Do you need to mix things up a little bit in your ESL or EFL classes with regard to teaching vocabulary? Then you are most certainly in the right place. Keep on reading for our top picks for ESL vocabulary games and activities.
Top 21 ESL Vocabulary Games and Activities
Teaching English vocabulary is traditionally quite boring for the students as well as the teacher. I remember back to when I taught in a Korean university and I signed up to work at a winter camp. I was assigned “vocabulary” to teach each group of students for two hours a day for two weeks.
It was certainly less interesting than something like a conversation, or even writing, but I made it work! I just used lots of activities to make it as fun as possible for the students.
Vocabulary doesn’t have to be tedious if you use some games with your students. They’re guaranteed to get your students talking, thinking and most important of all: remembering and knowing how to use those words they’ve been studying.
Keep on reading for the ell vocabulary games you might want to use in your classes.
#1 TEFL Vocabulary Games: Error Correction Relay Race
Correcting errors is a very important skill for language learners but it’s often quite boring and students usually don’t like to do it. However, you can make the old new again with this exciting relay race that the students will enjoy.
It’s the ultimate way to review grammar from a previous lesson, as well as throw in some recycled vocab.
Learn more about it here: Error Correction Relay Race.
#2: Concentration Memory Game
This vocab game ESL helps out your students by getting them to grasp words and definitions. It’s perfect as a kind of test right after you introduce a new set of words that they need to know. It doesn’t deal with context (when you should actually use that word), but that can come later. Students need to know basic definitions first.
You can use this for beginners with a picture and the corresponding word. For advanced students, you might want to use the word and then a synonym. Or, the target word and the definition. Whatever the case, be sure to use a laminating machine so that you can recycle the cards from year to year.
Some topics that work particularly well for this are simple nouns and include things like animals, weather, sports, food or jobs. Or, you might want to use opposite adjectives.
Find out more here: Concentration Memory Game for ESL Students.
#3: Use Flash Cards
I’m ALL about using flashcards for helping students remember new vocabulary using pictures. Check out how one teacher uses them in his classes here:
#4: Disappearing Text TEFL Vocabulary Game
If you’re looking for a quick warm-up or filler, this is your activity! The only requirement is that students are able to read a sentence with reasonable ease.
It’s a perfect time-filler for those last couple of minutes of dead time at the end of a class that you need to fill. Check it out here:
#5: Dialogue Substitution
Textbooks always have dialogues in them but their effectiveness is reduced because students often just glaze over them without really learning what they’re supposed to learn from them. However, by using this vocabulary activity for ESL students, you can help them out.
Find out how to use this in your classes here: Dialogue Substitution.
#6 ESL Vocabulary Games: Apples to Apples
- Filled with surprises and outrageous answers!
- The judge plays a Green Apple card with a descriptive word on it
- From the five red apple cards in your hand, play the one that makes the best combination with the...
- If the judge likes your combination the best, you keep the Green Apple card
- Collect four Green Apple cards to win! Includes more than 500 cars, plus tray and instructions
This is the ultimate vocabulary game for ESL students because it deals with meanings and contexts. You can make the cards yourself, or get the students to help you out. Or, if your students are more advanced, you can use the ready-made Apples to Apples game.
I recommend laminating them if you make your own because you’ll likely be playing this game all semester. If you play only one game for English language learners, this is the one it should be!
Don’t forget to bring a little prize for the winner of course!
Find out more here: Apples to Apples for ESL Students.
#7 ELL Vocabulary Game: Charades for English Learners
If your classes have been heavy on the vocabulary, then you may want to consider doing this quick review game. It’s like you’ve probably played it at parties where the person has to act out something and the rest of their team has to guess what it is. In this case, you’d want to use words that have been recently covered in class.
Find out more about it right here: ESL Charades.
#8 Teaching ESL Vocabulary Game: Vocabulary Auction
If you want to have a really fun class, then you’ll need to check this game out. It does require a decent amount of prep work, but the results are usually so worth it! However, I’ll generally not go to the trouble to do it unless I’ll be using this activity for at least a few of my classes.
It works just as well for kids, teens or adults. However, it’s not ideal for total beginners because they usually don’t know enough English words to define the ones they do know with other ones! I’ve used it very successfully for a unit on teaching continents and oceans.
