Four games for vocabulary development

Games are engaging ways to students to learn and review vocabulary.

In this post, we’ll share four classroom games that we also find effective in teaching vocabulary to English Language Learners.

Nine Box Grid

We use this simple game, which we learned and modified from English teacher Katie Toppel, a lot. As you can see from the image, it’s just a matter of putting nine words (or, when we teach phonics, letters) on a numbered three-by-three grid (for a total of nine boxes/spaces) on the class whiteboard.

Then, we give students mini-whiteboards (sometimes they play with a partner and sometimes individually), markers, and erasers/cloths (if you haven’t invested in a class set of mini-whiteboards, we’d strongly advise you do so - either buying them from a store or making your own – search “make mini-whiteboards” online for instructions).

Next, we take out two huge foam dice we bought online for a few dollars. One student rolls the dice and then everyone gets one minute to write a sentence on their board using the chosen word or writing a word using the letter. If they roll an eleven or twelve, they must use their choice of two words or letters on the grid. Students are told to hold up their boards at the end of a minute and the teacher gives some quick feedback.

Then, another student rolls the dice and the game continues. Unlike some of our other games, we don’t keep score in this one and students enjoy it just the same.

After a few turns, we’ll ask the rollers of the dice to change a word or letter on the grid. This move promotes more student engagement and ownership (though it can get a bit loud each time the dice roller is lobbied by the rest of the class when they are at the board!).


This simple game also requires mini-whiteboards - one per group. We usually have students divide into pairs and give each “partner group” a number. We then put the number on the board and give them points when they make a correct answer.

In this game, the teacher writes and reads or just says a cloze/gap-fill sentence (“Mr. Ferlazzo is a ”; “I am going to over the weekend”).

Students must fill in the blank and write a complete sentence on their board. They will get one point for every word they add if the sentence is correct - this feature encourages students to avoid the easiest answers. However, if there is an error in their more complex sentence, they do not get any points - no matter how many other words they use. In this game, as in all of the games, the teacher is the ultimate Decider!

However, even though the teacher is the final judge, students can also take turns being the leader and giving the class their own clozes.


Everybody reading this book probably is already familiar with Pictionary. The teacher or a student draws an object, living being, or action on the front board or document camera, and then students (again with whiteboards) are given a minute to write down what they think is being drawn. We want to encourage full-class participation, so in our version people don’t shout out their answer and students don’t get points for being “first.” Everyone who has the correct answer written down thirty seconds after the drawing is completed receives a point, and can “bet it all” prior to the last drawing.


We use this game primarily for vocabulary review. Students are divided into pairs and, as usual, each group is given one mini-whiteboard. The teacher calls out names of categories (home, animals, things that move, things made of metal, things that people do for fun, etc.). Students are given one-minute to write down as many (classroom appropriate) items as they can on their whiteboard. They get a point for each one that is correct. This game can also create opportunities for speaking practice when there is a dispute about an answer - students had to convince us once that “fighting” qualified under “things that people do for fun.”

The “category” could also be “words that start with the letter ‘b’”. And, if you are teaching a more advanced ELL class, you can even make it more challenging by combining two categories (e.g. “words that start with t and are in a home”).

You can do this occasionally in reverse and throw in a question where you give the words and they have to write the name of the category.

These four are just a small sampling of games that can be used in class for vocabulary instruction. You can find more here, and we hope you’ll share your own in the comments.

Larry has written a previous British Council post sharing other vocabulary instructional strategies and links to online games (see Five Strategies For ELL Vocabulary Instruction)

(This is adapted from the new book, The ELL Teacher’s Toolbox: Hundreds of Practical Ideas to Support Your Students, by Larry Ferlazzo and Katie Hull Sypnieski )

Average: 5 (2 votes)

Submitted by AnnD on Sat, 10/06/2018 - 01:32


These are great suggestions. Other ones we've used are Bingo (using words that we've been focussing on) and an Alphabet game where you put all the letters of the alphabet up on the board in a list and then the class has to think of a word starting with each letter. This could be done in teams too. First team to finish is the winner.

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