A high-frequency vocabulary activity

Jay Veenstra, Tokai University


Quick guide

  • Keywords:High-frequency vocabulary, vocabulary activity
  • Learner English level:Elementary and above
  • Learner maturity:High school, university, or adult
  • Preparation time: 5 minutes
  • Activity time: 15to 20 minutes
  • Materials: Handout (see Appendix)


Nation’s 1,000 and 2,000 word level vocabulary tests can be used to determine whether or not learners know high-frequency vocabulary (Nation, 2001). After administering these tests to my first-year university students, I discovered that many of the lower level students did not know a majority of the high-frequency vocabulary items. In order to remedy this, a variety of activities were done both in and out of class. One of the more popular vocabulary exercises was a modified activity taken from Klippel called Jigsaw Guessing (Klippel, 1987, p. 49) where learners were required to guess random vocabulary from hints, and use letters from that vocabulary to make a “mystery word.” In this activity, however, only high-frequency words were used. This activity not only requires learners to interact with one another, but also allows for creative thinking, thereby making it more enjoyable than the usual fill-in-the-blank vocabulary exercises.


Step 1: Pass out a copy of the handout to pairs or groups of students. Stress that all the words used in this activity, including the answers, are only from the high-frequency words that have been studied in class.

Step 2: Explain to the learners that they must find out the answer to the statements on the sheet to discover the mystery word. There are seven different sets. In each set there are four statements. Each statement requires a one-word solution. The first letter of each of the four solutions will make up the set word. The first letter of each of the set words will make up the seven-letter mystery word. The letters may need to be unscrambled to figure out the set word and the mystery word.

Step 3: Use “Set 1” from the Appendix or your own original idea to model an example on the board for the learners. See the example below:


Set 1


  1. The day before today is _________________. (yesterday)
  2. Food from a chicken. _________________. (egg)
  3. Something you do on bicycles and horses. ____________ (ride)
  4. When two cars hit each other it is an _____________. (accident)


The first letters of each solution: Y E R A

Set Word: 365 days = YEAR



Remind learners that the first letter of each of the seven set words will give the solution to the mystery word.

Step 4: Once the students have understood the task, have them try to find the mystery word.


Another way to do this activity is by making it a jigsaw activity.

  • Put students in groups of seven, and give each learner a piece of paper containing only one set rather than all seven. Each student figures out the set word and then shares the answer with the rest of the group and assists other students with their puzzles. The first group to find the mystery word wins the vocabulary challenge.
  • To make it an entire class activity, each student can be given a piece of paper with one set on it;as soon as the student finds the set word, they write it on the board, and then assist other students in finding their solution. The class then finds out the mystery word together.


Nation (2001) suggests that high-frequency words are so important that a sufficient amount of time should be allocated to them by both teachers and learners, and anything that helps the students to remember the words is worth doing. That being said, the memorization of 2,000 words can prove burdensome to many learners.Hopefully this activity will aid learners in reviewing some of the words they have been studying in a way that is not only educational, but also challenging and entertaining, and shows learners that the journey to learning can be achieved in more ways than just rote memorization.


Klippel, F. (1987). Keep talking: Communicative fluency activities for language teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nation, I. S. P. (2001). Learning vocabulary in another language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


The appendix for this article is available below