Games with Pencil and Paper (1): Contracted texts

One of my favourite things to do in London is wander along the South Bank and browse the used book stalls hidden away under Waterloo Bridge.
This weekend I stumbled upon a lovely little book from 1951 called “Games with Pencil and Paper” by Denise and Norman Williams.  I picked it up, leafed through it, and saw that many of the games are easily adaptable to the language classroom.
This is the first in a series of posts where I’ll share my favourites from the selection.  Some of the games may seem more familiar than others, and some have undoubtedly already turned up in classrooms somewhere at some point.  I don’t claim credit for any of them, but think they’re worth sharing.
So, without further ado: a text-reduction game the book calls “Contractions”.  I’ve amended bits of it for use in class, but the original is here.

Step 1. Each student writes down a story or anecdote, in exactly 80 words.

This could be done on the spot, or developed during class time, or done for homework, or over several lessons.  Or it could come from another source (e.g. a coursebook, online news article, etc.).
Step 2. Each student’s text is passed to the next student, who must reduce the story by half.
They have to do this without changing the order of the words, although it’s OK to change punctuation.  Ultimately, then each student will produce a digested version of the original text, now in 40 words.  At this point I’d either advise the students to keep the sense of the original text or not, but whichever you choose, stick to it.
Step 3. Each student now folds the paper to hide the original 80-word text, and passes it on.
The text reduction by half continues; so now each student works to digest the 40-word text into a 20-word text, again keeping the order of the words the same, potentially keeping the overall sense of the text the same, but changing punctuation if necessary.
Step 4. Each student now folds the paper to hide the 40-word text, and passes it on.
And so on, and so on, from 40 to 20 words, from 20 to 10 words, and finally from 10 to 5 words.  Of course, depending on the level (and ambition!) of the students, this process could be stopped before reaching a 5-word-only text.
Step 5.  From here there are several possible options:
a) (The book’s original suggestion) The students read out their 5-word texts, then the preceding 10-word versions, then the preceding 20-word versions “and so on up the page”.  I suppose this might be amusing, but to me it seems it would be a bit of an anti-climax to such a demanding activity.  So I’ve got a few alternative ideas…
b) The students post their 5-word versions around the room and see if they can recognise their own original text from what’s left of them all.
c) As a kind of ‘grammaring’ exercise, the students swap their now 5-words-only texts with the students who wrote the original 80-word versions, then have to try and recreate their original texts without cheating (i.e. unfolding the paper and looking back at them).  Finally, they compare the two.
d) As (c) above, except with a bit of extra help, namely that they can build back up to their 80-word texts step by step, building from 5 to 10 words, 10 to 20, etc.  If the original text ‘contraction’ didn’t require the sense of the text to be kept the same, they could re-build their 80-word texts (or have other students re-build them) into new stories, then compare the two 80-word texts – the original and the new version (which, of course, grew out of 5 words from the original).
e) The students, or the teacher, could keep the final 5 words and use them to revise the original stories the next day, turning the written text into spoken output – a kind of task repetition/fluency exercise that doesn’t actually feel too repetitive.
I’m itching to try this out now.  Let me know if you do, and how it goes!
Next instalment coming soon…

About Laura Patsko

Teacher trainer, language learner, language teacher, linguist, researcher. Not necessarily in that order.


  1. Hello Laura,How interesting! Itching to try it too! Thanks!Marisa

  2. Hi Marisa, thanks for the comment. If you get the chance to try it out, do come back and let us know what approach you opted for and how it went!Laura

  3. Thanks so much for sharing,I'm a big fan of games in the classroom. Will definitely try them out.

  4. Interesting idea that is wonderfully resource-light! Thanks for sharing, Laura.

  5. Hi Laura, I tried a variant of this activity in one of my business English classes, and it went pretty well. I had the students start with the 100-word mission statement, and from there they had to reduce it to 50 words. They said that taking out half the words made the text easier to understand. We didn't get past that, but in the future I think I will try a similar activity again. Thanks for the idea! -Bekah

  6. Hi Bekah,Thanks for the comment! Glad you liked it. I also found when I tried it out that it took quite a long time so we didn't get past the early stages, but the students certainly seemed to benefit from it so I guess that's the main thing.Let me know if you try it in future and if it goes differently! I'm thinking of trying it out again this week – the buzz from being at IATEFL has really motivated me to try a whole load of things out this week! Watch out, students! :)Laura

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