5 Vocabulary Games That Build Content Knowledge
Engaging games support student understanding of subject-specific vocabulary and help ensure retention of content knowledge.
Subject-specific vocabulary goes hand-in-hand with a deep and meaningful knowledge of content. It allows us to engage with that subject, unlocks understanding, and promotes clear and precise communication.
At the end of a topic or unit of work, I like to encourage my students to play with the words they’ve learned. I use five different word-association games that get students to recall, describe, explain, listen, and verbalize the subject-specific vocabulary from that topic or unit of work. In my experience, the lighthearted nature of these games provides students with a fun, safe, and low-stakes environment where they feel more confident to just have a go.
Although the examples I’ve given are specific to my subject (biology) and age group (high school), I hope these games are also applicable to other subjects and student ages and provide engaging ways to help students master vocabulary.
1. From A to Z
How it works: For this five-to-eight-minute game, students work in small groups (two to four) and have to write down a word related to a topic for every letter of the alphabet. For example, if the topic is cells, “A” might be “apoptosis,” “B” might be “binary fission,” “C” might be “cytoplasm,” and so on. For many topics, students might struggle to find a word for every letter (and sometimes you will too). You can support them and/or allow them to get more abstract or silly.
This is great as a starter activity for a lesson that falls at the end of the topic. I like to keep it visible and accessible throughout the lesson for students to add to if inspiration strikes them later on.
Based on the popular board game Articulate, this 10-to-20-minute game (depending on the size of your class) gets students to describe and define key terms.
How it works: Prepare a number of cards containing four words related to a topic or subject and one silly or unrelated word. Students will work in teams of three or four. When it’s the first team’s turn, one student from that team stands at the front. The teacher gives that student a card, and the student has to describe the word to their team without ever saying the word, or variations of the word. I usually allow each team one free pass per round. The number of points that the team gets is equal to the number of words that the team guesses in 30 seconds. Teams rotate and continue until every player has had a turn.
3. Just One
The aim of this 15-to-20-minute game is to get students to make connections between key vocabulary words.
I first played the Just One game with my family and then modified it by making cards specific to vocabulary in my subject so that I could use it in my classroom.
How it works: Prepare a number of cards with five words related to a unit, topic, or subject (sometimes I reuse the ones I use in Articulate). Three to seven students work in a group. One student chooses a number between one and five and turns around, facing away from their classmates.
The first card is shown to the other students in the group, and without conferring, they write down one word (on a mini whiteboard) that relates to the corresponding word on the card. For example, if the clue is “muscle,” possible related words might be “movement,” “skeletal,” or “tissue.” All of the students reveal their mini whiteboards to their group—all except the first student.
If two students have written the same word, both words get erased (this encourages students to think beyond the most obvious links). Finally, the first student turns around to view the remaining words and has one chance to guess what the original word on the card was. Repeat the process with a new student guessing and a new card until everyone has had at least one turn. You can appeal to students’ competitive natures by giving them a score to aim for. So, for a group of five, everyone has two turns, and the aim is to achieve a total score of 7 or more out of 10.
4. Telephone Pictionary
For this 20-to-30-minute game, students use diagrams to explain key vocabulary.
How it works: Create groups of about six to eight students, ideally sitting in a circle. Each student is given a note card or piece of paper with a different phrase or term on it (examples I have used include “human evolution,” “the kidneys” and “cell membrane”).
The student has 30–45 seconds to sketch a picture to represent the phrase or term and then paperclips their sketch over the word so that it isn’t visible to the next student. This picture gets passed on to the next student, who (on a new card or piece of paper) writes a phrase or term that they think was given to the student before them based on the picture drawn. Then they use their sketch to cover the previous one. This continues around the group, alternating between drawing and writing until it returns to the original student.
This is happening simultaneously for all students—so everyone is always doing something. Once the cycle returns to the original student, they lay out all the cards, reveal the original phrase or term, and choose a winning contributor for their round—usually either the most accurate or the funniest one.
5. Mind Meld
This two-to-eight-minute game gets students verbalizing and making links between vocabulary words. It works well at the end of a lesson when you have a couple of spare minutes.
How it works: Students are put into pairs, and on the count of three, they say a word related to a given subject or unit. For example, in the topic “cells,” one student might say “cellulose,” and another student might say “eukaryotic.” On the count of three, they then simultaneously say another word that they think matches the two words just said. Now, one might say “plant” and another might say “cell wall.” This keeps going until both students say the same word at the same time. Words can’t be repeated at any time.