Scrambled Vocabulary for Vocabulary Review

Keith Lane, Miyazaki International College


  • Key Words: Vocabulary, Reading, Groupwork
  • Learner English Level:All
  • Learner Maturity Level:All
  • Preparation Time:15-30 minutes
  • Activity Time:15-30 minutes

After I have taught a lesson which centers on some particular topic and which introduces a number of new vocabulary items, I generally want a vehicle to reinforce the learning of these items and often the content as well in the following session of the class. By duplicating or summarizing the context in which the vocabulary was learned and understood, recognition is more likely to occur than if I were to merely write out a list of the words. In order to retain content and yet focus on individual vocabulary, I have hit upon the following solution.

Situation: The students have completed a timed reading exercise the content of which is flamingos. After this, vocabulary was selected for attention and instruction. In the follow-up class two days later the flamingo text was provided again on an HOP with the vocabulary "scrambled." Here is a portion of the scrambled text adapted from Folse's (1996) Beginning reading practices (University of Michigan Press, p. 14):


Flamingo Scramble


Flamingos live in conieslo or groups. Some of these colonies have over a thousand birds. Flamingos reducepro once a year. The female ayls one egg, and for thirty days the parents take turns sitting on the egg. In the wild, flamingos live for fifteen to twenty years. In captytivi, they live longer.

Working in pairs, without pencil and paper, students recall the scrambled words in the correct form and repeatedly practice until they can say the entire text smoothly. Because the words are never written down, each exposure to the scrambled hint must induce a process of productive recall, rather than merely a decoding. This fosters a deeper learning of the word than can be achieved by mere exposure. Productive recall is aided by the graphic components of the word; creating a cloze would perhaps achieve the same aims but too often students are unable to remember or infer the missing words well enough to activate the recall.

The students were able to offer the replacements colonies, reproduce, lays, and captivity without teacher intervention and without resorting to vocabulary notes or the original. I strongly doubt they would have successfully and universally recalled these words either as a cloze or translation exercise.

I have found this scrambled vocabulary exercise useful for various levels and content materials. It is particulary useful for content-based instruction and thematic units. However, I would like to offer some suggestions. First, keep the material and activity fairly short. The students should be able to process and then practice the material in five to fifteen minutes. After that, interest usually wanes. Second, consider how much you want to scramble the letter sequences. For example, the word scramble can be made easy to descramble (scmarble or blescram) or difficult (aebclmrs), depending upon how many of the letter sequences you distort and how much of the external structure (the ends) of the words you retain. While difficult versions have the virtue of leading learners to hypothesize and discover potential letter sequences (for example, "sbr" is not probable in English), they can also detract from the process of recall. At first it is better to discover what is too simple than what is too difficult. Lastly, I highly recommend that paragraph structure be used. This provides greater contextualization than listed sentences, and I feel that students have a better feeling for the semantics of the word as a result.

The utility of this procedure, then, can be accounted for by two factors: the students are ultimately recalling the vocabulary rather than being given it, and the scrambled phonological components facilitate recall.