Running out of tricks? Here are some quick vocabulary games for kids that every ESL/EFL teacher can rely on anytime of the day. They require little to no preparation and some can be given to kids and adult learners by adjusting the level of difficulty.
Ready to get your class off to a good start? Read on!
Vocabulary Games for Kids
The teacher writes preferably an 8-letter word or longer on the board and students make as many new words as they can using all the original letters from the given word exactly once. The team that produces the most number of words after the time runs out wins the game.
Variation: When checking the answers, cross out common words that appear in at least two of the teams. The team with most number of unique words wins the game. You may also vary the point scale with higher point goes to difficult or longer words.
2. Jumbled Word
The teacher writes a scrambled word on the board that students need to un-jumble in their teams, e.g LEJMUB –> JUMBLE. The first team that guesses and spells the word correctly gets the points.
Variation: For more advanced students, you may give 3 or more jumbled words at once which they need to solve in 1 minute. Points earned per correct answer. You may also try giving scrambled sentence which will test both vocabulary and grammar.
3. Message Relay
The participants are divided into groups and each group forms a line. The person in front will be given a message and must pass it correctly to the next person by whispering until the student in front of the line writes it down. The goal is to get the message relayed to the last person intact and without any changes. If the sentence is perfect they get a point.
4. Back Spell
A kind of relay game where teams of equal size sit down in a neat line. The first student of each row should have a board and marker (but a pen and paper will do). Teacher gives a word to the last students at the end of each line. They need to pass the word along by drawing the word, letter by letter onto the back of the person in front of them until it reaches the first person at the front of the line who need to write the word on their board or paper. The first team to spell the word correctly wins the game.
Variation: You may give different words with the same amount of letters to the last student of each row to prevent cheating. You might also want to teach them some actions or signs before playing the game such as tapping or shaking their head to signify “repeat the drawing”.
5. Simple Simon Says
One of the classic vocabulary games for kids for teaching imperatives, parts of the body or simply as a classroom management. The teacher gives a command by saying “Simon says ___” and students obey, e.g “Simon says… put your hands on your head.” Players are eliminated from the game by following a command that is not immediately preceded by the phrase “Simon says”, or by failing to follow an instruction which does include the phrase.
Variation: You may ask one of the students to act as “Simon” and give commands to the whole class. The object for the player acting as Simon is to get all the other players out as quickly as possible; the winner of the game is usually the last player who has successfully followed all of the given commands.
The teacher draws a row of dashes on the board representing each letter of the word that he wants the students to guess. If the guessing player suggests a letter which occurs in the word, the teacher writes it in all its correct positions. If the suggested letter or number does not occur in the word, the teacher draws one element of a hanged man stick figure as a tally mark.
Variation: Split the class into two teams to compete against each other and associate each team with a different marker color, e.g black v blue. Play hangman regularly except now each team gets one guess per round. When the class solves the mystery word, the point goes to the team that guesses more letters. You may also give each team points equal to the number of letters they have guessed.
7. Rock, Paper, Scissors!
Form two teams with equal number students who will line up and compete against each other. The first person from each line will meet at the center and play Rock, Paper, Scissors. The winner can ask the other player to give a word from a category or to answer trick questions. If the player answers incorrectly, they are out and the first team to get all the players from the other team out is the winner.
8. Pass the Ball
Students make a big circle and pass a ball in one direction (clockwise or the other way around) while the teacher is playing a music. The student who is holding the ball when the music is paused will give a word from a given category, i.e. countries, animals, verbs, etc. If the player repeats a word that has already been said or fails to give a word after 5 seconds, he is out of the game. My students love this game specially when I play an upbeat pop song that they know!
Variation: Without the music, start by tossing the ball at a student who will give a word related to the category. He/she will then throw the ball to another student.
9. Linking Words
This is a word association game where the teacher gives 2 words (example: “house and soda”) and students have to link the words by inserting other related/relevant words in between, i.e “house – kitchen – refirgerator – soda”. You may decide the number of words the player can use to link.
10. Guessing Games
Divide the class into two or three teams and in turns, ask one student from each team to come to the front. The student picks a word and conveys the word to his team. This game can be done using actions (charades) or drawings (pictionary) where student pantomimes or draws the word, respectively. I usually tell my students to choose whichever they feel more comfortable using to convey their ideas across. The team must guess the word correctly before the time runs out. If not, other teams may have the chance to “steal” and gets the points if their answer is correct.
11. Slap the Board
This game works best with beginner students. The teacher writes words arranged randomly on the board and calls one player from each team to stand equidistantly from the board. The teacher will say one of the words and students should run up to the board and slaps the word when they find it.
Variation: A variant of this game is called “Swat It!” where students use fly swatters to swat the word instead of slapping the board.
12. Word Association
In this game, students may stay in their seats or make a circle. The aim is to say a word that are associated together. Start by saying a word related to your lesson or topic. The first student will say aloud any word that they associate with your given word. The next player will then do the same with the previous word, and so on, i.e “tomato –> red –> Mars…” The student who gives an unrelated/dissociated word is out. Make the game more challenging by making the exchanges fast (maybe only 5 seconds to think?!).
The teacher gives students a list of 20 words, phrases or sentences and ask them to copy 7 words they want on their notebook. The teacher then gives the definition of a random word from the list but does not say the word itself. If students think they have the word the teacher defines, they tick it. The student who ticks all 7 words they had chosen shouts BINGO and wins the game.
14. Rhyme Charades
This is a good way to teach students rhyming words. The teacher gives and example by saying, “I’m thinking of a word that rhymes with ‘Light’” Teacher then calls a student who thinks he knows the answer. But instead of saying the word, the student goes to the front and pantomime his guess. (For example, the student might act like he is becoming taller if he is thinking of the word ‘Height’). The rest of the class will then guess what the student is miming. If one of the students mentions the correct answer even if it isn’t what the actor is doing, it won’t be counted as a correct guess.
To get the students involved, I usually split the class into two teams. I give each team a whiteboard where they can write their chosen word to prevent them from changing it once the other team has correctly mimed the answer.
15. What’s on the List
I don’t know what to call this game so I’m just calling it this way. Divide the class into two teams and give each team a mini-whiteboard or a paper. Let the team leaders pick a topic written on strips of paper. Give them 2-4 minutes (depending on their level) to shortlist 12 items related to the topic they’ve got. When the time is over, tell whoever goes first the topic of the other team. They have 30 seconds to guess what’s on the list and will get a point for each item they guess correctly. Play as many rounds as you want with different topics. The team with the highest points wins the game!
16. Human Tic-Tac-Toe
This is a usual tic-tac-toe game, but with a twist! First, divide the class in two teams, X and O. Arrange 9 chairs in three rows and three columns or draw the grid on the floor using a chalk or dry erase marker. Now start asking questions from your lesson or topic. The group that gets the answer correctly gets to sit on the chair or take a spot on the grid. When using the latter, I tell the Xs to sit down and the Os to stand up to avoid confusion. Whichever group forms 3 first, either diagonally, horizontally or vertically, wins the game.
17. Dice Game
Choose 6 categories and assign 1 category to each number on the dice. Give each group a die. Students take turns rolling the dice and give words under each corresponding category.
18. Oral Spelling
Teacher has a list of new vocab words handy. Groups of students form single-file lines. Teacher says a vocabulary word. Each student down the line says 1 letter until the word is spelled. If a mistake is made, spelling starts over with the next person in line.
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Do you use other quick, no-prep ESL vocabulary games for kids? Let us know in the comments and we will add them here!
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