7 Fun Activities for Teaching Vocabulary in the ESL Classroom
You will find the web full of ideas for teaching vocabulary and, although most of them are undoubtedly good activities, some are only suited to a particular level. Here are some tried and tested activities that can be adapted to suit any level of student and a variety of class sizes.
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1. Hot seat
This is a great activity that can be used as a warm-up at the beginning of a class, or as a game at the end of a lesson. It’s suitable for any class size over 4 students and requires minimal preparation. Divide the class into two teams and have two chairs at the front of the class, set up to face away from the board. Have one student from each team come and sit in the chairs and tell them not to turn and look at the board. The premise of the game is for you to write a word or expression from your lesson on the board, and have the students facing away from the board guess what it is. Give each team 10 points to start with and tell them if they break any rules, points will be deducted. The rules must include no miming (you want students to give verbal clues) and no use of their own language. Other students call out clues and whichever of the students at the front guesses correctly first gets the point. Have other students replace them each time. This is a fun game that can get quite noisy. You might want to exert some control by giving each team 15-second chunks to give clues. Develop your rules as you see fit.
2. Beat the clock
This is a similar activity to hot seat, in that students must guess words or expressions from your lesson and/or previous lessons. It’s faster paced so you will need more vocabulary to use, although each expression can be used more than once. Have the words on slips of paper or card in an envelope or box. With this game, you will need to set the class into teams of about 6 maximum, but you may find slight adaptions make it suitable for either smaller or bigger classes. Have one team come to the front and have one student from the team pick out slips from the box and give clues for the rest of the team to guess, or vice-versa. Award points for the number of expressions guessed within the allotted time. Each round should last no longer than 30 seconds so that you even up contributions and involvement of each student. Allow weaker students to put back any expressions they feel unable to give clues for and take out another by saying “pass”.
Crosswords can be used very effectively in the ESL classroom, and there are plenty of free easy to use crossword makers on the internet. Because you can so easily make your own, they are very versatile in terms of both level and length. Print off two copies without answers or clues, and write in all the down answers on one copy and all the across answers on the other. Make copies as needed for the class size, assuming one set per 2-4 students depending on how you choose to conduct the game. The idea is for students to give each other clues for their pairing to complete either the down or across answers. Give one pair of students in each group the copy with the down answers filled in and their opposing pair the copy with the across answers. Make sure they can’t see each other’s sheets! They then ask “What is (number) across/down? The opposing students then create clues for them to guess. Have a wrap-up at the end by asking students to give you clues they’d used for specific words.
4. Board games
The beauty of this idea is that it can be used with just about any board game you might have that involves moving pieces after throwing a dice such as Snakes (Chutes) & Ladders. You will need enough sets so that students can play in groups of around 2-6 players. Have a stack of cards with target language from the lesson on. You can have different colored stacks to match the variety of squares that you might land on when moving around the board. Each stack will have different types of task, such as to speak for 20 seconds about the vocabulary on the card, solve an anagram, make your team-mate guess the word, or create a question using the word. Students move their pieces around the board after throwing a dice and must complete the task on whatever card they pick up depending on what colored square they land on. If they can’t, they go back to the square they came from. You could also adapt this idea to suit the popular “Jenga” game by writing on the wooden blocks with a pencil or erasable ink.
5. Slow Pictionary
This is another activity that requires minimal preparation. The fun element is increased by students or teachers who are unable to draw particularly well because this is likely to result in more guesses being made and thus more practice using English. Write words or expressions from the lesson on individual slips of paper. Set up 2 teams and have one student from each team come to the board and take a slip each. Put a dividing line on the board to control where they draw, then have each of the 2 students take a turn drawing one line at a time to build their drawing to help their team guess the vocabulary on their slip. Teams can then make guesses about their drawing. Whichever team guesses first gets 2 points, but can then guess the other teams drawing for 1 bonus point at any stage.
6. Vocabulary tennis
Set up 2 lines of students facing each other. Give a word in a particular category from your lesson, such as things in a house for lower levels, up to personality characteristics for higher levels. Have a student at the front of the line say something from the category, then the person opposite them in the other team must say something else. Work your way up the line back and forth until someone either repeats what has already been said or can’t think of anything new. The opposing team gets awarded a point when you restart the game with a new category from where it left off. This is great for practicing vocabulary from previous lessons too.
7. Pelmanism (“Concentration”)
This is a game based on memorizing cards or other objects placed in front of the players that has become a standard activity in the ESL classroom. It is known as “Concentration” in many countries. Create 5-6 pairs of cards with pictures and vocabulary on. For example, a picture of a fish for lower levels with the word “fish” on the matching vocabulary card. Lay them face down and either mark all the backs of the pictures with “1” and the vocabulary with “2” or have pictures and vocabulary on different colored cards. Set students up in groups of 2-4, with a set of cards each. They put all the cards face down and take turns picking up a picture card, saying what it is and then pick up a vocabulary card. If they are a match they keep the pair, if not they replace the cards face down and the next student continues.
Make sure students say what the vocabulary is before picking up the second card to maximize student talk time. The student with the most cards at the end wins. Can repeat as time allows. You can increase the challenge by having students create sentences before keeping the cards or have them play ‘tic-tac-toe’/‘noughts and crosses’ as a side game if they get a match. ‘Kim’s Game’ can be a follow-up game or wrap-up using the same material.
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