ESL Vocabulary Games for Teaching In-Person and Online

November 12, 2021

When it comes to teaching ESL vocabulary, no one wants to hand out huge word lists and ask students to silently memorize them. Instead, teachers know the value of using engaging and fun activities to help students recall new English words. Let’s look at five ESL vocabulary games you can use in the virtual or physical classroom and how games can be an asset to your students!

If you’re new to teaching, you’ll want to get initial training and qualification with a TEFL certificate. You can explore our online TEFL courses to get started!

Why should you use ESL vocabulary games?

There are many reasons to use ESL vocabulary games in your classes. Here are a few:

  • Games usually incorporate a lot of repetition, which is helpful for students who are trying to memorize new words.
  • Games are fun! Students who are having fun are more likely to be motivated and to participate in the lesson. They’ll probably even forget that they’re actually learning!
  • Playing games promotes teamwork and can help you build rapport with your students.
  • Incorporating lively, engaging games during class helps students focus and recaptures their attention when they’re feeling tired or unmotivated.
  • Some friendly competition is a great way to get students to practice the language – you might find that even quiet or shy students begin speaking up in order to win a game!
  • Games take the pressure off of students who are afraid to make mistakes since games feel less formal than, say, a vocabulary drill where a student is called out alone to come up with a definition. The fun – and sometimes silly! – nature of games can help students feel more confident trying out English words and making mistakes.

Check out 12 low-prep ESL games for teaching online.

What are some ESL vocabulary games you can play with students?

1. Hangman

Just about everyone knows how to play Hangman! (If you are unsure of the rules of the game, here’s a refresher.)

This game not only allows students to use their new words but forces them to ask each other questions and review the alphabet.

  • When working with beginners, have the host (either yourself, another student, or a group of students) choose a word to be guessed from the vocabulary list. The student or group that guesses the correct word first must also give the definition in order to win.
  • For more advanced students, have the host write their own definition for the other students to guess. Once the students have called out the right letters of the definition, they must then state the correct vocabulary word to win the round.
  • Pro Tip: You can also play this game in your online classroom using a virtual whiteboard and drawing tools.

Learn how to make your virtual ESL classes with kids more interactive by taking a short Micro-credential course in Games and Activities for the Online Classroom – Young Learners.

2. TEFL Bingo

BINGO for teaching ESL vocabulary

This ESL vocabulary game is another classic! You can either print out Bingo cards if you’re teaching in the physical classroom or send them as PDFs if you’re giving virtual lessons instead.

  • For young learners, make Bingo cards with pictures they must identify and mark using an object or a pencil (online students can mark up their cards using built-in digital pens). iSLCollective has a large variety of pre-made Bingo cards for you to download.
  • For older students, use vocabulary words instead of images on your Bingo cards. But, instead of calling out the vocabulary word, read out the definitions to the class, asking students to mark off the corresponding word. Be sure that your Bingo cards are not repeated, and tell your students they must reproduce a predetermined pattern on their cards, such as a diagonal line, an X, or a T, in order to win the game. This game encourages students to listen, think about what they’ve heard, and use their memory to search out the correct answers.

Get more ESL classroom games and activities for kids.

3. ESL Songs

Music is an engaging and fun way to teach new vocabulary, as well as proper pronunciation and grammar. You can use songs to teach just about any type of vocabulary. Below is an example of teaching words that have to do with the body:

  • For older students, listen to the following “Parts of the Body” video. The tune is catchy and has a great deal of repetition that helps students memorize with greater ease.
Here’s how you can structure an ESL song activity:
  • Before you start the activity, play the song of your choice and have your class listen to the words as you follow along and show each body part.
  • Once this is done, ask your students to stand up, and then play the song again so they can do the movements with you. Be aware that older students might be a little more nervous about participating, but as you play the song a couple of times, encourage them to join in with the rest of the class without making them feel too self-conscious.
  • After you’ve practiced the song a few times, draw an outline of the body on the whiteboard or digital board, and ask students to name each body part starting with the head and ending with the toes. Write the words on the board as they are called out. (Be sure to tell your students to not write anything in their notebooks just yet, as you want them to listen and participate during this part of the exercise.)
  • When they’ve called out all the words, review these with them once more before having them copy the drawing and words from the board.
  • Pro Tip: If you prefer, you can also give them a handout or an online worksheet with the outline of a body for them to fill in either on their own or with a partner. For homework, have students write sentences describing what each body part is used for.

Get even more ideas on how to use ESL songs with kids and teens!

4. What Is It?

This is a great virtual game to use if you have webcam software such as ManyCam. You can play two ways:

  • ManyCam and other digital tools have virtual stickers and graphics that you can display on-screen. Click on the image that represents the vocabulary word you want to elicit from students so that they can see the image on the screen. The first student to correctly call out the name of the object or action they see gets a point. The student with the most points at the end wins.
  • Alternatively, you can have students take turns, and you can display an image for a split second, having it just flash on the screen. See if the student correctly guesses what the image was and, if so, they get a point. If they do not answer correctly, ask a different student, who gets a chance to steal the point.
  • Pro Tip: If you’re teaching in-person or you don’t have ManyCam, you can simply hold an object up (realia) or a picture of an object or action that you printed out beforehand.

Read more about how to use ManyCam when teaching English online.

5. Mising Object

This game, which comes from the Bridge Micro-credential course: Games and Activities for the Online Classroom (Very Young Learners), is super simple to put together, as it only requires gathering some realia from around your house or classroom. Here’s a demonstration of the game in action:

  • Show the student(s) a collection of items on a tray. You can collect objects that go along with a certain theme, like food or clothing, or that relate to vocabulary you’ve recently taught and want to review.
  • Go over the items one by one, focusing on pronunciation and getting students to answer questions about the object’s function, appearance, etc.
  • While the tray is out of view of the student, remove one object. Show the tray to the student again and see if they can identify which object is missing. Give them a clue if they’re struggling!

This game is a little more suited to young learners but could work for older students if you make it more difficult by using a large number of small objects on the tray.

With these simple ESL vocabulary games, you’re all set to enliven your classroom and help your students recall the new words they’re learning. Have fun!

Are your students struggling to say the new vocabulary words they’ve just learned? These ESL pronunciation games can help!