The Language Teacher
03 - 2000


Neil Robbie

Ferris University


Key Words: Communication strategies, Paraphrasing
Learner English Level: False Beginner to Advanced
Learner Maturity Level: High School to Adult
Preparation Time: about 60 minutes
Activity Time: 30-60 minutes

This is an activity very similar to charades in concept, but following slightly different rules in that verbal clues are also permitted: e.g., using a large number of smaller words, giving the opposite word or an associated word, or giving the grammatical structure of the word. The main purpose of the activity is to generate alternative means of communication and the realization that even if a needed word is unavailable, there are other ways of communicating the meaning. Teachers may concentrate on film titles, book titles, or song titles, or a mixture of all three. For the examples in this article I have concentrated on film titles.



Prepare a list of movie titles of (a) films from the last five years which students may or may not have seen and (b) classic films which students may not have seen, but which you want to familiarize them with for the sake of their general education (Ben Hur, Gone With the Wind, The Third Man, for example). If there are thirty students in the class, for example, prepare at least thirty and up to one hundred titles, depending on how long you want to continue the activity. The more titles that are used, the longer the lesson. For legibility, the list should be word-processed to about a size 12 font or bigger and then cut into individual strips.

Arrange students into groups of four to six; the papers will be exchanged among groups until all students have covered all the titles. If there are about five groups of four and two of five (thirty students), then with thirty titles, each group will be able to have six or seven rounds each.

Rules and strategies

If students do not follow the rules, the activity can easily break down. I would recommend spending twenty minutes or more explaining the rules before letting students start the exercise, and using plenty of examples to illustrate the strategies in action. The explanation itself can be quite exhausting, but when the activity begins the teacher will only have monitoring work to do; the students will be doing most of the work.

1. No Japanese or native language. The only language must be English. If the film is Japanese with an English title which uses Japanese, as in The Seven Samurai, then it is permissible to use Japanese (but the explicator still can't say the word itself, but may say "it is a Japanese word").

2. The words on the paper must not be said until they have all been guessed, but if one word is guessed it should immediately be acknowledged by the explicator. When all words have been guessed, the explicator must show the paper to the guessers.

These are the most important rules, but if left at that the students will probably be lost. The following rules are really strategies and suggestions for communication which the students should be encouraged to use:

3. Gestures may be used as much as you want and in any way you want. For example, if you are explaining Gone with the Wind you may make blowing noises and windy gestures with your hands.

4. Antonyms may be used. For example, if the word is "gone," the student may say, "The opposite of this word is 'come.'"

5. Synonyms or approximate synonyms may be used. For example, if the word is "with," students might hint "together."

6. "Sounds like" words may be used. For example if the word is "life" the student may cup hands to his or her ear and say "sounds like 'wife.'" However, if the word is an exact homophone, then it may not be used. For example in Ben Hur, "her" is a virtual homophone of "hur," so the student should say "opposite of him" rather than saying the word directly. If the guessers get the word phonetically but are unsure how to spell it, it should be as if they have guessed the word. Later, they may be shown the paper to clarify the spelling and meaning.

7. Students may talk about the movie, book, or pop song, describing the story and giving the names of actors and actresses. This may make the activity go a lot quicker! For a greater challenge, this strategy can be omitted.

8. Students may give the grammatical status of the word. For example in Gone With the Wind, "wind" is a concrete noun, "with" is a preposition, "the" is a definite article. If the word is "gone" the student may say "'go' past participle." For this, the teacher might help the student by providing adequate vocabulary for the most frequent grammatical areas and writing it on the blackboard.

9. Students may also say whether the word is a content word or a function word. In Gone with the Wind, the first and fourth words are content words and the second and third are function words.

10. Students may give the number of words on the paper. In the case of Gone with the Wind this is four.

11. Student may give the number of syllables for each word. Again, in Gone with the Wind this is four. So the students may say "four words, four syllables." Before explicating, he or she may say "first word, one syllable." If students do not know about syllables, you will have to introduce this term.

12. Students can say whether the first letter or phoneme of the word is a vowel or a consonant. If the students have knowledge in these areas, they can give the more exact phonetic status of the sound, such as short vowel or long vowel, consonant, fricative, sibilant, labeodental, dental, alveolar and so on. For example, in Gone with the Wind, the first sound of the first syllable would be a velar vocalized plosive consonant. Obviously this applies only to students with a sophisticated knowledge of phonetics. However, if you are teaching a phonetics course the activity could be done on this basis alone.

Any of the above strategies may be emphasized or ignored as the individual teacher sees fit. It might be simpler to limit the activity to only four or five strategies, or the reader may have other original ideas for strategies to use.


1. Introduce the activity by standing at the front of the class and telling students you want them to guess the name of a movie title. To give the example of a less challenging title, Die Hard, start by saying "film title: two words, two syllables." Then hold up one finger very clearly and say "first word." Here you might use the charade/gesture strategy and fall on the floor in imitation of death throes. If students don't get this, use another strategy, for example "sounds like" and point to your eye or yourself and try to elicit the word. Use other strategies until one student guesses the word. Then hold up two fingers and say "second word" one syllable. "It's an adjective which is the opposite of easy." Probably by now the students will have the whole title and should shout it out. If necessary, give another example. It's fun working out which strategy to use and changing strategies in turn. When the title has been guessed, turn the paper round and show it to the students.

2. Explain the rules and strategies. This might take some time, but should be done as thoroughly as possible, all the while giving examples. Write a simplified strategy list on the black board.

3. Tell students that if they don't know the title, it's O.K. The game can still be played if they have no idea about the film. Students may have seen the movie under a different Japanese title, so will be interested to know the English title. Basic Instinct is a good example of this as the Japanese title is completely different. (Actually, to tell the truth, I have never had a group successfully explicate or guess "instinct," but after trying they will eventually encounter the word, so this too is valuable.)

4. Count the students into groups. This is better than leaving students with friends as it mixes up the High and Low Input Generators (Seliger 1983) and puts the students in a situation where they may have to negotiate meaning with complete strangers. You might want to change desk arrangements to suit group work.

5. Give the paper slips to the students. Explain they MUST NOT show their slips to other students.

6. Tell students to choose a student to be the explicator first. When that student's word is guessed, another student becomes explicator.

7. When all the titles have been guessed, collect one group's titles and exchange them with another group's. Be careful not to repeat the same paper slips with the same groups and continually monitor to see this does not happen. Continue to do this until most groups have covered all the titles or interest flags.

8. Follow up activities may be to watch a section from one of the movies or to give a short lecture on one of the movies.

9. The activity may be repeated in a number of different contexts, for example book titles, song titles, verbs of motion, adjectives of emotion, proverbs, idioms or whatever the teacher may want to focus on.


Seliger, H.W. 1983. Learner interaction in the classroom and its effect on language acquisition. In Seliger and Long (eds.) Classroom oriented research in second language acquisition. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

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