Apart from when young learners actually do a jigsaw puzzle, perhaps in order to practise numbers or phonics, the word jigsaw in ELT almost always collocates with text. A ‘jigsaw text’ is a text, such as a letter or telephone conversation, cut up into sections, for the students to put back together in the right order. There is nothing wrong with good classic jigsaw text activities, and they are one of the easiest places to start for teachers who want to develop their own materials. So this article begins with many variations on and uses for them. However, there are also a few other useful and fun activities that we could call ‘jigsaw activities’, some of which have more in common with a traditional jigsaw puzzle.

Classic jigsaw text activities

Splitting single texts

Asking our students to put cut-up sections of articles, essays, reviews and emails back together is a fun alternative to asking them comprehension questions when it comes to checking their understanding of a text. It is also a nice way to connect with any language analysis afterwards. However, it takes some effort to make sure that the task is suitably challenging but also possible. To do this, the teacher has to:

■ make sure that there are the right number of sections for the time available (usually around seven to 15 pieces);

■ make sure that the text wouldn’t also be correct if the students put it in a different order;

■ make sure that the clues needed to put the sections into order will be understood by the students;

■ have some hints ready to give the students if they find the task difficult or impossible.

With written texts, tasks like this tie in well with classroom discussion of reference expressions (that, it, the former, etc), rephrasing to avoid repeating words, the structure of paragraphs and the structure of texts. Which of those things you most want to introduce will probably be the biggest factor in deciding where you split the text. The most common possibilities are splitting between paragraphs, splitting between (some of the) sentences and splitting halfway through (some of the) sentences.

Splitting multiple texts

It is also possible to do a jigsaw text activity with a collection of linked shorter texts, such as an email exchange or SMS ‘conversation’. In this case, you might put each part of the exchange on a separate card. For example, if you use an online debate with 12 contributions, you could give the students 12 cards, with one contribution on each. This is my favourite way of introducing formal and informal emails, using one email exchange (for example, one complaint with responses or one email negotiation) which gets more and more informal as the exchange goes on. The students try to work out which emails are answers to which other emails, in order to put the exchange in order. Then, to help the slower groups and get the faster groups to check what they have done, I tell them that the emails should get more and more informal as the exchange goes on. After checking their answers, they underline the formal and informal email expressions in the texts, and then try to find or think of equivalents with the opposite level of formality.

Splitting spoken texts

Apart from emails, I make most of my jigsaw texts by splitting up spoken texts such as telephone calls and shopping exchanges, rather than using actual written texts. If you want to practise particular phrases such as How may I help you? you might want to split the exchanges halfway through (How may + I help you?). However, I usually simply split the texts between the contributions of the different people involved (eg How may I help you? and I’m looking for a present for my nephew), so that the students have to work out which are replying to which and put the conversation together that way. There tends to be at least one place in such conversations where more than one response is possible, so I sometimes put two people’s parts together on one card to avoid confusion. However, as long as there is ultimately only one way of putting the whole conversation together, it is sometimes good to leave some ambiguity. This makes the students read the conversation more carefully, as they try to put it together one way and then have to come back to it again when there are cards left which don’t fit.

Mixing two different texts It is sometimes possible – and useful – to give the students more than one text mixed up together, for them to separate out and then put into order. For example, they could be asked to separate out model answers for an article, an essay and a review for the Cambridge Proficiency exam, before putting each one in order. This could lead into a useful discussion of the differences between the three text types (in the exam and in real life).

It is also possible to combine written texts and spoken ones. For example, in the photocopiable business communication activity on pages 24–27 the students separate out mixed-up phrases for starting and ending emails, phone calls and face-toface conversations, and then put them in order. As the focus is on starting and ending (and the middle is too variable to be useful in a class on typical phrases), the body of the text has been left out and replaced with the single word BODY. This can be done with quite a few jigsaw text tasks, with the advantage that it helps the students focus on the important language. It also saves time, both during preparation and in class.

Matching language jigsaw activities

Splitting words and phrases

One of the best things about jigsaw texts is how much context they provide for the language that you are presenting or practising. However, that can also sometimes be a disadvantage, because a whole text:

■ is time-consuming to write and to use in class;

■ can sometimes be distracting;

■ limits the amount of vocabulary, phrases, etc that you can include in one class.

To give more intensive practice and/or cover more language, the jigsaw activities described in this section, therefore, get the students to match up cards with split words and phrases like have + breakfast or A bird in the hand + is worth two in the bush. However, there is little point in doing this if the students need to know all the answers before they start the task in order to be able to complete it. In that case, either they are learning nothing new, or you are setting them up for failure. You will, therefore, need to make sure that there are other clues to make up for the lack of the context that the students would get in tasks involving longer texts. For example, when I get my students to put together ‘opinion’ phrases like I can see what you mean, but my own point of view is different, I make sure that the phrases are split in such a way that any other matches are impossible in terms of grammar, collocations between different individual words and having to match by level of strength of agreement and disagreement. This means that those students who are seeing the phrases for the first time, or who have forgotten them, will still be able to do the task from other clues. It also means that I have plenty of hints up my sleeve to give them if they get stuck: for instance, telling them to check that they haven’t mixed up strong and weak language in the phrases that they have created (eg I strongly believe it could possibly be a good idea).

Another possible way to give the students extra context is to put more than one option on each card, at least one of which is likely to help them achieve the task. For example, if your class has a mix of knowledge of British and American English, you can make sure that you always include both when both are possible, eg by putting fire on the left card and both truck and engine on the right card if you are doing transport vocabulary.

Creating cards from tables

To make cards for the students to match up, you will usually start by drawing up a table, with the correct matches in adjacent columns. And another way of making sure that there are enough hints to make the task possible, without the students knowing everything, is to keep more than one cell of the table together when cutting it into cards. For example, if the task is to match up adjectives and prepositions like good, worried and sensitive with the prepositions at, about/by and to, you can cut the table up so that good and worried are together on a double card and all three prepositions are together on a triple card. It’s a good idea to make cards in a range of different sizes in this way, as this makes the task more like a real jigsaw puzzle: and it helps the students put the whole set of cards back into the nice rectangle shape that it was on the worksheet before it was cut up. For students who would still find the task difficult, you can make even bigger cards, containing four, or even five, cells of the table. If the students still get stuck when you do the activity in class, you can give them a couple of key matches, tell them how the cards are arranged (eg the ones on the left are in alphabetical order, or the completed rows get more and more polite as you go down the finished table), or read the whole thing aloud, with the students trying to memorise what you say before they try matching the cards again.

If you make a table with more than two columns, you can also cut across columns to make cards of other shapes and sizes, including squares and rectangles. For instance, if you are using phrasal verbs in a table, with four columns for verb, participle (preposition or adverb), meaning and example sentence (with the phrasal verb blanked out), some of the cards can keep the participle and meaning together.

I first thought up this variation when I was looking for a way of cutting out photocopiable matching activities more quickly, but when I came to class, I found that I had also accidentally made the activity quicker, more manageable and more fun for my students. In addition, it provided a kind of context that the students could use to complete the task and could learn from, even when they only knew about half of the language. Since then, I’ve been using this partial cutting-out idea more and more, both with ready-made worksheets that were originally meant to be cut up cell by cell and with materials that I have made specifically to exploit this idea.

You can use this sort of jigsaw activity with almost anything that you can get your students to match up, including:

■ word formation (prefixes and suffixes, etc);

■ synonyms and/or antonyms (eg of character words or feelings vocabulary);

■ gradable and extreme adjectives;

■ countable and uncountable nouns (with similar meanings, or countable examples of uncountable categories);

■ similar words with positive and negative connotations;

■ technical and general English words for the same thing (eg medical terms and their colloquial equivalents like feeling sick and nausea);

■ collocations (eg with common verbs like get and take, or longer ones like as … as, idioms or proverbs);

■ different varieties of English (eg matching British and American engineering terms);

■ formal and informal phrases with the same meaning/ function;

■ infinitive and past simple forms (with just the endings in the right-hand column);

■ abbreviations such as acronyms (with the last part of the long version in the right-hand column).

Substitution table jigsaws

This is another example of a small change to an activity leading to a huge change in my teaching, but this time with much more scissor use.

A few years ago, I was writing the suggested answers to a verb patterns task where the students had to put verbs into a table with columns for ‘verb + ing’ (eg enjoy + verb + ing), to + verb (eg aim + to + verb), etc. I suddenly realised that I had accidentally prepared a perfect jigsaw task, and that putting a cut-up version of it into the correct order would definitely be more enjoyable than scribbling in a blank table. Since then, I’ve used this idea with all kinds of things, and more often with functional language, such as negotiating phrases before and after but (eg I can understand your position, but I’m afraid I can’t accept; I don’t have the flexibility to go that far, but I might be willing to consider …, etc), than with grammar substitution tables. After doing the jigsaw task, the students can do the traditional filling in of boxes in a table (which, it must be said, aids memory better than the more fun jigsaw task) and/or use the cards for other tasks, such as trying to use phrases including the words on their cards during a speaking task.