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ESL Vocabulary Games

Instructor: Sharon Linde

Sharon has an Masters of Science in Mathematics and a Masters in Education

Students for whom English is a second language face a multitude of challenges, among them learning new language and nuanced vocabulary. Use this lesson to help choose fun, engaging and educational vocabulary games for your ESL students.

Vocabulary and ESL Students

Keeping students engaged is a challenge teachers face just about every day. For teachers of non-native speakers, this task can be even more daunting as students face a language and cultural barrier. Playing games is a natural way to up the engagement level and create trust, build relationships, and increase student efficacy. Take a look.

Vocabulary Games for Emerging Students

Whether a young student or a new arrival in your classroom, all ESL students have to start somewhere. Use these vocabulary games to help cover the basics in your classroom.

  • Look and Say - Collect items from around the classroom and/or bring in some from home. Place on a table or desktop. Gather students and allow them to view the items for two minutes, then cover. Take turns naming objects from memory. Record vocabulary words on a white board. Allow another look when students no longer recall words. After all items have been identified, take turns crossing off words while identifying the object.
  • Collage - Create a topic, such as food or body parts. Look for pictures in magazines to fit the topic. Cut and create a collage. Label the words.
  • Word Bingo - This simple game can be adapted for any level, but starts well with emerging students. Custom create a bingo card by making a 3x3 grid. Write simple vocabulary words in each square, or have students copy words themselves. As you call words, students cover with a counter. For an added bonus, use candy or cereal as covers. This game can be extended using pictures, synonyms, antonyms, etc.
  • Find It - Write simple vocabulary words on a card. Hide the corresponding item in the classroom. Hand out cards and have students find the object.
  • Charades or Pictionary - Use simple vocabulary words to play charades or Pictionary. Divide students into small groups to play so they can work with one another.

Vocabulary Games for Transitional Students

For students who have some working knowledge but still need extra attention and practice, these games will help reinforce skills and build fluency. Check it out.

  • Relatives - Prepare pairs of related cards, such as 'ice cream' and 'melting'. Pass out randomly and have students find the person with the related card. Ask students to explain how their cards are related.
  • Headbands - Prepare vocabulary cards. Use yarn or string to create a band around students' heads. Partner or put students into small groups. Have one student place a vocabulary card (without looking) on their forehead, secured with the string, facing their partner. The partner gives clues that help the other guess the word.
  • Slide It - Make a two-, three-, or four-column chart. Label with categories, such as food, furniture, animals, In the House, etc. Make a word bank with 10-15 words and ask students to put the words in the correct category. For example, the word 'cat' would go under 'animals'; 'taco' under 'food'.
  • Chain Link - Have students sit in a circle. Begin the game by asking one student to say a word and spell it. The next student has to say a word that begins with the last letter in the word the first student said. For example, if the first student says 'taco', the next student has to say and spell a word that begins with an 'o', and so on, creating a chain. Record words on paper or white board.
  • Friend Feud - Create a 'Family Feud'-like game with students. Choose a category, such as 'Items in a classroom' or 'Things bought at the mall.' Write related words on a white board and cover them with index cards or other paper. For example, items in a classroom include desk, pencil, paper, etc. As students guess correctly, uncover the word. Create teams and award points.

Subject Specific Vocabulary Games

ESL students often struggle with more than day-to-day vocabulary. Here are some ideas for games to play that will help them with subjects that pose a particular problem.

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