Games for Vocabulary Building

Today I’ve got a quick set of tips for language teachers on helping students practice vocabulary.

Ideally, you want your students to be engaged in communicative activities that mirror real-world uses of the language. In reality, English teachers here in Japan are usually faced with a room full of sullen, disinterested middle-schoolers who simply don’t have the basic English skills or initiative necessary to have a conversation. For these students, games with flashcards can help them to learn at least a few words.

Go Fish

First, make flashcards of 8 or so vocabulary words, one set for each student. You’ll need to make one extra set if you have an odd number of students.

Pre-teach your students the following phrases, and write them on the board:

Do you have (____)?

Yeah, here you go.

No, go fish!

Shuffle the cards and deal 5 to each student, then leave the rest of the cards spread out face down on the table. Students take turns making pairs. On their turn, they must ask another student for a card. If that student has the card, he hands it over; otherwise, he says “go fish!”, and the first student takes a card from the pile. The first student to get rid of all of his cards is the winner.

Works well for kids over 8 or so. Younger than that, and they usually can’t use the sentences.

Build Your Own Board Game

For this game, make flashcards for a bunch of vocabulary, maybe 20 or so. Also make some special cards that say (+1), (-1), (back to start), (start), (goal), and some tokens for the students to use. Finally, you’ll need a die.

Shuffle the flashcards and special cards, and hand them out to the students. Have them lay the cards out in any order, with (start) and (goal) on opposite sides. Everyone places his token on (start). Roll the die to see who goes first, then continue as in any board game. When a student lands on a flashcard, they have to make a sentence using the word on the card.

To make it more interesting, use pictures of characters or celebrities the students like as tokens. I taught Japanese kids, so I basically just Googled “nintendo” and “One Piece” and copied those images.

This is especially good as a review game to help students go over a larger list of vocabulary items from previous lessons. Kids under 10 or so might have enough trouble just saying the words, so you can cut the sentences for them. 14-17, and they have too much dignity to put up with any kind of game, but you can bring it back for college students and adults.


Here’s a game for the younger kids. Make a set of flashcards for each kid, and have them put them on the floor in whatever pattern they like. Pre-teach “right hand”, “left hand”, “right foot”, and “left foot”. I usually do this by standing with my back to them (dangerous, I know) and wiggling those body parts. Call out a body part, then a vocabulary word. “Right foot, octopus!” “Left foot, nuclear brinksmanship!” and so on. It’s best to use the same pattern every time, so that even the kids who don’t know the body parts can eventually start to follow along. Once they’ve got the hang of it, let the kids take turns being “teacher”.

Best done with 6-10 cards, and with kids 6-10 years old. Younger than that and they won’t have the attention span; older than that, and they’ll just sneer at you.


English teacher, student of Japanese, and aspiring linguist.

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Posted in Teaching Tips

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