Recently, we wrote about word games for teaching science content vocabulary. While those games are versatile, and can be used for content areas beyond science, we rounded up a few of our favorites that we think work particularly well for teaching (and reteaching) math terms.

From whole class, to small group, to independent review, these activities can flex to work in any classroom setting. As a bonus, the games all ask students to tap into their 21st-century skill set to practice communication, collaboration, and critical thinking as they dig into content vocabulary.

3 Games for Introducing Math Terms

Activity 1: Vocabulary Compass

Facing new math content when you don’t even speak the “language” of math is daunting. New words can swim around in students’ heads like a giant jumble of letters, presenting a constant “search-and-find” scenario. Enter the Vocabulary Compass. This genius activity gives structure to learning new vocabulary, allowing students to put things into their own words (and images), bringing their own experiences to bear on the vocabulary acquisition process.

This activity can be used with the whole class, but it’s fantastic for independent review later on since students create custom vocabulary cards that can be used to reinforce knowledge as curriculum spirals throughout the year.

Here’s the gist: the teacher creates a “compass” with the four cardinal points—North, South, East, West. At each compass point, the teacher chooses a different objective, or method, that will be used to define a new word. (For example, North might be “Think of a real-life example” and West could be “Draw a model.”) As you introduce students to new math terms, walk them through each compass point. This strategy allows students to come at the meaning of a new term from many angles—real-life examples, drawing, language—and if you have them document their answers on an index card, then they’ve created a personalized review tool in the process.



Step 1: Draw the Vocabulary Compass on the board (see the infographic below for an example).

Step 2: Post the information required at each compass point. As an example, we’ll use the following four approaches to defining a term for a 5th grade class (choose variations depending on the vocabulary words being addressed and the level of students that you’re teaching):

  • North: Write the definition
  • East: Draw a picture or a model
  • South: Write the critical attributes
  • West: Write or draw a real-world example, or write a word problem using the word

Step 3: Choose a vocabulary card to place in the middle of the compass. Let’s say that the term we’re introducing is Area of a Base.

Step 4: Ask students to fill in North, East, South, and West for the word, defining the term according to the parameters that you’ve set at each compass point. Have students write/draw their responses on an index card for each new card introduced. For Area of a Base, the card might look like this:


Tip: Have students punch a hole in each card’s corner and keep on a binder ring as an accessible review tool anytime.

Activity 2: Sort Buckets

Sort Buckets is an adaptable game that can be used for whole groups, small groups, or as an activity center. First, students write vocabulary words on cards and place them in the bucket (or category) where they belong. Then, students get a chance to discuss their choices and alternative options. It’s at once a formative assessment for the teacher to gauge understanding and an opportunity for students to engage in collaborative debate and exercise critical thinking skills. A win-win!



Step 1: Make “buckets” or “pockets” out of paper, assign each bucket a category related to the content vocabulary being studied, label them, and place buckets on bulletin board or wall. For example, you could label the buckets “Geometry,” “Measurement,” “Computation,” and “Graphs.” (As an alternative, you could use actual buckets instead of paper cut-outs.)

Step 2: Select vocabulary words that fit into one or more of the bucket categories, and ask each student to make one card for each word with his/her name on the back.

Step 3: Students place their cards in or around the buckets where they think cards belong.

Step 4: Students explain and defend placement of cards.

Step 5: Allow students to discuss other possibilities—some cards may have more than one correct placement!

Activity 3: Race with Me

This game harnesses the allure of the board game, directing students’ playful energy toward vocabulary review and small group collaboration as they’re asked to define words in order to move ahead on a game board. Although the version given here asks for verbal definitions, there are endless variations you could adopt. We’ve listed a few below, after the directions.



Step 1: Supply each group with a game board template (find printable templates over here), a die, and a stack of face-down vocabulary cards, and choose a reader for each group.

Step 2: Explain the rules:

  • The reader draws a card and reads the word for player 1.
  • Player 1 must define the word.
  • If correct, Player 1 rolls the die and moves ahead.
  • If incorrect, the next player has a chance to define the word and move ahead.
  • Once a word is correctly defined, the reader draws another card and the game continues until one of the players reaches the finish line.


Pictionary. Have Player 1 draw a picture or model to represent the word and let the other students guess. The student who guesses correctly rolls the die to move ahead and becomes the next player to draw a card.

Reverse Definition. Have the reader read the definition rather than the word, and ask Player 1 to provide the word. If correct, Player 1 rolls the die and moves ahead. Otherwise, the next player gets the chance to provide the word that matches the definition.

Spelling Bee. Instead of defining the word, ask Player 1 to spell the word. If spelled correctly, Player 1 rolls the die and moves ahead. Otherwise, the next player wins the opportunity to spell the word.

3 Games to Make Math Stick_Infographic

Introduce Word Play in Your Classroom


What other word games do you play in your classroom to introduce and review academic vocabulary? The three games in this article were drawn from the Motivation Math Vocabulary Card Set, which includes a Word Play Activities book with dozens of games just like these, all geared for a variety of learning styles. (Did you know there’s also a version for science?)

Use promo code VCBL526 for a 20% discount off Motivation Math Vocabulary Card Set. Choose from grade levels 1–5. Offer expires 7/31/2016.