Vocabulary review activities

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Everyone likes to add new teaching strategies to his/her toolbox. All of the strategies listed below are adapted from ideas found at:


  • Vocabulary Detective

Write each vocabulary word on an index card. Place yarn on the cards so they can be worn around the neck. Place one card “necklace” on each student with the card hanging down the back. The student should not see the card he/she is wearing. Then students walk around giving clues to each other with the object being each student figures out what word he/she is wearing.

  • Definition Search

Write the definitions on numbered cards. Tape the cards around the classroom. The students number their papers and walk around to find all of the definitions that were hung up. They are to write the word that matches the definition. For example, if they go to card number six and the definition says huge, they would write the vocabulary word immense on the paper by number six. (Groups of students could be given lists of words and definitions. They could write the definitions on the cards. These could be used later to play the game. Students are doing more learning, working together, and saving the teacher time. If you choose this make sure to check the index cards for accuracy before displaying around the room.)

  • Around the Room

This is a variation of the activity above. Write the definitions on separate cards. Place the cards around the room on different objects. Students make a list of the vocabulary words. They silently walk around the room and write down WHERE the definition is for the word.

  • Vocabulary Pyramid

Play Vocabulary Pyramid (based on the TV game show The Ten Thousand Dollar Pyramid). Write vocabulary words in a pyramid and number the pyramid blocks. Students work in groups of four (two guess while the other 2 describe). They start with block one and begin making attempts to get their teammates to say the correct word by giving them clues (definitions or words related to). Once they get a block correct they move to the next block. They get two minutes to get as many as possible with a 6 to 10 word list. They are permitted to pass a word if they get stuck and they can come back to it. (If you google The Ten Thousand Dollar Pyramid, there are templates for playing this using the Aver Key or Smart Board. Templates for the pyramids can also be found.)

  • PowerPoint Presentations

Pairs of students take an individual word and made a Power Point presentation to teach the word to the rest of the class. Give the students guidelines and a rubric. Teaching is the best way to learn something.

  • Fingerprint

  1. Write the terms on the white board.

  2. Two students come up to the white board and face the class. Seated students take turns giving the two students clues in the form of the definition. Then, the students can turn to reach for the term on the white board. The one who touches the term first remains in the game and the other student sits down.

  3. A new challenger comes up to repeat the game process.

Note: The teacher begins in the role of the moderator. After, a few rounds the game may be turned over to the students to run.

Write all the vocabulary words on individual pieces of construction paper and place them around the room. Review the definitions with the class quickly. Divide the class into groups of three or four. Read aloud the definition of one of the words. All flashlights are off at this point. The group decides which word is correct. The teacher says AIM and the student holding the flashlight in the groups aims it at the word they have chosen without turning on the flashlight. Then the teacher says SHINE. At this point the student turns on the flashlight. (By doing it with the two steps you avoid groups just following the lead of other groups. Points could be awarded to groups who “Shine” on the correct word.

  • Making Booklets

Have students make a foldable booklet and illustrate the vocabulary. Then they write a sentence to go along with the picture.

  • Hot Seat

Divide the class into two teams. Have a student from each team sit in front of the class on chairs facing the rest of the classroom. On the board behind them, write down one of the vocabulary words. Each team has 5 chances (alternating turns) to give clues so the student from their team can guess the word. For example, if the word is frantic, they might say wild, emotional, etc. Only allow them to give one or two word clues (synonyms).

  • Vobackulary

Write a vocabulary word on an index card. Tape it to a student’s back. This student picks three students to help him/her figure out the word by giving clues. Clues may not be the word or a form of the word. If the student figures out the word within three clues, he/she wins the card.

  • Win, Lose, or Draw

This is a version of the game show. A student chooses a word and draw pictures to get his/her team to guess what the word is. Good for reviewing a large group of words.

  • Match Them Up

Use Excel to type up the words and the definitions. Use three columns. In the first column type the word. Skip the second column. In the third column type the corresponding definition. Format the typing to a large font but make sure it fits on one or two pages of cardstock. Print a few copies on cardstock or construction paper. Cut the definitions and terms apart and put each collection in a small zip lock bag. Have the students work in pairs or trios to match the terms to the definitions as a study technique.

  • Vocabulary Snowball Fight

Assign partners one word. On one piece of paper they write the vocabulary word. On the other they write the definition of the word. When all sets of partners are finished, everyone crumples the papers up into a ball. After the teacher has given very specific rules, all of the “snowballs” are thrown into the middle of the room. Then on the teacher’s signal everyone picks up one snowball and finds the partner who has the corresponding word or definition.

