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{guest post}: four ideas for vocabulary-building projects and games

I am thrilled to have a guest post today by a talented language educator. The hubster and I both love language–vocabulary, foreign languages, etymology, you name it–and it is important to us that our children study language arts. Because we firmly believe language teaching begins at home, I’ve been looking for creative ways to add vocabulary-building to our daily activities. Enter Lily and her fabulous post! Be sure to read to the bottom so you can see her bio and website.

p.s. I must add that the “dictionary game” Lily describes below (known to some as Balderdash) is our favorite adult game at my mom’s famous Christmas Eve party. The rivalry and ribbing are second to none, so only serious competitors need apply. 


Kids are heading back to school to refine their understanding of information they learned last year and re-learn what they’ve forgotten over the summer. The start of a new season is a great reminder about how useful it is for learning to be a consistent, regular activity – and how susceptible the brain is to the forces of atrophy! 

It’s not always an easy task for parents to integrate more learning into their kids’ busy schedules but adding a little fun to the mix can be just the spoonful of sugar needed to motivate kids to make learning part of their routines. Different subjects have different requirements for memorization and recall of past years’ materials, and one of the areas where the “use it or loose it” axiom is the most applicable is vocabulary. 

Here is a round-up of four of my favorite games and activities to help kids learn new words and keep their memory alive through play

1. Vocabulary scrap-booking
Basic idea: Create a scrap-book with an image representing each vocabulary word. It’s a great way to use visual and creative thinking to engage with new words.

Age group: Anyone who is old enough to use scissors (although it may not be interesting to teens who aren’t artistically inclined).

Materials: For pictures, you can use magazines, catalogues, copies of vacation pictures. For assembly you’ll need scissors, tape, glue stick, or rubber cement. Of course you’ll also need something to put it all together in: an empty journal book, a 3-ring binder with colorful construction paper as filler, or an actual scrap-booking book. Markers, pens, and pencils are useful for writing out the vocabulary pictured.

Time frame: This isn’t a quick activity. The exact amount of time needed depends on amount of vocabulary and the ease of representing it with the pictures at hand. (Encourage kids to explain how the pictures represent the words, if the connections aren’t apparent to you.) This is also a great project to do on an on-going basis as long as you have space to keep the materials neat and safe when you are not working on it.

Possible variations: Draw pictures instead of cutting and pasting (for those who are more artistic than I am!). Cut letters out of magazine headlines to form the words your pictures represent. For older, computer-savvy kids: make a website with .gif images representing the vocabulary.

2. Tonight’s dinner brought to you by the letter…
Basic idea: If you’re as stuck thinking up new dinner ideas as I am, get your kids to help you brainstorm a meal that is primarily made out of foods that start with the same letter (carrots, cumin, curry, couscous, coconut milk…). With all the alliteration, you should come up with some decidedly delicious dishes.

Age group: Younger kids, since this strengthens broad knowledge about cooking and food vocabulary as well as basic spelling and phonics skills. This activity is ideal for elementary school-aged kids who love to help in the kitchen.

Materials: Cupboards full of ingredients, or – if you are feeling courageous – a trip to the grocery store. It might be best to choose one core item (add chicken to my list above?) and go from there. You will also need experience in the kitchen and comfort with making up your own recipes (or heavily modifying others’) and a hungry family who is willing to be experimented on.

Time frame: One afternoon/evening (including eating) depending on whether shopping is necessary and on which foods you have chosen to cook.

Possible variations: Prepare dinner as you normally would and have kids name everything at the table that starts with a certain letter. If you are modifying an existing recipe, get kids to also help with the math to figure out appropriate quantities of the ingredients.

3. The dictionary game
Basic idea: When it’s your turn, use a dictionary to pick a word that no one knows and read it aloud to all the other players. Everyone except you writes down a made-up definition for it and hands it to you without showing it to the others. You copy down the real definition and shuffle it and the fakes together and then read them all out. Players vote on which definition is correct. Points are awarded to those whose fake definition is chosen and to those who can pick out the real one. You can keep a running score to see who has the best vocabulary/bluffing skills overall, but personally I prefer to see each round as a separate challenge!

Age group: Depends on the dictionary you use, generally middle school-aged or older. Also great for crowds of adults who love words!

Materials: A large dictionary, index cards or small pieces of paper for recording definitions, pencils for everyone.

Time frame: Good for an evening game night of a couple of hours. If players are new, you will need some time to set up and explain the game. It’s nice to give everyone a turn to pick the word from the dictionary (Since it’s very important that none of the other players knows the real definition, sometimes it takes a while to find a good word). Also allow for lively discussion and debate about which definition is the right one.

Possible variations: If you have a dictionary between English and a foreign language, play with words from that language that no one is familiar with. (I wouldn’t recommend using this as a tool to study for vocabulary tests in school, though, because it is frustrating to remember the wrong definition for the test! But it can help develop intuition about the language you play with.)

4. Memory
Basic idea: Cards are placed face-down on a table in a grid. Players (this game can also be played solitaire) turn over two cards per turn. If they pick two cards that match, they win that turn and retain the cards. If not, the cards are returned to their original face-down position on the table. At the end of the game, the player who has collected the most pairs of cards is the winner/

Age group: Any age, as long as the players can read.

Materials: Index cards, or any cards whose reverse sides all look the same. If you are working with tough vocabulary and want to make the game easier, pick one color for the words and another for the definitions. This game works best when played with around twenty words at a time, so you will also need a marker or a pen (make sure it does not bleed through to the other side of the card!) and time to copy the vocabulary and its definitions.

Time frame: Cards can be used face-up for a quick matching game if time is short or the vocabulary is completely new. Time for the traditional memory game will vary depending on the number of words and the number of players, but half an hour is a good estimate, not including the necessary set-up step of making the cards. (Of course, once the cards are made you can keep playing with them over and over.)

Possible variations: For some vocabulary, it could work well to use cut-out pictures (as is suggested in the scrap-booking activity) instead of writing definitions on the cards. This would work nicely, for example, for kids whose science class is requiring them to learn the different parts of a cell. This game can also very easily be adapted for foreign-language vocabulary and is ideal for studying for tests.

Remember, no matter what your kids’ age group or creative inclinations are there is always room to personalize these games. Make them your own and you just might bring out the competitive and collaborative nature in your whole family!

imageLily Jane Hart was the recipient of a Fulbright fellowship in teaching English and has been tutoring in Latin, English, Spanish, and German for more than a decade. She has been tutoring Latin remotely via Skype for the past four years. You can visit her website at

Editor’s note: This post is part of Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways and Seasonal Celebration Sunday