Teaching Strategy: Build Vocabulary with Jenga

In a given school year, CTE students are challenged to learn more than 200 technical terms. Learning these terms, however, is only the beginning.

The art of teaching vocabulary lies in engaging students in conversations around technical vocabulary terms without them even realizing it. If you announce, “We are going to work on vocabulary terms for the next 30 minutes,” you will hear students sigh. It’s not their favorite activity. Knowing this, teachers can design engaging activities and games.

Gen Z learners prefer lessons that are experiential, participatory, image-rich and connected (EPIC). We know that most students want to learn; most want to perform well on tests. However, that does not mean you can create enthusiasm toward practicing and learning simply by stating it. CTE teachers must foster environments in which students want to say the terms, and willingly work with peers to build connections.

Why Tapping the Affective Domain is Important

Think back to some of your own high school learning. What are the first images to come to mind? I would guess these memories involved sensory learning or positive emotions, which trigger the release of dopamine. It is this dopamine surge that creates, in us, a desire to continue. It serves as our motivation.

As students engage in a round of Jenga, you will hear laughter. People are smiling and enjoying the challenge to recall the terms.

Explained below are two different versions of our game. I would highly encourage you to be creative and let students modify as they play new rounds.

The Strategy in Action

How long will it take?

20–30 minutes, depending upon how long you want students to play

What’s the gist?

This is best used as a review tool. It is an excellent tool for refreshing older terms students may not have used in a few months — tapping their neural pathways of memory.

How It Works

Object of the game: Winner is the player with the most points when the tower tumbles.

Version 1

Our focus is on making connections with the term in context.

  1. Someone volunteers to be the scorekeeper.
  2. Youngest player starts the game by removing a peg. Player reads the terms (two per) and then gives a scenario with one or both of the terms used.
  3. The other players at the table acknowledge if it is correct or not.
  4. If the player is correct, a point is given. If the player is not correct, the player to their left can score by explaining the term.
  5. The game repeats until the tower falls.

Version 2

Our focus is on asking questions.

  1. Someone volunteers to be the scorekeeper.
  2. Youngest player starts the game by removing a peg. Player reads the term (two per) and then creates a question to ask the player to their left.
  3. If the player answers the question correctly, a point is given. If the player is not correct, the player to their left can score by explaining the term.
  4. The game repeats until the tower falls.

Final Thoughts

Frequent use of formative assessments is the best way to gauge where students have gaps in their knowledge and understanding. However, with 20 or more students in a class, this can become challenging. By using games like Jenga with students, teachers become facilitators. Listen closely to a couple rounds of Jenga play and you will develop a good grip on where knowledge gaps lie. It is a win-win in the classroom, when learning and practice meet laughter and engagement.

Sandra Adams is a teacher and instructional coach with the Career Academy, Fort Wayne Community Schools. She co-wrote the ACTE-supported book But I’m NOT a Reading Teacher!: Literacy Strategies for Career and Technical Educators with Gwendolyn Leininger. Contact her to learn how you can implement theses certification test prep and other innovative teaching strategies in your CTE classroom.

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