A cooperative, content-based vocabulary activity

Gillian Pelton-Saito, Rikkyo University


Quick guide

  • Keywords: Vocabulary, cooperative learning, exchange, retain, recall
  • Learner English level: Intermediate, but adaptable to any level
  • Learner maturity: High school and above
  • Preparation time: 30to 45 minutes
  • Activity time: 30to 40 minutes
  • Materials: A set of approximately twenty vocabulary cards on the lesson topic. Each student will receive one card.


The following activity combines two cooperative techniques to help students learn difficult vocabulary required in a university content course: Introduction to World Issues. The techniques adapt Kagan’s cooperative learning structures Quiz Quiz Trade and Numbered Heads Together (Kagan, 1994). In the steps explained below, students help each other understand and retain new vocabulary. As the whole class is interacting, class cohesion and trust are strengthened.


Step 1: The teacher should prepare approximately 20 vocabulary cards (as shown in the example cards in Appendix 1). On each card the word and the definition are written on the same side. With larger classes, copy a second set of the same cards. With smaller classes, do the activity more than once to use all the cards.

Step 2: The teacher should introduce useful English phrases to start the activity (see Appendix 2).


Step 1: The teacher distributes one card to each student.

Step 2: Students should stand up, find a partner, and decide who is A and who is B. In pairs, student A should start by reading their definition to student B, asking student B to guess the word. Student B listens to A’s definition and then guesses the word, or if student B doesn’t know the word they should ask A for the answer.

Step 3: Student B then reads their definition and asks A if they can guess the word. Step 2 is repeated.

Step 4: Finally, student A and B exchange cards and find new partners.

Step 5: Steps 2-4 are repeated until all students have exchanged vocabulary cards several times and are beginning to recall the words and meanings. This step may take 20-30 minutes depending on the level of your students.

Step 6: For a class vocabulary review, students sit in teams of four and each member of the teamchooses a number from one to four. When the teacher calls out a definition and a number, the whole team discusses the word. Then the student whose number is called calls out the team’s answer.


Participating in the above structures gives students a chance to experience thecooperative learning principles of positive interdependence and face-to-face promotive interaction as they rely on each other to learn new vocabulary. I have found that students more easily recall and retain words after teaching each other. Students also gain confidence during the review activity, which gives each student a chance to speak out, supported by their teammates. Finally, learning vocabulary helps students develop cooperative skills that they will use to complete end–of-semester team projects.


Kagan, S. (1994). Cooperative learning. San Juan de Capistrano: Kagan Cooperative Learning.


The appendixes for this article are available below.