The University of Iowa

Learning English With Your Children and Teens: Making and Playing Games to Practice English

Hand holding Word Match cards

Children can work with caregivers or teachers to create noun and adjective cards for the game Word Match and then play together to practice vocabulary skills.


Posted on: November 30, 2021

Editor’s note: Learning together can improve your children’s and teens’ English language skills as well as your own. This post is part of an ongoing series designed to help caregivers who are English learners find English learning opportunities for the family in their everyday lives.

Word-learning games are a popular tool for people to gain exposure to new words to expand their vocabulary, as evidenced by the growth of word-learning mobile games and puzzles. Board games and card games (and their mobile versions) like Scrabble, Taboo, Catch Phrase, Apples-to-Apples, and others that are not-specifically word-learning games can nonetheless also be used to reinforce word learning. Earning points and rewards, the excitement of competition, and interaction with other players are all components of games that are motivating for players. Because of these characteristics, playing games is believed to be an effective strategy for reinforcing word learning for English learners (Townsend, 2009). By playing games at home or in school as an extension of explicit instruction, you and your children or students can practice English together while also having fun.  

You do not need to have a brand-name card or board game on hand to reap the benefits of playing a game. You can make some games at home yourself and enhance vocabulary knowledge in the process. This post discusses a new word-matching card game, explains the steps to make the game yourself, and describes some ways the game reinforces word learning.

How to Play “Word Match”

The objective of this new game called “Word Match” (intended for people ages twelve and up) is to match nouns and adjectives that are related. The game includes two kinds of cards: noun cards and adjective cards. Each noun card has the name of a well-known person, place, or thing (e.g., Rosa Parks, the beach, Yellowstone National Park, or the first day of school) as well as a definition or description of the noun. Each adjective card includes a word that describes a noun (e.g., glamorous, peaceful, clean, friendly) as well as a partial list of synonyms for that word. Some examples of both kinds of cards are displayed in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1. Example of Noun and Adjective Cards

Card used for Word Match game

To play Word Match, turn all the noun and adjective cards face-up so that all players can read the words on each card. Players take turns selecting a noun card and an adjective card that describes the person, place, or thing on the noun card. The youngest player starts the game and turns continue in a clockwise direction. When a player has decided on their match, they will pick up the two cards and display them for all players to see. The other players must agree that the two cards are a match. For example, from the cards displayed in Figure 1, a player might choose the noun “the beach” and the adjective “peaceful.” If a majority of the players agree with the noun and adjective pairing, the player who selected the pair keeps both cards. The goal is to accumulate as many cards as possible. The players continue taking turns until all of the noun cards have been selected, or when it is no longer possible to find appropriate noun-and-adjective pairs.

Because the game involves thinking deliberately about word meanings and making associations between words, it can be a useful tool to practice vocabulary skills. Furthermore, by creating their own decks of noun and adjective cards, children and caregivers will gain more practice and learn new words in English.

How to Make “Word Match”

To make Word Match, you will need index cards or small pieces of paper to serve as your cards. You should have two colors of cards in order to distinguish between noun cards and adjective cards. For example, all noun cards could be red, and all adjective cards could be green. You can use colored paper or colored markers to differentiate between the two kinds of cards. We have also included card templates that can be typed or written on and printed (see “Supplemental Materials for Families” below).

To create the adjective cards, have your children or students think of as many English adjectives as they can. They will write one adjective on each adjective card. Below the adjective, they should write several synonyms, or words that have similar meanings. For example, for the adjective “friendly,” they could write the synonyms “kind,” “nice,” and “warm,” as shown below in Figure 2. If they have trouble thinking of synonyms for the adjectives, they can look them up in an online thesaurus. Having more adjective cards than noun cards will make it easier for players to find appropriate adjectives that describe the nouns accurately.

Figure 2. Example of Adjective Cards

An adjective: a word that describes a noun. Synonyms: Words that have a similar meaning to the adjective.

Next, you can create the noun cards. Have your children or students think of as many English nouns as they can, writing one noun on each noun card. To generate ideas, you can ask these questions:

  • Where are your favorite places to go?
  • Where are some places you would like to go to in the future?
  • Who are some people you see each day?
  • Who are some famous people you would like to meet?
  • Who are your favorite characters from books or movies?
  • What are your favorite foods, sports, books, movies, or TV shows?

Below the noun on the card, have your children or students write a description or definition of the noun.  For example, a description of “the beach” could be “the sandy area by an ocean or a lake” as seen below in Figure 3. This description will support players who are unfamiliar with a given word.

Figure 3. Example of Noun Cards

A noun: A person, place, or thing. The definition or description of the noun.

Literacy Benefits of “Word Match”

Morpheme Awareness

Morphemes (like the –ly in “quickly” or the –ed in “listened”) are the smallest units of meaning in a word. Examples of morphemes are prefixes (affixes attached before a root or base word), roots (the main component of a word; e.g., “port” in the word “transport”), and suffixes (affixes attached after a root or base word). Morphological awareness helps learners detect similarities in meaning between words that have different roots but the same affixes (e.g., “quickly” and “softly”), or differences in meaning between words that have the same root but different affixes (e.g., “listened” and “listening”). If English learners understand the meanings of morphemes and the ways the morphemes can combine to make or modify words, their ability to decipher the meaning of unknown words may improve (Davidson, 2014). 

