to hold a discussion on any topic (based on lesson, coursebook, student choice). Their goal, besides having a successful discussion, is to use their vocabulary words naturally in that discussion. At first, these kinds of discussions are a bit awkward as students really focus on strategically using their words. However, soon it becomes a less cognitively demanding task as they get more practice noticing opportunities in which they can use vocabulary.

Recycle, recycle, recycle – Any teacher will tell you recycling is extremely important. We need at least 8-12 exposures to a word in order to really internalize it. Few teachers will tell you that recycling is no easy task, especially if they are focused on coursebooks, for coursebooks claim but do little recycling (or they are focused on authentic materials, where the probability of the same non-high frequency vocabulary cropping up is low). There are several ways I make sure I recycle vocabulary.

First, for any materials I use, I always incorporate previously learned vocabulary. For example, I modify my reading texts (often stories taken from BreakingNewsEnglish or simple authentic readings) to make sure it contains both new and old vocabulary. When making language examples for explanation or practice (such as worksheets), I recycle vocabulary. In addition, I try to consciously use vocabulary in my own teacher talk – which is no easy feat, as I often confuse the vocabulary lists of different classes! Furthermore, assessments I create always test previously-assessed vocabulary (this keeps students on their toes, theoretically always reviewing vocabulary on Quizlet).

Admittedly, I may not be the best recycler and I am very curious about how you make sure to recycle vocabulary and give students the receptive and productive exposure necessary to truly learn vocabulary. Please let me know in the comments!

8 thoughts on “My Favorite Vocabulary Activities

  1. Judy Murga Prieto says:

    Dear Anthony,

    do you think it is possible to apply these activities to teach Business vocabulary?

    Thanks for your communication.


  2. Hi Anthony,
    Thanks a lot for the mention here. Some great techniques, and thanks for giving a name to the nunchi game – I was introduced to it at summer school and just call it the counting game. I really like the ELT twist.
    PS It’s Leo Selivan 🙂

  3. Clare says:

    I’m a big fan of the vocabulary box (or bag). Students (or me) use it to record new vocabulary on slips of paper and then we recycle vocabulary in different ways, e.g vocabulary pass the parcel (pass the box, when the music stops, take a slip and define the word; whoever guesses it gets a point, etc.), quizzes, writing own gapfills with the words and passing the handouts around the room (this takes ages!), etc.

  4. Spencer says:

    Great article. This looks like a great list of resources. I’d like to recommend an app I find very useful for enhancing vocabulary. Its available on the apple app store currently and is soon to be available on the google play store. It’s called Word Pash. Its for all ages and makes improving your command of language fun and easy. I’ll provide a link for anyone who wants to try it. Any feedback is greatly appreciated.

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