Fergus matching: A vocabulary previewing activity

Tim Stoeckel, Miyazaki International College


Quick guide
  • Key words: Vocabulary learning, spaced repetition
  • Learner English level: Low intermediate and above
  • Learner maturity: Junior high and above
  • Preparation time: 20 minutes
  • Activity time: 15 minutes
  • Materials: Handout and whiteboard prompts (see below); 30 magnets
Fergus matching is a student-centered classroom activity for introducing new vocabulary. The activity—named after the teacher who came up with it, Fergus Hann of Kansai Gaidai University—involves having students match vocabulary items with their definitions on a classroom whiteboard prior to encountering the terms in a text.
Step 1: Select between 10 and 15 target words from a text which students have not yet encountered. Choose terms at the threshold of students’ lexical knowledge – either unfamiliar words or those which students don’t know well.
Step 2: Make a handout with the target words in one column and simple definitions in another column. Online learner’s dictionaries such as Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary (<learnersdictionary.com>) or Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (<oald8.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com>) are excellent resources for easy to understand definitions. Optionally, add example sentences under each definition.
Step 3: Make separate prompts with large cards for each lexical item and each definition, suitable for display on the whiteboard.
Step 1: Attach the definitions to the whiteboard with magnets, and place one extra magnet next to each (for student use in step 2).
Step 2: Distribute one or two vocabulary prompts to each pair of students in the class, and ask students to try to put their words on the whiteboard next to the matching definitions. Allow time for discussion or consulting a dictionary, and encourage negotiation among student pairs when more than one wants to match their word with the same definition.
Step 3: When all students have returned to their seats, provide clues for improperly matched word-definition pairs (e.g. “three words are still out of place,” or “all of the verbs are okay”). To allow students more time to consider the definitions and matching terms, avoid directly saying which pairs are incorrect.
Step 4: When all terms are correctly placed, congratulate the class! Give students a short time to read through everything on the board. Then remove the target words, mix up the locations of the definitions on the whiteboard, and repeat step 2. Although students will almost certainly work more quickly this time, this step is useful as a second exposure to the target terms and should not be skipped.
Step 5: Give students the handout and spend a few minutes talking through the terms, offering example sentences, highlighting the meaning of roots or affixes, or eliciting other words based on the same roots (e.g., govern, government, governmental). 
For students of lower English proficiency, this activity can be adapted by using L1 translations rather than word definitions. As another variation, examples—rather than definitions or translations—can be used to review old material, especially in content-based instruction. For instance, in a unit on the factors of production in economics, students could be asked to match the examples tractor, river, and teacher with the economic concepts of capital, land, and labor, respectively. When examples are each a sentence or more in length, the activity incorporates a significant amount of purposeful reading. For instance, the sentence, “A tractor is used to produce vegetables on a farm,” could also be matched with capital.
Fergus matching requires little explanation (none after doing it once with a class) and can be completed in under 15 minutes. It engages students and is an effective way to preview vocabulary before students encounter it in a text, greatly reducing the need for a dictionary during that encounter.
This activity and a subsequent text act as several closely-spaced initial exposures to new terms in a spaced repetition approach to vocabulary study. Following this with an activity such as Taboo in the next class meeting provides students with yet another exposure to target terms.