Batman’s Utility Belt is a marvellous thing. With everything from smoke pellets to grappling guns to shark-repellent bat-sprays he’s prepared for every situation. ESL teachers can equip themselves with an equally useful, if slightly less flashy, set of tools. One of those tools is Shiritori. I call it by it’s Japanese name since learning it from other teachers whilst here but in English it’s also known as Word Chain. It’s a fun, active game that helps students practice their spelling and vocabulary. As the game tests these areas it’s therefore only really suitable for students with a relatively broad vocabulary, so I think this is a Junior High and up activity.
The advantage of using this activity in Japanese schools is that most people are already familiar with the rules. In the original Japanese format the aim of the game is to create a chain of words between two or more people. A player has to say a word that starts with the same character that the previous word ended with. In English it’s the last letter that’s used. So an example might go like this:
fish -> house -> entomologist
and so on.
Playing in one’s own native language can be done easily by speaking aloud. It could be used as a time killer on a long drive or as a drinking game. However when using it to teach English to younger or lower level students it’s generally advised to get students to write down the words. This way they can practice their spelling and it’s also easier to keep track of progress when playing a team game.
Explanations and Such
I usually play Shiritori as a team game with teams decided by classroom rows. In Japan most classrooms have six rows of desks. These are the six teams.
To explain the game in a simple manner, divide the blackboard into six segments and indicate which segment belongs to which row.
Next, write a quick example list on the board, clearly highlighting the chain created by the first and last letters of each word.
Use gestures and the word “pass” to indicate that rows should take turns in writing up words before passing the chalk back to the next person in the row.
State the allotted time limit, I’ve found two minutes to be fairly reasonable for a standard game, and let the action commence.
In terms of scoring I often go easy on spelling mistakes if the class is lower level, otherwise only correctly spelled words count as a point. The game can be played like this one time through for a quick five-minute warm-up or it can be elongated with additional rounds.
PRO TIP: Why make every round the same? Add a special rule or a twist to subsequent rounds to ramp up the challenge. Perhaps in the second round only words with four or more letters are allowed. If the theme for the first round was verbs perhaps the second could be on past participles and so on.
By playing it as outlined above the students race to list as many words as possible before the time runs out. Another approach is to give them a target number of words to write. The first team to finish gets additional points and extra points can also be awarded for interesting/uncommon words as well as spelling accuracy. This can lead to an interesting dynamic where one team just tries to race through with short, simple words in order to get the speed bonus (I usually make that bonus fairly hefty) whereas another team might focus on long, interesting words to rack up points that way. One of the advantages of this approach is that it doesn’t require a timer, so if a teacher is unprepared then this version of the activity can be done with nothing more than a blackboard and some chalk.
As I may have mentioned before it’s generally a good idea to try and tie all parts of a lesson together. This game can be made to conform by giving a theme for each round. Examples include topics such as Fruit, Verbs, Animals, Christmas and so on. However, even without a theme it could be argued that in a lesson containing creative writing this activity’s role is to stimulate the vocab nodes (I don’t think that’s a real term). Whatever the case I would always recommend doing an easy first round before taking on special rules. This just ensures that everyone is on the same page.
For a long time I always ran my games of Shiritori in the same way. In fact I’m pretty sure that some classes became rather bored of it. It was only when I started experimenting with the rules that we really started having fun.
This activity is primarily used as a warm-up at the beginning of the lesson but there’s really no reason why it can’t be used at other times. One approach, which I stole from a friend of mine, makes use of Shiritori throughout the majority of the lesson. Each round of the game is separated from each other by a different activity that relates to the previous round. So for example, round one might hold the theme of Animals. After that round students have to write descriptive sentences about animals of their own choosing. They won’t have to spend time thinking about what animal they could write about because there would be a massive list of them on the board. The next round would have a different theme and then a slightly different follow-up activity based on that theme. This way the fun energy permeates the whole lesson, breaking up what might have otherwise been a dry time of studious writing.
PRO TIP: A particularly fun variation, which I also stole from a fellow teacher, lets the students show a bit of creative flair. Instead of writing words on the board, they have to draw pictures. The same rules apply, only the spelling is internalised. Be sure the class is of a fairly high level before trying this out, and I really don’t think this is a good introduction to the game of English Shiritori, just a fun level up for later on.
Whatever way it’s implemented the game of Shiritori, or “Word Chain”, has become a staple feature of English lessons in Japan. So, don’t neglect this classic. Twist it, shape it, make it your own.
What spins have you put on this game? Have you found it useful in your classroom? Let us know down below.