Vocabulary games for ESL students are one of a number of methods of helping students learn new words more deeply. Vocabulary is one of the most important things that a language learner learns. A lack of vocabulary is often a greater problem than a lack of grammatical knowledge. Here is a collection of games that come from many sources. Many were passed on to me by other teachers or teacher trainers. Some I adapted from the many TESOL books that I've used over the years.
The majority of these games are for children.
Close Your Eyes! another of the many memory games for ESL students. This game works best when teaching English to younger children. Write the vocabulary you want to practice onto the board. Students can help with this if you wish. It can be groups of vocabulary such as colors or adjectives, or it can be a more random selection. Then instruct the students to close their eyes. Quickly erase one of the words, then tell the students to open their eyes. They must say the word erased.
It works quite well if you play it teacher against the class. The teacher wins a point if the students make a mistake. Usually cheating occurs - which is part of the fun in this game, if not too obvious. The students should normally win. Short phrases can be used instead of words, but be careful not to make them too long, as the writing time will increase by too much.This can be played when there is already vocabulary written on the board, which you want to quickly review then erase.
Remember & Write another one of the games for ESL students involving memory. Students draw several pictures on the board, then they label their pictures. The class looks at the words for a short period of time. Then the words are erased. The students then write out the words on a piece of paper or in their notebooks, using the pictures to aid their memories. The process can be repeated a number of times. At the end, the team with the most words correctly spelt is the winner. This game also practices spelling and is best with elementary level children.
Also, see Top 10 TEFL Games for more ideas on memory games suitable for teaching English vocabulary.
Stop the Bus is another one of the games for ESL students that practices vocabulary categories. This time the students write down the words. Put the students into pairs or groups of three. Write a category on the board - for example adjectives. The students then have to write down as many adjectives as they can. You can make it more challenging by saying write down adjectives with more than 5 letters.
Give a time limit and take their papers. The words must be spelt correctly. The team with the most correctly spelt words gets 3 points, the second team 2 points and the third team 1 point. Then give back the pieces of paper and do again for another vocabulary category.
Turn and Say One of the games for ESL students involving flashcards. Divide the children into two teams. A student from each team must stand at the front of the class back to back. Give each one a flashcard that's large enough to be read from 3 or 4 feet away. Make sure that the students cannot see the flashcards. The two students then quickly turn, holding their flashcards up, and they must say what they see - whether it's a picture or word on the other student's flashcard.
Teacher's Parrot is one of many games for ESL students that has been adapted from an old party game. It's good for practicing adjectives, from a-z. A game is played in a circle around the class. The first student [or teacher] begins: "Teacher's parrot is an active parrot." The next person will say: "Teacher's parrot is a beautiful parrot," and so on through the alphabet. This vocabulary game can be practiced with children or adults. 'Teacher's Parrot' can of course, be replaced by anything you want. Traditionally it was 'Aunt Mary's cat..." It's not suitable for beginners.
The Shopping Game is one of the games for ESL students that can be adapted to practice many different vocabulary sets, depending on the choice of shop. It's a circle game. The first student says "___ went to the shops and bought a bag of lemons," the second student then says, "___went to the shops and bought a bag of lemons and three cucumbers." Each student in the class continues, each one adding a new item. The game can be easily adapted. Food, clothes, household items, equipment of any type, things for the house, school and so on. Tenses can also be changed. This game can also be used to practice amounts [3Kg of apples etc].
Odd One Out A list of words is given to the students. For example: horse, elephant, submarine, car, giraffe. Which one is different? Why? "Giraffe," because it's never used as transport." Other answers are, of course, possible. The students must explain why. Students can also make their own lists which they can quiz other students with.
Circle it! is a good game for children. Write words on the board - or have the children help you do this. Then the children stand in teams in front of the board, the first in each line has a marker. Say a word and the first student from each team has to circle it and gain a point for their team. The first student then gives the marker to the second and so on. This activity works well for letters, numbers, phonetic alphabet, or words to be learnt for spelling. With higher level groups you can say, 'circle a word that means smart,' and they circle 'clever,' etc
Clapping is a basic, but fun activity for very young children. Clap quickly and the students count the number of claps (useful when they begin learning numbers). Students should, of course, take part by clapping. Clapping can also be used to teach adverbs, "Clap quickly, loudly etc.
Many published board games can either be used straight or adapted to teach English vocabulary. Scrabble is a popular game and works well as an occasional activity. If used too often the students tend to stick to well known words.
Monopoly can be adapted to help teach the language of money, and works well with a small class. You will need to make it clear to the students that at times you my need to explain vocabulary. It's also a good idea to pre-teach useful phrases for negotiating sales etc.
There are also a number of online games. Bookworm is one such game, which is similar to 'stepping stones.' In the game you need to spell words across a board.
Online games can be fun, but there use will be limited for many teachers. Many language schools still don't give students access to computers. It can also be hard to monitor larger classes who are working online.
Traditional games for ESL students include I Spy and songs such as Old Macdonald's Farm This is great for young children who are reviewing domestic animals:
'Old Macdonald had a farm, EIEIO - And on that farm he had some ducks, EIEIO - With a quack quack here, And a quack quack there, Here a quack, there a quack, Everywhere a quack quack, Old Macdonald had a farm, EIEIO'
This can be repeated with sheep [baabaa], dogs[woof woof or bow wow], bees [buzz buzz], cows [moo moo], turkeys [gobble gobble], horses [neigh neigh] and so on. The song could also be adapted to Old Macdonald had a zoo, to practice wild animals. You must make up your own sounds for that:)