Wednesday, May 16, 2012

In the Ongoing Search for Words

Down With the Word Search: Up With the Creativity

One of the popular time fillers I’ve seen in Language Arts classrooms is The Word Search.

If a student finishes his work early, or is getting one-on-one reading help, or is annoying a teacher, in grades two through twelve a teacher might say, “Here, work on this.”

I’ve watched kids working on these puzzles. The ones with a flair for language might enjoy them for awhile. Or they might humor the teacher. Perhaps they are trying for extra credit. Students with language difficulties struggle, need hints, look bewildered, and scrunch up their eyes as though they are hung over. Some eyes tear up.

You know what I mean, although you might know them by another name.

A square is filled with letters. Look at them up, down, across, and on the diagonal to see what words you can find and bind them up with the pencil for a lasso.

Why are students doing word searches in word jumble form? Beats me.
What these students are not doing, I believe, is improving their reading skills, their spelling skills, or their writing skills. I have no research to back this up. I haven’t bothered to find any. Likely we can all find research to back up any position we decide to take.

Phonics vs. Whole Language not the issue here

Ignoring the phonics vs. whole language debate for the moment, the following occurs to me. A student who has difficulty spelling, decoding, or keeping up with the grade level reading achievement of his classmates should not be trying to find words that are set up in a different pattern than reading itself. It’s not a useful skill. Why waste time on it? To play Tournament Level Boggle?

• We want students reading English to be eye cruising from left to right.

• We want them to be able to clump word groups together, to see complete thoughts, and to pick out details from context.

• We want them to look closely at the words that are already there.


Visible, not hidden.

An Alternative Word Search

In working with your children or students, a more useful activity might be to have them find words within words. At least they (the kids and the letters) are heading in the right direction.

Example: danger without the “d” is anger. Asking a child to read the word danger and asking what he reads when the “d” is covered up is more worthwhile.

(*Phonics fans will note that the “g” sound changes during this, one of the reasons that phonics is useful half the time, context matters the rest of the time.

Context = Whole Language Approach.

A five year government study came to the conclusion that a combination of techniques helps people learn to read.

“Duh,” said most teachers, figuring the money spent on the study could have bought a lot of new books, computers, and software.)

Be an Original Teacher

The concept of helping students practice finding words within words can be used by any teacher who feels like creating flash cards, original work sheets, or captions for pictures and cartoons.

NEW and Inspiring

The Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Richard Wilbur, has written a number of puzzle poems that could enrich and entertain younger learners plus expand the vocabulary of older ones. It also reinforces the idea that language and meaning change dramatically by the adding or subtracting of even one measly letter.


Inside a taxi, why do we find an ax?

It’s because cabs are also known as “hacks.”
A Pig in the Spigot is a charming illustrated book, supposedly for ages 9-12. Students much younger and teachers much older will find something to love and work with in this book.

“Emphatic has a hat inside it. Why?

Because some people, if you doubt them, cry

"By golly, if I'm wrong I'll eat my hat!"

What could be more emphatic, friends, than that?”

—Richard Wilbur

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