Playing with lexical cards

Very often students know the meaning of a word but don’t know how to use it correctly. This is often because they don’t know what words go with what other words, i.e. collocations.

Leo Selivan

For example, students are familiar with the word party but may not know the verbs have or give that go with it and, as a result, say *make a party. This activity helps students expand their collocational knowledge of the nouns they already know, but it can be adapted for other parts of speech. For more on lexical cards, click here to read the article. 

Level: Elementary and above

Aim: deepen student’s knowledge of partially known vocabulary items; develop collocational links between words

Material: a lot of postcard-sized cards (or cut A4 size card into four)


Choose 10 nouns your students are familiar with or have recently learnt. Abstract nouns work better for this activity. Using look up the most common collocations with these nouns. Enter the desired noun in the search field. Most common verb collocates can be found in the V obj *n* section (Verb + noun as object). For example, clicking the link above will show you which verbs collocate of the noun 'exam':

Scroll down the page and you will find most common adjective collocates in the ADJ *n* section (Adjective + noun). Nouns acting as adjectives, i.e. nouns that precede and modify other nouns, can also be included in the activity. For example, election before campaign or entrance before exam (see below). These can be found in the N *n* section.

You will also need to prepare a lot of postcard-sized cards (or cut A4 size card into four) for students to record collocations on.


Display or write on the board 10 nouns you have chosen:

Sample list for B2/C1 studentsSample list for A2/B1 students
permissionparty (as celebration)
responsibilityparty (as group)


Add a couple of “distracters” to keep the activity challenging till the end. For example,



For large classes, divide the students into pairs or groups of three. Distribute the cards so that each pair / group has 11-12 cards. Tell students to draw a vertical line in the middle of one side.

Then dictate a few verbs and adjectives that collocate with the nouns you have displayed / written on the board. As you dictate, the students in pairs / groups should write the verbs in the left column and the adjectives in the right column on a card. Nouns acting as adjectives should be also written in the right column.

To make it easier for students, dictate first the verbs and then the adjectives / nouns. To make it more challenging, dictate them in a mixed order so that students have to decide which column they go into:

Sample list for A2/B1 level

1. get / give / take / follow / useful / practical / professional (advice)

2. start / launch / run / election / advertising / successful (campaign)

3. hold / lose / win / general / free / presidential (election)

4. lose / have / share / new / good / clear (vision)

5. lose / enjoy / catch / pretty / familiar / (at) first (sight)

6. get / give / ask for / obtain / special / parental / written (permission)

7. set / meet / reach / achieve / important / main / unrealistic (goal)

8. have / serve / defeat / main / practical / specific / sense of (purpose)

9. get / see / achieve / produce / similar / direct / final (result)

10. take / share / accept / personal / social / parental / individual (responsibility)


Sample list for B2/C1 level

1. take / pass / fail / entrance / written / oral / final (exam)

2. have / throw / meet at / invite to / dinner / birthday (party)

3. set up / lead / join / ruling / political / conservative / opposition (party)

4. make / take / reach / difficult / important / own (adj.) / final (decision)

5. set up / run / do / small / own (adj.) / family / show (n.) (business)

6. spend / save / waste / good / great / hard / long (time)

7. spend / save / waste / earn / big / pocket / extra (money)

8. spend / save / live / change / new / own (adj.) / private / everyday (life)

9. ask for / give / express / strong / different / personal (opinion)

10. set / give / follow / good / perfect / classic / typical (example)


You will see that I’ve added oral exam although it did not appear in the list on Just-the-Word as I felt this would be useful for my students. Even if they are very frequent, feel free to omit the collocates which you think will not be useful for your students or appropriate for their age and level.

When dictating make sure you start with very common words (e.g. have, get, take) as these tend to collocate with a lot of nouns and move on to less common, more specific words (e.g. fail, launch) as these tend to form stronger word partnerships. For example, for the noun permission start with get or give because these can go with at least two other nouns on the list.

When students guess the key word (noun) they should turn the card over, write the noun in the centre of the card (it works better using a marker or felt-tip pen), and hold the card up. The result should be something like this:



























other useful chunks and/or examples can be added here 


They are not allowed to shout out the word as their incorrect guess may throw other students off track. If a student does shout out, ask him or her to provide further collocates instead of you.

Continue dictating until all or most students are holding up the card with the noun written in the middle. To make it competitive, you can award points to the students who held up their cards first (with the correct noun written).

You may want to leave some space at the bottom where students can write other useful expressions or their own examples. Make sure all the correctly completed cards are kept as these can be used for follow-up recycling activities.

Follow up:

Suggestion 1

In the following lesson, you can put your students in groups of 4-5, get one pile of collocation cards face down (the collocation side up). Students look at the collocations and guess the key word on the front of the card. The one who guesses correctly keeps the card. The winner is the student with most cards.

Suggestion 2

This follows on the previous activity but this time students working in groups have their deck of cards facing upwards. They pick a card and try to recall as many collocations for the noun written on the card. They can turn over the card to check. They continue until all the cards have been used up.

You can also ask students to make similar cards at home for other nouns using, then bring them to class and share them with their peers.

Suggestion 3

As their decks of cards grow, students can sort the cards into three piles: words they know and can use (and can recall all the collocations of), words they know but cannot use and the ones they are still not sure about. They can then discard the first pile and focus on reviewing the other two. This can be done in class as a group activity or individually at home.

Such sorting based on the learning states of each word encourages students to spend more time reviewing the items which are not fully mastered. It also helps students reflect on their vocabulary learning and fosters learner independence.

Language Level


Submitted by Tatiana62 on Tue, 07/31/2012 - 09:22

In reply to by Ruhiyye


Thank you very much for your creative ideas. It makes the process of learning vocabulary so exciting and productive.

Submitted by babakartal on Sun, 08/05/2012 - 18:31


Hi Leo,

 Thanks for your helpful approach. It is really necessary for the students. And you are really true they don't know using of the vocabulary they know the meanings.. best wishes...


Thank you all for your comments. I am glad that you've found this activity useful. Hope it helps your students develop their lexis.


Submitted by leosel on Fri, 10/12/2012 - 18:47

In reply to by leosel


I've just realised that I made a mistake with the levels. It should be the other way around.

advice, vision, sight etc are meant for higher level students (B2/C1) and

time, money, exam etc for lower levels (A2/B1).

Of course these are just suggestions. This idea can be used for recording any words you come across in class.


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