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March 2013
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TC Quick Tip: Last to First: A Fun Vocabulary Game for All
by Kent Hatashita

Audience: Adult learners of any level

I came across a vocabulary game called Shiritori while practicing Japanese, and it has proven itself useful as a fun warm-up game. Its adaptability makes it useful for all language abilities, and I have used it with all levels of adult learners and varying class sizes. Because, as English language teachers, our learners come from all parts of the globe, it seems fitting to give it a descriptive English name, so let’s call it Last to First.

The teacher begins by writing a word on the board. It could be random or based on a previous or current lesson topic. In a class of fewer than 10, students take turns adding a new word to the list that begins with the last letter of the previous word. For example, if the teacher writes Hamburger on the board, the next student needs to think of a word that begins with the last letter of Hamburger—in this example, it is the letter r. Hence, the last letter becomes the first letter of the preceding word (last to first). What develops is a student generated vocabulary list that could look something like this:


After each student gets three turns, check comprehension. If a student doesn’t know the meaning of the word, solicit its meaning from the student who added it to the list or provide the definition yourself. You could finish the game here or continue by adding other elements, altering the difficulty, or incorporating other challenges.


  1. Increase the challenge by excluding one or more letters from being the last letter of the words. This is what is done in its original Japanese form where the /n/ (ん) sound is excluded. For example, if we excluded Y the word Windy in the example above would not be allowed. You could either skip the student that gave that response or have them try again.
  2. Limit the amount of time each student has to respond. If a student cannot respond in the allotted time, move on to the next student or provide some type of verbal or nonverbal scaffolding to help them.
  3. Have the students write the words on the board themselves to practice spelling.
  4. After the students have generated their vocabulary list, have them use one or two words from the list in a sentence. Each word can only be used once, after which the other students must choose from the remaining words.
  5. Limit what words can be used by category, for example “Food,” “Words with two or more syllables,” or “Adjectives.” If you choose to do this, make sure the categories are broad enough to contain a deep vocabulary pool.
  6. In large classes, divide the students into groups of four to six and have them generate their own vocabulary lists (beginning with the teacher’s word) on scratch paper. Groups can use their own list or groups can exchange lists to create sentences as outlined in variation #4.
  7. For an easier, phonetic challenge, have the students use the end sound of each word to begin the next word. E.g., sail, laugh, phone, nice, sand.

These and other variations ensure the activity suits the class’s English language ability. It is a fun game to help the students transition from their L1 to English as well as practice various fundamentals of the language, depending on which variation you decide to incorporate. I hope your students will enjoy Last to First as much as mine do.


Kent Hatashita holds a Master’s Degree in TESOL from the University of Southern California. He has more than 13 years of teaching experience in Japan.

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