Anagram: A Vocabulary Development Game

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Simon Capper, Hiroshima Suzugamine Women's College

Key Words:Vocabulary
Learner English Level:All levels
Learner Maturity Level:Jr. High - Adult
Preparation Time:Varies
Activity Time:30 to 90 minutes including explanation of game




"Anagram" is an entertaining and instructive lexical game, faster paced and more productive than "Scrabble," focusing on word formation and vocabulary expansion through the use of affixes and compounds. Among its many beneficial features are the following:




1. involves constant mental and verbal recycling of lexical items

2. may be played competitively or cooperatively

3. involves constant attention and concentration--players will not doze off or drift away!

4. valid for any level of language learner

5. may be played for fun or for specific language study--productive in either role

6. focuses attention on word formation and spelling.

The object of the game is to make words from randomly chosen letters printed on cards. Words may be "stolen" from other players by rearranging or adding letters to existing words. The winner is the player with the most words in front of them when no more words can be made from the communal pool of cards. Although the game was not originally designed for EFL, I have found no better, more enjoyable game in more than a decade of teaching.


If specific lexical points, such as affixes, are to be studied, it is worth giving students a homework sheet of common prefixes and suffixes, asking them to find further examples. Explaining that the homework is preparation for the game will usually ensure that the work is completed, although the game can easily be played without extensive preparation. The list in Appendix One may be useful as a worksheet for homework.

Prior to starting the game, the teacher should explain the concept of anagrams to the class. One good attention-getter is to start with famous people and have learners guess the name from the anagram. Among the examples I have used with adult learners are "old west action" (Clint Eastwood); "a long-insane warlord" (Ronald Wilson Reagan); "a darn long era" (Ronald Reagan); "Meg, the arch-tartar" or "that great charmer" (Margaret Thatcher); "huge berserk rebel warthog" (George Herbert Walker Bush); "he bugs Gore" (George Bush). Younger players generally require some explanation of these political figures, but two or three examples usually suffice.

Of course, these are too difficult for learners to create (too difficult for me too!), so we then move on to simpler examples, giving hints where required: "moon starers" or "no more stars" (astronomers); "the classroom" (schoolmaster); "World Cup team" (talcum powder); "contaminated" (no admittance); "dirty room" (dormitory); "teacher in vast poverty" (the Conservative Party); "evil's agent" (evangelist); "a rope ends it" (desperation); "here come dots" (the Morse Code); "cash lost in 'em" (slot machines); "alas! no more z's" (snooze alarms); "large picture halls, I bet" (the public art galleries); "I'm a dot in place" (a decimal point); "that queer shake" (the earthquakes); and so on.

For most levels these are still too difficult--merely illustrative of how challenging and amusing anagrams can be. I then write "tame" on the board and ask the class to give me an alternative. This usually generates "meat," "team," and possibly "mate." By adding one letter we can make "steam," and by adding one more, "master" or "stream." I then provide a list of simple additions for students to make: "thin"+k (think); "read"+b (bread or beard); "test"+a (state or taste); "know"+n (known); "heat"+d (death); all of which may occur in the game when one extra letter becomes available.

How to play

Players may play individually or in teams of two or three players (I suggest no more than 6 individual players, four teams of two, or three teams of three per game). The game is comprised of 90 letter cards, each card measuring approximately 3 cm by 4 cm. The frequency of letters' occurrence in the game is as follows: a=7, b=2, c=3, d=4, e=10, f=2, g=3, h=3, i=4, j=2, k=2, l=4, m=4, n=5, o=5, p=2, q=2, r=5, s=4, t=4, u=5, v=2, w=2, x=1, y=2, z=1.

The letter cards should be spread face down on the table in front of the players. Moving clockwise around the group, each player should then turn over a letter, one by one, until enough letters are revealed and a word may be formed and claimed by any player at any time (the fastest to spot a word and react must take it--in Japanese, hayamonogachi). It is important to stress this to players; if they hesitate, someone else may pick up the word they have spotted. This helps to ensure a keen competitive edge to the game.

Elementary-level players usually require more letters to be revealed than advanced players, but it is important not to let the game proceed too fast (20 open letters with a few vowels included are usually more than enough to produce a word). Claimed words should then be displayed clearly in front of the claimant. All words must be four letters or more. Acronyms, initialisations, abbreviations, plurals, third-person verb forms, personal names, and Japanese words are not permitted.

Players may make words at any time in the game. Equally, at any time, they may "steal" their opponents' words by adding one or more letters (only from the communal pool), or by rearranging an existing word. They may also safeguard their own words by addition or rearrangement. When stealing words, all letters of the original word must be used, plus additional letter(s) if available. Players may not steal just one or two letters from their opponents; they must use the whole (maybe rearranged) word. Examples include "sleep" --> "asleep" or "please"; "time" --> "timed"; "dare" or "read"--> "dread," "reader," or "reread"; "salt" or "last" --> "salty" or "salted," which may in turn become "unsalted." Similarly "beat" may become "table," "bleat," or "beast." Players should be encouraged to be constantly on the lookout for possible steals; if an opponent has "heat," an alert player should be on the lookout for "d" (death),"r" (heart), and maybe even "c" for "cheat." Stolen words may in turn be stolen by other players, for example, "read" (steal) "dear" (steal) "dare" (steal) "tread" (steal) "thread." All stolen words should be displayed in front of the player who has created them.

Stealing is facilitated by the affix preparatory work, but even if these affixes are not used in the course of the game, the preparatory work will still be of value in bringing word formation to the learner’s attention. Compounds are also common enough to be of mention, for example "foot" + "ball"; "bath" + "room"; "girl" + "friend"; and so on.

My favourite anagram? It has to be the following: "To be or not to be: that is the question, whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" --> "In one of the Bard's best-thought-of tragedies, our insistent hero, Hamlet, queries on two fronts about how life turns rotten."

(This "Anagram" game is an adaptation for EFL of a word game originally produced by Oxford Games Ltd., Long Crendon, Bucks HP18 9RN, England.)

Appendix One:


Prefix or Suffix Examples Add an Example
RE REread, REwrite, REview Recover
UN UNhappy, UNusual, UNkind  
CO COpilot, COauthor, COworker  
SELF SELFservice, SELFish, SELFmade  
PRE PREview, PREmatch, PRElunch  
EX EX-wife, EX-teacher, Exchange  
-Y saltY, dirtY, lemonY  
-LY slowLY, quickLY, friendLY  
-ED waitED, talkED, playED  
-N brokeN, driveN, spokeN  
-ER playER, teachER, fastER  
-OR actOR, inspectOR, doctOR  
-R diveR, writeR, smokeR  
-IST tourIST, motorIST, guitarIST  
-ING hearING, talkING, waitING  
-ABLE drinkABLE, readABLE, breakABLE  
-EST fastEST, slowEST, tallEST  
-FUL careFUL, hopeFUL, peaceFUL  
-LESS careLESS, hopeLESS, childLESS  
-ISH childISH, tallISH, warmISH