Guess my word: Building vocabulary in oral communication classes

Brett Davies, Rikkyo University, Tokyo


Quick guide

  • Keywords: Vocabulary, speaking, peer learning, negotiating meaning
  • Learner English level: All
  • Learner maturity: High school, college/university, adult
  • Preparation time: 20 minutes
  • Activity time: 15 minutes
  • Materials: Vocabulary cards (one per student)

As demand grows for learner-centred oral communication classes in high school and beyond, teachers are frequently faced with a dilemma: How can I teach students the necessary vocabulary to discuss a topic but maximize student-to-student talk time?
Vocabulary lists encourage students to rely too heavily on the written word and explicit pre-teaching of vocabulary in class is time-consuming and teacher-centred, but ignoring the issue of vocabulary completely can lead to stilted discussions, frustrated students, and a drop in confidence.
This activity aims to solve the problem by inviting students to own one new vocabulary item and use it in a group discussion. As classmates negotiate the meaning of new words, the activity encourages authentic student interaction and peer learning.

Step 1: Select items of vocabulary that you think will be useful for discussing the day’s topic but may be new to students. For example, before a lesson on the environment, you could choose global warming, fossil fuels, ozone, and eco-friendly. I limit the number of new vocabulary items to four per lesson.
Step 2: Put each vocabulary item on a separate card alongside a short explanation, some synonyms, or, for lower levels, an L1 translation. For example: Eco-friendly: Helpful for the environment; Re-using a shopping bag is eco-friendly.
Step 3: Print enough cards so that there is one per student.

Step 1: Hand out one vocabulary card per student and request that they do not show their card to anyone else. Give students one minute to read their own card and clarify the meaning with the teacher, quietly, if they are still unsure.
Step 2: Introduce simple phrases for negotiating meaning, for example, What does (unknown term) mean? or, In other words...
Step 3: Ask students to use their new vocabulary whenever appropriate during a group discussion. In my classes, with four students per group, students usually discuss a question for about 15 minutes. You may wish to put a minimum number of times students must use their new vocabulary, such as, Use your new words at least three times.
Step 4: Monitor students’ performance. If a student does not understand a classmate, encourage them to negotiate meaning and explain in their own words, but remind them not to reveal whether it is the item on their vocabulary card.
Step 5: At the end of the lesson, students try to guess what new vocabulary is on their classmates’ cards. If students are still unsure of any words, they can explain more explicitly or read out the definitions on the cards.

More motivated students can be encouraged to research the lesson topic beforehand and prepare vocabulary cards with words of their own choosing. You could hand out the vocabulary cards at the beginning of class and have students use their new items throughout the entire lesson, not only during the group discussion.

This activity has proven useful in helping students build vocabulary with minimal teacher talk time.
The collaborative learning aspect leads to authentic interaction and increased confidence as students get to own a piece of language and help their peers. Thanks to their exposure to relevant language items, students’ ability to talk about difficult topics can improve, resulting in more fluent and interesting discussions.
The game element—guessing what is on a classmate’s card—encourages students to listen to their peers more closely and helps raise awareness of any new language they hear, regardless of whether it comes from the vocabulary cards or not. It also makes a lively end to the lesson as students’ guesses are confirmed or denied.