Tonight Show Teaching: Teaching Vocabulary with Word Sneak


If you haven’t seen Jimmy Fallon’s game Word Sneak in action, it’s a simple premise that yields hysterical results.

Jimmy Fallon and a guest each have a stack of cards with a word on each card.

The object is to work the word into the conversation as naturally as possible. It can’t sound forced or fake.

The players do not know each other’s words.

If you’ve seen it in action, you know how funny it can be to hear Jimmy try to work in “dungarees” or “loofah” or “Fruity Pebbles” into the conversation.

Click on the image to watch Rick Gervais playing the game.

Even though The Tonight Show is on past my bedtime, I love watching clips of Jimmy Fallon’s interactions with guests when he plays word games with them.

While many of them are not appropriate for the classroom (surprise!), many are.

Word Sneak is one of those games.

It’s a great game for teaching vocabulary, and it’s awesome for in-person or distance learning.

🌺Why Word Sneak is a Great Vocabulary Game

I love Word Sneak for a number of reasons, including:

  • Word Sneak works so well as a vocabulary game because it is a cool twist on the tired “use the word in a sentence” task.
  • You can add in as many Tonight Show elements as you want, which makes it feel more like an event than vocabulary practice. (I’ll talk more about that later.)
  • It works for all content areas. It’s super fun to hear kids try to work words like “erosion” into a sentence.
  • It is that it builds classroom community by creating loads of opportunity for inside jokes.

🌺 How to Play Word Sneak in Class

I’ve read a Catlin Tucker’sOpens in a new tab. take on it, as well as Kasey Bell’sOpens in a new tab., and they both have great ideas to share.

I thought it was worth sharing my thoughts because I do it just a little bit differently.

One of the very best things about Word Sneak is that you can make it as simple or as complicated as you like.

In its most basic form, you just give kids words, put them in pairs, and have them try to work the words into a natural-sounding conversation in a certain length of time.

I think it can be even more fun with some tweaks, so let me share some of my ideas.

🌺 Providing the Words

It’s best to have five words or so per player. Too many, and it can drag.

This is a game that thrives on energy, and if the lists are too long, it loses momentum.

A list of words is easier, partly because you can type them up ahead of time, but I find it’s slightly harder for students to track the word on a list, as opposed to individual word cards.

It’s easier for them to focus on one word at a time, and they can do that with the index cards.

To save time, you can print onto labels and stick labels to the index cards. If your printer can handle 3 x 5 index cards, I bow to your teaching greatness. Mine cannot.

Fallon uses random words, and I’m using vocabulary words, but I agree with Catlin that it’s more fun to throw in some random words, too. If the words are all content-based, they can get a little dry.

If you’re using general vocabulary words (as opposed to content-based academic vocabulary), it’s less of an issue, but it’s still fun to have the random “peanut butter cookies” thrown in for fun.

You can use PowerPoint or Google Slides to give it a game-show feel, or you can just play simply with index cards or a list of words.

I’ve tried it with using an animated PowerPoint, but really, the cards or a list of words works great.

🌺 Players

The biggest difference between how I play and how other teachers play is that they divide the kids into pairs and have them play the game together by themselves. (This is how I described it in its basic form above.)

I feel that the audience response is what makes the game fun.

It also means that the students who are watching get to think about how they themselves would answer the question.

This is so key, and it’s often overlooked. If students are watching others’ play, they cannot help but think about what they would say or guess. That is an essential part of thinking.

Because of these reasons, I think it’s better to have a pair of students play in front of other students.

This can be the entire class or a group of students. You can decide which you think works best for your students.

I almost always prefer the whole-class model, and my students do, too.

To me, this is how the magic happens because the students who are watching add so much energy to the experience.

On a practical note, it’s how the students who are playing know when a target word was used: They hear the audience reaction.

I set it up so that one student is the Host, and one is the Guest.

This is another way I differ from other teachers: I assign these roles.

The reason I do is that it seems easier for students to take risks when they assume the persona of someone else.

It feels more real.

You can have it be Fallon and a generic celebrity, or you can tell kids who they are supposed to be, choosing from random celebrities they know.

That adds a layer of complexity, so I wouldn’t recommend that until kids have played the game a number of times.

Usually, my more gregarious kids will be the ones to volunteer to play in front of the class, but once the classroom feels safe to everyone, even my most reticent students will give it a go.

They’re often the most hysterical, ironically.

🌺 Introducing Students to the Game

Before you play the game with students, show them a clip of the game.

They’ll have a much better experience if they are familiar with the game.

While you can find loads of clips of it on YouTube, I recommend this one with Steve Carell.