Vocabulary strategies that focus on morphological awareness have been shown to be particularly beneficial for English learners (Brandes & McMaster, 2017). Word-matching games like Word Match can help draw players' attention to morphemes. When creating the adjective cards, you and your children or students can pay attention to patterns in the word endings. For example, the adjective cards might use similar endings like –ous, -ful, -ical, and -able. Noun cards might end in –ist, -er, or –ian. Draw attention to these suffixes as you play. For example, you can ask: 

I see you wrote the word “chemist”—what other words end in –ist?

Players might think of words like “hairstylist,” “bicyclist,” and “journalist.” After they identify similar words, ask them to find the similarities across the words. Possible responses include: 

All of the words that end in –ist are people who work with certain things.

You can reinforce this definition by pointing out that the things the people work with are found in the roots of the words. For example, removing the suffix -ist from a word like “hairstylist” leaves behind a word that looks very similar to “hairstyle.” This means that a hairstylist is someone who works with hairstyles. They are the people who cut hair at a hair salon. Drawing attention to the morphemes in words may help language learners infer word meanings on their own (Davidson, 2014).

As you find patterns in word endings, you can make a suffix dictionary (see “Supplemental Materials for Families” below) like the one in Figure 4. Add a word ending in the “Suffix” column, and record examples of words that include the word ending in the “Examples” column. In the “Part of Speech” column, determine whether the words are adjectives or nouns. Finally, based on your list of examples, try to figure out the meaning of the morpheme in the “Meaning” column. 

Figure 4. Example Suffix Dictionary

Suffix Examples Part of Speech Meaning
-ous dangerous, curious, ridiculous adjective full of something
-ful useful, respectful, beautiful adjective full of something
-ical historical, chemical, practical adjective of something
-ist hairstylist, bicyclist, journalist noun someone who works with something
-er teacher, dancer, writer noun someone who does a certain activity
-ian librarian, comedian, historian noun someone who works with something

Making Connections to Background Knowledge

Psycholinguistic theories suggest that learners play an active role in constructing meaning by anchoring new words to their own experiences and background knowledge (Carrell & Eisterhold, 1983). Background knowledge comes into play when we are asked to connect a new word to its synonyms and antonyms. When they are creating the adjective cards, ask your children or students to write as many synonyms as they can for each adjective. Including synonyms for the word on the card will support players who may not be familiar with a particular word by associating it with words they already know with similar meanings.

Making your own decks of noun and adjective cards also can help you and your children or students develop cultural knowledge about your community. When creating noun cards, consider including some important people, places, or things relevant to your community. Think of your favorite places to visit in your town (e.g., restaurants, parks, grocery stores, and theaters) or some places you would like to visit in the future. Word Match is especially fun when you can make connections to your own life. Doing so will help players personalize and take ownership over word meanings, which is considered beneficial to word learning (Townsend, 2009).

Social Connections

There is evidence that social interaction and collaboration can support second language vocabulary development (Kim, 2008). It follows that English learners should engage in discussions about vocabulary and work collaboratively to define words. A word matching game like Word Match encourages players to engage in debates about the words they select. For example, after a player proposes a noun-and-adjective pair, allow that player one minute to justify the choice they made. Ask players to explain why the adjective card identified is an appropriate match for the noun. Through these discussions, players can gain a better understanding of the parameters of a word’s use—when it is appropriate to use and when it is not.    

Building vocabulary often seems like a tedious task. However, using games as a word-learning strategy at home and in the classroom as an extension of explicit instruction can make the process more fun. Making and playing word-learning games together makes the experience more memorable and meaningful.

Supplemental Materials for Families

PDF iconWord Match

You can type or write on these printable cards (compatible with certain perforated card sheets) to make noun and adjective cards for Word Match. Instructions for making and playing the game are also included.

PDF iconSuffix Dictionary

Children can list the morphemes (word parts) they encounter, examples of those parts, whether they are adjectives or nouns, and their meaning.


Brandes, D. R., & McMaster, K. L. (2017). A review of morphological analysis strategies on vocabulary outcomes with ELLs. Insights Into Learning Disabilities, 14(1), 53–72.

Carrell, P. L., & Eisterhold, J. C. (1983). Schema theory and ESL reading pedagogy. TESOL Quarterly, 17, 553–573.   

Davidson, S. J. (2014). Morphological analysis training for English language learners with reading difficulties [Doctoral dissertation, University of California Riverside]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

Kim, Y. (2008). The contribution of collaborative and individual tasks to the acquisition of L2 vocabulary. The Modern Language Journal, 92(1), 114–130.

Townsend, D. (2009). Building academic vocabulary in after-school settings: Games for growth with middle school English-language learners. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 53, 242–251.