6 Engaging Vocabulary Activities to Try in 2020

Since vocabulary is something English teachers are constantly teaching, it can be easy to get stuck in a routine. I’ll confess that I’ve been guilty of falling into the vocabulary slideshow + guided notes trap. While it’s not an ineffective lesson, it does get boring after a while. I keep the trusty guided notes sheet in my back pocket for those days when an easy, structured “notes” lesson is necessary, but I also work hard to mix up my vocabulary lessons with engaging activities.

If you’re hoping to do the same with your vocabulary instruction in 2020, then here are 6 of my favorite student-centered, engaging vocabulary activities. 🙂 Happy teaching!

1. VOCABULARY QUESTION TRAIL

Vocabulary Question Trail
A question trail is an engaging, kinesthetic strategy to work on vocabulary!

A question trail is my go-to strategy for making vocabulary instruction more engaging. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s a kinesthetic activity that gets students up and moving around the room on a “trail” of multiple-choice questions. At each station on the trail, students answer a multiple-choice question that sends them to the next question “on the trail.” If students answer each question correctly, they will travel to all questions and successfully complete the trail in the correct order. If students answer a question incorrectly, they will eventually end up at a station they’ve already completed, which means they need to backtrack and problem-solve. This also means students AND teachers can get helpful, immediate feedback.

I like to use question trails as a student-centered, interactive alternative to introducing vocabulary words with a slideshow and notes. To do this, I write multiple-choice questions that ask students to use context clues to discern the definition of a vocabulary word in a sentence. A question trail would also work for vocabulary review before an assessment.

For more information on how to create your own question trail, check out this helpful blog post or this editable template. If you don’t have time to create your own question trail, you can check out my print-ready vocabulary in context question trails. You can find one that’s suitable for 7-9th graders here, and a test-prep one that will challenge 10-12th graders here.

2. VOCABULARY TRADING CARDS

I created “vocabulary trading cards” when I got stuck in a vocab rut and was searching for a way to mix up my vocabulary instruction! Vocabulary trading cards ask students to visually represent the word on the front and then record its “stats” on the back: definition, synonyms, antonyms, and connotation. They have to plot the word’s connotation on a negative-positive spectrum, so it’s a great way to practice connotation! As a fun bonus, students even get to “rate” the word out of 5 stars. (This gives them a nice outlet to “complain” about certain words…ha!)

I love watching students “duel” each other with vocab trading cards!

When I do this, each student gets their own vocabulary word (depending on the number of words). After the kids create their trading cards, they have to “duel” other students and decide which word is “better” by discussing the word’s stats and usage. You can make different standards for what “wins,” or just let them argue it out, which is what I do. Sometimes, students conclude that the positive words are stronger, or vice versa. I’ll even hear the kids converse about which words are more versatile, or they’ll make cross-curricular connections.

The “dueling,” challenging, playing, debating, or whatever you want to call it is the most fun part of this (and the part that cements the words into students’ memory). My students seriously act like kids playing Pokemon in the early 2000s (and they’re in high school). It’s hysterical and effective!

You can check out my ready-to-print vocabulary trading card template here or look into ReadWriteThink’s online trading card generator here. Their template is not designed for vocabulary, but I think it could work!

3. VOCABULARY SCAVENGER HUNT OR GALLERY WALK

A vocabulary “scavenger hunt” or “gallery walk” is THE easiest way to make your instruction more engaging!

This idea is so simple but incredibly effective! I created this when I had a vocabulary slideshow ready to present, but I decided I didn’t want to talk at my students for the entire day. Literally all I did was print out the slides from my presentation and tape them up around my room. Each slide had a vocabulary word, its definition, and a picture.

Here’s how it works: Students travel around the room to “find” all of the vocabulary words, jot down their definitions, and draw a picture/write a sentence/come up with some fun way to remember the word. (A simple graphic organizer works well for these “notes.”) When students think of a good example of the word, they can write it on a sticky note and post it by the paper that’s hanging up. Throughout the day, the collection of sticky notes will grow, giving students multiple examples and clever ways to remember each word. The sticky notes will give your students more connections than you could give them in a teacher-led lesson.

When you think about it, it’s not really a “scavenger hunt,” or even a real gallery walk; it’s students taking notes while walking around. But don’t call it that. Trick your kids into a little bit of kinesthetic and student-centered learning! Trust me…it works!

4. “HEADS UP” GAME

“Heads Up” is one of the best vocabulary games, hands down. 🙂

If you want a low-prep but high-impact activity, try this fun spinoff of Ellen DeGeneres’ popular “Heads Up” game. All you need is a set of cards with your vocabulary words (one per card), but the cards don’t have to be fancy. Just create a table on a doc, type one word per card, print, and cut! I recommend using a rubber band, paperclip, or plastic bag to keep each set together. Students will be grouped in partners, so you’ll need one set of cards for each set of partners.

Once in partners, students will pick one person to go first. This person will pick up a vocabulary card (without looking at it) and place it on their forehead. Then, the partner will give clues about the word, and the first person will have to guess the word. It’s that simple!

I usually have students play 2-3 “rounds” of the game to give them lots of practice. Here’s how I structure it:

  • Round 1: Students can use definitions as clues.
  • Round 2: Students can use only synonyms or antonyms as clues.
  • Round 3: Students can use only examples/sentences as clues.

If your students love playing this game for vocabulary, you can try it with figurative language, literary devices, characters, and more. It’s always a hit in my classroom!

5. QUIZLET/QUIZLET LIVE

I can’t write a blog post on vocabulary without mentioning my all-time favorite tech tool, Quizlet Live. For those days when you have no time or energy to prep, Quizlet Live has your back. I have been known to strategically plan Quizlet Live for the first day after a break, so if you’re looking for something to do when you go back to school in January, this is it.

Quizlet Live is an engaging, collaborative game that helps students review vocabulary words. It is as simple as one click if you already have a deck of virtual flashcards set up. If you don’t have flashcards set up, it takes less than 5 minutes to make a set of 10-15. When you have a set of flashcards, click on “Live” (under “Play”) and follow the instructions to begin. Students will join with a code, and then Quizlet Live will automatically organize them into groups.

If your students are tired of Quizlet, some fun alternatives include Kahoot, Quizizz, and Gimkit. These are live learning games that are similar to Quizlet Live but just different enough to mix things up.

6. VOCABULARY LEARNING STATIONS

Last but certainly not least is one of my favorites: learning stations! Vocabulary stations are essentially a mash-up of the above activities (or any other activities you want to substitute). 

Here’s my go-to set-up for vocabulary stations. You can easily add or substitute your own activities to mix things up:

  • Station 1: Vocabulary Charades
  • Station 2: Vocabulary Trading Cards
  • Station 3: Vocabulary Pictionary
  • Station 4: Writing Task
  • Station 5: Quizlet/Your Choice

If you’re looking for an editable, print-ready set of vocabulary learning stations, you can check out mine here. These including the trading card template I mentioned above. 🙂 For more information on how to create your own learning stations, check out this blog post.


I hope this list helped you brainstorm some vocabulary ideas for 2020. While you’re here, let me know your favorite vocabulary activity in the comments so I can add to my collection of strategies. 🙂

1 Comment

  1. Lisa
    February 22, 2020 / 3:09 pm

    All of these vocab ideas are BRILLIANT!! I have been wanting to try something new, and I think my kids would love all of these! Thank you for sharing – I can’t wait to try each one!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *