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Figure Me Out: A Scolaris Strategy

Describing something can be a challenge, especially when students are restricted from using certain words or phrases. But in doing so, students hone their communication skills as well as understanding of the specific term or concept. Take the term “wardrobe” for example. Try describing what it is with no restrictions on the terms you can use. Now try to describe it without using the words clothing, closet, shirt, pants, or laundry. That was much more difficult wasn’t it? Limiting the words you could use hopefully made you think, choose your words more carefully, and be more thoughtful in your delivery. Moreover, you had to go beyond a dictionary or glossary definition to communicate the idea.

In this exercise, students work in partners or teams to define a term, concept, or idea. The key, though, is that the students are restricted from using certain words or phrases. The restricted words or phrases can be determined by the teacher or the students.


The first step is to allow students to write their explanation with no restrictions, in order to give them a chance to think through their description. At this point the term should be something students are already familiar with at the know stage of understanding.

The second step is then to provide students with the forbidden words or phrases, and ask them to create an explanation or definition without using any of those terms.

Once a student has created his or her explanation or definition, the student can then share with another student who is charged with figuring out the term, concept, or idea.

Examples of terms and their restricted words include:

System of Equations: system, equations, linear, solution, ordered pair

Irony: verbal, dramatic, situational, opposite, audience

Democracy: people, vote, election, legislature, direct


This activity helps students to better understand terms, phrases, or concepts that are key to their learning. It also takes students from simply knowing a term’s definition to being able to use it as academic vocabulary. While it is important for students to know the term before they can use it, this activity seeks to promote greater student understanding of the material they are studying.