Sunday, January 23, 2011

Word Games to Target the Five Language Components (Cavanaugh)

This post was contributed by Christie L. Cavanaugh, Ph.D. Christie has also written two prior posts describing thematic language centers for preschool, and language facilitation strategies. See  Part 1 here and Part 2 here, along with Christie's bio.

To help my early childhood students deepen their ability to make connections between language and literacy, I gathered a variety of familiar games that reinforce these links. Each game illustrates at least one of the five components of language: phonology, morphology, semantics, syntax, and pragmatics in oral and/or written form. Furthermore, I added the role of background knowledge. We need background knowledge to successfully play many word games and, at the same time, playing these games contributes to the development of background knowledge.

The research base to support the use of games to build the links between language and literacy draw from a large knowledge base about the interaction between language and literacy development, but also from what we know about the features of effective instruction, particularly multiple opportunities to practice and time on task, and building motivation through increased social interaction among students related to reading for students who struggle academically (Guthrie & Davis, 2003; Guthrie & Humenick, 2004). There have been some studies that have used games as a strategy for building vocabulary for English Language Learners (Townsend, 2009), but little exists that explore the value of using games to address all language components and the connection to literacy.

The five language components:
  • Phonology relates to the sounds of a language and how they are combined to form words and phrases. Phonology impacts meaning in the sense that two words may vary only by one phoneme (individual speech sound) but have very different meaning (for example, consider church and chirp). 
  • Morphology relates to word structure through units of meaning (morphemes). Free morphemes are freestanding units of meaning--words like pillow and learn. Bound morphemes are units of meaning that are attached to free morphemes, like the suffix -s in pillows and the prefix re- in relearn.  Morphology influences phonics, semantics/vocabulary and syntax. 
  • Semantics is knowledge of word meanings for specific words, categories, and context to determine meaning or to select the appropriate word to convey a thought or idea. In addition to morphology, vocabulary knowledge relies on the components of phonology and semantics. 
  • Syntax relates to the rules that govern word order in phrases and sentences and this area influences comprehension of oral and written language. 
  • Pragmatics deals with use of language and the knowledge of the functions of various forms of language—knowing when to use a word or expression for a particular purpose and in a particular social setting (Owens, 2008).
There is much interaction between the five language components. When students experience strength in one or more area their strengths influence other components. The converse is also true: If students experience difficulty with one language component, they are likely to also experience difficulty with at least one other component. In order to identify needs and plan lessons accordingly, teachers must understand the connections between language and literacy development.

Teachers also need to recognize how particular games can address students’ needs and how to adapt games to meet specific goals. Modifications require careful planning. An easy and perhaps necessary modification for classroom use would be to transform game responses, from oral to written. Because many games have a timing component, automaticity of recall is also emphasized. Click here to download a chart listing 13 word games with language components identified.  One of the games listed on the chart, Mad Gab, is especially useful for developing phonological awareness, but it also reinforces background knowledge and vocabulary. To learn more, Play MadGab Online. Below, I elaborate on five of the games listed on the chart.

Balderdash (Gameworks Creations, 1984) is a game that targets vocabulary and the skill to define words. Players generate definitions of words, mostly unknown and obscure words, and vote on the one that represents the correct definition (players’ versions are presented along with the real definition). All language components are addressed through playing Balderdash, particularly semantics, syntax, and morphology. Knowledge in these areas allows players to create believable definitions through recognition of morphemes, possible part of speech, and of course, meaning. Pragmatics is addressed because players can also identify how a word might be used as part of the definition, and for bluffing.

Buzzword (Patch Products, 2003) is a game about phrases, terms, or places that are grouped according to a common word. Players use clues to encourage team members to identify the phrase that reflects the meaning of the provided clue, but also contains the “buzz word” or common word contained in all phrases. Teams have 45 seconds to guess all 10 phrases. For example, the buzzword apple appears in phrases for clues such as “the object of my affection, the all-American dessert, lump in a man’s throat, etc.” This game addresses semantics and pragmatics (particularly for understanding when phrases or terms are used) and builds background knowledge.

Funglish (Hasbro, 2009) is a game that targets vocabulary and involves providing clues and guessing. Players use attributes or adjectives to display and indicate whether the item to guess (person, place, or thing) is “definitely,” “kind of,” or “not” like the adjectives displayed. (The use of these clue categories is reminiscent of the use of certain vocabulary graphic organizers such as a 4-square word map). For example, the target word may be carrot, so players might display these words for “definitely:” orange, crunchy, edible, solid; “kind of:” good, sweet, straight; and “not:” stripy, liquid, or fragile. Players can place as many clues on the board as it takes for others to guess the target. Guessers can prompt the clue-giver to place additional adjectives by asking, “What color is it?” This game addresses semantics and syntax, but also taps into morphology and phonology, both of which are particularly important as English language learners build vocabulary.

Hink Pink (Discovery Bay Games, 2008) is a game of riddles and rhymes, so of course, addresses phonology, semantics, morphology, and syntax. Players read descriptions or definitions for word pairs that rhyme. A one-syllable word pair is labeled as a “Hink Pink,” 2-syllable pair, “Hinky Pinky,” and 3-syllable pair, “Hinkity Pinkity.” One example of a clue for a hinkity pinkity is “lying in court about a medical operation” with the correct response surgery perjury. Background knowledge is also activated.

Orijinz (Entspire, 2007) is game of word and phrase origins. Players read origins and definition clues on cards for players to guess the word or phrase, many of which are idiomatic expressions. This game addresses semantics, syntax, and pragmatics (to understand when to use the expressions) while also targeting morphology (etymology in particular with references to base words in other languages) building background knowledge with historical information about the origins of expressions—some more common than others. This game applies to pre-service teachers, but also to elementary through high school students.

Do you have a favorite game that reinforces language and literacy? Let us know. Meanwhile, enjoy!


  • Guthrie, J. T., & Davis, M. H. (2003). Motivating struggling readers in middle school through an engagement model of classroom practice. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 19(1), 59-85. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
  • Guthrie, J. T., & Humenick, N. M. (2004). Motivating students to read: Evidence for classroom practices that increase reading motivation and achievement. In P. McCardle&V. Chhabra (Eds.), The voice of evidence in reading research (pp. 329–354). Baltimore: Brookes.
  • Owens, R. E. (2008). Language development: An introduction (7th Ed). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
  • 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(3), 242-251.


  1. Thanks, Christie. We played Charades (syllabication, rhyming, --so PA--background knowledge, and semantics). I also liked word association games. Does anyone know of a good morphology game?

  2. I also liked word association games
    Cool addicting games

  3. Anonymous3/08/2017

    Hi Susan,
    Love this, thanks! You inspired me to pull out one of my old favorites and use it today - Royalty. It's a word creating card game and also involves strategy like scrabble to earn the most points. Joan

    1. Thanks, Joan. Christie's preschool posts do get a lot of mileage. Royalty sounds like fun!


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