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KS2 vocabulary games – Improve children’s word choices with fun activities

Playing games with language isn’t just fun, it’s the perfect way to learn the subtleties of choosing exactly the right words, says Michelle Nicholson...

  • KS2 vocabulary games – Improve children’s word choices with fun activities

If we wish to develop children’s vocabulary quickly, activities such as Word Of The Week will be a laborious process.

But there is an alternative: why not devise activities that generate several connected words and revisit these words often, so that children build vocabulary efficiently in their long-term memories?

You may have seen the TV show Pointless where members of the public provide answers within a category, eg countries with the letter “a” in them.

The contestants guess which answers were not given, or were given by the fewest respondents.

The aim of the game is to receive as few points as possible; zero points would be ideal.

This generates myriad opportunities for adaptation in class: decide on a category, generate a list of your own, and open the floor to the children.

For instance:

  1. In pairs / small groups, children write down as many modes of transport as they can think of in two minutes. Then they choose three that they think will be on your list, with low points.
  2. Display a list of 10 modes of transport prepared earlier.

    Words should be assigned a points value in advance: up to 15 points for obvious answers such as “taxi”, “van”, “lorry”; 5 to 10 points for less obvious answers such as “limousine”, “horse and cart”, “cruise liner”; and 1 to 5 points for more obscure answers like “rickshaw”, “junk”, and “steamer”.

    Assign 0 points to a word you do not think children will come up with (“penny-farthing”).

    If children have a transport device on their list that does not match your list, they get 20 points. The winning team is the one with fewest points at the end of the game.
  3. With younger children, you may ask them to pool their ideas and play against you as a class.

    You might simplify the game by giving children a point for each word they call out that is on your list and keep a more traditional method of scoring (i.e. the more points, the better).
  4. Take time to unpick the vocabulary (you might wish to have images to show the children: “a rickshaw looks like this”).

    Alternative categories:
    • Places you might live in, eg “flat”, “cottage”, “semi-detached”, “bungalow”, “end terrace”, “shack”, “castle”, “tent”
    • Things you wear on your feet
    • Flower names
    • Animals that begin with the letter “s”

    Other words that work well are synonyms for overused verbs (such as “eat”, “walk”, “sleep”, “go”, “sit”) for adjectives (such as “big”, “red”, “hot”) or for adverbs (“fast”, “happily”, “suddenly”).

    Children could be invited to use a thesaurus to help them generate possible synonyms.

    Alternatively, you could link this game to spelling patterns that you have been studying in class.

    Try: job roles that end in “-er” / “-cian”, or words that end in “-ful”.

    Keep categories as tight as possible to ensure children can see the links.

Choosing the right words

Broadening vocabulary enables children to select more specific words to enhance their independent writing, eg “The old crone lived in a shack in the gloomy forest” vs “The old woman lived in a house in the dark forest.”

If the children are to write a setting description based in a dark, scary forest, anticipate that they may well overwork these adjectives and use the game as a stimulus for a word bank so that children have the means to write “foreboding forest”.

It is only when used in context that children will truly embed language and learn (by trial and improvement) that simply swapping out words does not always create the desired effect.

Whilst “The old woman lived in a dark, scary forest” works, “The antique woman lived in an opaque alarming forest” does not! The more often children meet the words, the more precise their categorisation will become, and the better they will be at selecting the most appropriate word for the context.

Ideas that work in home or school

Extend learning to the home, inviting families to participate in activities that will expand children’s repertoire of words in their own setting.

1 | Sticky note synonyms

Grab a pack of sticky notes and start labelling! Adults could support children to label familiar household objects with synonyms.

They could compete with each other to supply alternative names such as: “looking glass” for mirror; “basin” for sink, “bedspread” for blanket or “lavatory” for toilet! Parents with English as an additional language could add their home language onto the sticky notes.

Can they spot similarities in any of the words?

2 | Nuanced nouns

This idea is based on the old (but still available) series of i-SPY books.

It develops a consciousness of the subcategories of common nouns.

Simply provide a theme such as Out Of My Window or In The Garden and set the challenge of spotting items on the list.

Sightings of relatively familiar objects such vans or street lamps would earn one point, whilst refuse collectors could earn five and emergency vehicles 10.

Frequently spotted garden birds such as pigeons would score a measly single point whereas robins or magpies are awarded more and a colourful woodpecker or elusive bullfinch could merit double figures.

You may need images of the items that children need to spot for reference.

3 | Labelling the world

The following activity also encourages young children to pay closer attention to the world around them.

Simply called The A-Z Of The World Around Me, the idea is to build an alphabetical list of objects outside and then indoors.

Children could compete with each other to collect the rarest sightings from “acorns” to “zebra crossing” and “alarm clock” to “zip”.

How inventive can they be? Descriptive additions could expand opportunities for older children: “blade of grass”, “yellow van”, “comfortable sofa”.

Young children will always tell you they are hungry, cold, cross or bored.

Challenge them to generate synonyms for these overused words and create a ‘washing line’ of feelings, pegging them up in order of magnitude.

Words could range from “peckish”, through “ravenous” to “famished”, or from “mildly irked” to “absolutely furious”! This activity will generate lots of discussion as to where words should be placed.

How cold is “chilly” compared to “frosty”, for instance?

No room to hang words up? Place words on sticky notes and move them along the scale as you decide where they belong.

Children could even draw a thermometer and add words to the scale.

What about a thermometer of happiness, for example?

Where would they place “jubilant” or “ecstatic” compared to “contented”?

There are so many possibilities for creative activities that allow children to broaden their vocabulary, whilst having fun.

The initial hope is that they explore a few new words within a supportive scaffold; the long-term aim is that children learn to love language and develop a thirst for discovering and uncovering new possibilities for themselves

Michelle Nicholson is teaching and learning adviser at Herts for Learning.

Herts for Learning (HfL) supports schools and educational settings – see hertsforlearning.co.uk for the full range of training and resources

Coming soon: ESSENTIAL spelling, a unique spelling scheme that supports KS2 teachers to close spelling gaps and accelerate learning to age-related expectations.


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