When I was in school, we memorized a lot of vocabulary. We’d practice that vocabulary through matching worksheets, and then take a quiz (more matching!) to show our mastery of the material. And when I first started teaching, I did quite a few matching activities with my own students — we teach what we know, right? I’ve since moved away from this model, however. In fact, I rarely even give vocabulary quizzes anymore, in any format.
So what caused this shift, and how can I possibly teach my students Spanish without having them memorize vocabulary lists? Don’t get me wrong, words matter. Vocabulary is important. I’m certainly not suggesting otherwise. I’ve simply come to believe that matching activities and quizzes aren’t the best way to develop our students’ vocabulary.
If we insist on students memorizing 1:1 correlations between words and the things that they represent, we’re reinforcing the idea that there’s only one way to express each concept. This leads to our students falling silent, resorting to English, and/or insisting that they just can’t speak Spanish. And of course they feel this way. If students have the impression that they can only speak about an umbrella by saying “paraguas,” then if they don’t know that word, they’re stuck!
But they don’t have to be. There are plenty of ways to speak about an umbrella. Maybe they describe it as an “cosa ayuda no agua cuando lluvia.” (“thing help no water when it’s raining.”) Fabulous! They’re still expressing the concept, and reinforcing the words for “help” and “rain” at the same time! The more we encourage our students to do this, the more we promote the message that there are ways to speak about what they want to speak about, even if they don’t know a specific term or would struggle to complete a 1:1 vocabulary matching activity.
If we insist on students memorizing 1:1 correlations between words and the things that they represent, we’re reinforcing the idea that there’s only one way to express each concept.
So, how should we teach vocabulary, if not through matching activities? Here are five of my favorite vocabulary activities to do with my own students!
Sorting activities are a wonderful way to help students think about the connections between words and the different types of relationships that can exist between them. They’re probably used to looking for synonyms, which are great, but there are lots of other ways that words can relate to one another as well. Having students sort words and do other tasks involving categories is a great way to get them thinking about these other types of relationships.
Here are a few variations of sorting activities that you can do with your students:
Have students sort words into predefined categories. For example, when I am doing a gender roles unit with my Spanish 4 students, I give them a Venn diagram with “hombres” on one side and “mujeres” on the other. Then I give them a list of character traits, like “inteligente,” “fuerte,” “tímido,” etc, and they have to sort those words according to whether they are stereotypically associated with males, with females, or with both genders. Then we do the same thing with a list of common professions.
Another variation is to give students a list of vocabulary terms and have them create their own criteria to divide the words into categories. You might give them 30 words and have them create three categories with ten words in each, or five categories with six words each. This will get the students thinking about what the words have in common and the different ways they can be grouped.
A third variation is to come up with the categories yourself, but challenge your students to guess how you’ve organized the words. You can either give your students a list of all of the words pre-grouped into their respective categories and ask them to figure out what your logic was, or you can give them a few words from each category, and see if they can figure out what the categories are, then sort the rest of the words accordingly.
When doing sorting activities, encourage your students to think about both content and linguistic relationships. For example, you might have categories like “adjectives” or “words that begin with ‘p'” and other categories based on similarities in meaning, such as “breakfast foods” or “vegetables.” This helps reinforce the idea that there are several different ways that words can relate to one another. Then, when they’re trying to speak in Spanish and run into words they don’t know, they’ll have a broader range of strategies to draw on for how to communicate those ideas without resorting to English.
If you have any variations of sorting activities that you love, make sure to share them in the comments!
One vocabulary activity that I love doing with my students is “Yo tengo… ¿Quién tiene…?” Each student receives a card with a vocabulary term on it, along with a question printed along the bottom. For example, one student’s card might read “Yo tengo AZUL. ¿Quién tiene el color de un limón?” Another student would have a card reading “Yo tengo AMARILLO. ¿Quién tiene el color de la nieve?” The last card will link back up to the first word read. In this example, perhaps it asks “¿Quién tiene el color que se mezcla con el amarillo para formar el verde?” Students take turns reading their cards out loud, each one going when they hear the question that points to the word on their card. When the class arrives back at the first word read, the loop is complete and you have successfully completed the activity! (If you want a more in-depth walkthrough of “Yo tengo… ¿Quién tiene…?,” this video shows how it works.)
This is a great way to work with vocabulary because it gets students used to both listening and speaking in Spanish, but with the support of having a card right in front of them with all the words they need. This reduces the “panic factor,” because they don’t have to come up with what to say on their own. It has the feel of a speaking activity and builds their confidence, but is actually focused more on comprehension than on student output.
