EFL jigsaw games (TEFLtastic Classics Part 31)

Another article of mine just published in English Teaching Professional magazine, available here for free and with added links to example worksheets. If you’d like to help me spend more time helping you with articles and worksheets like these, please see here.

Updated 21 October 2020

Fitting in Jigsaw Games

Apart from young learners actually doing a jigsaw puzzle, the word “jigsaw” in ELT almost always collocates with “text”. A “jigsaw text” is a text such as a letter or telephone conversation that is cut up into sections for the students to put back together in the right order. There is nothing wrong with good classic jigsaw text activities, so this article begins with many variations on and uses for them. However, there are also a few other useful and fun activities that we could call “jigsaw activities”, some of which have more in common with a traditional jigsaw puzzle.


Jigsaw text activities

Splitting single texts

Asking our students to put cut-up sections of articles, essays, reviews and emails back together is a fun alternative to asking them comprehension questions when it comes to checking their understanding of a text. It is also a nice way to connect with any language analysis afterwards. However, it takes some effort to make sure that the task is suitably challenging but not too difficult. To do this, the teacher has to:

  • make sure that there are the right number of sections for the time available (usually around 7 to 15 pieces);
  • make sure that the text wouldn’t also be correct if the students put it in a different order;
  • make sure that the clues needed to put the sections into order will be understood by the students;
  • have some hints ready to give the students if they find the task difficult or impossible.

With written texts, tasks like this tie in well with classroom discussion of reference expressions (“that”, “it”, “the former”, etc), rephrasing to avoid repeating words, the structure of paragraphs and the structure of texts. Which of those things you most want to introduce will probably be the biggest factor in deciding where you split the text. The most common possibilities are splitting between paragraphs, splitting between (some of the) sentences and splitting halfway through (some of the) sentences.


Splitting multiple texts

It is also possible to do a jigsaw text activity with a collection of linked shorter texts, such as an email exchange or SMS “conversation”, perhaps with each part of the exchange on a separate card. For example, if you use an online debate with 12 contributions, you could give the students 12 cards, with one contribution on each. This is my favourite way of introducing formal and informal emails, using one email exchange such as an email negotiation which gets more and more informal as the exchange goes on. The students try to work out which emails are answers to which other emails in order to put the exchange in order. Then, to help the slower groups and get the faster groups to check what they have done, I tell them that the emails should get more and more informal as the exchange goes on. After checking their answers, they underline the formal and informal email expressions in the texts, and then try to find or think of equivalents with the opposite level of formality.


Splitting spoken texts

Apart from emails, I most often split up spoken texts such as telephone calls and shopping exchanges. If you want to practise particular phrases such as “How may I help you?” you can split the exchanges halfway through (“How may” + “I help you?”). However, I usually simply split the texts between the contributions of the different people involved (e.g. between “How may I help you?” and “I’m looking for a present for my nephew”), so that the students have to work out which are replying to which. There tends to be at least one place in such conversations where more than one response is possible, so I sometimes put two people’s parts together on one card to avoid confusion. However, as long as there is ultimately only one way of putting the whole conversation together, it is sometimes good to leave some ambiguity. This makes the students read the conversation more carefully, as they try to put it together one way and then have to come back to it again when there are cards left which don’t fit.


Mixing two different texts

It is sometimes useful to give the students more than one text mixed up together for them to separate out and then put into order. For example, they could be asked to separate parts of model answers for an article, an essay and a review for the Cambridge Proficiency exam, before putting each one in order. This could lead into a useful discussion of the differences between the three different text types (in the exam and in real life).

It is also possible to combine written texts and spoken ones. For example, in the photocopiable business communication activity below the students separate out mixed-up phrases for starting and ending emails, phone calls and face-to-face conversations, and then put them in order. As the focus is on starting and ending (and the middle is too variable to be useful in a class on typical phrases), the body of the text has been left out and replaced with the single word BODY. This can be done with quite a few jigsaw text tasks, with the advantage that it helps the students focus on the important language. It also saves time, both during preparation and in class.


Other jigsaw activities

Matching language jigsaw activities

Splitting words and phrases

One of the best things about jigsaw texts is how much context they provide for the language that you are presenting or practising. However, that can also sometimes be a disadvantage because a whole text:

  • is time-consuming to write and to use in class;
  • can sometimes be distracting;
  • limits the amount of vocabulary, number of phrases, etc that you can include in one class.

To give more intensive practice and/or cover more language, the jigsaw activities described in this section get the students to match up cards with split words and phrases like “have + breakfast” or “A bird in the hand + is worth two in the bush” without any further context. However, there is little point in doing this if the students need to know all the answers before they start in order to be able to complete the task. In that case, either they are learning nothing new, or you are setting them up for failure. You will therefore need to make sure that there are other clues to make up for the lack of the context that the students would get in tasks involving longer texts. For example, when I get my students to put together opinion phrases like “I can see what you mean, but my own point of view is different”, I make sure that the phrases are split in such a way that any other matches are impossible in terms of grammar, collocations between different individual words and having to match by level of strength of agreement and disagreement. This means that even students who are seeing the phrases for the first time will still be able to do the task. It also means that I have plenty of hints up my sleeve to give them if they get stuck: for instance, telling them to check that they haven’t mixed up strong and weak language in the phrases that they have created (“I strongly believe it could possibly be a good idea” X, etc).

Another possible way to give the students extra context is to put more than one option on each card, at least one of which is likely to help them achieve the task. For example, if your class has a mix of knowledge of British and American English, you can make sure that you always include both when both are possible, eg by putting “fire” on the left card and both “truck” and “engine” on the right card when doing transport vocabulary.

