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Thinking on Your Feet: A Vocabulary Game

by Beverley Woodward | 31 Oct 2017
Resource Description:

In intermediate ESL writing courses, students learn a great deal of vocabulary related to writing in English. These vocabulary words and phrases are used throughout their writing courses to discuss how to write paragraphs, essays, and research papers. The vocabulary words will also be used in future ESL writing courses. This lesson is designed to help students review writing vocabulary to prepare for a midterm or final exam. It also challenges them to “think on their feet” as they explain what the vocabulary words mean to their classmates.

Audience: Adult, University
Audience Language Proficiency: Intermediate
Duration: 50 minutes
Language Skill: Vocabulary, Writing
Content Area: English for academic purposes
Materials and Technology:
  • Pre-cut strips of paper with one vocabulary word or phrase on each one
  • Timer
  • White board
  • Dry-erase markers
  • Prizes 
  • Students will review vocabulary related to writing.
  • Students will describe or define vocabulary words.
  • Students will review vocabulary words related to writing in preparation for an exam.
  • Students will talk about or describe vocabulary words as they review for an exam.

The teacher begins by explaining that it is not always easy to remember a new word in another language. Sometimes it is necessary to describe what the word means instead of coming up with the precise word. That feeling of “going blank” when trying to remember a word provides language learners with an opportunity to “think on their feet.” This English idiom refers to being able to communicate or respond at a moment’s notice without preparation. It often occurs in a high-pressure situation, such as taking part in an important conversation or speaking in front of others. In the following game, students will practice “thinking on their feet” as they review the course vocabulary.

First of all, the teacher places the slips of paper with a vocabulary word or phrase written on each one face down on a table at the front of the classroom.

Next, the teacher models how the game is played. He/she chooses a slip of paper and describes the vocabulary word or phrase written on it. The students then try to guess what the word or phrase is. The instructor emphasizes that no part of the vocabulary word or phrase can be mentioned while giving the clues to one’s team. In addition, there is a 2-minute time limit for each student.

The students then count by twos to determine which team they will be on—Team 1 or Team 2. After the two teams are selected, students move to one side of the room or the other to join their teammates. Then, the teacher selects a method of deciding which team goes first.

If Team 1 goes first, then one of the students from Team 1 walks to the front of the room and chooses a slip of paper with a vocabulary word or phrase on it. As the student selects a slip of paper and looks at the vocabulary word(s), the teacher also looks at the slip of paper and asks if the student knows what the word or phrase means. If he/she has no idea what it means, then the teacher takes the slip of paper and allows him/her to select an alternate. Then the instructor makes note of what was on the first paper and replaces it with the other slips of paper, so it may still be used by the other team.

The student will have two minutes to describe the word to Team 1 so that his/her teammates can guess the vocabulary word or phrase. For example, if “simple sentence” is written on the paper, students on Team 1 will shout out words in response to the clues. However, the student at the front of the class must be careful not to use the words “simple” or “sentence” to describe the vocabulary words. If the student accidently says the word “sentence,” then Team 1’s turn is over.

Team 2 then sends one of its students to the front of the room. The student selects a vocabulary word and tries to describe the word or phrase for Team 2 to identify. If Team 2 guesses the word within the two-minute time limit, then Team 2 wins a point. The teacher keeps score on a white board for both teams to see. 

The game continues until the class ends. The teacher congratulates both teams on a job well done and presents prizes to the students. 

  • Teacher observation
  • Midterm or Final exam

This game can be difficult for introverted students or students who do not speak English clearly enough for their team members to understand. If the student who is chosen to give clues is silent or does not give understandable clues within 15 seconds, the teacher can ask if he or she would like to choose another team member to help give clues. Then, both students can work together to describe the vocabulary word or phrase for their team. The goal of the game is to review vocabulary rather than embarrass students.


Boardman, C. A. (2008). Writing to communicate 1. White Plains, NY: Pearson Education.        

Folse, K. S., Muchmore-Vokoun, A., & Solomon, E. V. (2014). Great writing 2: great paragraphs. Boston: National Geographic Learning/Cengage Learning.

TESOL Interest Section: English as a Foreign Language