Another fantastic benefit to this activity is that students will see many of the vocabulary words in several different forms. For example, in a round of “Yo tengo… ¿Quién tiene…?” about hobbies and pastimes, students might see the verb “jugar” in its infinitive form, along with various present tense forms of “jugar,” like “juega” or “juegan.” They might also see the related nouns “el jugador” or “los juegos” along with compound words like “videojuego.” This exposes students to the idea of word families, and it helps them recognize the ways that prefixes and suffixes and other small changes to a word’s form can maintain its root meaning but shift the word from a noun to an adjective or verb. There’s no better way to quickly expand somebody’s vocabulary than by teaching them how to take a root word and use it in different forms!
One fun idea for using “Yo tengo… ¿Quién tiene…?” in class is to time students to see how quickly they can move through a set. You might do this at the beginning of a thematic unit, and then repeat the activity at the end of the unit to see how much more quickly the students can move through the words once they have become more familiar with them. If you teach multiple groups of students, you can also have them race against each other, which they love doing — anything that unlocks their competitive streak tends to be a class favorite!
If you want to try this vocabulary activity but don’t have time to make your own sets, I have them available for several different vocabulary themes and cultural topics in my TPT store.
Probably my absolute favorite vocabulary activity of all —and certainly my students’ favorite— is playing circumlocution games. The way I like to run this activity is similar to the game Taboo, where students receive a vocabulary term, and they have to give their classmates clues to help them guess the words without saying the word itself. This trains students to think of Spanish words in relationship to one another instead of translating back to English.
I like to divide my students into teams and have them compete against each other to see which team can guess the most words. It’s amazing to see what they’ll do when points are on the line! Even my most reluctant students come out of the woodwork and participate enthusiastically!
When I play the circumlocution game, I have my students give the clues in Spanish, but I typically let their teammates guess in English, particularly if we’re at the beginning of a unit when they’re not familiar with the vocabulary yet. If you want to run the activity entirely in Spanish while still providing your students with support, another option is to give them a word list to work from. That way, they can still guess even if they don’t yet remember the words on their own.
I recommend going over several different strategies for circumlocution with your students before asking them to play this game, such as providing synonyms and antonyms, generalizing (such as saying “dog” instead of “poodle”), describing the terms, combining simpler terms (saying “animal,” “tooth,” “ocean,” and “danger” for “shark,” for example), or saying what an object does or how it is used. If you want ready-to-go materials for covering this information with your class, all of my circumlocution card sets come with a student handout describing various circumlocution strategies and giving examples of each.
If your students are new to circumlocution, you might want to scaffold the activity for them. You can start by giving the clues yourself and having all of your students guess. This lets you model the various circumlocution strategies for them while giving them listening comprehension practice. The next step could be to have students give the clues themselves, but with the support of a script or some general suggestions about how to give clues for each word. Finally, you can remove the supports and have your students use their creativity to come up with their own clues. It’s always so much fun to see what they come up with! My personal favorite was the student who described “grass” as “green Earth hair!”
The more your students practice circumlocution, the more confident they’ll become in their ability to speak Spanish, even when they don’t have the exact words they’re looking for.
This is hands down the activity my students request the most. In fact, just the other day I had some students who wouldn’t leave class because they wanted to stay and keep playing the circumlocution game! They even asked me if we could play again the next class! That kind of engagement is always a win in my book!
Another vocabulary activity that I absolutely love is one I call “ecuaciones con palabras,” or “word math.” I was inspired by the “Alchemy” line of games/apps (such as Little Alchemy), where you start with the 4 basic elements of earth, fire, air, and water, and have to combine them to keep creating new elements. For example, “fire” + “water” gives you “steam”, which you can then combine with “earth” to form “geyser,” and so on and so forth.
For once, my addiction to phone games proved helpful to my teaching! As I was playing Little Alchemy one day, it struck me that this would be a great way to practice vocabulary, so I set to work coming up with adaptations that would work for the classroom, and “word math” was born. Instead of dragging and dropping elements on top of each other, like in the app, we create equations out of our vocabulary words. For example, we might decide that “fruit” + “yellow” = “banana”.
There are a few different ways to use “word math” with students, depending on your goals and how much prep time you have:
- Option 1 (Absolutely zero prep required!): Instruct students to come up with their own equations from the vocabulary words you’re currently working with, using their textbooks or other vocabulary sheets you’ve given them as a reference. I suggest modeling a few equations on the board and then coming up with one or two as a whole class before setting them free to work individually.
