Vocabulary Games

Every week my two exuberant sons eagerly await our regular trip to the local swimming pool. Changing time in the small cubicle can be fraught as they jostle for space while trying to change, shouting loudly to eachother, unable to mask their excitement.

To try and calm them down I have recently started to play a simple vocabulary game with them while we all change. I was amazed at how much they enjoyed it and it has now become a firm favorite during changing time at the pool.

I simply ask my children basic questions which either start with "What is the opposite of ..." or "What is another word for ...". I vary the difficulty of the word I choose to fill the gap depending on whether I am asking my 4 year old or my 6 year old. Sometimes I ask questions a little beyond their level to give me the opportunity to introduce new words which they may not already know. This simple vocabulary game of antonyms (words that mean the opposite) and synonyms (words that mean the same) is a great way of helping to expand your child's vocabulary without them even realising it.

Vocabulary Games

Vocabulary plays an important part in learning to read and also in reading comprehension. Beginner readers find it difficult to read words which they have not heard before and more advanced readers cannot understand what they are reading unless they know what most of the words mean.

Mostly our children learn vocabulary indirectly. They learn from everyday conversations with us and other adults, from listening to us reading aloud to them and from reading extensively on their own. Make sure you engage your child in conversations every day, including new and interesting words in your conversations as much as possible. Read aloud to your child whenever you can, defining any unfamiliar words as you encounter them. Repeated readings of a book will help your child to learn any new words they come across more effectively. Also encourage independent readers to read as often as possible. The more children read, the more words they encounter and learn and the more likely they are to become good readers.

Some vocabulary can, however, be taught directly. For instance, you can teach your child how to discover the meanings of words while reading by looking at word parts (roots, prefixes and suffixes), hunting for context clues or using a dictionary. Or you can teach them new words through specific word instruction, perhaps using vocabulary games to do with synonyms and antonyms, classifying objects or other general vocabulary building games.

You can find more ideas below on each of these techniques for teaching vocabulary directly, including enjoyable vocabulary games you can play with your child to keep the learning fun.

Learn About Word Parts: Roots, Prefixes and Suffixes

Often you can guess the meaning of an unfamiliar word if you know the meaning of its parts ie the root and any prefixes or suffixes that are attached to it. Root words are the words from which many other words are formed and contain the core meaning of the word. A prefix is a group of letters, or word part, attached to the beginning of a root word to change its meaning. A suffix is a word part placed at the end of a root word to change its meaning.

For example, the root word 'port' means "to carry or to bear". Attach the prefix 'ex-', meaning "out or out of", and you have the word 'export', meaning "to carry out". Attach the suffix '-able', meaning "able to be", and you have the word 'portable', meaning "able to be carried".

Learning to recognise word roots early on and knowing prefix and suffix meanings and definitions will help your child to make educated guesses about the meaning of unfamiliar words. This will greatly increase their vocabulary and reading comprehension.

Prefixes are generally easy to learn because they have clear meanings, are usually spelled the same way and occur at the beginnings of words. Learning suffixes can be more challenging because they have more abstract meanings than prefixes.

Below are some vocabulary games for explicitly teaching your child about roots, prefixes and suffixes.

  • Building Words from Roots Choose a simple root word, write it in the middle of a piece of paper and draw a circle around it. Draw arrows away from the circle in all directions. Ask your child to think of other words they know which contain the root word and write each new word at the end of an arrow. When your child has exhausted his supply of words suggest some of your own. Try using 'happy' (happiness, unhappy, unhappiest, unhappiness, happier, unhappier), 'migra' meaning "wander" (migration, migrant, immigration, immigrant, migrating, migratory) or 'vis' meaning "see" (visual, visible, invisible, vista, revise, supervise).

    Other examples of good simple root words to use can be found in this comprehensive list of root words which includes their meanings as well as examples of words containing the roots.

  • On-line Root Word Games Try these vocabulary games for some on-line practice in identifying and defining root words.
  • Matching Prefixed Words with Definitions Choose a common prefix such as anti-, de-, dis-, ex-, mis-, pre-, re-, or un- and write down words starting with your chosen prefix on individual pieces of card. You can find word lists for these prefixes towards the top of this First School Years page. On separate pieces of card write down the definition of each word. Talk to your child about the meaning of the prefix and then ask your child to match each word card with its definition. You can find pre-prepared cards for the prefix 'un-' at the link above under "un- word and definition cards". You can also find an extensive list of prefixes and their meanings here.
  • Matching Suffixed Words with Definitions Repeat the above vocabulary game for words with the suffixes '-ful' and '-less'. You can find examples of prepared cards for '-ful' words and '-less' words on the First School Years site. You can also find more examples of suffixes and their meanings here.
  • Prefix Crossword A crossword to practice the 're-' prefix can be found here.
  • Numerical prefixes Numeric prefixes like bi- and tri- come up quite frequently in words familiar to young children, such as in bicycle, tricycle or octopus. Discuss these words with your child as you come across them in books and then use the opportunity to introduce your child to other similar words such as or monotone, bicep or decade. On the lower half of this page you can find more examples of numerical prefixes.
  • Latin and Greek roots Many English words and word parts can be traced back to Latin and Greek. Knowing the basics of these Latin and Greek word roots can help your child learn new vocabulary and can also aid spelling. You can find a list of some common Latin and Greek roots, prefixes and suffixes at Factmonster. Older children could try these word root games where a variety of puzzles and vocabulary games can be found at different levels of difficulty to help children learn how to use Latin and Greek word roots to unlock word meanings.

Use Context Clues

Another method your child can learn to discover the meanings of words is to use context clues. Look for hints about the meaning of the unknown word provided in the text surrounding the word. Authors may hint at the opposite meaning or same meaning of a difficult word. Or the author may explain or give an example to help a reader figure out a difficult word.

Use A Dictionary

You should also encourage your child to use a dictionary to find the meanings of unknown words. There are a number of very good children's dictionary such as the Merriam-Webster Children's Dictionary book depository amazon or the Scholastic Children's Dictionary. book depository amazon Or try the rather unusual Visuwords online graphical dictionary which produces diagrams of meanings and associations with other words and concepts.

Learn Synonyms, Antonyms and Homonyms

A good way to build vocabulary is by playing vocabulary games using synonyms, antonyms and homonyms. Synonyms are different words which have the same meaning, or almost the same meaning. Antonyms are words which have opposite meanings. Homonyms are words that have the same pronunciation, but a different meaning such as pear and pair.

Classify Objects

  • Help your child to build word knowledge by classifying and grouping objects while you name them.
  • Play the classic Battleships game with a twist. Your child has to name the correct category for the words listed to sink their opponent's boats.
  • Name the correct category for the words listed and climb the ladder.

Build General Vocabulary

  • After you have read a story aloud to your child, explore any new vocabulary you encountered along the way. To keep your child engaged, just choose a few words to focus on.

    For young children choose words that are not too difficult to explain, where the concept represented by the word is understandable and where the word has extensive possibilities for use.
  • Give your child an object and ask them to find words to describe it.
  • Whenever your child comes across an idiom, explain it to them (eg "It’s raining cats and dogs"). You can also try these on-line vocabulary games about idioms.

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