Four High School ESL Games to Teach Vocabulary

Four High School ESL Games to Teach Vocabulary
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Preparing for the Games

These senior high ESL games get students up and moving. The materials are simple to acquire:

  • Some handout strips or cards
  • A blackboard or whiteboard
  • Glue sticks (optional)

To begin the game, divide the class in half. Distribute cards or strips of paper containing words, which normally have synonyms, i.e. verbs, adverbs and adjectives. One-half of the class is labeled Team A, and the other half is Team B. For each word distributed to students in Team A, there is a corresponding synonym among students in Team B. This game is called Match the Synonyms.

Match the Synonyms

Students from Team A approach the blackboard or white board in turn, writing or sticking their words on the board. Students from Team B look at their words. If a student from Team B thinks he or she has the relevant synonym for the word on the board, he or she approaches the board, writing or sticking his/her word next to the word the student from Team A has written.

For example, Mary from Team A writes “arrogant.” Paul from Team B writes “haughty.” This is a correct synonym, so Team B gets a point. If Paul had written “rich” that is not a correct synonym, and Team B has to pass. Another student cannot now try his or her synonym.

The game continues until all students from Team A have written their words on the board and all students from Team B have written corresponding synonyms. All words are removed from the board and a new list of words is handed out as the teams change places with Team B writing their words first, so Team A can write their synonyms. Any words, which were not correctly paired in the first part of the game, are reused, allowing students to learn the correct synonym for that word. The team with the most points wins.

A Different Point of View

The antonym game follows an almost similar pattern. Team A gets handout strips or cards with words, and Team B gets handout strips of paper or cards with antonyms relative to those words. Each word has a corresponding antonym.

Mark writes “rainy” and John writes “sunny” as his antonym, which is correct. John gets a point for his team. At the end of the first part of the game, the teams trade places so Team A has a chance to write corresponding antonyms. Any unanswered antonyms in the first round are thrown back into the pool of new words.

A Game of Roots and Prefixes

This game tests students' knowledge of the meanings of Latin and Greek roots and prefixes. The lesson is first taught with lots of explanation and examples of vocabulary. This game can be a real fun one with the class divided into four teams.

Team A is given a list of prefixes, while Team B is given a list of meanings of all those prefixes. From memory, students from Team B must take turns at going to the board and writing the meaning of the given prefix. Students from Team C must now each in turn go to the board and write a word built from the prefix and meaning. Last of all, students from Team D will, in turn, go to the board and write a sentence, or simply stand and say aloud a sentence using the written word.

This game continues until each team gets a chance at being Team A, B, C and D, so that all students will have a chance at each aspect of the game, as well as the opportunity to receive points. The team with the highest total points wins. Here is an example for this game.

Team A student writes the prefix “pre”

Team B student may write the root word “fix” or “pare,” producing “prefix” or “prepare.”

Team C student writes “prefix”

Team D completes the first part of the game with “We are learning prefixes and roots of words."


Team C student may have written “prepare”; Team D student can write, “Our teacher prepared us well for this lesson.”

Suffixes and Roots

The Suffix Game can take on a different angle, with students having a choice of endings from which to choose. Teachers should pre-teach suffixes, paying special attention to suffix spelling rules, as well as pointing out that many words have more than one suffix.

For this game, the teacher draws up three columns on the board with the headings: Root Words, Suffixes, Correct Word. The columns are then filled randomly and students are asked in turn to complete them. Here is an example:

Root Words - Suffixes - Correct Word/Words

  • music - tion/sion/cian - musician
  • origin - ary/al/ly - original, originally (double suffix)

Exercise - (Students would fill in where stars are shown.)

  • manage - ment/al/able - *******
  • ******* - able/ible/ly - comfortable
  • happy - ******** - happiness

*Note: Where students have to fill in the second column (suffixes), they can follow the pattern and put any three suffixes they care to, but one must be the correct one, for example with the word “happy” one of the endings must be “ness.”

Answers to manage and comfortable:

manage – management

comfort - comfortable

happy – happiness (other suffixes could be –less and –ful)

Fun and Effective

These senior high ESL games will provide students with much fun and entertainment as they increase their vocabulary. The games may even encourage them to create interesting games of their own.