The Circumlocution Game

Frank Tuzi ,Tokyo Christian University



  • Key Words: Vocabulary, Game
  • Learner English Level: All
  • Learner Maturity Level: All
  • Preparation Time: About twenty minutes
  • Activity Time: 20-45 minutes

One of the more vital skills that a language learner needs to master to become an effective second language user is circumlocution, the ability to explain a concept or word that is in the mind, but the appropriate vocabulary is yet to be learned. Students, particularly Japanese students, give up trying to communicate, and instead revert to a dictionary. In doing so, many Japanese students lose a vital opportunity to engage in meaningful converse.

I feel frustrated when I see students clinging to a book knowledge of English and never developing their own voice. Students with a basic knowledge of the structure and vocabulary need to submerge their book knowledge and concentrate on communicating. In other words, students need to practice using the language without thinking of its structure. They need to think of ideas and communicate them, using the syntax as if it were second nature.

I have developed a nice little activity that has students laughing and racing to better vocabulary acquisition, and at the same time gives them plenty of practice with circumlocution. Because this game is a fast-paced one, students don't have the time to concentrate on structure. Structure is submerged and the goal of communicating an idea becomes paramount.


There is very little preparation for this activity. If your classes are like mine, you probably have some sort of vocabulary list for the students. Make sure that the students clearly understand the words on the list, and make sure that the words are defined in English. (Of course, there are some words that are very difficult to define in the target language. Some words may be defined in the L1.)
After the student have the lists and have had a fair amount of time to study them, divide the class into groups of 4 or 5. One person should be selected as the speaker for the group, and one person should keep score. The speaker is the only person who is allowed to look at the words on the list. The other students must listen to the speaker's explanation of a particular word and guess what that word is. The speaker may use explanations, examples, gestures, or anything else so long as he or she does not use the exact vocabulary word, or part of the word, and must speak only in the target language. If a member of the group correctly guesses the word, that team gets a point, If the word is not understood by anyone, the group can ask that the word be passed so that they can go to another word they might know. When a word is passed, the speaker tells the group what the word was, thus allowing them to learn the meaning of that word.

After about 5 minutes, stop the groups and find out their scores. Then switch the speaker in each group. This will give each person in each group a chance not only to hear circumlocution, but also to practice it. Allowing all students to participate in speaking and listening also allows students with stronger circumlocution skills to teach less-skilled students the how-to of circumlocution. Continue keeping score until all participants have had a chance to speak. The team with the most points wins.


My students have a blast every time I play this game. It doesn't matter what the class ability is. They seem to enjoy group competition. Some students also enjoy incorporating verbal and non-verbal communicative skills to convey their idea. Of course, students also learn the valuable skills of circumlocution and team work.

One way to vary this activity is to give each group a sheet of paper with only a partial list of the vocabulary. Then when the activity begins, each group tries to get its members to say only the words on the list.
Another fun way to use this activity is to allow two teams to be together in one group with only one speaker, and these teams compete against each other to guess the words that the speaker describes. For example, team A has four people and team B has 4 people. One member of team A is the first speaker. When the speaker gives a definition to the group, anyone from either team may answer. The team of the person who gives the correct answer first gets a point.


This is a fun, fast-paced game that requires students to talk quickly and think even faster. It is a fun game that allows students an avenue to practice circumlocution in an exciting game. While playing the game, many students also lose their inhibition, and feel more comfortable expressing themselves.