Vocab 1-2-3

The Basics:

The teacher comes prepared with a set of cards, each with a vocabulary word on it. Each player gets a card and is given time to make sure they understand the definition and is then instructed to create a simple action that represents or interprets the word. Players then walk around an open space. When the leader says go, the players quickly pair up and follow these steps:

One: Quickly teach each other the word and the action. Two: The first player makes his or her movement (that becomes “1”), followed by the second player who makes his or her movement (that becomes “2”). Then the first player just says the number “3.” This means that the second player now does the first word, and the first player practices the second word, and the next player says the number “3”. The two players follow that pattern until the next step, this forces them to practice each word one after the other. Three: The leader says “switch!” and each partner exchanges the card with the word on it, and then finds a different partner. Four: The players now teach their new partner the word their old partner had just taught them (NOT the word they created first). They do this using the same pattern as outlined in step 2.

This can go for several rounds, so that each student gets an opportunity to teach four or five different words. When this is complete, students can now stand in a circle and demonstrate the last word they did to the whole group, and the whole group will repeat the word and action. The teacher has many options from this point. They can have student volunteers try to demonstrate all the words, discuss the words and how they fit into the context of the reading or recite the reading that was the source of the words with the group doing the action in unison when they come to one of the words.

In the Classroom:

  • This is a very confusing game on paper, but actually very simple once you know how. (This is where a workshop comes in handy!!!) It might not go well the first time, but stay with it, because it is a great game.

  • Some teachers have been more structured with the groupings, using an inside circle/outside circle approach, or something similar. I tend to favor a more flexible approach, but if that kind of structure makes a teacher more comfortable, or if there are other considerations that need to be considered (discipline or IEP’s) where more control over who is with who is important, then that is an option.

  • Some kids are better than others at coming up with actions to fit their word. Encourage the group to seek out help or test out their ideas on their friends during that part of the game. Having a solid action that makes sense is more important that they do it alone.

  • Avoid sign language as much as possible. I stopped letting kids look up definitions on the computer because a few of them would just look up the American Sign Language word instead. It is much more fun and educational if students come up with their own interpretation of the word. Also, ASL words introduce the idea that we might be doing it wrong, and there should be an atmosphere during this game where there is no wrong way, as long as it makes sense. If a student can sign fluently, make that part of the sharing process after the game. Let him or her share how close some of the invented movements were to the ASL word, but ask that they not share during it.

Curriculum Connections:

  • English as a Second Language teachers as well as reading and language specialists smile widely whenever they first encounter this game. I have not found one that matches more closely the research on language acquisition. It is social, repetitive, and represents the word in verbal, written and kinesthetic formats at the same time. Can’t get any better than that!!!

  • Every class uses vocabulary, and this can be used with any subject or level.


This game is part of Brown University’s Artslit program. It is a fabulous program that works to connect the arts and literacy.

Here is a link to the website: Artslit.org

I also recommend the book that describes the process: A Reason To Read by Eileen Landay and Kurt Wootton