Games for Retaining Vocabulary

Pema Kala Bhusal


I would like to begin this article by stating what Wilkins said to show the importance of vocabulary – “Without grammar, very little can be conveyed and without vocabulary, nothing can be conveyed” (Wilkins, 1972). Vocabulary acquisition is crucial for second language learning. However, many second language learners feel that learning new vocabulary is a tedious and laborious process. On this paper, I first discuss about the problems faced by my students while dealing with vocabulary. And then I will offer some guidelines and suggestions on ways to retain new vocabulary.

I remember my tutors at KU teaching ‘Teaching Vocabulary’ by using different games and by using flashcards, ball, realia etc. The games helped me learn collocations, synonyms, and different words very easily. I was not completely aware of those words, but now they are still in my mind. I came to realize that games are very effective tools for retaining new words.

During my school days, I never saw my teachers using games in the classroom. We learnt the meaning of difficult words through rote learning. When I started teaching, naturally, I didn’t have any knowledge that vocabulary could be taught through games. When I saw my teachers using different games at my university level, I seemed to be unfamiliar with them and I felt having very less knowledge about vocabulary. I imagined what if I had a chance to enjoy these kinds of games in school! My vocabulary knowledge would have been stronger than now.

When I taught lower secondary level students in the public school, I found that the students had many problems regarding vocabulary. For instance, when I asked them to describe a picture, they were unable to do so. They could not make logical connections among words. To make it worse, they couldn’t find the right words to describe the picture.

After gaining knowledge about using games in the classroom, I used different games such as ‘Kim’s game’, ‘Relia’, ‘What’s missing?’, ‘Erase’ and ‘TPR verb game’ to teach vocabulary. When I employed the different games through different physical activities, the students had lots of fun and they were learning the words quickly and effectively. Since that day, they kept telling me to use such kinds of games in my classroom as they had never done such activities before.

I realized that it is important to understand this issue from their perspective because they have been practicing and learning English in their native language from the very beginning. They always carry an unknown fear of using English, especially while speaking. This might be the result of the teaching trend as well, which is – the teacher comes in the classroom, asks the student to look at the book and he/she translates the passage into Nepali. The students are still taught English using a conventional approach like a grammar translation method. (I don’t mean that grammar translation method is not a good method to use in the classroom. We can use it depending upon the context and situations. Sometimes the students can understand more easily when teachers use this method.)

Similarly, if we teach vocabulary through drills, it might become boring for the students, especially those who have limited expertise in language study. Forgetting the word is also another problem. Most of the students complain that they forget words soon after learning them and they don’t exist for a long time. I recently observed an English language classroom of grade 8 at a public school. During my observation, I found the English teacher using Nepali language all the time. I felt very sad about the situation and thought how the students would never develop their English language that way.

Now let me share a few strategies I have used in my classroom for the enhancement of my student’s vocabulary. The first strategy was I asked them to read the passage before coming to the class, assuming that the more they read the more they can see new words to learn. Then, I asked them some words related to the passage. When I did so, some of the students responded from the context and some got confused. Therefore, I made them familiar by showing some pictures, realia and engaged them into conversation. This strategy helped them learn the words easily because I think interaction is the key to succeed in language learning.

Likewise, I asked the students to come in front of the class and touch some objects without looking at them, recognize the objects and describe them to the class. They were very curious and enjoyed the sensual learning activity. Another game I used frequently in my class was the game called ‘Erase’. I used this game to teach the name of the animals, classroom objects, etc. For this, I asked my students to tell me the name of the animals they knew. After that, I made a circle on the board and wrote them down around the circle. In this way, I elicited the names of the animals. After that, I randomly wrote them down on the board. First of all, I asked them to repeat the words in chorus so that they could remember the words for the game. Then, I arranged the students into two groups and lined them up into two teams. After that, I provided the first student in each team an eraser and they raced to the board to erase the word I have yelled out. The game was played in the same way to the end. The first student who correctly erased the word won a point for the team. Finally, I scored the group that won. This is one of the examples of a game I have used in my classroom.

In this way, I used several games to teach vocabulary. From their active participation and involvement, I came to know that integrating games, both physical and mental, helps the students to keep their mind alert. Not only this, they were able to reduce their boredom and retain the words easily.

To sum up, games play a very important role to motivate the students in learning activities. From these experiences, I have realized that acquiring and retaining vocabulary in a foreign language is a challenging job, but learning vocabulary through games is one of the effective ways that can be applied in any classroom. They can be used not only for mere fun, but more importantly, for the useful practice and learning purpose. There is a good Chinese proverb “tell me, I will forget; teach me, I will remember; involve me and I will learn”. This saying also proves that if we ask the students directly to write or tell the unfamiliar words, they would probably be unable to do so and feel discouraged, but they can write or tell if they are involved in different fun activities.


Pema Kala Bhusal
M.Ed. ELT, 2012
Kathmandu University School of Education

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