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Great wordplay activities to explore vocabulary

Hail ‘taco cat’ and say ‘Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas’ to show children that wordplay from palindromes to puns can make vocabulary learning stick, says Rachel Clarke…

Rachel Clarke
by Rachel Clarke
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I like words. Some of my favourites I get to use frequently, such as ‘fabulous’, ‘certainly’ and ‘education’. Others that I love are unfortunately seldom relevant – rich words that sound pleasing to my ear like ‘rambunctious’, ‘filibuster’ and ‘pearlescent’.

Vocabulary is like this – it needs to be full of useful words for everyday situations, but to be really effective it must also contain less common words that enable clear communication in very specific situations.

Teaching vocabulary is obviously important, as recognised by the 2014 national curriculum, but it takes creative thinking to ensure that lessons aren’t just list-learning exercise of rich and academic words.

Wordplay is a brilliant way to explore vocabulary with children, and here are just some of the ways you can do it.


Did you hear about the farmer who sprayed his chickens with perfume? He couldn’t stand the fowl smell.

I know, it’s a dreadful joke: the kind that makes you groan rather than laugh. But just pause for a moment and think about how it works. Like many jokes it’s a ‘play on words’; in this case a pun.

It plays on ‘foul’ meaning an unpleasant smell and ‘fowl’ the domesticated birds bred for food and eggs. The words have entirely different meanings, are spelled differently, but sound the same. In grammatical terms they are homophones, which are part of the spelling element of the curriculum from Year 2-6.

Whilst learning these aspects of spelling, why not encourage children to use homophones to create puns? You could even have a class ‘groanometer’ to award points for the scale of groans created by each joke. By doing this they’ll not only be learning to spell homophones but also what the words mean within the correct contexts.

Riddle me this

Riddles, work in a similar way to puns but also encourage problem solving and lateral thinking, as demonstrated by this popular riddle: What has a face and two hands but no arms or legs? (a clock).

You can find good riddles to use with children here and here.

Riddles can take a number of forms, and kennings are one of them. If you’re unfamiliar with this form of poetry, it originated in the Norse tradition and was a creative way of identifying things without using their name.

A cat could be called a ‘mouse chaser’, a goldfish a ‘bowl swimmer’, a teacher could be a ‘homework giver’. Kenning poems are a form of riddle written as a list of kennings about one subject. I remember once receiving a handmade card from one of my children to the effect of:

Shirt-ironer Dinner-cooker Bed-maker Hug-giver That’s my mum

There are some great kenning poems in The Works by Paul Cookson, which you may want to explore with your class. Asking children to write kennings about family members, or characters from books or history should encourage them to take a playful look at the vocabulary they use in their descriptions.

Take a chance

While a playful approach to teaching language can involve jokes, riddles and puns, it shouldn’t neglect the learning of academic words. These are important and have a place in a rigorous approach to language learning.

As children are required to learn to spell the statutory words list of the curriculum, it makes sense to ensure that they also understand what these words mean.

To support this learning, why not encourage children to select a word from the list, roll a dice and complete the activities as follows:

  1. Write your word in a sentence
  2. Draw a picture of your word
  3. Write a synonym of your word
  4. Write an antonym of your word
  5. Write a definition of your word
  6. Write your word 10 times

They could do this with any new spelling lists they need to internalise. It’s still serious word-learning but with a playful twist.

Call my bluff

You may remember the TV panel show where guests tried to bluff the other contestants by giving them one correct and two incorrect definitions of a word.

It adapts well as a vocabulary game for children in upper KS2 as it’s a fun way to explore word meanings and provides a chance for children to use their knowledge of puns and wordplay when formulating their bluffs. For example:


  1. A medical term for blocked arteries
  2. A vegetable
  3. An overcrowded art exhibition
  4. Used to start engines

Really, really good synonyms

Word scales (or clines) are a good way for children to grade synonyms, and therefore gain a sense of how to use words effectively in their writing. Start by providing children with synonyms for words that they may overuse such as sad, happy or nice.

It’s often better to provide them with the alternatives rather than ask them to generate their own, as often they may not know many synonyms, or they will only know the extremes which can lead to ineffective choices when used in their own writing.

Now ask them to grade the synonyms along a continuum. There is no absolute answer, and the different clines created by members of the class will offer interesting opportunities for further research and debate. Here’s an example:

A little bit sad

Downhearted Gloomy Melancholy Exasperated Desolate Inconsolable

Really, really sad


Use bingo boards (or create some with 3×3 grids), and get children to pick nine vocabulary cards from a pack (they should have one word per card) and place them into the spaces on their bingo grids.

As bingo-caller, your role is to read out definitions of words for children to mark off. Once children have three in a row (horizontally, vertically or diagonally) they call ‘bingo’ in the traditional manner, and after you’ve verified that they have the correct words, ask them to choose one and put it into a sentence.

Vocabulary teaching should always recognise a place for learning formal, academic and rich vocabulary. After all, there may well be a time when you need to write, ‘The rambunctious Member of Parliament’s pearlescent suit shimmered while she filibustered the debate’.

But a playful approach to vocabulary that explores jokes, wordplay, riddles and games can help children to better understand the words that they need to use whilst still having fun. Let me leave you with this thought: “What did the sea say to the sand? Nothing. It just waved.”

Joke’s on you

If you’re looking to play with words in your classroom, I recommend you invest in a good joke book. I’ve also listed a few of my favourite vocabulary-building books here:

Little Mouse’s big book of fears by Emily Gravett A must-have book for every teacher’s PSHE collection, this is also wonderful for learning about the etymology of words such as arachnophobia, hydrophobia, chronomentrophobia and more.

The Silly Book of Weird and Wacky Words by Andy Seed This is another fun book from Blue Peter Book Award winner, Andy Seed. Crammed with puns, jokes, riddles and idioms, this book had my family suitably occupied during our last airport departure.

13 Words by Maira Kalman and Lemony Snicket Like most traditional vocabulary books, this one introduces a new word on each page. But in a twist on the traditional format, the introduction of the adjective ‘despondent’ as the second word ensures that a narrative develops using the 13 words introduced in the book.

Mom and Dad are Palindromes by Mark Shulman Recognising palindromes isn’t a requirement of the national curriculum, but they are such great fun they should be explored by all children. This books does just that and includes over 100 palindromic words, phrases and sentences through a fun illustrated text.

Rachel Clarke is the Director at Primary English Education. She works with schools nationally and internationally training on all areas of primary English but most frequently on creative ways to teach grammar, spelling and vocabulary.

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