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Problems, solutions and variations with hangman in EFL

Hangman is a game in which students try to guess what letters are in the word before a complete picture of their man getting hanged appears, with one element of the man and scaffold being added for each time they choose a letter that isn’t in the word. It is popular with native speaker children, […]

Hangman is a game in which students try to guess what letters are in the word before a complete picture of their man getting hanged appears, with one element of the man and scaffold being added for each time they choose a letter that isn’t in the word. It is popular with native speaker children, and many teachers who remember from their own school days try to use in their EFL classes. It has recently become even more popular due to online versions being available (there are links to EFL versions of hangman at the bottom of this article). Despite the game being fun enough that some kids carry on playing it outside class, I generally disagree with its use in its original form with EFL classes for the reasons given below. With a little imagination put it into how it is used and what language is used with it, however, it is possible to make this game a worthwhile addition to your toolkit of classroom games.

1. It only tests spelling/ They don’t need to know how to pronounce it

The simplest variation is to ask them to pronounce the word when they have finished spelling it, either in order to get the point or for extra points. A more complex way is to ask them to say the sound they think is in the word rather than the letters, e.g. /u:/ rather than U. The teacher can then either write in the letters that make up that part of the word (e.g. “ough” if the students say “uf” and the word is “enough”) or to write the word out in phonemic symbols. If the students are just learning the phonemic script, you could write the whole word out in phonemics at the beginning of the game and get them to guess the spelling, or give a few phonemic symbols (e.g. just the vowel sounds) as clues if they get stuck. Alternatively, you could give the phonemic transcriptions of all the words you are going to use in the game mixed up at the top of the board.

2. They can win without knowing the meaning

For example, they might still think that “embarrassed” means “pregnant” due to them being false friends in Spanish but still get a point because all they needed was the spelling to win. You could ask the winning team to define the word as suggested for pronunciation above. A way with more speaking is to ask the student who set the challenge to give hints, either after each guess or whenever the other students get stuck. Alternatively, the clues can be pictures, perhaps ones that are revealed segment by segment.

3. There isn’t much speaking in it

In the original game the only thing the students say is the letters of that alphabet. One way of adding language is to get them to use full sentences when guessing and giving feedback, e.g. “We’d like to choose A” and “Well done, A is in the second and ninth spaces”. (see the Useful Classroom Language section at the bottom for more possible language). Another method is to ask them to give hints as suggested above.

4. Hanging a man is a bit gory

A slightly less depressing version is to have an island or raft that disappears with each wrong guess (without the circling sharks if you have sensitive students). You can also add parts to different things as they guess wrong, but it is best if this adds up to something that shows clearly that their go is over such as adding one line or letter to TIME UP each time until the words are complete. Another possibility is to tie it in with the picture clue that is suggested above- each wrong guess means that another segment of the picture is revealed and if the whole picture is revealed before the word is spelt the person or team loses. You could also use this as a way of brainstorming vocabulary, e.g. asking them to add a shop to a street every time they guess wrong, meaning that they lose the game if they can’t think of any more to add. This could work with furniture in one room, parts of a car or bicycle, etc.

5. It doesn’t tie in with any particular language points/ It’s random

You can make it tie in with a vocabulary point by limiting the words to one type of vocabulary, e.g. personality words. You can also make it into practice of body part vocabulary by asking them to name the part of the body that should go next, and similar games are possible for the other things they can build that are mentioned above. There are also possible connections to grammar such as there is/ there are with some and any (“Are there any Bs in it?” “Yes, there is one B”), modals of probability and possibility (“It must have an E it”, with more plus or minus points if they used language that shows they are sure like “must”), or can for ability (“I can get this word with ten guesses” with the person who bids lowest being the one to try). You can also use it to teach spelling rules as suggested below.

6. Some students shout out random letters without thinking about it

You can make the word more challenging by making it a short one with letters like Q, give hints so that they think about the meaning, give points for each time a letter is guessed correctly and take points away for each wrong guess, or let people who guessed correctly keep on guessing until they make a mistake.

7. It’s unfair

Some words are much more difficult to guess- generally short words with unusual letters. You can even this up by giving more hints for such words, rank the words before the game so that they start out with easy ones and get more difficult, or take away the competitive aspect by making it teacher against the class.

8. It’s just isolated vocabulary

Do a whole example sentence in a similar way (guessing words to make up a sentence in the same as you would usually guess letters to make up a word), or give a gapped sentence or even a whole text as a hint to the missing word.

9. It makes spelling appear random

Give a spelling rule as a hint, or only use words that represent one spelling rule (such as magic E)

10. The students start winning or losing every time

You can rank the words before you start the game and choose ones that are easier or more difficult depending on their success last time. Alternatively, you can change the number of pieces in the hangman by adding or eliminating body parts like fingers and eyebrows. You can give them even more chances by letting them continue as long as they can name more body parts to add (belly button etc)

Other possible variations

In line hangman

Students get just one try to guess the first letter, then you write it in and score plus or minus points. They do the same for the second letter etc, until the whole word (or whole expression or even whole sentence) is complete. The same thing can be done with students guessing the next word each time to make up a sentence or even whole dialogue.

Jokers hangman

Give them a certain number of hint cards to “spend” whenever they like during the game, e.g. “I before E except after C”. Alternatively, let them choose to be given a hint rather than guessing a letter (with the next piece of the hangman being drawn in when they do so, to stop them taking too many hints)

Useful classroom language for teachers (or students taking the teacher role)

“Whose turn is it?”

“Oh dear, the island has almost disappeared”

“There is one more vowel sound in there”

“Continue the same game in pairs (using words from this worksheet)”

“What body part should we put on next?”/ “Can you think of any more body parts to put on? If not, the game is over!”/ “What other parts can a …. have?”

“I’m sorry, that letter isn’t in it”

“You have already tried that one”

“Who wants to be teacher?”/ “Can anyone think of a word for the other people to guess?”

“It’s a kind of…”/ “We studied this last week”

Useful classroom language for students

“We’d like (to choose) E please”

“We’d like to use our hint card”

“Shall we use our hint card or wait?”

EFL hangman links

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net July 2009
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

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TEFL.net : ESL Lesson Plans : Classroom Ideas : Games, Vocabulary : Problems, solutions and variations with hangman in EFL