ESL Games: Synonym Clues

The Game: The object of Synonym Clues is to review vocabulary words. These words can come from everyday language or they can be related to any area of curriculum. Knowing synonyms helps students understand the meanings of words and it helps them explore how words are similar, yet different.

Research Says: This game fits the criteria for classroom games as outlined in How to Choose Games (Tyson, 2000). Synonym Clues is:

  • more than fun
  • involves “friendly competition”
  • keeps all of the students involved and interested
  • encourages students to focus on the use of language rather than on the language itself
  • gives students a chance to learn, practice, or review specific language material


  1. Index cards and markers (2 different colors)
  2. Word lists (student/teacher generated)
  3. Notepad or whiteboard for keeping score/pencil or marker
  4. Timer

How to Play

  1. Students play in groups of 6–10 total students.
  2. Divide the group in half (3–5 students): Teams A and B.
  3. Place the cards face down on the table.
  4. One student from Team A gives clues to his/her team to guess the given vocabulary word without saying the other clue words listed on the card. No form of any part of the words on the card can be used for a clue. No gestures are allowed. No sound effects can be made. You cannot use a rhyming word or a “sounds like” clue. You cannot provide initials or abbreviations of the words on the cards. No one else sees the card.
  5. The team has 1 minute to guess the answer.
  6. Anyone on that team can try to guess the word. There is no wait time. The team members shout out possible answers.
  7. The person giving clues continues to give one-word clues for the duration of the time limit (1 minute) or until someone guesses the word.
  8. If the person who is giving clues accidentally says one of the clue words on the card, the team does not get a point.
  9. One point is awarded to the team if the correct answer is said before the one-minute time limit.
  10. Now it is Team B’s turn.
  11. The game repeats itself until every player has had a turn to give clues, a predetermined number of points are earned, or a certain time limit is reached.

How to Make It

  1. Write vocabulary words (everyday words or curriculum-related) on index cards: one word per card using a colored marker.
  2. Write five words underneath that vocabulary word that describe the vocabulary word or are synonyms of the word, using a different colored marker.
  3. Make enough cards for each student to have a turn giving clues.


  1. The time limit can be adjusted based on the ability of the students.
  2. The game could be played with a larger group size.
  3. Students can help prepare the cards to be used for the opposing team. They could do this task individually or in groups, but they must let the other team know what words they have selected. The teacher should check the student-made cards for accuracy before proceeding with the game.
  4. Cards can be made to address a specific concept, theme, subject, etc. 

For example, to review a unit in science dealing with the sea:


I hope you have fun with this game!


Read Marc’s other ESL Games posts. Marc’s previous blogs with TESOL as a guest blogger include the highly popular “Best Language Learning Games” series.

About Marc Anderson

Marc Anderson
Marc Anderson is the CEO of online English training company that teaches English online to students around the world. During his free time he likes to read, travel and enjoy life.
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