Call My Bluff was a tremendously popular BBC TV quiz show in the 1960s.
After a long run, it was resurrected in the 1990s and has since spawned similar shows, board games and radio versions in the UK and abroad. It also happens to be a fantastic ESL game!
The game revolves around providing three definitions of an obscure word, only one of which is true. Contestants must weed out the fictional meanings and choose the correct one. The words are often bizarre, with their meanings difficult to guess, all of which adds humor and creativity to the game. My ESL students love it and I get frequent requests to play Call My Bluff on a Friday, or after a test.
Strengths of the Game
Call My Bluff is an excellent ESL classroom game for these reasons:
- It encourages vocabulary expansion
- It directs the students to consider etymology and the way in which English is a composite from a variety of background languages
- It requires analysis of words and a comparison with what the students already know
- There is a strong likelihood that some of the words will connect with the students’ first language (L1) and this encourages a consideration of how languages are connected and indebted to each other
- It requires reasoning and logic, all done in a teamwork setting
- It demands creativity when writing the fictional definitions
- It requires presentation skills for announcing the definitions
- It relies on the language of persuasion, credibility and possibility, including modal verbs
- It is a fun way to compete while learning and using all four skills in an integrated environment
This game has never failed, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. You could begin by showing the students a Youtube clip of the game, highlighting the relaxed, leisurely atmosphere and the anecdotal humor which gives each episode its charm.
Try Calling My Bluff in Your Classroom
Divide the class into two teams. Each team will be given a list of obscure and/or difficult words with which they are not yet familiar. They then prepare three definitions for each word – one is true, the other are made up by the students. Taking turns, the team writes its word on the board and then announces the three definitions. After a given period of time, the opposing team must choose which definition they think is correct; if they are right, they are given points or money.
Choosing Good Words
I’ve found it best to avoid words which derive from Latin, as our students from Spanish speaking countries would have a definite advantage. Greek words have worked well, as have Yiddish and Hebrew. Scientific words and obscure British English vernacular have reliably confused my students. Here are some winning examples, with notes on how the three definitions were created:
- Someone who enjoys taking sleeping pills (taken from ‘fun’ and ‘Ambien’)
- Someone who can walk on a tightrope (true)
- A ship’s crewmember responsible for cleaning the ship’s exhaust (taken from ‘funnel’)
- An out-of-date spelling for ‘gamble’ (using its phonic qualities)
- A team game using a ball made from a pig’s stomach (taken from ‘bol’ for ‘ball’ and ‘gam’ from ‘gammon’)
- To walk in an energetic way, as if happy or carefree (true)
- Required, compulsory, mandatory (true)
- Related to aircraft (taken from ‘plane’)
- Enjoyable or satisfying (taken from ‘pleasing’)
This is a game in which students are invited to lie to their opponents, something which mine tend to thoroughly enjoy! The more detail the student can give about the definitions (both fictional and otherwise), the more convincing they will be. Examples of usage help here, as do adding prefixes, suffixes, conjugations and the like, giving the impression that the word, in only this definition (of course) has a secure place in the lexicon.
The best results are often found by using words which rhyme with, or have the same starting consonant cluster as the target word (gamble and gambol; plenary and plane; funambulist and fun). The students might also present a fictional etymology of the word, i.e. “’Corpulent’ comes from the old Norse ‘corp’ which means ‘a large group’, and today it means a group of soldiers of around three brigades in strength.” Here, the etymology is an outright lie, but it gives the definition extra weight and conviction.
The opposing team them has the challenging of deciding which definition is true. This is a nice opportunity to bring in modal verbs (“That must be true, because...”; “Might that just be made up?”) and levels of likelihood (“I’m certain about it...”; “You still seem to be in two minds”).
Set a time limit for this debate and then oblige the students to announce their answer. Once this is done, reveal the etymology of the word, including the language from which it originated. Perhaps also invite the team to describe how they created their fictional definitions, or the other team to describe how it was they were caught out.
You could invite students to actually invent the words too. They would provide three words, each with a definition, and see if the opposing team can tell the genuine word from the fictional ones. This gives students the chance to consider word structure, prefixes and suffixes, Latin and Greek roots, and other elements of how words are built.
Another extension would be to use the obscure word in a sentence and invite the students to describe exactly what the sentence means. For example, “Peter’s spectacular quiff was his latest attempt to impress women.” This could mean a kind of gymnastics, or a hairstyle (true) or an article of clothing. The students would give their own versions of the sentence and try to convince their classmates of its authenticity.