The way it works is that you auction of words. Then, as the end, students try to win back their money by correctly defining the words that they’ve chosen. Does it sound like a fun way to review English vocabulary? You can find out more about it right here:
#9 Vocab for ESL Students: Word Association
This is a quick vocabulary activity that can be used to help students activate prior knowledge about a topic. Depending on a number of factors (age, amount of time, level of students, class size, etc.), I’ll have students do this together in small groups, or we’ll do it together as a class.
Basically, students have to make a mind map of words related to whatever the topic of the day is in your classes. It’s quick, simple and requires nothing in the way of preparation or materials. We love having a few of these kinds of activities in our back pocket!
You can find out more about it right here: Word Association.
#10: Flip-Chart TEFL Vocabulary Game
If you want to review some new English words in a fun, engaging way, then you’ll definitely want to check this activity out. The way it works is that you divide students up into two teams (it works best for classes of fewer than 10), and the first team sends a captain to the board.
You show the rest of her team the first word from the flip-chart held behind the captain so that she can’t see it. The rest of the team has to describe the word in English and the captain has to guess what it is. They try to get as many points as possible within the allotted amount of time.
It’s a fun vocabulary game for ESL students that you’ll want to check out: Vocab Flip-Chart Review Activity.
#11: Vocabulary Word Hunt
This is a simple way to test and help improve your students’ vocabulary. There are lots of these word hunts online, or you can consider making some of your own related to the words that you’ve been teaching your students. Learn more about it here:
#12: ESL Suffix Activities
A suffix is basically an English part of speech that’s added onto the ends of words to make other words or change the meaning in some way. If students already know lots of basic vocabulary, teaching them about suffixes is a nice way to expand their range in a simple way.
Do you want to find out more and check out some activity recommendations? Then you’ll certainly want to check this out:
#13: Quick Fire: An ESL Vocabulary Activity
Another idea for you. Check out this short video below for something you can do in your classes:
#14: Comparative and Superlative Activities
Teaching students about comparative and superlative adjectives is a nice way to expand their vocabulary. It’s likely that they already know words like small and big, but you can also teach them smaller/smallest and bigger/biggest.
The good news is that there are a ton of fun games and activities you can use to teach your students about these adjectives. Find out more details right here:
#15: Sticky Ball TEFL Vocabulary Game
#16: Surveys, an ESL Vocabulary Activity
One of my favourite ways to review new vocab with my students is to do some surveys. Besides being a great way to reinforce new words, they’re also perfect for covering a range of skills and getting sleepy students out of their seats and moving around the classroom.
Just ask my students—they’ll tell you that surveys are certainly one of my favourite TEFL activities. Find out more details about them here:
#17: Talking Bingo Vocabulary Games
Of course Bingo is a nice way to review vocabulary, but I like to add a twist to it. A talking element for the students if I have a smaller class, or a serious listening and vocabulary challenge with a bigger one. It’s certainly better than just simply stating the word and then students crossing it off their list.
Want to know more about this Bingo variation that’s one of the best vocabulary games ESL? Then you’ll want to check this out:
#18: Running Dictation
Another TEFL vocabulary game to consider is running dictation. Besides reviewing new vocabulary, it’s perfect for covering all 4 skills and it’s also just plain fun! Honestly, try it out with sleepy, bored classes and you’ll love the results. Want to know more about this awesome ESL game? Find out here:
#19: Think about Graded Language
There are, of course, a ton of theories for how people learn the language. But one of the most popular ones is the idea that students should be exposed to large amounts of language that is just slightly above their level. They can do this through extensive reading (books, newspapers, etc.) or listening (podcasts, movies, etc.) but we can also give students some of this type of listening in our classes.
A great way to do this is to think about our language and how we grade in terms of speed and difficulty of grammar and vocabulary. Interested in knowing more? You should check this out:
I’m sure you’ve played the telephone game before (also known as Chinese Whispers). The way it works is that you say a sentence to the first student and it gets passed down the line. Of course, you should choose a sentence filled with lots of new words to make it into an ELL vocabulary game. Learn more about it here:
#21: Five Senses Vocabulary Activity
If you want to help students expand their vocabulary related to descriptive words, then try out this fun speaking or writing activity. It’s versatile in that it can be done in groups or alone a well.
Bring in a common object. For example, an apple or a can of Coke. Then, have students describe it using words that fall under each of the five senses. Check it out:
Shouldn’t Students Learn Vocabulary At Home?
