For teachers faced with multiple demands of test prep and a fast-paced curriculum, it can be hard to find time for play in the classroom—much less play that is meaningful and allows students to deepen their knowledge. Yet there are many ways teachers can think about infusing language play throughout the class period or school day to deepen vocabulary learning and help students be able to use and apply their new vocabulary in surprising ways.
Learning and deepening word knowledge doesn’t have to feel like work. Rather, students can be more engaged when they’re allowed and encouraged to play with language. Such play not only keeps students interested but also helps make their understanding of the new words more precise. Through back-and-forth, interactive play, students can also clarify misunderstandings without feeling embarrassed or singled out. There are ways of making such play feel seamless in the classroom.
Examine Non-Examples of Vocabulary Words
Ask not just, “What does this word look or function like?” but also, “What does it not look or function like?” For instance, acute angle can look “sharp” but not “curvy” or “wavy” or “square.”
Ask students to play games or have mock competitions to come up with the most creative non-examples, and have them explain their reasoning. For example, that same acute angle can look like a door that’s partly shut, but not like a smile or a cloud.
For every word chosen, ask students to be specific about the difference between the non-example and the original word. This process of description will help build their vocabularies and strengthen their abilities to make connections between one topic and the next.
Use Online Vocabulary Tools
While we want to build vocabulary mostly through deep discussion and dialogue, there are tools that can promote an increased engagement and understanding of specific words. Using tools such as Visual Thesaurus, which lets students see the ways words interrelate, and Wordle, which lets them create word clouds, we can start to help students see related and unrelated words as chances to play.
This technique can also be very helpful for learners who think in more visual ways, allowing them to integrate the word meaning, or the semantic aspects, with a visual sense of how one word connects to the next.
These tools work in different ways and lend themselves to different activities. For example, the word clouds in Wordle can show a word as bigger or smaller depending on how frequently it appears in a text. This can be a great reading comprehension tool, as you can ask students to reflect on the words that appear most often as potential themes from a text, or to debate whether a theme is actually more important than its size in the cloud would indicate.
Visual Thesaurus shows the distance between more closely and less closely interrelated words, and can be a great way of deepening students’ understanding of synonyms, antonyms, and words that are somewhere in between. Students can use this thesaurus to explain, for example, why irritated and forgetful aren’t opposites, and why content and unhappy can be.
Draw Guessed Meanings of Unknown Words and Non-Words
When working on prefixes and suffixes, have students draw what they imagine for the words unplayed or redrink. Help students formulate why their drawings relate to the concept, and how the prefix or suffix changes the word.
This activity can be made more complex or simple for use with students in a range of grades. For example, younger students can work on drawing waks (the plural of wak, an unknown animal), when they are learning the use of the plural. Older students can focus on words that describe processes (think bed-ation or storm-ation) and describe why those words are silly.
Vote With Their Feet
We don’t have to think of vocabulary learning and practice as physically static. For example, have students rate how high on an intensity scale they see a word when introducing synonyms, and move to one or the other corner of the room to vote on the intensity with their feet. Students might rate irritated as a 1 on a 1 to 5 intensity scale, and enraged as a 5. When their ratings differ, they can engage in discussion and debate about these ratings, and if they want, move again.
Developing students’ vocabulary doesn’t have to be a chore. Given a creative mindset and some openness to exploring, we can find opportunities to educate and stretch students’ understanding with play. Far from being wasted time, these exchanges can help motivate students to realize that playing with language can be enjoyable. They may even start to see connections between their social play with language (for example, telling jokes at home) and their classroom activities.
How are you already helping students in the classroom play with language? Are there opportunities to deepen or expand this play, not only in English class but across academic subjects?