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This article was first published in English Teaching Professional Issue 24
July 2002
Spelling and Vocabulary Games
Simon Mumford, Turkey
Simon Mumford teaches EAP at Izmir University of Economics, Turkey. He has
written on using stories, visuals, drilling, vocabulary, reading aloud, and is especially
interested in the creative teaching of grammar. E-mail: [email protected]
Coin tossing vocabulary test
Backward spelling drills
Word circle
Longest words win
Guess the word
The next letter
Preposition letter hunt
Name spelling
These games will help your class practise vocabulary and spelling- and have some fun
at the same time. Their aims are to get students thinking about words, (both meanings
and spellings), and get them to interact with each other. They are suitable for most
classes, as you can choose words to match your students’ level.
Secret codes
Divide the alphabet into 8 sections as follows:
1 abc 2 def
3 ghi 4 klm 5 mno
6 pqrs
7 tuv
8 wxyz.
Think of a word and write the section for each letter on the board, eg 1,6,6,4,2 is
apple. Get the students to decode this word by choosing letters from the appropriate
sections. Give some more examples, eg 5,5,5,2,8, is money, then ask them to make
up their own examples and test each other in pairs.
Toss the coin
Before starting this activity you may need to explain how to toss coins in English.
One person tosses a coin in the air, and, before it lands, the other calls out either
‘heads’ or ‘tails’. If the coin lands with the side called out uppermost, the caller wins.
If not, the person who tossed the coin wins. (With coins that have an image of a
monarch or politician’s head on one side, it is easy to determine which side is ‘heads’
and which is ‘tails’. With coins that do not have this, you will have to decide in
advance whic to call heads and which ‘tails’.) You could also teach a few phrases like
‘Bad luck!’, ‘Better luck next time!’ and ‘Lucky you, well done!’.
Each student needs a coin and three pieces of paper. They write a different word on
each piece, mingle and form pairs. One student in each pair tosses a coin and the other
calls heads or tails. If the caller is right, the other student reads out one word. The
caller then tries to spell and/or define this word. If the caller is correct they can take
the word. They then change roles. After both students have had a chance to call, they
separate and make new pairs with other students. The point of the coin tossing is to
bring an element of luck and fun into the game. The person with the most words at the
end is the winner.
Backward spelling
Choose words that you want to practise and spell them backwards, starting with the
last letter, then the last two letters, the last three letters and so on. For tree, this would
go ‘E’, ‘EE’, ‘EER’, ‘EERT’. If a student thinks they know the word before you get
to the end, they can put their hand up and spell it (in the normal way). After a few
examples, let the students continue in pairs or groups, with the student who guesses
one word starting the next. ‘Forward spelling’ would be a less challenging variation.
Word circle
Get half the class sit in a circle facing outwards. They write the first letter of a word
on a piece of paper with a line representing each of the other letters. The words should
be reasonably long and ones that all the class know. The other students each stand in
front of one seated student. They guess one letter of that student’s word. If the letter is
in the word, the student writes it in the appropriate place. If not, they write it at the top
of the paper, so that it is not chosen again. The standing students then move one place
to the right and do the same with the next word. They keep moving round like this
until all the words are finished.
This could be played as a team game, with the teams being the sitting students and the
standing students, who then change roles. The aim would be to complete all words in
the fastest time.
Longest words wins
This activity may be suitable for more advanced students. You need three cards for
each student, with words of different lengths written on them. These should be words
that are easy to describe and that the students are familiar with. Put the students in
groups of four and give them the cards, which they deal out. They should not see each
other’s cards. The first student asks the second student to give the meaning of the
three words on their cards without actually saying the words, and then asks for the
word which they guess or know to be the longest, swapping it for their shortest word.
They do not say what the word is, just ‘first’, ‘second’ or ‘third’. The second student
asks the third, and so on, until all the students in the group have had a turn. At the end
they count the total number of letters in the three words they now have in their hand.
The one with the most wins. As a variation, have more than one round with the same
cards, letting students choose who they want to ask.
Guess the word
This game can be played in larger groups. Each person has letter cards which make a
word. They must not show their cards to the others except when asked. Players take
turns in asking other players ‘Have you got a ‘G’ or ‘V’? (or any other two letters).
The player who is challenged must show these cards, if they have them to the
challenger, but the others must not see them, though if both cards are shown, they will
know what they are. The challenger can make a note of which cards are shown. If
only one is shown, the other players will know it is one or the other of the letters
mentioned, and they can make a note of this to help them in their deductions. Players
may make a guess at others’ words at any time. When a word is guessed, that player
is out. The last person in is the winner.
The next letter
Give the students the first letter of a word, say B. tell them the next letter is either R or
E and ask them to choose one. If they choose the wrong letter they lose a life, and
they only have three lives for each word. The game continues like this with a choice
of two letters each time, one of which is right. Say they choose R, which is correct. So
far the word is BR. The next choice is E or O, they choose E, but it is wrong, so they
lose a life. The word is now BRO. Continue until they get the word (BROWN) or lose
all their lives. Students can then play in pairs. Obviously, it is better if the wrong letter
sounds possible.
Preposition letter hunt
You will need 16 letter cards which spell four four-letter words, eg C-O-M-E, W-AL-L, G-O-O-D, F-I-S-H. Practise the prepositions, eg on, in, under, and in front of.
Put the cards around the room, tell the students the aim is to find and note each letter
and location, and then when they have found all 16, to make four four-letter words.
Give them this clue, tell them that all letters on something are the first letter of a word,
all letters in something are the second etc. (Positioning of the letters will need careful
planning.) Students play in pairs or groups. They note the letters, compare them and
then try to make four words. For variations of this game, change the length and
number of words, and the prepositions used.
Name spelling
This helps students to remember each other’s names as well as practising spelling.
Write the first letter of each student’s name on the board. Ask students to make words
from these letters and write them up (the same letter can be used more than once).
Call students in turn to sit at the front, facing the class, and away from the board.
Point to words, which the other students spell by raising their hand. For example, if
they are spelling fish, a student whose name begins with F will raise their hand, then
one whose name begins with I, then S, then H. The student at the front has to guess
the word.
Here, playing cards are used to practise opposites. You need a pack of playing cards
for every group of four or five students. The pack is dealt and the player with the two
of hearts starts by putting the card down and saying an adjective. Anyone who has
another two (of any suit) may put the card down and say the opposite. If more than
one person has a two, then the person to play their card first, and say the opposite,
wins. That person can then play any card, (eg a seven) and say another adjective.
Again, anyone who has a seven can play and say the opposite. The game continues
like this until someone finishes all their cards. The same format could be used to
practise other language, eg synonyms, spelling, collocations, colours, irregular past
In my experience, the more memorable the activity and the more the students are
engaged in it, the more likely they are to remember the words. They can be also
working on other things like learning each others names, prepositions, the alphabet,
listening and speaking, during these activities. Competition can add an element of
excitement, although this can be omitted if not suitable for your students. Vocabulary
and spelling are areas that can accommodate many different types of activity and
particularly lend themselves to fun, active and interactive work.
The Creative Methodology for the Classroom course can be viewed here.