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Teaching English through games is my favourite way to expand vocabulary in little learners’ minds! Currently I’m at the intermediate level in my German studies and I wish someone would play vocabulary games with me!

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For teaching new vocabulary to my little English students I most often use games. I make a lot of them from free printable I find online. For very young children who are just beginning in English, animals are great first words.  Buggy and Buddy has some wonderful animal cards that are free (pictured above) and I have a larger set (also for free) over in my Teachers Pay Teachers store, with game rules for eight different games included. Here’s the link.


You can use a set of vocabulary cards for many different games. I like to start out with the game Memory to introduce new vocabulary. Every time a child turns over a card I say the word, and I encourage them to say it as well, but I don’t require them to speak on the first introduction to the words. Once I think they can remember the word when I says it, then it’s time to move on to a game that requires them to pull the word from their own head and pronounce it.

My favourite memory games are by Ravensburger, because the pictures are accurate and clear, the vocabulary is a collection of practical, everyday objects that children see and use on a regular bases, and the cards are made well and can handle many hours of play.

Here is a Memory Game tutorial from British Counsel if you need to know how to play the game. They have some great free printable over there as well, and lots of English learning ideas for teachers and parents.


Charades is perfect for this, because the children don’t have to use any sentences, just say the word in English. If they say it in a different language then it doesn’t count. Charades also brings in movement for those of us (like myself) that need physical, tactile kind of memory support.

Charades Game Rules are available as a free download here.

After I feel like they have the new vocabulary words memorised then it’s time to use them in a sentence.  I move on to games that require the children to use the word in a sentence, that is of course, if they are old enough to form a complete sentence. If you are teaching two year olds, for example, and they can’t form sentences in their first language, then expecting them to do so in a second language is ridiculous. My favourite game for forming a complete sentence with new vocabulary is Go Fish.

go fish

“Do you have a lion?”  “No I don’t, go fish” (draw a card). What is good about Go Fish is that if a child can’t remember a word they can show the card to the group and get some help remembering the word.

Tip: For children that can read or mixed age groups, I use cards without the words printed underneath. Some children won’t be diligent enough to memorise the word when they can just read it! ;-D

Go Fish Game Rules are available as a free download here.

My favourite and most used set of go fish cards is actually an “Old Maid” card set but with the old maid removed. This set of cards uses occupations, I’ve used it for years and love it!

I’m going on a trip

Another good game for forming sentences with the new vocabulary is “I’m going on a trip and in my backpack I’m taking…” This game works best with children that are at least five, because they have to remember a growing list of vocabulary as the game progresses. I looked all over on line for the official game rules and couldn’t find them, but we used to play it when I was a child on road trips … perhaps we made it up ;-D. Here is how I play it with my English students.

Lay out the vocabulary cards face up on a table or floor. The youngest child starts, they say “I’m going on a trip and in my backpack I’m taking ___________.” The child must use one of the vocabulary words. I usually allow them to pick  up the actual vocabulary card and hold it in their hand so that the other players can’t see it and must remember which item they are holding. The next player then repeats the same sentence “I’m going on a trip and in my backpack I’m taking ___________ and ____________.” The second child must remember what the first child said, and then add their own item to the list by picking up a card of their own. The game continues on, with each player reciting what the previous players have picked up and then adding their own item. The first player to forget one of the items ends the game (or you can play until there is only one player left).

Jump for it

I won’t spend a lot of time on this one because I already dedicated a post to this game.  Basically, the children earn jumps by being the first to say a vocabulary word, and the firs one to the finish line is the winner. It’s great for when you need to get out some energy. All you need are vocabulary cards and an open space. I like to use extra large vocabulary cards like the ones below. You can make or buy them :-D.

Mother may I

Another classic game that I never even thought of as an English learning game until I became a teacher. This is also a good game for getting little bodies moving. Children line up shoulder to shoulder and take turns asking “Mother may I take “number” + “action”  forward?” Such as “Mother may I take three steps forward?” or “Mother may I take two hops forward?” I encourage the children to be creative and make up silly ones like “Mother may I take four rabbit hops forward?” or “two elephant steps forward?”.  The first student to reach the teacher is the winner and becomes the mother (or the father). The mother may say “yes” or “no” when asked. Sometimes this can escalate into a problem if you have a student that won’t let any of his or her classmates move forward, so the game does take a little bit of supervision, but in general it is a popular game with my children.


Shopping List

This is a wonderful game from Orchard Toys. My youngest students love it, and even my older ones are willing to play along for at least two rounds. Children take turns adding items to their shopping list, and the first one with a full list is the winner. It’s wonderful for everyday vocabulary words that make up the foundation of language.

Make your own game: If you don’t want to buy the game, a fun alternative is to collect empty cartons, cans and boxes from your kitchen for a few weeks, wash them and tape them shut, then create your own game based on the items you have collected. This would take a bit of time, but would probably have even better results than the purchased game, because all of the brands and labels would look familiar to the children. I haven’t tried this yet, but it’s on my “to try” list. ;-).

Here’s the link to the Orchard Toys game:

Update: I now have a printable version of this game over on my TPT store for $2.00. No waiting for your order to arrive, just print and play. 🙂

Monkey Says

Have you ever played Simon says? This is Simon says, but we always play it as “Monkey says” because small children connect better with “monkey” than they do with “Simon” (who is Simon? what is a Simon?) 😉

The person that is “it” gives a command, and the other students must carry out the command, as long as it includes the words “Monkey says ________” but if the caller leaves out the “Monkey says” and skips right to the command then they DO NOT follow the command. It sounds easy, but when it gets going it’s hard to keep up. “Monkey says touch your head. Monkey says sit down. Touch your head.” If anyone touches their head, they become the monkey and must give the commands.

Vocabulary board game

After many years to creating our own board games in class, I decided to use all of the creative ideas and make printable boardgames that can be used with any set of vocabulary cards. I’ve linked to the game (it’s $2). If you like the idea of a vocabulary board game but are looking for something free, then check out my post “Make Your Own Board Game” and follow the link to the free printable blank game board.

Update: After many years of creating resources for my ESL students, I finally opened a Teachers Pay Teachers store so that I can better share them with you :-D. Check it out and grab some new material while you are there. And remember, this is a brand new store, so check back often for new creations! I’m uploading new items every week.

photograph of happy children
Photo by Samer Daboul

Have fun!


4 thoughts on “Teaching vocabulary through games

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