Playing With Words

Playing With Words

I think we are all familiar with traditional approaches to word study – whether it is phonics, spelling, or vocabulary.  

In my own mind’s eye, I see a list of words, usually between 10 to 20.   

The task was for me and my classmates to learn the spelling and pronunciation of these words, or to look the words up in a dictionary, and write out and memorize the definitions for a test that occurred at the end of the week.  This routine happened week in and week out over the course of my schooling.  

I’m not sure what I actually learned from these exercises except that learning words was a tedious, meaningless, and often boring task.  Although I usually received a relatively high score on the tests, I don’t have any memory of actually applying my work in any authentic task.

What I do have fond memories of is getting together with family members over the holidays and getting out the old Scrabble game and spending hours upon hours playing and chatting with aunts and uncles and cousins over the Scrabble board.   

In fact, my wife noticed a few years ago just how many games we play today with our family members that are word related games – Scrabble, Boggle, Balderdash, Password, Code Word, Wheel of Fortune, and many more.  

If as adults we love these games that deal with words, why wouldn’t students?  

And my sense is that students would love to engage in playing with words whether in their classrooms with their classmates and their teacher or virtually with each other.  

In this blog post I would like to share with you some ways that you can help your students play with words and, at the same time, increase their engagement with, understanding of, and appreciation of words.   

Oh, and by the way, have you noticed that if you play a game regularly over a period of time your performance usually gets better – if it’s a game your score improves?  

Well we have a special name for it when you get better at something over time.  It’s called learning!

If you want students to learn words, then create opportunities for them to play with words.  

Below I list three of my favorite activities that allow your students (and yourself) to be playful with words.



This vocabulary version of Bingo is a wonderful way for students to play with new words and experience the words through simultaneous use of oral and written language.  Materials you will need include a blank Wordo card for each student.  I recommend either a 3x3 or 4x4 card (see below) and a set of words; these may be words from a particular content area, words belonging to particular word root family, or simply words you want your students to learn.  If you use the 3x3 card you will need 9 – 15 words, and 16 – 20 words for the 4x4 card.  If you would like students to use the same Wordo card several times, you will also need movable markers of some sort—dry beans, pennies, or little scraps of paper.















Write the words you have chosen on the board. Provide a Wordo card for each student. Then have them choose words from the list on the board and write one word in each of the remaining boxes. Students choose whatever box they wish for each word.  

Now read a clue for each word.  The clue can be a definition, a synonym, an antonym, or a sentence with the target word deleted.  Students need to figure out the correct target word and put an X through it. (If you want to clear the sheets and play again, ask students to use movable markers.)  When a student has a full a row, column, diagonal of marks, or four corners, he or she calls out, “Wordo!”

Check the student’s words and declare that student the winner.  Then have students clear their sheets and play another round.  The winner of the first game can be the one to call out clues.


Word Ladders

A Word Ladder is an activity in which you lead students to writing a series of words.  Each new word is based off an alteration of the previous word (add a letter, remove a letter, change a letter, reorder the letters, etc.).  In my own version of Word Ladders, the first and last words are somehow related.  As the teacher, you lead your students through the process of making the list of words, giving them meaning and word structure cues along the way.

Here’s an example of a Word Ladder for November that begins with the word Thanks and ends with the word Grateful. 

Start with:

Take away 2 letters to make a container for water or gasoline
Take away 1 letter to make what you want to happen when you sit out under the sun.
Change 1 letter to make the past tense of “run.” “It was raining to hard today that I _____ all the way home.”
Change 1 letter to make a big mouse or rodent
Add 1 letter to make a word that describes when you evaluate someone or something.
Add 1 letter to make what you do when you “shred” cheese for pizza
Add 3 letters to make another word for being “Thankful”


As an added bonus, once you reach the final word grateful, you can tell your students that the word root grat/grac means thanks.  Then challenge them to come up words, beside grateful, that contain this root and that refer to the concept of thanks:








It is truly not that difficult to make your own Word Ladders (it is not a requirement that the first and last words connect in some way).  Indeed after a while, your students themselves can be challenged to make their own.  On my website, I have several Word Ladders that I have written and that go with different times during the school year.  


Be the Bard

We all know that Shakespeare was a prolific writer of plays and poetry.  What is less well known is that the Bard was an inventor of new words.  In fact, approximately 10% of all the words Shakespeare ever used in his writing were words that he invented.  Words such as premeditated, inaudible, skim milk, bedroom, lackluster, eyeball, and downstairs were all introduced into English by Shakespeare.  If you look closely at these words, you’ll notice that several of them are compound words.  He took words or roots that already existed and combined them with one another to make new words and concepts.  It seems to me that if you want to become proficient in English, Shakespeare is pretty good guy to study and emulate.  If Shakespeare can invent words, why shouldn’t our students?  And they can!

I have found that if you use a roots approach to teaching words (teaching and learning words that are derived primarily from Greek and Latin roots) students can easily combine roots they have studied to make new words and concepts.  Here are just few words, and their meanings, that students have invented.

benemater:  bene = good; mater = mother
A good mother
philaphone:  phil= love; phon(e) = sound
A love of sounds (music lover)
teleterra:   tele:  distant; terra = land A distant land.


Be the Bard is a great way to encourage creativity and divergent thinking in students.  Once students invent a word you can have them challenge their classmates to come up with the meaning of the words.  If classmates know their roots, they usually are able to determine the meaning of the new words.  Having students create words can be challenging at first, but with practice it is amazing how good students can become at making up words.  And, who knows? Perhaps, like Shakespeare, some of the words students invent may actually become part of the English language!

Many scholars argue that we learn best when are given chances to be playful and creative with what it is we are learning.  This is true of whether learning science, learning to play baseball, or learning words.  Let’s make word study joyful and engaging for all students with word play.    

For more on teaching words, please check our professional development resources Building Vocabulary with Greek and Latin Roots (2nd edition); and our K-11 curriculum program Building Vocabulary.  

For more strategies and tips on vocabulary instruction, check out our other blog articles.



Author bio

Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D.

Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D., Author

Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D., Kent State University, is the author of numerous books and articles on reading education. He is a frequent presenter nationwide. His research on fluency was cited by the National Reading Panel.