Christian Homeschool Resources & Homeschooling Advice

14 Great Games to Play with Reference Materials

  • Kathy Grubb Contributing Writer
  • Published Sep 08, 2008
14 Great Games to Play with Reference Materials

Are you feeling trapped in the house? Looking for a solution for the homeschooling blahs? Break up the boredom by opening up a few reference books and playing a few games.

Reference books can be as dry as toast made in the Sahara and as boring as watching paint dry on a rock, but with gentle competition, your family can practice using reference materials and still have fun!

Here are several games to play as individuals, teams, or a family using a dictionary, a set of encyclopedias (the old-fashioned kind, not the computer kind), an atlas, and a phone book (like the Yellow Pages). These games will not only break up the long days but also reinforce skills that might have been overlooked during the course of the year. Most of these games are suited for fourth graders and older, but younger readers can still benefit with assistance from a parent or older sibling.


Dictionary skills include alphabetizing, using guide words, and recognizing parts of speech. These games reinforce those concepts while adding a bit of fun. Nearly any dictionary will work for these games, but the more complete the dictionary, the more fun the game and the more the student will learn. Picture dictionaries are not recommended.

Guide Word Trap
2+ players

Guide words are the words at the top inside and outside corners of each page in the dictionary. One player opens to any place in the dictionary and reads the two guide words aloud. The other players must say or write a word that they think should come between the two guide words. For example, the guide words might be “candle” and “carry.” Players who say words like “carpenter” or “cantaloupe” are correct and get a point because those words are alphabetically correct. Points can be acquired with each correct word. Players should take turns finding the guide words, looking through the dictionary for hard words to try to stump the other player.

Word Drills
3+ players

Each player needs his own dictionary. One player says a word (either from another dictionary or off the top of his head). Players wait with their dictionaries closed until given the signal to go. When the signal is given, players try to find the word as fast as possible. Points are given to the fastest finders, and players take turns coming up with the word to look up.

The Biggest Entry
1+ players

Ordinary words like walk, play, or read have multiple definitions. As a group, or even individually, brainstorm for simple words that have many meanings. With a ruler, measure from the top of the first line of the definition to the bottom of the last line to find out which of these words has the longest entry, using centimeters, not inches. Record which words have the longest entries, or even estimate their length before measuring. Words to consider: plane, house, bear, set, rock, run, stand, cup, pitch, sink.

Syllable Score
2+ players

Students take turns rolling three dice to come up with a three-digit number, which becomes a page number. For example, player 1 rolls a 1, a 3, and a 5—135. He turns to page 135 in the dictionary and finds the word on that page with the most syllables. The number of syllables in the word is the number of points he receives for that turn. In my dictionary, the longest word on page 135 is bouleversement, which has 5 syllables. I would get 5 points. The next player rolls the dice, turns to that page (1, 3, and 5 could be page 531, 351, or 153), and finds another long word, hopefully one longer than five syllables. As the students take turns, they collect points. Whoever gets to 25 points first is the winner.


Encyclopedia skills are similar to dictionary skills, because alphabetization and guide words are used. However, other skills, such as finding the main idea, timeline, and summarizing can also be reinforced with these games. These games require a full set of books, such as World Book or Encyclopedia Britannica, but it doesn’t matter how recently they were published.

Six Degrees of Biography
1+ players

Each player selects a famous person such as Queen Elizabeth I and searches that person’s entry for the name of another famous person, such as William Shakespeare. The student then goes to the second person’s entry to find another famous name. The student continues with this process until he finds the name he started with. Many famous people in history are connected to each other. The point of this exercise is that within six entries, the original entry should be found. No fair looking up people who were partners, spouses, or known adversaries. Your six “degrees” may look like this: Elizabeth I, King Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, Pope Clement VII, Martin Luther, and so on. This can be a time-consuming project and is recommended for upper grades.

Where Am I?
1+ players

Find where your name, as well as the names of your friends and neighbors, would fall alphabetically in the encyclopedia. What entries would be before and after it? Do any seem funny or fitting to the person’s name?

Apples to Apples, The Encyclopedia Version
4+ players

This game is played much like Apples to Apples. Using your green adjective cards from your Apples to Apples game (or a lengthy list of adjectives), each player opens a volume from his encyclopedia set, say, the G book. Each player chooses an entry from the volume that best describes the adjective (or green card) given by the judge (for instance, “clumsy”). The judge then chooses which entry is the best fit for that adjective (or the most humorous, if you play like my kids do).


A thesaurus, a collection of antonyms and synonyms, requires dictionary skills. These games can familiarize a student with how to use a thesaurus and build vocabulary, all while having a bit of fun.

ABC Opposites
2+ players

With a thesaurus for each player, write down a pair of antonyms for every letter of the alphabet (for example, antecedent and after, bulky and bantam, cheerful and complaining). Once the lists are completed, or after a set amount of time, compare lists. Any duplicate answers between the players are omitted and only original answers count as a point. The player with the most points wins. Recommended for sixth grade and older.

Who Has the Most?
1+ players

Choose one of these simple words: big, happy, pretty, fast, smart. Each player predicts which word has the most synonyms, antonyms, or both. Look each word up in the thesaurus to find out. Can you find other words that have more? Brainstorm for your own words and find their entries too. Recommended for lower grades.

Describe Yourself
1+ players

Think of ten words that describe yourself, such as short, funny, cheerful, compassionate, and cute. Then with the thesaurus find multi-syllable synonyms of each of these words (for the given words, for example, diminutive, whimsical, effervescent, commiserative, and pulchritudinous). Try describing others in your family, your pets, or your friends.

Phone Book

A phone book also requires dictionary skills. Even though this isn’t an academic pursuit, learning to use a phone book is a necessary life skill, especially during an emergency. The following games require commercial telephone listings (Yellow Pages)—the bigger, the better.

Fairy Tale Fix-It
1+ players

Consider your favorite fairy tale, such as “The Three Bears.” What businesses might the Three Bears consult in order to avoid the whole Goldilocks fiasco? A home security company? A furniture repairman? A caterer who might provide a breakfast that is “just right”? Search the phone book for businesses that might help the poor bear family and discuss their ads, the words they use to market their business, and their location. Try this same exercise with “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “The Three Pigs,” and any other stories in your memory.

It’s a Dirty Job
1+ players

Each player creates the columns “Jobs I Would Want” and “Jobs I Would Not” on a piece of paper. Search through the Yellow Pages for 10 jobs to list in each column. To make this a competition, compare lists with other players, eliminating duplicates and assigning a point per original job. For an even greater challenge, find 26 jobs you do or don’t like, one for every letter of the alphabet.

1+ players

Your community is full of businesses that have opposing or contradictory jobs or services. Flip through the phone book for examples of this, such as obstetricians and funeral directors, construction and demolition, swimming pool supplier and snow removal, wedding chapels and divorce lawyers. Brainstorm for more examples and count them up. With more than one player, compare the number of pairs each player can identify to determine the winner.

Try these reference book games on a dull afternoon. You might break up a dull routine, learn a great word or two, and perhaps even have a little fun!

Kathy Grubb lives in Boston, Massachusetts, with her supportive husband and her five enthusiastic children. Before she was married, she was a public school teacher and a professional writer. She also had no idea just how much work it takes to be a mother, much less one with two fifth graders, one second grader, and two toddlers.

Copyright 2008. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, Winter 07/8. Used with permission.