Do you know what games and ninjas have in common?
They both sneak up on you, then pack a mean punch.
That’s right. Vocabulary games sneak right up on language students. At first, they just think that the games are for fun. Then, boom! They’re already learning and they didn’t even know it.
Great teachers know this and have employed games to both demolish boredom and increase retention in the classroom. Games have proven themselves to be nifty tools in teaching a second language – especially vocabulary.
Vocabulary words lend themselves easily to games and students of all ages can quickly memorize a ton of new words just by engaging in a game or two.
How Vocabulary Games Benefit Your Students
Teaching vocabulary is one of those fork-in-the-road moments. Students can either learn it in the most mind-numbing manner or in the most awesome way. For reasons quite obvious, I encourage you to take the latter route.
You can employ common activities like “Show & Tell” and role-playing, and then simply integrate target vocabulary words in the activities. But there’s nothing quite as directly effective as playing vocabulary games that were specifically designed to teach and reinforce vocabulary.
No scene on earth is more fulfilling than a whole class or team high-fiving because they just got another point. You know right away that it would be very difficult for those students to forget the crucial words that win them (or lose them) precious points.
Well the reasons are many:
1. Games anchor vocabulary in context.
A strong memory of vocabulary words is created through the firsthand experience of playing. The activity of the game and interactions with other students create context for word usage.
A dry list of words and their corresponding translations doesn’t work because these words only exist in a vacuum. On the other hand, vocabulary words that come up in games are very hard to forget. For example, your students will probably never forget the tie-breaker word that made them win a prize—very much like how ballplayers never forget the winning plays in a championship series even when the games were played years ago.
2. Games create more brain connections.
They contain distinct elements that cater the various types of learners in your class.
For example, because they’re often played with colorful props, games cater to the appetites of visual learners. Many games, like Charades and Pictionary, require physical movement. These games motivate the kinesthetic (hands-on) learners who can never sit still. And because some games will involve excitedly shouting out the answers, games are a treat for auditory learners as well!
3. Games create absorption.
They motivate students to focus and tune everything else out. It’s this excited concentration and readiness to engage in the activity that allows vocabulary words to be retained in long-term memory. You’ve probably had the experience of speaking in front of a quiet class, wondering if the bit you’re teaching is simply going over their heads or not.
Without strong focus, it’s very difficult to have learning that sticks. But games are so engaging that they invite and maintain the faithful focus of students. That’s why, with games, students aren’t only having fun, they’re also learning.
How to Make Games Both Entertaining and Educational
Maintain a high energy level
When you start, start big. Big smiles. Big voice. Big gestures. Make them feel that something awesome is about to happen.
The whole class is feeding off your energy. So it’s actually very important that you have fun yourself. Your students will catch on very quickly and realize that if teacher is having a great time, they should be also. They’ll let their guard down and open their minds.
During the game, maintain a positive attitude. Tell them it’s no big deal if they commit some slip ups. For example, if a student guesses an answer wrong, tell them they’ll get it next time. Always be encouraging. Tell them it’s okay that their team is a little behind, they can make up for it soon. Congratulate correct answers, and motivate them to get through the misses.
As a teacher, it’s not only your responsibility to teach vocabulary, it’s your higher responsibility to keep your students motivated to learn.
Find teachable moments during the brouhaha
Never forget that games aren’t an end to themselves. It’s not even important who wins first place. If your wards are learning, then it’s really a win-win.
Any time you sense a teachable moment, seize it. Let’s say, in a game of Spanish Pictionary, one of the students drew what’s clearly the image of a girl. During the melee, you hear one of the students scream “Niño! Niño! Niño!” Capitalize on that mistake after the time is up. Before going to the next word, briefly explain the difference between niño (boy) and niña (girl).
Repeat the same words in different kinds of games
Learning is about the proper kind of repetition. You know as a teacher that simple repetition will quickly get boring. You need to address each vocabulary lesson by using different tools, providing different stimuli and targeting different senses.
One way of doing this is using different games in cementing the same set of vocabulary. So, for example, you may teach French animal names using Pictionary for visual stimuli. Then you may have to follow that up with a “Blind Man’s Zoo” game where you let your students sound off the different sounds animals make. Meooowwww!
