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Building Quick and Easy Word Puzzles

by Brent Warner |

We all get to that point in the year where we just want something fun and light: a quick activity that can refresh the brain but not be too taxing. For years, the arguments have gone back and forth about whether activities like word searches are pedagogically valuable, and recent literature reviews (like this one from Pioneer and this one from the Journal of Engineering Science and Technology Review) show that students who participate in these activities show improved vocabulary mastery. 

It’s easy to be distracted by the latest and greatest tools, but oftentimes simple and reliable is just what the doctor ordered. While online puzzle makers have been around almost as long as the internet, they’ve often been clunky and not exactly trustworthy to make what you’re hoping they’ll make. Luckily, Discovery Education has a set of free (with no logins!) and easy-to-use tools that allow you to whip up a number of puzzles in a few short minutes, complete with answer keys. 

Puzzles fit in the classroom in all sorts of ways, too. They’re a great option for end of the year classroom parties to work together on with some holiday cookies, but they also work well to keep students who finish tests or other classroom assignments early busy until everyone else catches up. 

For now, let’s take a look at the kinds of puzzles you might build for your language learners:

Word Search: A very straightforward word search with an option to make the size of the puzzle up to 40x40 letters. Don’t worry—they also provide you with an answer key!

Criss Cross: Your standard crossword puzzle. Just make sure that when you put in your words, you delete spaces from any multiword choices. For example, “English Class” would become “EnglishClass”

Double Puzzles: Students will unscramble the vocabulary words you want them to discover, then figure out a “Final Phrase” made of individual letters from the puzzle. Often, it can be a good idea to use a final phrase that ties all the words together thematically.

Fallen Phrases: If you’ve never played this before, it might take a couple of minutes to explain to your students. In short, you use logic and knowledge of English to figure out what letters go where to make the mystery phrase. Here’s a useful video to get started. Once your students know how to play, you may find it becomes a go-to activity!

Letter Tiles: Similar to figuring out scrambled words, this puzzle challenges students to figure out scrambled phrases with “tiles” of two, three, or four letters bundled together. This is a good option for students to use their grammar knowledge to help them figure out the puzzle.

Cryptograms: Students figure out which number corresponds to each letter in order to discover the mystery phrase. If you’re doing escape-the-room type activities, using the numbers here can be a great way to link the puzzle with a combination lock.

Hidden Message: This is basically just a word search where the unused letters help form a bonus hidden message. I recommend testing it out and checking the answers, because sometimes the “hidden message” isn’t very hidden at all. In these cases, simply click the red “rebuild puzzle” button and try again.

You can use any of the activities above on their own, or you can combine them for more robust classroom activities like “Escape-the-room” style breakout activities. If you start thinking about all the ways these simple puzzles can be used as mini-activities in a larger project, you may find you have more ideas than time! Still, as always, I recommend you start simple and build up as you become more comfortable with the games and how they fit in with your classroom goals.

About the author

Brent Warner

Brent Warner is a professor of ESL at Irvine Valley College in California, and an educational technology enthusiast. He is co-host of the DIESOL podcast, the only podcast with a specific focus on EdTech in ESL. He frequently presents on the crossroads of technology and language learning, focusing on student engagement and developing learner autonomy. Brent likes his coffee black and his oranges orange. He can be found on LinkedIn at @BrentGWarner.

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