  • Four Square

Each student divides a piece of paper into four parts. Put a circle in the middle and write the vocabulary word in it. In one box write the definition. In the second box write a sentence. In the third box write a antonym or synonym, and in the fourth box draw a picture. (Students could be in groups with a list of words. Each student chooses a different word from the list to put into a four square. Students should be allowed to elicit assistance from the member of the group. Each student in the group then teaches the rest of the group about his/her four square.)

  • What’s The Definition?

Write the vocabulary words on individual index cards with the definitions on the back. Make sure there are enough cards for each student to have one. If you have to repeat some, repeat the ones that are more difficult to remember. Each student is given a card and holds the card with the word facing outward. The definition should only be seen by the student holding the card. At the signal students partner up with someone and give the definition for the partner’s word and vice versa. Then the students exchange cards and go in search of a new partner. Play for only a short time and encourage the students to seek out as many partners as possible. (If you get in the habit of writing the words on index cards as soon as they're introduced, you'll always have this game ready to go. You can take the cards with you on a bathroom break or on the way to lunch and play whenever you have a few extra minutes. With a little tweaking you can modify this game for all kinds of subjects -- math terms, social studies, science facts, etc.)

  • I Have, Who Has

For this version have sets of cards for groups. The students have to listen to each other. Time the groups to see who is able to complete it in the shortest amount of time.

  • Swat

So easy.....and fun! Write the vocabulary words on the board or an overhead transparency (the swatting won’t erase them from the screen). Write them randomly not necessarily in rows. Two students each have a fly swatter. Read a definition and the first student to "swat" the word gets a point for their team. Play until all the words are done. Do some words more than once to make sure they're paying attention. (You could also put some words from past vocabulary lessons on the board as a refresher.)

  • Swinging Monkey

Introduce the vocab. for a reading story by playing "Swinging Monkey" (a kinder version of “Hangman”). Begin by putting blanks on the board that correspond to the number of letters in a word you want to discuss. Call on individual students to guess letters. For a miss first draw a tree, then a branch, then an arm hanging from the branch. Keep adding body, head, another arm, two legs, and a tail. After the word is revealed, read it in context and discuss the meaning of the word.

  • Pass the Ladybug

Start a stuffed ladybug (or whatever else you have). State a word and hand the ladybug to a student who then gives the definition. That student passes the ladybug to another student who then says a word and passes the ladybug to another student to give the definition. Keep passing the ladybug.

  • Build Your Vocabulary

Trace patterns for a variety of tools (hammer, screwdriver, saw, pliers, wrench, etc.). Student writes a word and definition on each tool. These may then be used to make a bulletin board or hall display. This is great for reviewing a unit of vocabulary.

  • Vocabulary Quilt

Use a pattern that is a large square with two smaller squares evenly spaced inside it. The student writes the vocabulary word in the center, the definition in the second square, and a sentence in the outer square. They then color the squares which can be mounted on construction paper and tied together to create a quilt. You could vary this by having the student add a border or illustration.

  • Vocabulary Scramble

Write each word and definition on separate index cards. Place each card face down on the front board using magnets. After the cards are up, number them. The class is then divided into 2 teams. One at a time, students are given the opportunity to call out numbers to find a matching pair -- a vocabulary word and a matching definition. When a number is
called out, I turn that card over allowing the whole class to see the hidden word or definition. If a team gets a match, their team earns a point, and somebody else on that team gets to pick again. Use a rule of a maximum of three matches in a row correct then play automatically switches to the other team. If the pair is not a match, I turn the cards back over so the number side is showing. The winning team is the one who has the most points at the end of the game! (Alternatively, you can set a goal of say 7 points -- any team who reaches that goal wins. That way everybody can be a winner!)

  • Flip Book

Make a flip book with the vocabulary words. Find pictures in newspapers or magazines to illustrate it. For example if the word is addend the student would find two numerals in the newspaper. They would glue them on and write the word addend under each numeral. Then the student would try to find a picture that illustrates the sum. For example:

addend addend sum

1 + 3 = (picture with four things in it or four separate pictures)

To make the flip book first fold the paper horizontally. Then fold it into thirds. Open the paper and cut on the fold only going up to the top of the paper. (Don’t cut all the way through.) Write addend on the first flip. Then lift up the flip and glue the number. Write addend on the second flip, lift up and glue the number. Write sum on the third flip, lift up and put the picture. A set of these could be strung together with yarn for display.

(Use a similar idea for expanded notation. Fold the paper vertically. Write the standard form of the number on the front and expand it inside.)