Make a little competition go a long way
If you lose to a computer in chess, it probably won’t matter. But losing in jump rope to one of your co-teachers gets your goat, doesn’t it? I’m willing to bet that you’ll buy a jump rope from the sports equipment store and practice on your own at home so you would be ready next time a challenge comes up.
So divide your class into equal groups. Let them play against each other. Boys versus girls is always a hit. A little competition will pump adrenaline into your students’ system. It’ll also pump those vocabulary words into their heads.
Reward students with a simple prize
It can be a piece of candy or a star stamped on their notebooks, a prize is really just a symbol of success and victory. It’s what the prize represents—the bragging rights, the thought of besting all the others, the sense of achievement.
So, when conducting your games, try to build the stakes up every now and again with prizes. This shouldn’t be anything that burns a hole in your pocket, but rather a simple token of achievement—a symbol that helps the student remember, “Ha! I won. Good for me. ”
Let students participate in picking the words for the games
When students are involved in the process of creating the game, they become more engaged in it. Ask the class to give some vocabulary words to be included in the upcoming games. It warms the heart of any student when she sees her word giving the other team a hard time in a game of Charades.
If the activity involves some props, ask some of your students for help. Encourage them to negotiate the terms of the contest, what rules should be followed and which props should be employed.
Do this and you’ll soon observe that your students will rally behind the activity and ensure its success all on their own.
7 Foreign Language Vocabulary Games to Banish Boredom from Your Classes
1. Two Classics: Charades & Pictionary
These two are classics and probably need little instruction.
Charades and Pictionary are competitive games played between two teams of equal sizes. Each team is composed of one wild gesticulator or one fuzzy sketch artist and a thousand screamers. Have the team leader draw a word from a vocabulary pool, after which he gestures or draws the word to be guessed correctly by his teammates. Each team’s turn is 45 seconds.
Charades in particular would be fun for learning verbs, so don’t forget to include words like dance, catch, run, shout, eat, swim and jump in there. Pictionary is very useful for learning nouns. Objects like cup, books, balls, door and apple are easy to draw. They can serve to boost your students’ confidence levels with the subject.
2. Bring Me!
Think back to long ago when you used to help mom in the kitchen. Remember when she asked you to get all those tools and kitchen implements that you didn’t even know existed? You used to run to her side bringing what you thought was a “ladle” when it was actually a “spatula.”
Well, this time, you’re mom and you’re gonna ask your students to bring all sorts of stuff. There are no teams in this game. It’s every man for himself. Bring Me! is ideal for learning nouns—objects that can be found in the classroom or the immediate environment.
As mentioned in the previous section, make use of teachable moments during the game. If, for example, you asked your Spanish class to bring you “zapatos” (shoes) and somebody runs to you with a hat (“sombrero”), take the time to explain the difference before proceeding to the next word.
This is a game that your students can play sitting down and do individually. Translate-athon is a translation exercise where you give each student the lyrics to a popular song from the target language. Their job is to translate as many words in there as possible.
You can vary the rules by telling them to translate just the verbs, nouns or adjectives. You can also do this by starting from English and translating to the target language.
Give the class 15 minutes. Then tell them to exchange papers and grade the papers as a class. When you give them the correct translations, take time to explain the lyrics as a whole. So if there’s a story behind the song, tell it to the class. This will provide context for those vocabulary words and will be used to anchor the words in memory.
4. Post It!
This game provides a visual component to the vocabulary words by associating them with the actual objects—an ideal vehicle for teaching nouns like table, chair, book, wall, shoes, bag and pen.
Prepare a list of 20 nouns (depending on the number of students in your class) and write each one on a piece of paper. Fold the papers, containing one vocabulary word each, and drop them in a bowl or container. Make sure that the objects referred to are highly visible and available in the immediate game environment. If not, bring the items to class and set them on the table. Mix them up with some dummy items to add to the challenge.
This game is played individually. Each student takes a turn drawing from the bowl. Then they’re given 15 seconds to locate the object and stick the paper to it. The student has 3 tries to get the correct answer. If they fail, then a classmate is given the chance to take a shot at it.
After a student successfully gives the correct answer, take the object, show it to the whole class and engage in a quick vocabulary lesson. Give a brief word repetition, definition, translation and usage examples. So, for example, if the word is “cuchara” (spoon), concentrate on that word for a few minutes and explore it by asking questions like, “Who can give me examples of food where we ordinarily use the cuchara?”
After that brief intermission, let another student draw from the bowl.
