The squirrel and nut game

Arthur Lauritsen, Kobe University


Quick guide

  • Key words: Vocabulary, word association, generative use
  • Learner English level: Low intermediate
  • Learner maturity: University (or motivated HS students) to adult
  • Preparation time: 1 hour
  • Activity time: 45 minutes
  • Materials: Three sets of game cards per group of students (picture cards, question cards, prize cards)


As ESL educators it behooves us to reflect on the role of vocabulary in our lessons and to look for new ways to help students build a high-level working vocabulary. Nation (2001) breaks the learning of vocabulary into three areas: noticing, retrieving, and generating. Loosely defined, noticing involves the identification of new vocabulary, while retrieving refers to memory strategies, and generating refers to the use and reuse of learned vocabulary. How can we teach vocabulary in a way that touches on this last aspect of Nation’s vocabulary learning, calling on students to use learned vocabulary repetitively, communicatively, and autonomously? Beglar and Hunt (2005), in their article Six principles for teaching a foreign language vocabulary: A commentary on Laufer, Meara, and Nation’s “Ten Best Ideas” suggest output activities that allow students to “develop a personal voice” through games and activities. It is in the spirit of this suggestion that the following activity is offered.


Prepare three different sets of cards. The first set of cards will consist of 30 picture cards loosely based on vocabulary that is being reviewed. Use Microsoft Clip Art or Google Images to readily access a library of images. The second set of cards will be a group of 30 question cards. In preparing the question cards, think up funny, curious, or provocative questions and limit the questions to “person, place, or thing” questions.


  • Who is a good person to take on a date?
  • Where is a good place to see the cherry blossoms?
  • What is a good thing to have if your ship sinks?

The last set of cards will be roughly 50 or so small postage stamp-sized prize cards. The prize cards are fun to make. I used a lot of different images and gave them poetic labels like tasty, double cave man, earthly pleasure, and so on.


Step 1:Organize the students into groups of three or four. Have them spread out the picture cards face up on the table and evenly distribute the prize cards to each of the players. Place the question cards face down in a stack.

Step 3:Explain that this is a matching game. The best way to demonstrate this is to point to the name of the game: Squirrel and Nut.

Step 4:Model the game by leading the students through one example. Have one student pick a question card and read aloud (e.g., “Where is a good place to hide from the police?”). Next, have the student choose a picture (match) and make a sentence (e.g., “The beach is a good place to hide from the police…”). Finally, have the student add a “because” to make the answer complete (e.g., “…because there are many people at the beach and the police can’t find you.”).

Step 5:The prize cards are just a cute appendage to the game and are given by the other players to the answerer. The prize cards were inspired by the “score” that one receives after finishing a karaoke song.


You can choose pictures that match perfectly (squirrel and nut) or you can choose pictures that take creative processing (squirrel and hat). I found that perfectly matched questions/pictures turn the game into an exercise. One reason I designed perfectly matched questions/pictures was that I didn’t think my students would be creative enough─but in fact they proved to be quite adept, so don’t be afraid to challenge your students and make question cards that only vaguely relate to the picture cards.


Vocabulary plays a central role in the learning of a second language. By using a generative activity students will have a chance to be creative and have fun, and at the same time review vocabulary.


Beglar, D., & Hunt, A. (2005). Six principles for teaching a foreign language vocabulary: A commentary on Laufer, Meara, and Nation’s “Ten Best Ideas”. The Language Teacher, 29(7), 7-10.

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