  • Cube Toss

Make a cube from two milk carton bottoms and cover with contact paper. (You could also buy a cube from a teacher supply store.) Each week write the vocabulary words on tape and stick one to each side of the cube. Have the students toss the cube around the room. (Make sure to set ground rules first.) When a student catches the cube, he/she reads and defines the word that is on top. This can be changed by saying they have to use the word in a sentence.

  • Mystery Word

Write the vocabulary words on cards. Split the class into teams. Show one team a word. Don’t let the other team see the word. Member of the first team give clues, definitions, example sentences with the word left out, act out the word, draw a picture – anything to get the other team to guess the word. This game can be run like a game of charades or Pictionary. Give small prizes, points or whatever system works for you.

  • Row Race

Before beginning break the vocabulary words down into groups of four to six. Tell the first student in each row to take out a piece of paper. Write the words you chose on the board. The rows race to see which row is able to use all the words in sentences first. The first person chooses their word, writes the sentence, and passes the paper back. The second person repeats the above process using a different word. Each word may only be used once. The father back the paper goes the more difficult it gets because the choices are narrowed. The first row to bring their paper to the teacher and have it checked correct wins. For a variation students could be asked to write a definition for each word instead of a sentence. The game also adapts well to practice in other areas like math and science.

  • Dictionary Day

Students choose words which they think their classmates will not know the meaning of. Students should have word choices approved by the teacher. On the day designated Dictionary Day students wear the word taped or pinned to their shirt. Activities that day may include explaining the word to classmates, visiting another class to see if they are able to “stump” them. Other word games could be played. Students could even dress up to illustrate the words. (Read the book Miss Alanious.) They must have the word somewhere on their costume.

  • Popcorn

Give a clue to a word. Students know that when you snap your fingers they are to “pop” up and say the word. This activity would work well as a word wall review.

  • Recognize

Whenever students hear a vocabulary word in another context, have them give a “silent cheer,” a “golfers’ clap,” or another signal of your choice. If they recognize the word in a book, newspaper, etc., give a small sticker.






Guidelines for Teaching Vocabulary

By Susan Jones, M.Ed. 4/99

These guidelines are from the following site:


Have structure and organization behind the words you present. Rather than randomly selected words "at their grade level," present words in related groups. Examples: Present words about feelings, and make a poster with the students, with different words to describe being "afraid" or "happy." Students can discuss the degrees of emotion (is "terrified" more than "nervous" or "anxious," "ecstatic" better than "pleased"), and the differences between the words (how is "snicker" different from "guffaw," "terrified" different from "horrified?"). Another option is to study word parts: have the students learn that 'ject' means 'throw,' and then tackle "projectile," "reject" and "trajectory." (See the word parts section of this site for some activities.)

An advantage to grouping words this way is that it lends itself to individualized instruction. Students can all be tackling words from the big "ject" list - but one student may be learning "subjective" and "abject" while another learns "project" and "projectile." (As with any strategy that differentiates between students, you will need to deal with the 'why is he doing something different' issues and determining how and how much to differentiate - but with these activities the differences between students are not as obvious.)

Incorporate multisensory learning from the beginning. Many students gain a lot if an illustration or demonstration is presented first. Later, when the word is used or its meaning discussed, they have an image to associate it with, and are more likely to learn from the discussion as well as from the visual presentations.

Model the activities first. Demonstrate these activities with vivid, familiar words first. Once you've modeled an activity with a word, do it with student input next, and finally, have the students do it on their own - perhaps in groups before working individually.

Most work with vocabulary should be done with the meanings available. If the activity involves expressing the ideas in a different form than the definition, then the student has to think about the meaning and interpret it. If the student doesn't use the right meaning, they're worse than wasting their time; they're learning the wrong things. In addition, students may commit a simplified meaning to memory, but if they have a more developed definition they will be able to think about that and use it.

Keep an ongoing list prominently posted. If the words are visible and accessible to students, they are more likely to see them, think about them, and use them. It's up to you to remember to take the lists down when you give tests or quizzes, unless you are using word banks already. (Don't rely on a list on the board as a word bank, however; some students have significantly more trouble reading or writing from a distance than from the paper they are working on.) If you've got different students learning different words, put them all up there, but be sure each student knows which words s/he is responsible for knowing.

Go beyond the definitions of the words. Include the connotations of the words and the ways they are most likely to be used. Don't limit this exploration to the "discussion" of words. When students are drawing or acting out words, encourage them to incorporate the connotations or the more subtle aspects of the meanings of the words.

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