32 variations on pelmanism

Pelmanism (also known as “pairs” or “the memory game”) is one of the most adaptable games in English teaching, and is just as good for adults as it is for children as young as four. Many uses for it are given in other articles on TEFL.net. Students are given a pack of cards that they […]

Pelmanism (also known as “pairs” or “the memory game”) is one of the most adaptable games in English teaching, and is just as good for adults as it is for children as young as four. Many uses for it are given in other articles on TEFL.net. Students are given a pack of cards that they spread face down on the table and then take turns trying to find matching pairs of cards, e.g. two cards that can take the question take “are we?” or a request and a possible reply. Any pairs they have found can be kept and scored as points, with any pairs of cards that don’t match being put back face down on the table. The person with the most cards when all the cards are gone or the teacher stops the game is the winner. Even the most fun and useful game can get boring if it is also played the same way over and over and different classes and language points need slightly different ways of playing games, so you will almost certainly need to vary this game from time to time. Here are 32 ways that you can do so:

1. Have to put back in same place/ Can put back anywhere
One rule that is well worth having but is optional is to ask students to put any cards that they choose but don’t match back in exactly the same spot as they found them. This makes it easier for other students to remember where the cards are and so makes the game finish more quickly. Letting students put their cards back anywhere makes the game more challenging and also cuts down on the number of rules that you need to explain to them before they start playing.

2. Line them up
Another thing that makes it easier for students to remember where the ones that have been put back are and so to finish the game more quickly is for them to line the cards up in a grid like shape rather than spreading them randomly across the table. It is also possible to have all the cards in one long line.

3. Leave wrongly guessed ones face up
I have never tried this variation, but you can make the game even easier to win by people who have to put their cards back leaving them face up on the table. Anyone who picks a card that matches with any of them are therefore guaranteed points.

4. Have to say what they are after you turn them over
This is a way of making the game more challenging that also makes them think more about the language. When they turn over a pair of cards that match, they have to say how they match and have to put them back if they aren’t correct, e.g. if they say “They both take the preposition ‘in'” and they are actually both with ‘on’, they don’t win those cards.

5. Have to say what they are before turning them over
This is even more challenging and more useful for language practice than the one above- students have to point at two cards and say “They both take the article ‘the'” before turning them over to check. You might need to combine this with one of the Face Up variations below to make it manageable.

6. Face up first
Another way of making it easier to play is for the students to spread the cards face up across the table and try to memorize where they are. They are then all turned face down before the game starts.

7. Face up first and mix
This is the same as Face Up First above, but after the cards are turned face down they are mixed up on the table. This can either be done slowly so that people can try to keep track of where they are, or fast so that people have only a vague idea of where they have ended up.

8. Face up if they get stuck/ Face up half way through
You can also allow students to turn all the cards face up or have a look at any ones they like halfway through the game. Again, the cards can be mixed up again after or just left where they are. An alternative is to give them an answer key and let them look at it and try and remember for 2 minutes before you continue.

9. Person who wins continues
A rule that students may be familiar with from playing the game outside the language classroom is anyone who finds a matching pair being allowed to continue and try again. I tend to avoid this, as it can mean that good students dominate the game and some people have to wait a long time for their turn. The advantages of having that rule would be that it increases the excitement level as some gets “on a run” and that it avoids the somewhat silly situation when there are only two cards on the table and the next person is guaranteed points because they must match.

10. Go for more
Another way that someone who has found matching pair can continue is having the chance to pick other cards that also match. Whenever they pick a card that doesn’t match the first matching pair, that have to put that last card back and play passes to the next person. With this variation, you could have the winner of the game as the person who manages the longest

11. Risk it and go for one more
A variation on Go For More above is allowing students who have picked a pair to choose to stop there or try to find more that match. They can stop at any time and let the next person play, but if they pick any cards that don’t match they have to put all the cards from that round back (therefore making the next person’s turn very easy indeed!)

12. Team pelmanism
You could let groups of four or five people work in two teams of two or three people. The advantages are that students learn from each other, hopefully use incidental language in English (“No, pick this one. I’m sure I saw it last time” etc.), and wait less time for their next turn. The disadvantages are that a strong student in either team can dominate the game.

13. Pairwork pelmanism
A variation on having teams that adds even more speaking is one person in the team picking one card and reading it out to their team without showing it to anyone. Their partner should them try and find the matching card and read it out to check. The people on the other team should listen to them all the time and check whether they do actually match or not.

14. Only two cards match up/ Many possible matches
Packs of pelmanism cards can be designed so that only two cards from the whole pack match each other (e.g. “How do you do?” “How do you do”) or with many cards that match each other (e.g. many questions that have “can” as the missing word, and only two more categories of cards). If you choose to do the first version, you’ll need to make sure that the number of cards in the pack is quite small and/ or that students are given some help remembering where each card is, or the game can take forever without necessarily having lots of useful language practice in it. Another way of doing the variation with only few possible matches is just to have two of each (identical) card in the pack.

15. Give them an answer key to check with/ not
The advantage of students having an answer key is that they can settle any disagreements without referring to the teacher all the time. The disadvantages are that it stops them using their long term memory (as they probably looked at the answer key just a few minutes before) and that it may stop them discussing the language themselves because they will just turn to the key each time. An alternative to having an answer key are letting them look in their textbooks or giving them a general rule to refer to rather than a list of answers. If you don’t give them an answer key, you can still insist they decide in their groups whether all answers are acceptable or not, and then discuss ones they didn’t all agree on at the end of the game as a class.

