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ESL Icebreaker Games “Word Association”

“Word Association” is a swift-paced and mentally stimulating game that is particularly effective in language learning contexts.

This game, centered around the spontaneous connection of words, is excellent for developing associative thinking skills and vocabulary expansion.

It provides a unique way for language learners to practice thinking and responding in the target language, making it a versatile and valuable tool for classrooms of various language levels.

esl icebreaker games for adults word association

Adult ESL Icebreaker – Word Association

We have loads of icebreaker games here on the site for all ages, you can check out the full list for adults on the link directly below but we also have icebreakers for kindergarten, primary and high school here which you can check out as well.

(Of course you can adapt all of them for your classrooms and students as needed)

How to Play Word Association

The game begins with the teacher or a student saying a word. Subsequent participants then say the first word that comes to their mind in association with the previous word.

This chain continues, creating a string of associated words. The associations can be based on meaning, phonetic similarity, or any other connection that comes naturally to the participant.

The rapid nature of the game encourages quick thinking and fosters a lively, energetic classroom atmosphere.

Educational Benefits

  1. Enhances Vocabulary and Language Fluency: Participants are encouraged to think of words rapidly, aiding in vocabulary recall and usage fluency.
  2. Develops Associative Thinking: The game improves students’ ability to make connections between words, an important skill in language learning.
  3. Encourages Creative Thinking: As associations can be subjective and creative, students get an opportunity to explore the language beyond its conventional use.
  4. Improves Listening Skills: Students must listen carefully to the preceding word to form an appropriate association, enhancing their listening abilities.
  5. Suitable for Various Language Levels: The simplicity of the game’s concept makes it adaptable to any language proficiency level.
  6. Creates an Engaging Learning Environment: The fast pace and unpredictability of the game make it an enjoyable and engaging activity for students.
  7. Promotes Cultural and Contextual Understanding: In multilingual and multicultural classrooms, word associations can reflect diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, offering insights into different ways of thinking.

Resources and Setup

“Word Association” requires minimal resources:

  • A list of starter words, especially useful for beginner levels or to guide the game in a specific direction.
  • A timer, if the teacher wants to add a time-bound element to increase the challenge.
  • Optional: A whiteboard or screen to write down the chain of words, which can be useful for review and discussion after the game.

Adaptation for Different Language Levels

The game can be easily modified to cater to different language proficiency levels:

  • Beginner Level: Start with basic, everyday words and allow more time for students to think. Beginners can also be allowed to pass if they can’t think of a word quickly, reducing pressure.
  • Intermediate Level: Introduce words that are more abstract or specific to certain topics. Encourage students to form associations based on more than just synonyms or antonyms.
  • Advanced Level: Use the game to explore idiomatic expressions, phrasal verbs, or words with multiple meanings. Challenge students to create associations based on more complex linguistic or thematic links.


“Word Association” is a deceptively simple yet incredibly effective tool for language learning.

It nurtures quick thinking, expands vocabulary, and enhances associative thinking, all within an enjoyable and dynamic game format.

Its adaptability makes it a suitable activity for learners at all levels, proving to be a valuable addition to any language educator’s toolkit.

I have been a teacher of English for over 15 years, in that time i made hundreds and thousands of resources and learnt so much i think its worth sharing. Hopefully to help teachers and parents around the world.

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