Playing With Our Word Bag

Games and fun activities for revising vocabulary chosen by your students.

A “Word Bag” is a collection of vocabulary that students have chosen together as being worth regular revision in class, with each word or phrase being written on a separate piece of paper or card. These are then stored in a box or bag (one per group or one for the whole class) and periodically taken out for revision and to check what words can be discarded as already well known or actually not that useful.

Regularly using a Word Bag in class is highly recommended as a way of learning vocabulary, since choosing the language helps students half-remember it and can also teach them useful self-study skills. The problem is that you need lots of different activities to practise what is essentially a random collection of vocabulary. Luckily, there are actually quite a few games that do exactly that with little more preparation for the teacher than just getting the words out of the bag or box.

One of the best things about a Word Bag is how learner-centred it is, but in fact all the ideas below can also be adapted for use as simple vocab practice or revision activities with words and expressions chosen by the teacher.

Random Categories

Groups of two to four students have to divide the vocab that they take out of the Word Bag into a specified number of categories, e.g. putting the twenty words and expressions from the last month into three different columns by related meaning. The challenge lies in grouping together seemingly unrelated vocabulary from different lessons. For example, one class of mine responded to the challenge “Put these 30 unconnected words into three different columns” with the incredibly creative categories “Cats like”, “Cats hate” and “Cats don’t understand”.

When the groups have sorted out their vocabulary, they can then go around the class guessing which categories the other groups have come up with by looking at the vocab that they have put into each column.

Any Which Way Matching

In pairs, students are given a group of vocab cards. The first student places one card face up on the table, asking a question using a fixed form given by the teacher, e.g. “Why were you…?” and the word or expression on that card e.g. “Why were you hitting a chimpanzee at the zoo the other day?” for the expression “the other day”. The other student must give a possible (if bizarre) answer using one of their cards, e.g. “Because he had stolen my prescription from my pocket” for the word “prescription”. Students score one point for each answer accepted by their partner. This game is always great fun, and you’d be amazed at what students with “no imagination” come up with while playing it.

Strangers On The Train

Each student thinks of and writes a sentence including one of the Word Bag words or expressions on a slip of paper, e.g. “They had a really stormy relationship” or “They say that it will get stormy later” for the word “stormy”. These sentences are then mixed up by the teacher and handed out around the class. The students should be careful that no one else sees the slips of paper they have been given.

With the person next to them, students then have to roleplay sitting opposite each other on a long train journey and trying to make conversation. While they are speaking, they must try to slip the sentence they have been given naturally into the conversation. When the teacher stops the game, they have to guess what their partner’s sentence was, e.g. from their partner saying something bizarre or by spotting vocabulary that is in the Word Bag. Students get one point for using the sentence they were given in the conversation, one point for spotting the Word Bag word or expression that their partner had to use, one point for getting exactly the sentence they said, and one point if their partner didn’t spot theirs.

You might want to discuss good tactics, such as writing bizarre sentences for other teams and slipping other Word Bag words and expressions into the conversation to distract their partner. It is also worthwhile discussing strategies for starting conversations on a train, e.g. asking if a seat is free or if you can open the window. You could also talk about ways of guiding a conversation onto a particular topic, e.g. “It’s funny you should say that…” and “That reminds me of the time when…”


Each student takes three or four words or expressions from the Word Bag. On a slightly larger piece of paper for each one, they write that word or expression and under it four words that the person who picks that card will not be allowed to say when defining it. For example, for the Word Bag word “parrot” they could write “bird”, “colour”, “jungle” and “talk” underneath.

Mix up the Taboo cards from the whole class and give out cards as they are needed. The student with the card should explain what the word or expression means until their partners say exactly the Word Bag word or expression, e.g. “It flies and is red and blue and green. It speaks English or other human languages. It eat seeds” etc until their partner says “parrot”. If they say any of the taboo words (or other forms of those words, such as “colourful”), they have to stop speaking and lose a point. The game can be played as a class or in groups.

An earlier version of this article was originally published in IATEFL Issues Magazine and then TEFLtastic blog under the title More Word Bag Activities. Republished with the author’s permission.

Written by Alex Case for June 2012
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

One Comment

  • Natasha brown says:

    Bag Bag. Bag. Bag. Bag. Bag

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