Middle School Teacher in Rural Alaska

The Vocabulary Game

Research shows that students need multiple exposures to a new vocabulary word before it “sticks” in their head. But, how do I actually get students to encounter these words and utilize them so that they become a part of a student’s expressive vocabulary? My current solution, “The Vocabulary Game.” (I know, what a witty name!) Here’s how the game works.

  • Each week I write the vocabulary words on sentence strips, laminate them, and put them on our whiteboard. Words from previous weeks are put up on the walls.
  • When a student uses a word in their writing or orally they put a sticker up on an incentive chart with their name on it
  • When a student finds one of our vocabulary words in their reading, they put a sticker up on the incentive chart
  • When the incentive chart is full students can choose a prize from our prize box

I can honestly say that this simple game has transformed my vocabulary instruction. Words are no longer things we have to learn for the test on Friday, they are things we learn so that our writing and speaking is more interesting and more powerful. Since I began implementing this game a few weeks ago students are using their vocabulary words all the time!

  • Student: “Mrs. Schneider, I object to your decision, I think we should have an extra 5 minutes of reading time today!”
  • Student: “Man, my little sister is so pigheaded!”
  • Student: “Hey, we’re not allowed to horseplay in the halls.”
  • Student: “Ugh, breakfast today was really meager, I’m still hungry.”

One major reason this game works for me is that it requires very little management from me. Stickers and new incentive sheets are kept clipped to the whiteboard. Students have the freedom to put up their own stickers during independent work time. The only thing I need to do is check their completed sticker charts and direct them towards the prize box.  Another reason this game works is that students only compete against themselves. It is not a competition to see who can fill theirs up first. Each students wins whenever their incentive chart is full. A final reason this game works well is that it is endless. After a student fill up one incentive chart they then add  another one.

A note about the prize box. I am well aware of the research showing that rewards do not impact long-term learning. However, I have also read articles recently about how principles of game design can apply to classroom learning. In a video or computer game, when you reach a certain number of points or a certain level you get something- a badge, better equipment within the game, points, coins, etc. I use small prizes because I want our use of vocabulary words to feel like a game. Other teachers could modify this to fit with their own beliefs.

I’ve only been using this game for a quarter, but I have already seen that is helping students create a richer expressive vocabulary!


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