Activity Corner: Hidden Vocab Words

(I thought it might be helpful to readers and myself if I described some of my favorite activities from time to time. See all my ESL Activity Corner posts here.)

About six years ago (what?!) I wrote a Journal post called Ice Breakers Impress. I said, “…students kept telling me how smart I was.”

How is this not in my Activity Corner?!

In Hidden Vocab Words, the vocabulary words are written one each on note cards. Then the teacher (with permission) tapes one to each student’s back. Students need to give each other hints so that everyone can guess which word is on his/her own back.

The purpose of this activity is vocabulary review and verbal communication. It makes a nice warm-up to review the previous day’s or week’s work, and is a nice excuse to get everybody walking around and using their English skills to figure something out.


  • Write the key vocabulary words on note cards.
    Assign each student a word to write on a note card (might be valuable for Level 1)
  • Model the activity. Be sure to communicate that they should not read you your word.
  • Tape the prepared cards to the students’ backs.
  • Tell them they have 10 minutes to figure out their words and get out of their way!

Example (in Level 1):

In a Level 1 class, explaining and modeling the activity takes a bit of effort. We do so much reading practice at that level that students might not expect a game where they are not supposed to read the word they see out loud.

I don’t remember the details of how I modeled it back in 2010, but if I were approaching it now I would go in two phases:

  1. Hold up a note card with a gadget word (i.e. washing machine) and ask students to tell me what the word does. Write their answers on the board. Rest or tape the note card near their answer.
  2. Hold up a different gadget note card and ask someone to tape it to my back. Pretend I don’t know perfectly well what it says. Tell students, “We are playing a game. I don’t know what word is on my back! Don’t read it to me. Don’t tell me. It’s a secret. Please tell me: what does it do?” If met with a ringing silence, I would refer back to the first note card and the information about it on the board. Keep modeling, “What does it do?” and perhaps also write it on the board so they know to ask that question.

I am envisioning not bothering with the word “clue,” but of course it depends on the level of the students.

I thought it was clever of Past Emily to focus on “what does it do?” This made students use the unit’s nouns and verbs. They couldn’t just say “square, in the basement, white, big” to describe a washing machine. They needed to recall and use the specific vocabulary of what it does. It was also an opportunity to repeat and hopefully memorize a short and grammatically correct question – a nice bonus in Level 1.

Other Content Possibilities:

This activity is great for vocabulary review at all levels. Here are a few ways to expand that idea a bit farther:

  • grammar: at higher levels, this could be an interesting way to review our twelve verb tenses plus passive, “going to,” “used to…”). Write the name of each tense on a notecard, and then as a hint students have to use that verb tense in a sentence. Try it with no repeats allowed to make sure that students speak to several others over the course of the activity.
  • content: all subject areas have information to memorize. You can write historical events, geographical features, nations, cell organelles, auto repair terminology, famous people, methods of birth control, characters in a Dostoevsky novel, pharmaceuticals and their dosing, or just about anything else on the note cards to review that content.
  • general warm-up: I’ve seen this activity used as an ice-breaker among all native English speakers. They used a fun theme, I think “famous fictional characters.”

You’re reading Activity Corner: Hidden Vocab Words, originally posted at


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