The University of Iowa

Learning English With Your Children and Teens: Practice Paraphrasing With a New Game

Person playing Paraphrase game holding card

First making and then playing a game like “Paraphrasing” can be a fun way to practice this useful communication strategy for overcoming oral language difficulties.


Posted on: February 22, 2022

Editor’s note: Learning together can improve your children’s and teens’ English language skills as well as your own. This post is part of an ongoing series designed to help caregivers who are English learners find English learning opportunities for the family in their everyday lives.

English learners and native speakers alike often struggle to find the perfect words to convey a spoken message. In these instances, there is a gap between the intended message and the speaker’s linguistic knowledge or performance. In this context, a communication strategy is a speaker’s attempt to close this gap using their available linguistic resources (Maleki, 2007). Some communications strategies include paraphrasing, translation, code-switching, miming, or asking for help. Although everyone uses communication strategies, they are especially important for English learners (Dörnyei, 1995; Maleki, 2007). Breakdowns in communication inevitably arise as an understandable part of the language-learning process (e.g., using an incorrect word, lacking the vocabulary necessary to communicate a desired message). In these moments, it is important that English learners are equipped with the communication strategies necessary to find a way to convey their intended message.

Paraphrasing is one helpful communication strategy that English learners can use to compensate for gaps in their linguistic knowledge or performance. In this context, paraphrasing occurs when a speaker describes or replaces an unknown word with other words that are known to the speaker. One kind of paraphrasing is approximation—when a speaker uses a replacement word that has the same approximate meaning as the desired word. Replacing the word “mug” with “glass” would be an example of approximation. Even though the approximated word does not have the exact meaning as the intended word, the listener may be able to infer the overall message using context.

mug and glass side by side

A glass is not the same as a mug, but the two words have similar enough meanings that a speaker might be able to use approximation to convey their message about glassware if either word was unknown to them.

Circumlocution is another example of paraphrasing in which the speaker uses entire phrases to describe the characteristics of the desired word. For example, if a speaker cannot remember the word for “mug,” they could say, “it’s like a glass, but it’s used for drinking hot coffee and tea.” If the description is sufficiently informative and accurate, the listener may be able to supply the unknown word to the speaker.

Practicing these strategies in a low-stakes context, like a game, can help English learners feel more prepared and confident when momentary breakdowns in communication occur in real-world interactions (Dörnyei, 1995). Let’s look at a new game called “Paraphrase” that caregivers and educators can use with children to help them practice paraphrasing.

How to Make “Paraphrase”

The game uses a deck of cards with English nouns. Each noun card has the name of a person, place, or thing (e.g., “dentist,” “snow,” “spoon”). In a previous blog post, I described how to make a deck of noun cards for a game called “Word Match.” Unlike the noun cards used in Word Match, the Paraphrase noun cards should not include a definition of the noun. However, if you have already made the Word Match cards, you may choose to use the same nouns to create a new deck of cards with the definitions removed.

To make the game, you can begin by printing our card template on perforated cardstock paper or the paper of your choice. Alternatively, a stack of index cards or small pieces of paper will work as well. Have your children think of English nouns, writing one noun on each noun card. Examples of noun cards are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Example of Noun Cards

Noun cards with mug, snow, taxi, and flowers written on them

To generate ideas, you can ask these questions to:

  • Where are our favorite places to go?
  • Where are some places you would like to go in the future?
  • Who are some people you see throughout the day?
  • Who are some people you would like to meet?
  • Who are your favorite characters from books or movies?
  • What are your favorite foods, sports, books, movies, or TV shows?

How to Play “Paraphrase”

Paraphrase can be played two different ways: one way requires players to paraphrase nouns effectively using circumlocution techniques, and the other uses approximation techniques so that other players can guess the intended words.

Circumlocution Version (Three or More Players)

In the circumlocution version, players attempt to describe a noun using phrases so that other players can guess it. To play the game, the noun cards should be placed facedown between the players. The first player draws a card from the top of the deck and reads it silently, taking care not to show the card to others. The player begins to describe the noun written on the card without using the noun itself in the description. For example, if the word was “snow,” the player could say, “it falls from the sky in the winter.” The other players may start sharing their guesses aloud. The first player to guess the noun receives a point, along with the player who successfully described the noun. Players continue taking turns describing and guessing nouns until all the cards have been drawn. The player with the most points wins the game.

You may modify the rules as needed in order to accommodate each player’s skill level. For example, you may allow beginners to draw three cards at a time and select the card they wish to describe. This will prevent players from having to struggle and become discouraged by words that they do not know. For advanced players, you may use a timer to limit the time they have to describe the word on the card. This will encourage players to describe each word as efficiently as possible.

Approximation Version (Four or More Players)

In the approximation version of the game, players offer one-word clues to help their teammates guess the noun on the card. To play the game, divide the players equally into two teams. The noun cards should be placed facedown between the two teams. Each team will select one player to be the leader for the first round. Decide which team will go first and play as Team 1. The leader from Team 1 will draw a card from the top of the deck and read it silently, taking care not to show the card to others. The Team 1 leader will give a one-word clue to the other players on the team. The clue should be a word that is related to the noun on the card. For example, if the noun on the card was “taxi,” some possible clues could be “cab” or “car” because these words have the same approximate meaning as “taxi.” Based on the clue, the other team members attempt to guess the noun on the card. Team 1 is only allowed one guess. If their guess is correct, their team will win the point. If their guess is incorrect, Team 2 has the opportunity to steal the point. The leader for Team 1 will hand over the noun card to the leader for Team 2. The leader of Team 2 will give another one-word clue to the other players on their team. The other players on Team 2 will attempt to guess the noun. If they are correct, their team will win the point. If they are incorrect, Team 1 will take another turn. Turns alternate between the two teams until one of the teams manages to guess the noun and earn the point. A new leader is selected from each team, and the second round begins with Team 2.

