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Teaching with Taboo: The best way to review vocabulary

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

Like it or not, science is full of jargon, and it only gets worse as the courses become more advanced. There are over 900 vocabulary terms to know in IB Biology alone! Good luck putting that up on your word wall! If your students are going to have any hope of understanding subject-specific vocabulary, they will need to be exposed to them often and in a variety of contexts. As part of that exposure, I rely on Taboo, a very simple party game that translates beautifully to classroom use. Here's how I do it.

Science ideas colourful lightbulb and science graphics on a white background

Taboo and gamified learning

Gamified learning is a fairly new term, but the idea of making tedious activities more exciting and rewarding by turning them into a game is as old as teaching and learning. You can read all about the benefits and concerns regarding gamification here, as well as here, but I borrowed a quote from one of the articles that I think summarizes it best:

"...gamifcation of learning is intrinsically motivating because rules are inputs to a broad range of decision making processes; fun because goals allow students to see the direct impact of their efforts; authentic because fantasy provides a compelling background that allows students to experiment with skills without suffering the consequences of failure in real life; self-reliant because feedback guides students to facilitate and correct performance; experiential because social elements allow students to share experiences and build bonds."

Sounds pretty good, right? Well, as with any teaching method, there are strategies that work and those that don't, but thankfully, Taboo is a relatively fool-proof game that is hard to execute poorly.

If you aren't familiar with the game Taboo, the rules are pretty simple. Two teams compete for points. Players take turns being the "guesser" while their teammates, the "clue-givers", try to get the guesser to say a hidden word. The catch is that there's a list of related ("taboo") words they can't use! It's a bit like Pictionary or Charades, but instead of drawing or acting, you have to rely on explanations. This is the reason why I think Taboo is such a great review activity. It involves far more than memorization as students really need to know what they're talking about in order to communicate with the guesser. Similarly, the guesser needs to know enough vocabulary to recognize what is being described.

Watch the video below for a quick rundown of how the game can be played:

Here are some other reasons I like reviewing with Taboo:

  • It promotes understanding rather than pure memorization

  • It involves the whole class

  • It requires almost no setup

  • The games are fast-paced

  • It encourages both communication and collaboration

  • Even people who aren't participating get something out of it

  • Differentiation is built in

  • It's very customizable

What you need to play

Although Taboo has no game pieces or board, it does require you to have Taboo cards or slides prepared featuring the vocabulary words you want your students to review. I made these for all 30 of my middle school science units, which you can access here. If you just want to try it out, you can download a free set of Physics cards for a unit on Energy, Work, and Power. Of course, you can always make your own, too. If you choose to go the DIY route, I have a free list of over 900 science keywords you can use to get you started.

Once you've got your vocabulary cards/slides ready to go, all you need is a simple timer, and optionally, an annoying buzzer of some sort. I like to use an egg timer as the ticking seems to boost the level of excitement. The buzzer is used when the clue-giver(s) cheat or say a Taboo word by accident. Put a student you trust in charge of this, if you dare.

Teaching Strategies and Modifications

In classic Taboo rules, there is a single clue-giver and many guessers, but I find that the opposite works best for review purposes. That way more students get to participate and use their knowledge to describe each term. Beyond that, there are many ways to modify the game for your particular group of students, but here are some of my favourites.

1. Rapid-fire

Divide the class into two teams. A chosen student guesses as many words as they can before the timer runs out! You'll want to set the timer to 1 minute or more for this variation. The guesser can pass on slides or cards if they get stuck. At the end of each round, the team gets 1 point for each word guessed correctly. No points are lost for Taboo words. If you want to increase the difficulty, you can subtract a point from a team whenever they attempt to cheat or use a Taboo word by mistake.

taboo cards on a table, science vocabulary review game

2. The bomb

If you have an especially large (or unruly) class and want to keep the engagement as high as possible, this might be your best strategy. Break the class into groups of 3-5 students. Then each group selects a guesser to start. Put the Taboo cards facedown in the center of the group. A mini hourglass works very well for this variant since the time is hard to track. When the timer starts, the guesser draws one card at a time and places it on their forehead so that only the other students can see it. Whenever the guesser says the correct word, the student to their left draws a card and becomes the new guesser. The student who is still guessing when the timer runs out loses and is out of the game (but they still do their job as a clue-giver). This continues until only one player remains!

3. Team battle

Divide the class into two teams. Each team selects a guesser to come up to the front of the room and face the class. Project the secret word and Taboo words at the front of the room so that the guessers can't see them but their teammates can. Set the timer for 2 or 3 minutes (adjust as necessary). When the timer starts, both teams rush to describe the secret word until one of the guessers says it. When they do, award that team one point and move on to the next word. Assign a student to track points to keep the game moving quickly. When the timer runs out, tally up the points for that round. Then change guessers and do it again. Repeat until you run out of vocabulary words!

4. Test the teacher

Put students in charge of the slideshow, timer, and buzzer. This time, the teacher will be the guesser while the rest of the class tries to get through as many words as possible before the timer runs out. You can play dumb to increase the tension a little! Be sure to assign a trustworthy student referee to watch for Taboo violations! Once your students get used to how Taboo works, you can even give them an assignment to create the vocabulary cards/slides you will guess from.

5. Just for fun – play without teams or points! Have players take turns as the guesser while the rest of the class acts as clue-givers. Each student is the guesser for just one vocabulary term. This is great for when you have a few extra minutes at the end of class or just want to keep the stakes low. Reward guessers who answer correctly with candies, high-fives, or good old-fashioned praise!

Will you Taboo, too?

I hope I've convinced you that Taboo games offer an exciting alternative to traditional worksheets or quizzes for reviewing vocabulary. By infusing the power of gamified learning, this fast-paced, concept-driven activity not only engages students but also enhances their understanding of key terms. Furthermore, Taboo encourages creativity, communication, and collaboration, all of which are transferrable skills that will endure long after the vocabulary words are forgotten. So give Taboo a try for your next review session and watch your students have more fun saying mitochondria than you ever thought possible! And, oh yeah, you pretty much get to kick back and watch the show! Win-win!

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