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Teaching English as a Puzzle: the Why and the How

Teaching English as a Puzzle: the Why and the How


In my first blog entry, I said that next time I would explain my view of the why and the how of a Language Puzzle approach to language teaching. Here it is. As you read this, you may agree or you may disagree. Either way I hope you will find good food for thought—and maybe even good reason to leave a response.




As I have said previously, language is akin to a puzzle: There are pieces that fit together to form a coherent, cohesive whole. And almost everyone likes some kind of puzzles—if they are not too hard. And not too easy! So teaching language as a puzzle makes the learning process engaging and motivating. (More on that in a later blog entry.) It also gets the students thinking rather than memorizing. (More on that, too.) And a learner who is engaged and thinking is a learner who is … well, learning


Furthermore, if one takes the puzzle idea literally, it can bring a tangible, tactile element to language. Spoken language, by its nature, has an ephemeral now-it’s-here-now-it’s gone quality. Written language is lasting, but it comprises abstract symbols touched only by the learner’s eyes. If one puts physical puzzle pieces into the hands of the language learner, it makes the language, in a sense, more real. It is no longer just audial or visual, but tactile. The learner gets to touch, pick up and hold, and move actual physical objects—that is, the puzzle pieces. With a puzzle, the learner literally “can handle the language”. 


By giving our students puzzles, we not only make language learning more game-like—thereby increasing motivation and engagement—but we empower our students and cultivate within them the self-image of a problem solver. We are showing our students that we trust them to be able to work things out for themselves, and we are giving them the materials they need to do so. This may be a new idea to the student. (You know who I mean. The one who, with annoying frequency, whines, “Wakannai!”) It may take a while for them to trust themselves. But give them time. The benefits can be immeasurable. 




But how does one go about presenting language as a puzzle? On one level it’s hard to quantify. It has to do with an over-arching attitude—an attitude that leads the teacher not to give solutions/answers, but to give problems to be solved + the raw materials with which to solve them. This approach treats the student not as a passive receptacle of the teacher’s input, but as an active solver of an inviting problem laid before them. 


On a more literal level, there are many actual physical puzzles that can be created for building and working with language. Some are obvious and old-hat, but still valuable: crossword puzzles and word searches, for example. Beyond such old standbys, however, the possibilities are limited only by the puzzle maker’s imagination. Each of the next three blog entries will look at at a different kind of puzzle: scrambles, in which the pieces of the puzzle need to be put into the proper sequence; completion puzzles, in which pieces are missing; and matching puzzles, in which pairs or sets have to be matched. 


When language learning is presented as a puzzle to be worked out, it is no longer a chore, but an adventure; no longer a memorization task, but a playful problem to negotiate and master. 

NEXT TIME: Scrambles

Alan Miesch

Alan Miesch

After years as a ‘professional dabbler’, Alan Miesch found himself drawn into teaching English to non-native English learners. He has experience in a wide range of milieus, both in the United States and Japan, teaching young children, teens, and adults. He is now the proprietor and sole teacher at a private English classroom in Numazu, Japan.
Alan Miesch

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