Modifications to Accommodate All “Paraphrase” Players  

Use the First Language

Before playing Paraphrase in the players’ second language, it may be helpful to start with their first or native language. Playing a few rounds in the first language will help the players understand the rules and become comfortable with the game. The players likely already use communication strategies unconsciously in their first language. Because many of these strategies can transfer to the second language, it is important to make English learners aware of the strategies that are already in their repertoire.

While playing the circumlocution version of Paraphrase in their first language, ask players to pay attention to the kinds of words and sentence structures other players use when giving clues. For example:

  • “It’s similar to a…,”
  • “It’s used for…,”
  • “It’s a kind of…”

You can use this information to generate a list of useful words and phrases that are relevant for paraphrasing in their first language. Together, try to find equivalent words and phrases in the second language. Finally, you may try to categorize these words and phrases based on their use, (e.g., comparing, contrasting, describing, defining, providing examples, etc.). Players may use this list for support when they start playing in their second language.

Provide Sentence Frames

Circumlocution utilizes certain basic vocabulary and sentence structures repeatedly. When playing the circumlocution version of Paraphrase, it may be helpful to provide players with sentence frames for support. With more practice, players will not need the sentence frames as their responses become more automatic. Use the sentence frames below as guidance, though you may wish to add more to this list based on the useful words and phrases you generated earlier.

Figure 2. Example Sentence Frames


Sentence Frame

 Example Sentence

To compare

It’s similar to a __________.

It’s like a __________.

noun: glove

It’s similar to a mitten.

It’s like a mitten.

To contrast

It’s the opposite of __________.

It’s not a __________.

noun: morning

It’s the opposite of night.

It’s not night.

To describe

It’s used for __________.

It has __________.

noun: mug

It’s used for drinking coffee.

It has a handle.

To define

It’s also called __________.

It’s a kind of __________.

It’s a type of __________.

noun: taxi

It’s also called a cab.

It’s a kind of car.

It’s a type of car.

To provide examples

Some examples are __________.

noun: flowers

Some examples are roses, tulips, and daisies.


Evaluate and Reflect on Strategies

The game provides an opportunity for English learners not only to practice using communication strategies themselves, but also to hear others use them. Each player likely will take a slightly different approach when using circumlocution. Some players may prefer to come up with a dictionary-like definition, whereas other players may prefer to provide examples. As players hear the strategies that others use, they can evaluate the effectiveness of those strategies. For example, players may notice that they are able to guess unknown words more quickly when they are given an example instead of a definition. It may be helpful to draw players’ attention to what makes strategies successful. Between turns, you may ask players:

  • Was that word easy or hard to guess?
  • What made it easy to guess?
  • What made it hard to guess?

Reflecting on their own strategy use may help players use strategies more effectively.

Communication Strategies

Improving use of communication strategies through practice may help English learners maintain a conversation without becoming frustrated or giving up (Maleki, 2007). Further, training in communication strategies has been shown to improve speech rate and oral fluency of language learners (Dörnyei, 1995). This may be because communication strategies provide a means for speakers to cope with breakdowns in communication that would otherwise result in hesitations, pauses, or giving up. When English learners are equipped with communication strategies, they may find that they can resolve breakdowns in communication on their own without requiring the help of others. This increased autonomy may enhance English learners’ motivation and confidence when using their second language (Maleki, 2010).

Searching for the right word on the spot can be stressful for anyone, especially English learners. Improving paraphrasing skills by practicing them while playing games can alleviate some of that stress. Making and playing word-learning games together with your children makes the experience more memorable and meaningful for everyone.

Supplemental Materials for Families

PDF iconParaphrase

You can type or write on these printable cards (compatible with certain perforated card sheets) to make noun cards for Paraphrase. Instructions for making and playing the game are included.


Dörnyei, Z. (1995). On the teachability of communication strategies. TESOL Quarterly, 29, 55–85.

Maleki, A. (2010). Techniques to Teach Communication Strategies. Journal of Language Teaching and Research1, 640–646.

Maleki, A. (2007). Teachability of communication strategies: An Iranian experience. System, 35, 583–594.

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Key Terms

Paraphrasing – In the context of oral language, a speaker describes or replaces an unknown word using other words that are known.

Translation – In the context of oral language, a speaker borrows a word or phrase from a different language to define, describe, or replace an unknown word.

Code-switching – A speaker alternates between languages within or between sentences.

Miming – A speaker uses nonverbal strategies like gesture to represent an unknown word.

Approximation – In the context of oral language, a kind of paraphrasing in which a speaker replaces an unknown word with another word that has the same approximate meaning.

Circumlocution – In the context of oral language, a kind of paraphrasing in which a speaker uses entire phrases to describe the characteristics of an unknown word.