I’ve always loved using some sort of puzzle in my classroom. It adds a little fun to an activity or exercise that could otherwise be boring if I just reviewed using a worksheet! This is probably why language-teaching puzzles have become widely popular in the world language classroom of today! In fact, for the last three decades they have been a regular feature in most textbooks and ancillary materials. Unfortunately, many teachers only use them as a time filler or for substitute plans. Is there something more to puzzles you may be wondering? Absolutely! But just like any technique that is used to teach, you must know how to correctly utilize puzzles in the classroom for them to be effective. Below are some things that you should consider before using your next puzzle in the classroom.
- Language-teaching puzzles should be used wisely. They should motivate and challenge students and not be used simply as time-fillers.
My momma always said, ‘too much of a good thing is nasty.’ Well, mom got that right in terms of using puzzles in the classroom! If you use puzzles too much, they lose their special touch. In other words, something meant to be fun and different becomes mundane and boring. For this reason alone, you should limit your use of puzzles! Students need to view the puzzles as though they are as much a part of the class as other activities… not just for when the teacher has an extra five minutes to ‘waste’ before the bell or when the teacher is absent and needs easy sub lesson plans.
You also should vary the type of puzzles that you use. If you always give word searches, for example, students will lose interest in what is meant to be a break from other class drills and exercises. If you diversify the types of puzzles that you use, the students will look forward to the surprise of the type of puzzle that you give!
- Language-teaching puzzles need to be appropriate for the age, learning styles and previous learning of the students and their competence level.
It’s very obvious that age would affect your choice of which type of puzzles to use. After all, an elementary student cannot be successful at a puzzle aimed at a secondary student. Likewise, a puzzle targeted for an elementary student would bore a secondary student. But you also need to consider that students in a beginning level language course do well with more simplistic puzzles (think basic crosswords and word searches), whereas students in a more advanced language course can handle logic puzzles or rebus puzzles (puzzles in which pictures, symbols and letters represent words). Additionally, not everyone learns the same way, so variety in your choice of puzzles not only keeps the classroom fresh, but also will reach the maximum number of students in terms of their preferred learning styles.
- Language-teaching puzzles need to be appropriate to the learning task.
Once you have determined what it is that you wish for the students to accomplish, you must choose the correct type of puzzle for the task. Puzzles can be used to review, recall from memory, reinforce and sometimes to expand the language. There are many types of language-teaching puzzles such as word searches, crosswords, anagrams or scrambled letters, jigsaw puzzles, and logic puzzles.
There are really two main categories of puzzles: those that focus on form and those that focus on meaning. Puzzles that focus on form are extremely useful at the elementary level of language learning because the they deal with control of spelling, vocabulary or grammar, but do not always call for very high order thinking. And yet, they can still be challenging and are definitely fun, so you can see why they are so popular! These work great to reinforce language that is learned as well as to provide a review of previously learned material. Puzzles that focus on meaning, such as logic puzzles, can be useful especially for more advanced levels because students must understand how parts of the language relate to one another.
Now let’s take a closer look at some ideas for both types of puzzles Here are my personal top 5 for classroom use!
Perhaps one of the most fun, but overlooked puzzles for language classes is the jigsaw puzzle. Have you ever met a kid that didn’t like a jigsaw puzzle? Well, this old-fashioned puzzle has a new twist when used to review language! Traditionally a jigsaw puzzle has differently shaped, interlocking pieces that fit together, and that when assembled, reveals a picture. This idea of interlocking pieces that match can be incorporated into the language classroom in a variety of ways. When used to review language, these puzzles can mix and match words to their corresponding pictures, words to their corresponding definitions, questions to answers, words to their opposites, or a problem to its solution. As with other puzzles, there is a limitless number of items that you can incorporate to vary the difficulty of these puzzles. Although traditional jigsaw puzzles tend to have many pieces, in the language classroom the number of pieces will be much less as you are focusing on specific parts of the language. Here are two examples of jigsaw puzzles that I created for my students to review question words and subject pronouns. These were super easy and fun to make once I got going, but if you would like to get these premade, you can find them here and here.
Once I was on a roll making them, I made several versions of each puzzle so that I could vary the practice from simple identification of what the picture represents to a more difficult concept such as finding the appropriate answer to the question word or having students match the subject pronoun picture to the correct form of the verb Ser. I like having different versions so that I can easily differentiate the lesson in class.
Word search Puzzles
These types of puzzles can vary in difficulty depending upon how they are created. For example, puzzles that only have words that can be read from left-to-right, right-to-left, up-down, and down-up are easier than those that also contain words that can be read horizontally up-down or down-up.
You can also easily change the difficulty level by changing the instructions for solving these puzzles.
- You can ask students simply to locate the words that are given to them in a list. This is the most basic task because it is a simple recognition of words.
- You can ask students to locate words, such as family members, in the puzzle, without being told which words (no list is provided). This increases the difficulty of the task because now this becomes identification of vocabulary as opposed to simple recognition.
- You can give students definitions or incomplete sentences for each word and then ask them to find the words in the puzzle. Now the puzzle has become a cloze activity.