16. One judge
An alternative to letting all the students have the answer key or letting them vote on which answer is okay is to have one judge per group. The advantages are that you can take a dominant student out of the game and give the others a fair chance and that the students playing can’t look at the answers all the time and so play without the vocabulary going into long term memory. The disadvantage is that that one person in each group can’t actually play the game.

17. Allow imaginative answers/ Not
If you do give them an answer key, you might want to insist on the answers there, or you could let any other answers that make sense also be allowed. The disadvantage of the second method is that wrong answers may slip through. The advantage is that it prompts more discussion of the language (and therefore hopefully makes them remember it better) and that it prompts more creative use of the language.

18. Random pelmanism
The most extreme example of allowing creativity in student answers is giving them a totally random set of words and phrases and asking them to think of any connection at all between the two they pick up if they want to keep them and score points, e.g. “They are both one syllable” or “They are both famous things about Denmark” for “pig” and “flat”. This can also be played with pictures. This is good for language of talking about similarities, e.g. “The main similarity is…” and “They both…” (useful language for academic writing such as IELTS). For more challenge and to practice “all” instead of “both”, you can get them to pick three cards each time rather than two. Another variation is for students to make comparative sentences about the two pieces of vocabulary, e.g. “The sound of the word ‘Swapping’ is harder than ‘swipe'” or “An elephant moves faster than a cupboard”

19. Random pelmanism with a different category each time
With the game Random Pelmanism, you will probably want to insist that each explanation of the similarities between the words is different. If you don’t want to overburden them with rules before they start, monitor them to see if they are using the same explanation over and over (e.g. “They are both nouns”) and then stop them and introduce the rule.

20. Random pelmanism things in common and different
An extension of the Random Pelmanism game is to get students to make two sentences about each pair or words, expressions or pictures that they pick, e.g. “They both have four legs. This one is made of wood, but this one is made of flesh and bones”

21. Make a sentence from the two cards you take
…rather than saying how the two cards are linked.

22. Make a true sentence about your partner with the two cards you take
This variation on the game above adds personalisation to the game and makes them think about their sentences more carefully.

23. Punishment for claiming it is a pair when it isn’t
This can make students who think too little before picking pay more attention to the language. After they pick up the pair of cards, they have to decide without help if they are a pair or not. If they decide not, they put them back down as usual. If they decide they are, the rest of their group tells them whether they were correct or not. If they made a false claim, they have to not only put those ones back but also two other cards from the ones they won earlier (if there are any). This is particularly useful with young male learners, in my experience.

24. Sticky ball to select which one you want to try
Another good one for young learners is to add to the fun, physicality and luck element by making them throw something at the cards and then see if the two they hit make a pair or not. This can be done with large flashcards Blutacked to the board or on the floor. If they are on the floor, you can also use other things to throw like a bean bag, or you can roll toy cars across them to see which card they stop on. A fun alternative is to make them throw with their eyes closed. With all these variations, you’ll need to make sure that there are very many possible matches or only a few large cards to make up for the difficulty of hitting the ones they want to.

25. Other ways of seeing who goes next
Rather than just going round clockwise or anticlockwise, students can play Paper Scissors Stone to see who goes next- or roll a dice, spin a pen or flick a coin for the same purpose.

26. Number of tries of number on dice
In this way of using a dice, you go round the group clockwise as usual but whoever is next throws the dice and can have that many attempts. The advantage is that most people will get at least some points on their go and that the dice adds more fun. The disadvantage is that people will probably wait a long time until their go comes round again.

27. If you fail, set a challenge to try again
This is another way of giving students a few chances to get it right. Possible challenges include remembering facts about their classmates and grammar questions.

28. Students make the cards
For example, tell them to make ten cards each of sentences with the prepositions of time “on”, “at” and “in” missing. They can then play with those cards themselves and/ or pass them to another team.

29. Include blank cards (like jokers)
Students who pick those can then match them with any square that they pick, as long as they choose the right thing to be on the blank card (e.g. they don’t say the example sentence “I _______ been to Mexico” when they are trying to match to “I ______ quite tall”).

30. Put the cards face down on a grid
The grid should be labelled with something on the horizontal axis and vertical axis next to each square. Students have to say the coordinates of the square on the grid that contains the card that they want to turn over. This can make good extra practice of the things that are on the axes, e.g. phonemic symbols, names of things represented by pictures you have put there, or difficult to say numbers or letters.

31. Play SNAP after
Any cards that can be used for pelmanism can also be used for the much faster card game “Snap”, where students take turns turning over cards from their pack and race to shout out “Snap!” if they match.

32. Race to put in columns before
You can also add a game before pelmanism, asking groups to work together to match up all the cards. This is particularly useful if they will find the pelmanism game difficult.

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.NET June 2009
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.


  • sirirat says:

    they’re very useful and interesting for students.. tThank you.

  • Bow says:


  • ria says:

    Can you give me the advantages and disadvantages using Pelmanism to improve vocabulary achievement? thanks

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