Vocab review game – there’s an app for that!

Last week I discovered what has become possibly the most addictive app I have on my iPod: ‘Heads Up Charades’.

Straightaway, I knew this would make a fun classroom activity for revising vocabulary.

Heads Up Charades - by Matthew Gutierrez for iPod/iPod and Android

Regardless of whether you use it for ELT purposes or not, it’s pretty simple:
1. find a willing friend
2. choose a category from those given in the app (e.g. movies)
3. hold the iPod landscape in front of you with the screen facing your friend (the app suggests you hold it in front of your forehead, if you so wish…)
4. your friend describes/mimes/does an impression of whatever appears on the screen
5. you guess it
6. try to guess as many as possible within 1 minute! (the game includes a countdown clock)

When guessing, if you know it, you say the word/phrase/movie title/whatever aloud and tilt the screen forward (towards your partner).  The game will automatically advance to the next thing for your partner to describe.  If you don’t know it and want to pass, you should tilt the screen back (towards you).  Again, the game will automatically advance to the next one.  After a minute, the round ends and the app tots up how many you got right and how many you missed.

So how does this relate to language learning?

For years now, I’ve played a similar game for vocabulary revision with my students, but using little slips of paper instead of an app.  Students write one word/phrase per piece of paper, create a substantial deck (ideally using vocab from recent lessons), then play in groups, just as outlined above.  (One student guesses while others describe.  With or without a time limit, as you see fit.)

Now the Charades app itself doesn’t let you create your own vocabulary decks (or at least, mine seems to have a glitch), but you can download a free ‘custom card creator‘ app which works in exactly the same way.

If you search for “Charades card creator” in the App store on an iPhone/iPod, you should find it fairly easily.  It looks like this:

Charades custom card creator (by BM App Life)

(And incidentally, this ‘card creator’ app actually uses the iPod/iPhone’s inbuilt camera to film whoever is looking at the screen while the person holding the phone is guessing.  My students and I discovered this by accident today by tapping “watch video” on the screen that appears after finishing a round of the game.  This might be an interesting prompt for follow-up work on how they could have more clearly/successfully defined particular words/phrases.)

Two of my students today used their iPhones to download the app, then they each joined 3 other students, to make 2 groups of 4.  First, they created the vocab cards in a custom deck in the app by going through their lesson notes from the past week.  Then, they took turns to hold the iPhone and be the person guessing while the others described/defined.

So if paper works fine, what’s the point in an app?

There’s no need for an app, of course.  I just find it easier to organise and keep the vocab cards electronically.

It also makes it a lot easier to keep track of the time limit and keep the game going without losing pace when several groups are playing simultaneously.  In my intermediate class today, the students really got into the game and after very little time, they were starting new rounds without me needing to intervene and organise them.

Something about the countdown timer being visible on the screen and the sound effects when you get things right or when you pass a card also seemed to make it quite engaging.  My students today were hilariously loud and competitive, particularly in one group!

Here they are in action:

And the linguistic aims?

Yes, it’s more than just a fun game.  After playing for a good hour or so, we discussed the merits of this game for their language learning:

  • it reviews vocabulary which they might otherwise rarely use (and therefore forget!)
  • it practises the skill of circumlocution (describing something when you don’t know the word)
  • it practises doing this fast (outside the classroom, people aren’t always very patient!)

Great!  I want it!  Do I need an iPhone?

So far, I only know that you can get this app on iPhones, iPods and iPads.  I don’t know about Android-based mobile phones.  Would appreciate it if anyone tries to do this and can leave a comment with details of their success/failure below!

Thanks to the lovely students in my fantastic intermediate class for their permission to include their photos here!


About Laura Patsko

Teacher trainer, language learner, language teacher, linguist, researcher. Not necessarily in that order.


  1. David Jamett

    Hello Laura!
    It was a really enjoyable game! and best of all it works perfectly. It Is always a boring and difficult process to get and retain new vocab… and for me, a quite daunting task also, since when I want to use a new word already studied, I usually forgot it. This game is absolutly the best of all methods that I have already tried to learn new words and also to improve the abilities to explain abstract concept without the help of translating the word to my first lenguage… you don’t have the time to do that in the game… exactly the same as in the real world!!


    David Jamett

    • Thanks David! That’s my first ever blog comment directly from one of my students – so pleased! Glad you enjoyed the game. It’ll definitely appear in future lessons at some point. 🙂

  2. David Jamett

    Well, Four months ago I was completely unable to connect more than three words in a sentence, so now I think I have some few ideas about which technics works and which definitely don’t (at least in my very own experience and humble opinion, of course) and on this line I think your idea on this game was a huge breakthrough. Strongly recommended… It works!

    • Sounds like you’ve made super-fast progress, David – well done. Having known you now for a few weeks, I have trouble believing you struggled so much only 4 months ago! 🙂 See you next week!

  3. Larabi

    Laura I appreciate your approach, your method to get your students (I am) to work with passion, interest and especially to have a sense of progress to go faster and farther, I wish to keep a very nice continuation and thank you again (sorry for my mistakes, but there was the heart)
    Mohamed Larabi

  4. Hallo. Could you share with us some vocabulary teaching strategies? Thanks in advanced!

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