Vocabulary revision games: Part 1

Revision is unquestionably of utmost importance when learning a language, so how do we go about it effectively? What are pedagogically sound criteria for selecting vocabulary revision activities? What’s more, how do we ensure these activities don’t generate a lot of extra work for teachers? In this two-part series of blog posts, we are going to look into what makes vocabulary revision effective and look at lots of ideas for games.

There is a lot of research behind retention and if you want to look into it, I highly recommend reading Paul Nation and Scott Thornbury on this topic to understand the rationale behind the following tasks (in this blog post and in part 2). 

What are the criteria for a good vocabulary revision activity? Let’s begin…

full expressions

I always make sure that my students practice vocabulary in chunks or full sentences. This helps them become more fluent in the long run, besides sounding more accurate and natural. It’s easy to recall a vocabulary item, but how about using it in a sentence? When teaching and practising vocabulary, it’s vital to focus on collocational competence. What collocations does the term usually appear in? What preposition(s) does it usually go with? Which verbs sound natural with certain nouns?

cognitive involvement

The more cognitively involved your students are, the more likely that they will remember the vocabulary item in the long run. Make sure you don’t just get them to recall the words but that they actually have to do something with them! Categorising, evaluating, putting them in order, debating them, the list is endless – just make your students work!

personalisation

Research supports the importance of personalisation. Language items will be much more memorable for the students if they get to use them in their own contexts, in connection with their own lives and interests.

playfulness

People love to play! We take this for granted when teaching young learners and teenagers, but we often forget about this when teaching adults. Is there a spin that you can add to your vocab revision activity to make it more playful? Maybe the element of luck? Some humour? This will not only make the task more enjoyable, but it will also help retention. Although there are some ‘jolly joker’ revision games, it’s a good idea to vary tasks to keep your students motivated and on their toes.

memory hooks

Memory hooks are words, sounds, images, movements that help students remember and recall vocabulary items. You might have heard of TPR (Total Physical Response), which is based on the same principle. If we connect language with movement, it is more likely that students will remember it. Currently, I’m doing all my lessons online and most of them are higher level students, so I cannot use movements so much, but images and other vocab items are very often used in my revision games as memory hooks. It’s important that memory hooks for you might be very different from what your students might have chosen as hooks. Let’s say you’re teaching the word ‘peach’. You might associate the word ‘hate’ with ‘peach’ because you don’t like its taste, but for me the memory hook would be ‘grandma’ because my grandmother used to have lots of peach trees in her garden.

less is more

A successful vocab activity doesn’t have to be complicated or one that requires lots of preparation. On the contrary, simple things are often the best! We are all busy teachers, so let’s do more with less. 
There are lots of tech tools available for learning vocabulary, like Quizlet, Memrise, Anki, etc. I’m a huge fan of Quizlet and I use it with every student I teach. If you are using the Real World series with your teens, make sure you check out Pearson’s ready-made Quizlet sets. You can play Quizlet live in class or set it as homework, but also use them to provide the flashcards for any other revision game. This leads to my final principle for vocab revision:

spaced repetition

One of the reasons why I love Quizlet is because it helps with spaced repetition. It’s important to regularly revisit vocabulary items not only from the last lesson/unit, but also vocabulary from 2 weeks ago or 2 months ago! 

story cubes

These are all important considerations when deciding on when and how to revise vocabulary. Now let me show you a low-tech game that ticks all the boxes above. One of my favourite no-prep revision games is Story Cubes. These are special dice with a picture on each side. The original goal of the game is to use the pictures to create a story (which is a fantastic way to practise narrative tenses, story linkers, adjectives, adverbs and many other things). But how can they be used for vocabulary revision? Well, it’s simple! Just show your students a word (or let the Quizlet randomizer do this for you) and ask your students to roll a story cube and try to make a sentence that includes both the vocabulary item and the image.

For example, if the vocabulary item is ‘keen’ and the picture of the dice shows a bee, students might think of ‘bee’, ‘fly’, ‘honey’ or even ‘busy’. So the sentence could be: ‘Anita is keen on sweet desserts, she usually puts lots of honey on her pancake’. The sentence doesn’t even have to be true, there are only 2 criteria:

  • The sentence needs to be grammatically correct, paying special attention to how the vocabulary item (here: keen) is used correctly.
  • The sentence needs to be a compound one (I don’t usually accept sentences like ‘I’m keen on honey’, unless my students are complete beginners)

Let’s check whether this game ticks the boxes:

FULL  EXPRESSIONS

tick Yes, students have to use the expression in a full sentence and can only get a point if they use the vocabulary item correctly.

COGNITIVE INVOLVEMENT

tick Oh yes! It’s a creative process and students need to think of how to connect the expressions. You’ll be surprised by the stuff they come up with!

PERSONALISATION

tick Each student will come up with a different sentence, which is great! It’s very personalised.

VARIETY, PLAYFULNESS

tick This game is very engaging and there can be some funny sentences coming out of it. There are no two occasions when this game leads to the same sentences.

MEMORY HOOKS

tick The picture on the dice is the memory hook here. You can use them later in the lesson to get students to recall what the vocabulary items were.

LESS IS MORE

tick There’s zero preparation and only the Story Cubes needed for this game.

SPACED REPETITION

tick This depends on how you select the vocabulary you review. Make sure you mix newly-learnt items with older ones!

What if you are teaching online and cannot really use Story Cubes or you are not ready to invest in them? No need to worry, because there is an online version now! Check it out HERE. 

I hope this post has provided a useful framework for selecting and creating vocabulary revision games. I suggest you use the same checklist when choosing games. Are you interested in other low-prep vocabulary revision games that tick all the boxes?  Stay tuned for Vocabulary revision games: Part two, in which I will reveal more of my favourite revision activities.

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