vocabulary games

4 Vocabulary Games for your Classroom

Last week we looked at different easy to prepare grammar games, but when it comes to games vocabulary comes out king – there are literally hundreds of different vocabulary games out there. In this blog we’ll look at some of my favourites, but before we do that I want to mention something that will facilitate any vocabulary game – the Vocab Bag. Every classroom should have one as it’s a great way to collate all the new vocabulary students are learning – both new words from the coursebook and words which students are picking up outside of class. And it’s so simple! At the end of each class choose one or two students to choose two or three new words from the class and to write them down on slips of paper, complete with word class and definition. They then pop them into the Vocab Bag at the front of the class. This then gives the teacher instant access to words for games.

Hot Seat

Sometimes known as Back to the Board, this is a game that never fails to get the students going.

  1. Put two chairs (or more depending on how many teams you want) at the front of the class, facing away from the board. Organise students into teams and invite one person from each team to take the ‘hot seat’, with the rest of the group standing around them.
  2. Choose a word from the Vocab Bag and write it on the board, making sure the seated students do not look.
  3. The standing students must give a definition for the word that will enable the student in the hot seat to correctly guess it. The first student to guess the word wins a point for their team.
  4. Rotate the students around after every word, so that every student has their turn in the hot seat.

Vocab Swap

This is an activity which I was taught by a colleague just after I started teaching and it’s been a regular feature of my classes since. It takes a little bit of setting up and plenty of concept checking questions, but it’s well worth it.

  1. Before the class choose the same number of words that you want to pre-teach as you have students (so they have one each) and write them on a small card.
  2. Elicit from students what kind of information a dictionary gives you – word class, pronunciation and a definition – and tell them that this is the information you want them to add to the words you are about to give them.
  3. Give each student one of the word cards and a dictionary – give them a few minutes to add the relevant information.
  4. Tell the students they are going to do a mingle activity where they are going to be learning new vocabulary. Explain that they must walk around the room defining their word to the other students. If the other student knows what the word is then the first student keeps the word card, but if they do not the card is given to them. The second student then reads their word definition and so on. This is a very active game and at the start there is a lot of card swapping as they are all new words, but as the words are constantly moving around, slowly the students will start to meet the words again and (hopefully) remember them.
  5. Monitor carefully and judge how long the activity needs to run (it can take up to 30 minutes depending on the number and level of the students).
  6. When you think most students have seen the majority of the words, collect the word cards in and ask them to write down as many as they can remember.
  7. Put them into pairs to combine their lists.
  8. Read out the definitions eliciting the words and writing them on the board.

Three In A Row

This is a game I always played in the last lesson of the week using all the vocabulary learnt that week. It really appeals to the competitive nature of students and ends the week on a high.

  1. Before class prepare a grid (8×8 or as big or small as you want) and in each square write the word you want to revise – this is the teacher’s copy.
  2. In class draw the grid on the board and either number each square or write the first letter of the word in it.
  3. Divide the class into 2 teams and tell them to choose a buzzer noise (I usually get them to choose an animal noise) and a board pen colour. Explain that each square represents a word for which you will read the definition and that the aim of the game is to get three squares in a row (horizontally, vertically or diagonally). Each time they do so, they get 5 points.
  4. Explain that anyone from the team can answer, but to answer they MUST make their buzzer noise. If they shout out the answer without buzzing they lose the square. The student who ‘buzzes’ must answer the question –s/he cannot check with their team. If a team gives a wrong answer, the question goes to the other team who are allowed to confer.
  5. If they give the correct answer, colour in that square with the team colour. They now choose which square they would like next.


These are two activities that really appeal to kinaesthetic, visual and creative learners and make vocabulary revision a whole lot of fun. For Pictionary each team will need some sheets of blank paper (or a mini-whiteboard) and for Claymation they will need a tub of play-dough.

  1. Prepare a set of vocabulary cards for each team before class.
  2. Explain that each team member will take it turns to draw/make the word that they pick up. Make it clear that the drawer/maker MUST not speak or use letters/numbers to help them, while the other team members must guess the word.
  3. Start the activity – the first team to guess all of the words is the winner.

Which vocabulary game do you plan to use in your classroom?

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Author: Alex Warren

Alex Warren is a DELTA trained teacher trainer with over 14 years’ experience of working in ELT as a teacher, academic director and teacher trainer. Working for National Geographic Learning, Alex is driven by his passion for developing teachers on a global scale and helping them to reach their true potential. A firm believer in a communicative approach to language learning and student centred learning, Alex enjoys working with innovative, thought-provoking materials and presenting on a wide range of ELT-related topics.


  1. Dear Mr. Warren,
    Since I could not find your email address, I’ll give it a go here instead. I was at your IATEFL Brighton talk on vocabulary and word partnerships, and found it very interesting and relevant for my own practice. Would it be possible for you to share the slides for your presentation?

    Øystein Heggelund, Norway

  2. Interesting article. I believe that learning vocabulary is all about getting a feel for the sound of a word. If you know the pronunciation, you can imagine a word internally. That helps immensely.

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