I’ve watched a lot of them, and there is some innuendo that you may not want. This one is fine for kids.

Explain that you’re going to play the game in class, and tell them how it will work (they’ll get a stack of cards, they’ll use the words on the cards in a sentence, etc.).

I find that it’s worth taking a moment and discussing how much better it is when it sounds natural, and how that’s where the real fun is.

This game falls on its face when the conversation sounds super fake or stilted.

🌺 Using the Words

There’s no rule that the students have to switch off using their words.

On the Tonight Show, the way they tell the other person has used the word is that they move that card to the back of the stack they’re holding.

It’s also sometimes obvious by the audience reaction and/or by the word giver’s reaction.

I don’t think you need to make kids take turns.

All the words are in play, so the fewer artificial rules you impose, the more likely the conversation will sound more natural.

I have seen teachers display the words where the players can see them, but I find this slightly less fun.

You can write the words the players are trying to use on a dry erase board and hold it up to the audience so they know what the words are.

You can channel your inner Vanna White here, if you like!

For the white board, it’s fine to have the words all listed out and then just cross them off as the players use them.

If you’ve got a screen that is out of view of the players, you can display the words there as well.

🌺 Ending the Game

Theoretically, the game ends when both players run out of cards, but I find that it’s important to have a time limit.

If you watch the Tonight Show clips, you’ll see that they’re usually between three and five minutes or so.

Even the pros can’t keep this going forever.

Five minutes seems to be the limit, so set a timer.

Some teachers play for points, with the player sneaking in the most words effectively winning, but I don’t do this.

We just play for the fun of playing.

🌺 Making it feel like the Tonight Show

You can make it feel more like a Tonight Show experience in a few ways.

I use the Tonight Show set background displayed on a screen. (You can grab it hereOpens in a new tab.).

tonight show set with gif file saying word sneak

(This is a gif image with those cool Word Sneak eyes playing over and over. If you just want the background by itself, grab that hereOpens in a new tab..)

If you’re going to play a digital version, you can use that as a background in PowerPoint or Google Slides.

Jimmy always wears a suit (very expensive suits, actually), and so you can have a suit kids can wear if they’re in the “Host” role.

It’s also fun to have a selection of props if someone is the guest.

Things like huge sunglasses and baseball caps can make students feel more like celebrities.

Some teachers don’t like to deal with cleaning them, but I haven’t found it to be a big issue. A quick wipe-down or a toss in the washing machine work fine.

You can use a laugh track (I just use this one from YouTubeOpens in a new tab.) to feel like there’s a big TV audience.

You can have the student in Host role sit at a desk set up like Jimmy’s with a microphone (even fake is fine), a mug, a laptop, and a pencil holder with pencils.

Jimmy uses a Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon mug. You can buy those if you’re really into it, but it’s fine to have just any mug.

🌺 Playing in a Distance Learning Environment

This game lends itself to distance learning environments, with some adjustments.

If they haven’t played in class before, go through the introductory piece as you normally would.

Choose two players, and privately message each of them their words. Tell them to jot down their words and get out of the chat.

You can then share the words in the chat with the rest of the class. (That’s why I want the players out of the chat.)

It’s also helpful to have everyone else turn off their cameras and mute themselves to make sure the players are showing and the only ones speaking.

This does make it less fun, though, because the laughter is a big part of what’s fun.

The problem is that Zoom and other platforms highlight the video of the person it hears, so the video bounces around.

If your platform allows you to highlight two participants, you are super lucky and should pause in your reading to give thanks to the distance learning gods that they have smiled on you with such favor.

You can train kids to be quiet while the players are talking so they stay on screen and then get quiet again after the use of a word, but that’s a sketchy workaround.

One option is to divide the students into rooms and have smaller groups play, with sets of students taking turns playing. That’s a little trickier, and definitely harder with younger students.

If you’re playing in a distance learning environment, one thing you can do is pretend that you are the host (Fallon) and are choosing two members of the audience to play. Hold a mug, wear a tie…you get the picture.

Even though Word Sneak is not necessarily ideal for distance play, it does work.

🌺 Wrapping Up:

Word Sneak is one of those games that, once played, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without.

Students love it so much, it gives great practice, it works for lots of grade levels and content areas, and it builds classroom community through the creation of shared experience and laughter.

It’s a surprisingly difficult challenge, and if you play a round first, you’ll see what I mean.

I hope your students love it and have fun playing with words! 🌺

Lisa Van Gemert

Lisa loves words & helping kids love words, too. Her grandparents were deaf, and she loves words made with hands as much as words made with pens and typewriters and voices. Lisa lives in Arlington, Texas, with her Aussie husband, Steve.

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