A game for reviewing English vocabulary

A gmae to review English vocabulary

There’s nothing like learning a new language to tax our memories.  If you’re teaching English in a foreign country, you certainly had to learn a second language yourself.  Remember how difficult it was to remember all that new vocabulary?  Here’s a game to review English vocabulary in class just after the lesson and tips to help your students schedule timely vocabulary reviews.

New English vocabulary is so easy to forget.

Years ago I ran across a chart showing how quickly we forget what we’ve just learned. I photocopied it and saved it in my files.  It shows that after a period of 24 hours, we’ve forgotten 80% of what we had learned the previous day.

memory loss chart


What a waste of class time for the student and the teacher!


Reverse this trend by reviewing English vocabulary in a timely manner

Have a look at this chart which shows that by reviewing the new vocabulary at precise intervals, we can retain almost everything we’ve learned.

importance of reviewing vocabulary regulary chart


The ‘timing’ of reviews is essential to successfully remember a new word for life.

  • First review after 10 minutes.
  • Second review after 24 hours.
  • Third review after one week.
  • Fourth review after one month.
  • Fifth review after two months etc.

I’ve also read that on average we need to see a new word at least seven times in order to recall it and use it in a conversation.  For some of us, we might need to review a particularly difficult word up to 10 times.

Memory champion backs up this data

Unfortunately, I didn’t save the reference book name for the two charts above, but Michael Tipper author of Memory Power-up: 101 Ways to Instant Recall” and winner of the Silver Medal at the World Memory Championships advocates the same revision technique.

Michael says we can “Rehearse the Recall”.

Quoting from his book “If you really want to remember something important, you need to practice recalling it from memory after 10 minutes, a day, a week, a month, three months and six months.  After that, it will be in your long-term memory and you’ll always be able to recall it  because you have conditioned it into your mind.”

Book cover: Power-up:  101 ways to instant recall

Great little book with practical tips on improving your memory.

Play this game in class for the Review N°1 after 10 minutes.

Once you’ve explained this strategy to students they will be eager to set into place these reviews.  You can help by giving the first review (after 10 minutes) in class.


Here’s the game that I use where one student gives the definition of the new word and the rest of the class competes to guess the definition.  The winner gets M&Ms.


1)  Cut up around 20 index cards (3 cm x 8 cm).  I like to have at least five cards per student.


2) Pull out the new words and short expressions from the text, video or podcast you’ve just worked on together in class and write these on the cards.  You can do this during the lesson or prepare it in advance and plasticize them for future use.

Vocabulary card game_citiy transportation

This article is from “International Express Pre-intermediate”. I pulled out 25 new words dealing with public transportation and reducing urban congestion.


3)  Seat students in a circle or semicircle.  Pass out the cards. Tell them it’s top secret and to hide the cards from their neighbor.


4) Explain the rules and then give an example of a definition:

  • Students must say if it’s a noun, verb, adjective or expression.
  • They must give the context where we might see this object, or do this action.
  • They can say it’s a synonym for something or say it’s the opposite of something.
  • For expressions, give the number of words and the context.  If necessary, students can define individual words in the expression.  ‘The second word is the synonym for reserving’.

Example:  pillow “It’s a noun.  We find this thing in a hotel room on the bed.  We put our head on it to sleep. ”

Example:  complimentary   “It’s an adjective.  It’s a synonym for the word free in the travel business.  We don’t say ‘Free continental breakfast’ or ‘free cocktails’.  We use this word instead. “

Example: low-cost airlines  “It’s a company that offers cheap airfares (airplane tickets).  The first word is the opposite of high. “


5)  Pick one student to give the first definition, then move in order around the circle.  the students can choose to give the definition of any word in his hand.


6)  The teacher plays the role of judging who was the first to guess the word. It can be very close.  If it’s an expression, the word order is important.  Another student may take that same expression and shout it out using the correct word order and therefore he’s the winner.


7) Once the word or expression has been discovered, take the vocabulary card from the student who gave the definition and hand it to the student who guessed correctly.  Each student collects the words they’ve guessed and we count them at the end.   The winner gets M&Ms.


8)  You may have to help out a student giving his definition by asking him a question like “Is it the opposite of expensive?” for example.   If only one part of the expression is correct, you may have to point out to the class that “the word airline is good”.  As you make suggestions like these, the students learn quickly how to give a definition in the clearest manner.


Have fun and keep the pace up.  This game shouldn’t drag on and on.  As soon as the new word is guessed, pass the card to the winner quickly and then go on to the next definition.  I like to encourage competition by pointing out that “Bob has got six points!  Guys, you need to catch up.”



Help your students to organize timely reviews

Ok so you’ve organized the first review after 10 minutes.  You might consider giving a quiz in the following lesson for their 2nd review.  Be sure to make suggestions on ways that students could set up the remaining reviews themselves.

Here are my suggestions:

1) Students can type the new words in an email to themselves and schedule it in Outlook or Gmail to be sent out on a certain day.   Reminders in our inbox are handy.  We only need to read through the list quickly, to consider it reviewed.

2) Collect the cards from each lesson and put them in an envelope.  Students can review the cards in pairs at the beginning of each lesson.  I learned this trick from a dear colleague of mine Yolaine Bodin (visit her English/French grammar blog at http://yolainebodin.com/the-language-nook).

3) Students can use their calendars on their phones as reminders to look over a specified vocabulary list in their notebooks.

4) The free Evernote application for smartphones can hold vocabulary lists as a ‘note’.  Use notebooks and especially tags to easily find a specific list.  Evernote signup page

5)  Quizlet is a free smartphone application which is a personal flash card generator.   (https://quizlet.com/)

Quizlet signup page


Do you have other ideas for helping your students remember new vocabulary words?  Leave a comment to share your experience and expertise.

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5 Responses

  1. Interesting article
    I like that it’s backed up with scientific data
    It’s nice to read an ESL blog post about something other than the same old boring topics (how to teach X grammar, tips for classroom management, etc etc)

  2. Andy McHugh says:

    Excellent idea for the game Ellen. Your use of Retrieval Practice is something I’ve been working on for a while now, with great benefit to my students. Great blog!

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