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Dr. Joanne Meier

Along with her background as a professor, researcher, writer, and teacher, Joanne Meier is a mom. Join Joanne every week as she shares her experiences raising her own young readers, and guides parents and teachers on the best practices in reading.

Are word searches a waste of instructional time?

March 11, 2008

A question came to me via the Ask the Expert service that Reading Rockets provides. With the teacher's permission, I'm including it here to get your opinion.

We were recently told by an administrator that research shows that crossword puzzles and word search puzzles have no educational value. We have been forbidden to use them in our classes. As teacher of English Language Learners, we have found that both of these are valuable tools to use with our kids. Do you know of any research that would support our position?

My answer:
Your question is an interesting one! I know of no research that supports the use of word searches with students as a means to student achievement. That makes sense to me, though...few skills that translate to reading and writing are developed through their use. I guess one could build an argument that there are some near-point (i.e., copying) skills being used, but the relationship of near-point skills to reading isn't very strong.

Crossword puzzles, however, seem entirely different, especially if students are not provided with a bank of words to use with the puzzle. I think an argument could be made for vocabulary development through their use. You might want to see if your administrator could elaborate on his or her concerns about crossword puzzles.

The teacher's reply:
Here's the thing for us as ESL teachers. We use word searches as a way to reinforce vocabulary students are learning through reading. I work with first graders, so as they search the words, they learn to look for consonant clusters, vowel combinations and the like.

I also feel it does help to develop their visual acuity for recognizing English words. They love the word searches, and even those kids who struggle with language and/or reading love to do them and feel as if they've accomplished something great when they're finished. They like to compete with one another and are excited about working with words. To us, those are pluses.

We, too, think the crossword puzzles are a no-brainer. We also suspect that this was a case of prohibiting everyone from something because a few people are indiscriminately using them as busy work.

My questions to blog readers:
What do you think? Clearly this teacher thinks there are enough benefits to word searches to use them in her classroom. Her reasons are largely motivational, though. Are word searches a good use of educational time?


I worked in a maximum custody prison as a psychologist for about 17 months. Many of the guys had behavior problems. There was this one guy in solitary for constantly disrespecting female employees. I asked him what he wanted most to help him do his time. He asked for word search puzzles. We worked out this deal. If he could go one week without disrespecting female staff, I'd give him some word search puzzles to do. It worked! Staff were amazed that this criminal would work on good social skills in exchange for word search puzzles.

I have actually seen research that indicates that the left to right, and right to left eye movement is good for brain development. When we took our son to a reading specialist because he has some learning disabilities, the professional had us do a word search with our son every day.

In ESL the list of words for a word search puzzle are invaluable as we practice pronouncing new words for the next days science lesson. It's an introduction to new words--and while perhaps little learning takes place but as it can be done easily--at least everyone gets a little success--be it the A+ or marginal one. I could care less about the research--it's a great ESL tool

I have never heard of any research supporting word searches. However, there is tons of research support ing many other teaching strategies. Since we know what works to support students, why would we do something (like word searches) that may, or may not be of benefit to students? Let's allow ourselves to let what we know influence what we do.

Word puzzles help with deciphering and decoding skills, which are later tested in life on placement tests like the ASVAB. The scanning ability helps with reading charts, graphs, and other data such as an airport departure schedule board. If educators are not seeing the explicit value they will not communicate the explicit value and they are worthless. However, with attention spans decreasing working on scanning ability is something worthwhile. Those students that are frustrated for hours over a word puzzle obviously have areas that require improvement.


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