Words in Motion: Collaborative Activities with Vocabulary Cards

When can we say we know the meaning of a word? After looking it up in the dictionary?plumsvocabgame(1) After experiencing it in discourse seven times? In fact, some might argue that we never stop learning a word because it is constantly changing, evolving, and taking on new meanings. Our job as teachers, then, might be to create conditions for students to experience words in various contexts and let their understanding grow with use.

Vocabulary cards have long been used to help students memorize definitions, parts of speech, and collocation partners. However, traditional ways of using them are fairly static. What has been missing is a way to move the words into the flow of discourse. After many years of observing students sitting alone and shuffling through stacks of homemade vocabulary cards, we’ve challenged ourselves to come up with ways to use the cards collaboratively.

The following vocabulary activities are designed to help students who are already familiar with meaning begin using target vocabulary to make connections and share ideas. While the activities control for target words, students can use them to say anything they want to–or can.


All vocabulary cards should have the word alone on one side. Students should be encouraged to make their own sets to carry around and work with. Having paper copies of the words may seem old school, but research shows that there is some value in the tangible feel and experience of real paper or cardstock.

In both activities, it is important to take time to demonstrate before putting students in groups and letting them go as neither of these resemble typical vocabulary games that are out there. We suggest modeling with a stronger student or having two students demonstrate it in front of the class. Always give other students a chance to ask questions. Once students understand the rules, it will be much easier the next time.

Another useful tip is to introduce students to Just-the-word, a free easy to use website and app that provides collocation partners for many commonly used words.

Activity 1: Word up

The focus of this activity is to get students experimenting with using words in meaningful ways. While it is not strictly a game in that there are no points, and there is no winner, it does have a game like quality in that there is turn taking a feeling of success when a student has executed the task.

  1. Put students in groups of three and have each group assemble a stack of vocabulary cards. They can use one person’s “set” or contribute words they are working on individually depending on the aims of the class.
  2. Have the first partner turn over two cards and set them down next to the stack face up. The player must use the two words together in one or more sentences. For example, in a reading class, a student turned over trench and pressure. The student had to use both words and came up with the sentence: There is a lot of pressure at the bottom of an ocean trench. That is just one example, the student might just as easily have said, The pressure to do well can make people feel like they are in a trench, and they cannot get out of it. The point is that the student must use the words, and if she cannot, then she needs to go to resources such as classmates, the dictionary, or the teacher for help.
  3. The next player takes a turn. The second player picks one card from the face-down stack. He can then put the new word on top of one of the upturned words. For example, if the new player picks up ocean he can place ocean on top of pressure, so that trench and ocean are face up. That player can then connect the two, e.g., The deepest trench in the ocean is next to Japan. Alternatively, he can place ocean over trench and connect ocean to pressure, e.g., There is a lot of pressure in the deepest part of the ocean.
  4. The third player picks up one card and repeats the process of deciding which match to make. The activity continues until all the cards are used, at which point, the deck can be shuffled to create new combinations of target words.

Activity 2: Word to Word

The following activity focuses students on collocations and phrases that can be formed by word partners. It is based on the popular commercial game Apples to Apples, which allows a dealer to decide which combination of words he or she likes best rather than what is most accurate.

Also, students can be encouraged to use online resources such as just-the-word.com to do collocation research.


  1. Remember to demonstrate the activity with volunteers and clarify instructions the first time you play. Many students initially think that they are matching meaning and it sometimes takes a while for them to understand that the point is to create collocations or meaningful phrases.
  2. Put students in groups of three. Have them assemble their word cards into a stack of at least 20—ideally a number that is divisible by the number in the group. Set aside any extra cards.
  3. Have one student start as the dealer. The dealer deals out all the cards so that everyone has an equal number of word cards.
  4. Each player may look at his or her hand.
  5. The dealer sets down one of his cards face up. For example, he might put down, display. The other players evaluate their cards and put down one that they think partners well with the dealer’s key word to create a collocation. For example, students might variously put down art, money, product.

They can state the collocation if they wish, adjusting the part of speech as necessary or adding prepositions, for example, in using product, the plural –s needs to be added, or with an intransitive verb such as compete, it would be necessary to add for, as in compete for money, prizes, attention. Or it can be played like the original apple to apple in which the cards are submitted secretly—a little harder to explain.

  1. The dealer then evaluates the choices, and selects the one that he or she thinks is the best and most accurate partnership and explains why. In this case, the likely choice is art, since display art is closely related to the text they’ve studied, but the dealer may like money
  2. The player whose card was chosen gets to keep the cards, which serve as points.
  3. The next student then becomes the dealer for round 2. She puts down one of her cards, and the game continues as other students are challenged to put down a word that partners with her word. The activity continues until the cards are gone, and the one with the most points becomes the winner.

Note: Because collocations exist on a continuum and are not necessarily “rule based,” expect much discussion and debate. For instance, while display art is a solid collocation, display money is also possible, though it demands more discussion of the context in which it might occur. In fact, one of the strengths of the activity is that it is meant to foster questions as a way of helping students extend their understanding of how words work together. In consideration of this truth, it is important that the dealer chooses the one he or she likes best, not necessarily the most correct collocation.

2 replies »

  1. Great ideas. I also like the site sketch skell for collocations. (I don’t have the link, but if you google those words you’ll find it. ) It has collocations organized by part of speech and example sentences.


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