Another way of making sure that there are enough hints to make the task possible without the students knowing everything is to keep more than one cell of the table together when cutting it into cards. For example, if the task is to match up adjectives and prepositions like “good”, “worried” and “sensitive” with the prepositions “at”, “about/by” and “to”, you can cut the table up so that “good” and “worried” are together on a double card and all three prepositions are together on a triple card. It’s a good idea to make cards in a range of different sizes in this way, as this makes the task more like a real jigsaw puzzle: and it helps the students put the whole set of cards back into the nice rectangle shape that it was on the worksheet before it was cut up. For students who would still find the task difficult, you can make even bigger cards containing four, or even five, cells of the table. If you make the cards from a table with more than two columns, you can also cut across columns to make cards of other shapes and sizes. For instance, if you have phrasal verbs in a table with four columns for verb, preposition or adverb, meaning and example sentence (with the phrasal verb blanked out), some of the cards can keep the participle and meaning together.

If the students still get stuck when you do the activity in class, you can give them a couple of key matches, tell them how the cards are arranged (e.g. that the ones on the left are in alphabetical order, or that the completed rows get more and more polite as you go down the finished table), or read the whole thing out aloud with the students trying to memorise what you say before they try matching the cards again.

I first thought up this variation when I was looking for a way of cutting out photocopiable matching activities more quickly. When I came to class I found that I had also accidentally made the activity quicker, more manageable and more fun for my students. In addition, it provided a kind of context that the students could use to complete the task and could learn from, even when they only knew about half of the language. Since then, I’ve been using this partial cutting-out idea more and more, both with ready-made worksheets that were originally meant to be cut up cell by cell and with materials that I have made specifically to exploit this idea.

You can use this sort of jigsaw activity with almost anything that you can get students to match up, including:

  • word formation (prefixes and suffixes, etc);
  • synonyms and/or antonyms (e.g. of character words or feelings vocabulary);
  • gradable and extreme adjectives;
  • countable and uncountable nouns (with similar meanings, or countable examples of uncountable categories);
  • similar words with positive and negative connotations;
  • technical and general English words for the same thing (e.g. medical terms and their colloquial equivalents like feeling sick and nausea);
  • collocations (e.g. with common verbs like get and take, ones with as … as, idioms or proverbs);
  • different varieties of English (e.g. matching British and American engineering terms);
  • formal and informal phrases with the same meaning/function;
  • abbreviations such as acronyms (with the last part of the long version in the right-hand column)
  • words which are pronounced a similar way (e.g. past participles which have the same main, stressed vowel sound or rhyming words)


Substitution table jigsaws

This is another example of a small change to an activity leading to a huge change in my teaching, but this time with much more scissor use.

A few years ago, I was writing the suggested answers to a verb patterns task where the students had to put verbs into a table with columns for verbs before “verb + ing” (e.g. “enjoy + verb + ing”), “to + verb” (e.g. “aim + to + verb”), etc. I suddenly realised that I had accidentally prepared a perfect jigsaw task, and that putting a cut-up version of it into the correct order would definitely be more enjoyable than scribbling in a blank table. Since then, I’ve used this idea with all kinds of things, and more often with functional language such as negotiating phrases before and after “but” (e.g. “I can understand your position, but + I’m afraid I can’t accept”, “I don’t have the flexibility to go that far + but I might be willing to consider …”, etc). After doing the jigsaw task, the students can do the traditional filling in of boxes in a table (which, it must be said, is a better aid to memory than the more fun jigsaw task) and/or use the cards for other tasks, such as trying to use phrases including the words on their cards during a speaking task.

Photocopiable jigsaw game classroom activities

Dealing with complaints jigsaw texts (in this e-book) – NEW

Formal and informal email opening and closing phrases jigsaw (in this e-book) – NEW

Formal and informal emails for making arrangements jigsaw texts (in this e-book) – NEW

Formal and informal group emails jigsaw (in this e-book) – NEW

Formal and informal phrases for the body of an email jigsaw card games (in this e-book) – NEW

Negotiating by email jigsaw text (in this e-book) – NEW

Asking people to wait in presentations jigsaw and card games (in this e-book)

Ending formal and informal presentations jigsaw (in this e-book)

Getting presentations started jigsaw and card games (in this e-book)

Moving on through a presentation jigsaw and card games (in this e-book)

Planning a presentation jigsaw (in this e-book)

Starting formal and informal presentations jigsaw (in this e-book)

Getting through on the phone jigsaw texts (in this e-book)

Telephone or face to face jigsaw texts (in this e-book)

Telephone enquiries jigsaw games (in this e-book)

Long and short social English phrases jigsaw (in this e-book)

Making small talk phrases jigsaw (in this e-book)

Meeting people for the first time and again jigsaw dialogues (in this e-book)

Meeting people responses matching games (in this e-book)

Negative responses to invitations jigsaw (in this e-book)

Small talk, recommendations, invitations and directions dialogues games (in this e-book)

Social English responses card games (in this e-book)

Prefixes with opposite meanings jigsaw

Different meanings in British and American English jigsaw game

Ordinal numbers jigsaw games

Shopping responses jigsaw

Shopping dialogues jigsaw texts

Negative prefixes jigsaws (with CPE and academic vocabulary versions and presentation stage)

Starting and ending business communications jigsaw texts (email, telephone and face to face, a polished up version of my worksheet in English Teaching Professional magazine)

Email opening and closing jigsaw puzzle game

Meeting people jigsaw dialogues and useful phrases

Dealing with enquiries jigsaw dialogues

Negotiations jigsaw dialogues and useful phrases

Gradable and extreme adjectives jigsaw games

Negative prefixes with character words jigsaw

Describing objects opposites games (jigsaw, reversi, drawing and miming)

British and American engineering vocabulary games (including miming, drawing, jigsaw, reversi, and dominoes, plus collocations practice)

Colour word jigsaws

And more to come.

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