- Option 2: (Very low prep): Create a list of vocabulary words related to your current unit of study that you think will be particularly well-suited to the activity and distribute it to students at the start of class. This might be especially helpful if the vocabulary list in your textbook is long and might be overwhelming to your students, or if it contains a lot of words that wouldn’t work well for forming equations. After modeling a few equations and coming up with a few as a whole class, challenge your students to see how many different logical equations they can make using only the words on the list you’ve given them.
- Option 3: (More prep required, but also more hands-on and engaging for students!): Turn the activity into a puzzle by creating a series of equations yourself first. (I usually do 15, but you could adjust the number based on the level of your students and the amount of time you’re planning to dedicate to the activity.) Type up the equations in a large, legible font, print out as many sets as you need, and cut out all of the vocabulary words individually. (Pro tip: A paper cutter can save you massive amounts of time here! It’s also a great task for a student aide, if you have one!) Give students the individual words and have them arrange those words into logical equations. I usually like to let my students work in groups of 3-4 for this activity. It makes it more fun, lets them support each other, and also means I can cut out fewer sets of words!
This last option is especially great for stretching students’ critical thinking skills, because sometimes they come up with equations that make sense, but aren’t the ones I had originally written, which can leave them with some unusual combinations of words at the end! Then they have to go back and see what they can rearrange in order to make all of the words fit into logical equations, which is fantastic for promoting flexibility in their thinking. Of course, I always stress that it doesn’t matter if their equations are exactly the ones I had originally come up with, as long as they’re able to justify each one in a logical way. (One year I even had a student research whether or not fish could get skin cancer in order to make their final equation work!)
Whichever option I have my students do, I have them write a sentence for each equation to explain or justify their reasoning. That helps me check their comprehension, and gives them some extra writing practice in Spanish.
An added benefit of this vocabulary activity is that it improves students’ ability to use circumlocution when they come across a word they don’t know. Instead of thinking of vocabulary words in terms of their English translations, this activity trains students to think of vocabulary words in relationship to one another, which is exactly the mindset needed to circumlocute successfully!
It’s easy and tons of fun to come up with equations on your own, but if you want to save time by using ready-made sets, I have them available for several different vocabulary themes in my TPT store. Each one has a set of pre-made equations you can use for the hands-on version of the activity, as well as a no-prep “print-and-go” sheet that you can use if you’re low on time.
Another great way to help students learn vocabulary is to have them create illustrations of the vocabulary words for your current unit. Visualization has long been touted as one of the best tools for memorizing information, so by having our students use imagery to learn vocabulary, not only will we be helping them learn one particular list of words, but we’ll also be empowering them with a strategy that they can apply to any information they need to remember.
It’s best to encourage your students to come up with a picture that incorporates both the meaning of the word and a phonetic representation of its pronunciation. That way the word itself and the meaning will be encoded together in one vivid image, which helps students learn and remember the term.
For example, if you wanted students to illustrate the word “silla” (chair), you might draw a picture of a chair heading out the door while waving goodbye and saying “See ya.” The chair’s words would help students remember the word “silla” in Spanish, since it sounds like “see ya,” while the picture of the chair helps them remember the meaning.
The best example I ever saw of an effective vocabulary illustration came from one of my students, depicting the word “porcentaje.” A percentage sign is standing near a trash can, while a bystander comments, “Poor scent! Ah!” The percentage sign, not thrilled about being called stinky, is exclaiming “Hey!” Not only is it adorable, but it brilliantly incorporates both the meaning of the word and a phonetic representation of it (POOR-SCENT-AH-HEY).
Here’s one fun way to use this activity with your students:
- Divide your vocabulary list up and assign 3-4 words to each student.
- Have them create illustrations for each word as a homework assignment, or give them time in-class to work on their drawings.
- Hang up all of the illustrations around the room and have students do a gallery walk to see each other’s pictures. Give them each a recording sheet where they try to figure out what is being depicted in each illustration, using one of the following options:
- Option 1 (Easier): Give your students a copy of the original word list with both the Spanish words and their English definitions before they do the gallery walk, so they’re simply trying to match the words with the illustrations, looking for both content and phonetic clues in the pictures.
- Option 2 (More Challenging): Only give your students the Spanish version of the vocabulary list. Students need to use the phonetic clues embedded in the illustrations to match the pictures to the Spanish words, and then make their best guess as to the definition of each, using the pictures to help them.
So, these are a few of my favorite vocabulary activities to do in class. Hopefully some of these ideas have been inspiring, and you see how much is possible to do with vocabulary without ever using a single matching worksheet or quiz.
What are some of your favorite ways to practice vocabulary? Let me know in the comments!