- You can give students one form of the words, and ask them to find an alternate form such as feminine vs. masculine or singular vs. plural. Students must know this grammar and pay attention to form in order to complete the puzzle.
Here are some more ideas:
- You can give students pictures which represent the words that they must find.
- You can give students pictures which represent the opposite of the words that they must find.
- You can give students words, and have them locate words of the opposite meaning in the puzzle.
- You can give students a ‘secret message’ by having the letters not used in the puzzle be a special word or phrase that they must decode.
The number of ways that you can vary the instructions for these puzzles is limitless! Be creative and see what you can come up with! There are numerous free word search generators online such as http://tools.atozteacherstuff.com/word-search-maker/wordsearch.php that you can use. But if you’re like me, you want a quick go to puzzle that is premade. I love these word searches by Señora Lee for the Love of Spanish because she has puzzles for just about anything you could ever need!
Like the word search puzzles, these puzzles can also vary in difficulty depending upon how they are created. Here are some different ideas of how to use a crossword puzzle:
- Give a word bank along with the clues.
- Give picture clues instead of word clues.
- Give definitions, descriptions, synonyms or antonyms as clues.
- Give a dialogue, story or sentences in which students must fill the blank with words that correspond to the puzzle.
- Give students a ‘secret message’ by highlighting some of the letters in the puzzle which students must rearrange to decode.
You can also turn these puzzles into a communicative activity. For example, you can give each student a puzzle with half of the clues missing. In pairs, each partner has half of the clues and reads the clues aloud to their partner who is lacking those clues. In this way, you can incorporate an oral practice as well as a listening practice.
Another novel idea for crossword puzzles is to have students find the answers by looking for them in a reading context or visual representation. Global Guy Ink has mastered this concept by having his students find fun and interesting cultural facts from posters that he places around his classroom. Each poster represents a different Spanish-Speaking nation so students learn about the Hispanic world as they search for the answers found in the images… plus students get to move around the classroom as they ‘visit’ each country. What’s not to love about that? And did I mention that the pictures in the posters are breathtaking? Take a look for yourself…
If you are ready to try your hand at creating a crossword puzzle for your class, there are countless free online generators for these puzzles as well such as https://worksheets.theteacherscorner.net/make-your-own/crossword/
Most people are not as familiar with anagrams as they are with the previous three types of puzzles. Anagrams are a form of word play in which letters of a word or phrase are rearranged in such a way that a new word or phrase is formed. In fact, anagrams are formed by using exactly the same letters of the original word or phrase but with a different arrangement. You might have heard them called simply ‘scrambled letters’. For example, in English ‘stop’ is an anagram for ‘pots’ or ‘sink’ is an anagram of ‘skin’. In Spanish ‘padre’ is an anagram for ‘pared’. These puzzles are a wonderful review of vocabulary since the students see a vocabulary word in Spanish and then must find another vocabulary word in Spanish using the same letters! This type of puzzle can be more difficult to create even with an online anagram generator such as http://www.a2zwordfinder.com/anagram_solver.html. Although not an anagram in the purist sense of the word, it is much easier to create a partial anagram is which a word can be found within another word, without the use of every letter. Or a group of letters can be given and students asked to find as many words as possible by rearranging the letters. This is sometimes called a ‘Scrabble’ puzzle. Personally, I love to use these puzzles, but I hate to create them! I stumbled upon this TPT store the other day and was blown away by the sheer amount of puzzles that I found. This has become one of my new go-to puzzle stores! If you’re looking for these types of puzzles, check out Speak More Spanish.
This type of puzzle requires students to find logical relationships between and among parts of the language. These puzzles are more difficult due to the higher level of thought required, and are not only challenging to the students, but also entertaining. Within these puzzles there is some type of ‘problem’ that must be solved by creatively using and relating the language pieces. Some examples of logic puzzles for language learning are sudoku-type puzzles with words instead of numbers. Students must fill the squares with words filling each row horizontally and vertically with a certain number of given words which cannot be repeated within each row or column. Students must figure out how to fit all of the words by determining their relationship to each other. Here is a great example of this provided by LaProfesoraFrida in which back-to-school words are used.Another type of logic puzzle would be matching square puzzles. In this type of puzzle students have square puzzle pieces that they must arrange into a logical patterned square using the relationship between the language on each piece. This could be as simple as Spanish words matched to their English translations, words matched to their opposites, or even words matched to pictures! The sky is really the limit on what you can use. If you’re not familiar with these super fun puzzles, take a look at this one (also by LaProfesoraFrida), in which students must match the days of the week and months of the year in Spanish with their English translations. No matter what type of puzzles you choose, they will help to create a positive and fun environment in your classroom, if you utilize them correctly. Remember, like any activity that you choose for your students, it must be appropriate to their age and skill level. Along with other kinds of practice and activities that you use, puzzles play an important role in language development and are extremely versatile. In fact, there are so many types of puzzles that I’ve only just scratched the puzzle surface here!
What is your favorite type of puzzle to use in the classroom?