5. Scavenger Hunt
Who doesn’t love a language learning Scavenger Hunt?
This one can be played individually or in teams. This would be great in a park, a playground, a field or any large open space where students can exercise those legs and roam around. (A scavenger hunt inside the classroom is chaos with a capital “C.”)
Give the class a list of 10-15 things they need to find. For example, in a German class you can include words like stein (rock), blume (flower) or holz (wood). Throw in some shockers that gain them triple points, like wurm (worm) or vogel/biene (bird/chick). They don’t have to physically collect all the objects, either. They could write a list, take pictures or do drawings once they find them.
Some of the items might be more challenging to locate, but your students will never forget the German words that they learn in the process of digging for a wurm.
You can throw in adjectives to add specificity to the task. For example, they aren’t just looking for any flower, but a “rote blume” (red flower).
After 30 minutes, blow your whistle signaling the class to meet at a designated spot. The student with the most correct items wins! (Give the class one minute to be at the meeting place. Late arrivals get appropriate point deductions.)
6. Simon Says
Simon Says can be used to teach verbs, nouns, even adjectives.
You are, of course, Simon, so keep a list of commands handy. The game only has two rules: If the command begins with the phrase “Simon Says,” the command should be obeyed. If it doesn’t, then nobody should dare move. Easy enough? Try it in a foreign language.
Divide the class into two teams. For each round, the team sends one representative to the front of the class. Position the two students so that they’re facing the class and your back is to the class. There will be 3 commands for each round. After the round, another set of representatives steps up.
Calibrate the commands according to the levels of your students. For early beginners, you might try throwing in some English in the commands. So in a German class, you could say: “Simon says, touch your ohren (ears)!” or “Simon says, sitzen (sit) on the floor!”
Remember, facilitate the games with a high energy level.
For this to be fun, be quick with your commands and demand urgency as well. If you fake really well, your students will fall all over themselves following a command that don’t even need movement.
7. Two-step Boggle
This is an added twist to the classic game Boggle.
Prepare a 6×5 matrix of letters written on a piece of paper (eg. Manila paper) big enough for the whole class to see when attached on the board. You can make as many matrices as you like.
The letters should not all be random. In fact, embed in the matrix the vocabulary words that you want them to learn. That is, “feed” them the words. Arrange the letters so they can get words like cat, car, can, cane, etc. (If your students aren’t familiar with Boggle, tell them that they only need to “chain” the letters together to form an English word.)
That’s the first step.
The second step involves translating their English words to the target language. So for example, in a Spanish class, the words above should come out as: gato, coche, lata, bastón. For an extra challenging round, have them search for words in the target language directly.
Give them seven minutes for this exercise. In checking the answers, call out students to go to the board and point to how they chained the English words. The student/s with the highest number of correct answers get a treat!
That’s it! seven vocabulary games that will cement vocabulary words in the long-term memories of your students. Play them often and you’ll notice a leap in learning for those students lucky enough to be under your care.
And One More Thing…
To give your students an immersive, interactive learning experience, you’ll love using FluentU in your classroom. It’s designed to get students familiar with foreign vocabulary in a fun, friendly, totally approachable way. FluentU makes it possible to learn languages from music videos, commercials, news, inspiring talks, cartoons and more.
With FluentU, your students will learn the real language—the same way that natives speak it. They’ll hear their new vocabulary words in context, spoken naturally and casually. Every student is guaranteed to find videos they love to watch, and you’re guaranteed to find videos that meet your teaching needs. FluentU has a very wide variety of videos (browsable by category and level), as you can see here:
FluentU has interactive captions that let you tap on any word to instantly pause the video and see an image, definition, audio and useful examples. Now native language content is easily within the reach of any student, at any skill level, thanks to the interactive transcripts.
You can learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU’s unique Learn Mode, which asks questions based on what each student already knows. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
Plus, FluentU always keeps track of vocabulary that your students are learning. It uses that information to give students a 100% personalized experience by recommending videos and examples just for them.
You can organize chosen videos into “courses,” name your courses and assign them to your students for homework or in-class activities. They can each sign in using nothing but a secret password that we bestow to you, the teacher.
Then you can track their progress individually and as a group. How many videos and activities have they progressed through? What percentage of the exercise questions are they getting right? You’ll be able to see all this information and more.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach languages with real-world videos.