That’s an excellent question and I’m happy that you asked. New words are one of those things that kind of lends itself very easily to rote memorization. It’s often the ONLY way for vocabulary to be 100% solid inside the brain.
However, the teacher does still has a role. You can introduce new words along with a context so that students know when, and how to use it.
You can also use activities or vocab games ESL like these to help students become familiar with hearing and seeing them. When they study on their own, if they’ve already seen the word at least a few times in your classes, it’ll be all that much easier for them to remember it.
Sure, rote memorization certainly plays a role, but you can meet your students half-way with this kind of thing. And of course, have regular vocabulary quizzes so that students will be motivated to do the home study thing too!
How to Remember Words?
A common question that my students have is how to remember new vocabulary words. Here are some of the tips and tricks that I tell them:
- Consider extensive reading. This is basically reading something at a slightly lower level for fun and this helps to ensure that students see new vocabulary words in context, frequently.
- Use extensive listening. Listen to English songs, podcasts or watch TV and movies without the subtitles. Students will be able to hear new words in context.
- Keep a vocabulary notebook with new words in it and review it frequently.
- Make some flashcards with new words on them and the translation. Study both sides and mix up the cards frequently so as not to memorize them in any certain order.
- Challenge a friend to learn new words together. Make quizzes for each other every week or so.
- Learn how to use a dictionary. They are very useful tools for remembering new vocabulary words.
- Aim high but not too high. Most students can successfully learn 8-10 new words a day.
- Use a phone app. There are plenty of great programs that are designed for vocabulary learning. Find one that works well for you.
- Consider studying collocations and phrases. Certain things are often heard together. For example, lunchbreak, thunderstorm, open your book, etc. Study these things together!
Do you have any tips for how to remember new words? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.
Do you Like these vocabulary activities?
- Amazon Kindle Edition
- Bolen, Jackie (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 57 Pages - 10/26/2015 (Publication Date)
Yes? Thought so. Then you’re going to need to check out this book over on Amazon: 39 ESL Vocabulary Activities for Teenager and Adults. It’s lesson planning made easy, guaranteed.
The key to happy, engaged students who are having fun while learning English is a variety of interesting activities. If you teach vocabulary, this is the book that’ll help you do just that.
The key to learning new words is repetition. Sure, your students can study at home but this is sometimes not that realistic. You can really help your students out by doing some of this in class.
The book is available in both digital and print formats. Keep a copy on the bookshelf in your office as a handy reference guide. Or, take a copy with you for lesson planning on the go in your favourite coffee shop.
Check it out for yourself here, but only if you want some more ESL awesome in your life, okay?
ESL Vocabulary FAQs
There are a number of common questions that people have about teaching English vocab. Here are the answers to some of the most popular ones.
How do I teach ESL Vocabulary?
There are a number of factors to consider when teaching ESL vocabulary. They include the following:
- Use a context to make new words more memorable.
- Help students activate their prior knowledge about a topic if applicable.
- Consider age.
- Aim for around 5-10 new words per lesson.
- Use images and drawings.
- Use realia (objects) to present certain types of vocabulary.
- Have students keep track of new words in a special notebook.
How do I present new vocabulary ESL?
For ESL lessons, there are a number of creative ways to present new vocabulary. Here are some of the best ideas:
- Using realia/objects.
- In a listening exercise.
- In a reading passage.
- By watching a video of some kind.
- Using pictures.
- In a song or chant.
Most importantly, present new vocab words in a context so that they will be more memorable.
What are some fun ways to teach new vocabulary?
There are lots of fun ways to teach new vocabulary in a language class. Some of the best ideas include A to Z games, running dictation, Bingo, charades, dictionary, mad libs, storytelling, cloze activities, telephone, surveys and more.
What are vocabulary items?
Vocabulary items are words that language learners want to learn. The best way to do this is through repetition and learning them in context. Teachers can assist with this process by selecting the most popular words and then doing a variety of language activities to reinforce them.
Have your say about Teaching Vocabulary to ESL/EFL Students
What is your favourite game or activity to help your students with English vocabulary? Did you try out one of the activities from this list? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think. We’d love to hear from you.
Also be sure to give this article a share on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. It’ll help other busy teachers, like yourself find this useful teaching resource.
Last update on 2020-09-23 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API