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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, too, like word searches for the building of vocabulary. It is a way of teaching synonyms and antonyms and keeps new vocabulary words in front of the students so they see them. More exposure to new words better the chances they will make them their own and use them on a daily basis. I think they are great for ELL and at risk students. Motivation is key for these students and finding the words makes the students focus on word parts and the words themselves. I think the author is correct. Too many teachers have probably used them as busy work on a Monday morning or Friday afternoon so now must pay the price. Any teaching tool can be good and/or bad: it always depends on how it is being used in the classroom. Used wisely these can enrich the lesson. It was suggested that this is not a good use of student time at our school as well but I disagree. We have not been forbidden to use them but it is strongly discouraged. I use them but only to reinforce a particular skill.

I agree that word finds have little educational value. In a time when we are trying to produce thinkers and problem solvers, the passive act of locating words seems a waste of instructional time. If they are used as Jamie has mentioned, as a tool for teaching synonyms, antonyms, etc. they could prove useful as a quick activity but too many teachers use them as time-fillers. Crossword puzzles have a bit more instructional value but can also be used inappropriately. One way to up the instructional value might be to have students create word searches and crossword puzzles of their own using content words, literary terms, etc.

I love the idea of having kids create their own crossword puzzles. Seeing a student-written definition of a word would certainly help a teacher gauge that student's understanding. Molly had to create her own word search last week using her spelling words. It was definitely a time filler.

I see no educational value in word searches. Vocabulary is not built by matching and circling letters. Word searches are "busy work". Vocab lessons should focus on USING the vocab words.. not matching their letters. Play a matching game with the word and a definition or sentence so that they can see the word in CONTEXT rather than just as a group of letters.

As a parent of a child with dysgraphia, we have spent hours searching for words in word searches. We used various strategies (i.e., using a strip of paper and screening the list of letters vertically, horizontally, and on the diagonal. The time we spent evenings looking for scientific terms in science, history, etc. could have been spent studying content materials. I also did not feel it was a fair for my son to be graded on them. Finally, during his last year in school, his IEP contained Specially Designed Instruction that does not allow any grading of word searches or scrambles for him. Hopefully, as a freshman in college, we will not see these activities being used as an assessment tool.

Thanks for adding the voice of a parent of an older student with dysgraphia. I agree with your statement that the time spent poring over the word search grids could have been spent actually learning and getting excited about content! Argh. And, as a former university professor, I can say that during my 7 years on faculty, I never once saw a university professor use a word search. Hopefully your son is through with those!

As a teacher, I see the use of crossword puzzles (with a word bank) and word searches to be find vocabulary and spelling benefits for elementary students. As a parent of a middle schooler, I have been shocked at the number of these labor intensive and time consuming puzzles that have been assigned as homework to be graded and there is obvious low educational value. It have been difficult to get a biology teacher to stop sending these home when other reinforcing assignments need our child's time.

Most of my argument has been stated in the previous posts, but I would like to add my story:Although many teachers give out word searches at some point in the year to free up a little time in their schedules, there are a handful that rely on them. Take, for example, my sixth grade teacher, Ms. Allen. She would give out a huge (I'm talking 35 by 35 character monsters that took up a whole page at 12-point font) word search every week or so. She would then come around to every table and grade them, grade something that requires no ingenuity at all, does not build any skills at all except for toning eye muscles by putting them under stress. (Training for a job entailing computers, perhaps?) So, please, if you are a teacher or plan to become one, at least assign some creative journaling assignments and spare us schoolchildren from hours of useless torture. Signed, A Rising Eighth Grader ☺ ☻ ♥ ♪ ♫ ☼

I think word searches can be useful for word bank building. If the word study is focusing on long a spelled with ai, then looking up the words with the ai spelling is a good review. Also, if the students are studying nouns, it is a good way for students to be exposed to a variety of nouns so that they can get more examples of nouns. It is a good supplementary resource if used in the proper context of exposure to words. Tools teachers use should be judged on how they are used by the teacher and not be written off because of the way some teachers misuse them.

I believe word searches are useful to help students build stamina and help with learning to key in on details. Testing is a game of stamina and attention to detail. I use it to help my students learn that you look everywhere to help find information. I would never use it as a grade because I feel their is no benefit to the word search in this manner. ADHD students learn to slow down when working using word searches, as long as it is not to complicated.

I would consider myself to be an intelligent, articulate individual, yet I find word searches to be of little value. They would seem more likely to test visual skills and psychology rather than vocabulary. My son recently had to "solve" a "science wordsearch" with nearly 40 words with an array that must have been about 50 x 50...a tremendous task, even for me (I'm a PhD scientist). Assigned on the same night as serious English, Math, and Social Studies homework for return the following day, this simply added pressure to the evening homework routine. Frankly, for my son to have to find words like "science" and "theory" in the midst of 2500 letters when he has asked me about Bose-Einstein condensates and told me he is finally "getting" quantum spin (he's a science whiz...but word searches drive him *NUTS*) is not only silly, but a totally irrational way to judge and grade his science skills!For those still reading: will help you solve your wordsearch...

Last night my daughter spend 1.5 hours trying to figure out a word search assignment. Thank you so much for linking the warp.byu site I can see where this will really put a meaningful skill and a reason to do wordsearches! My daughter suffers from memory problems, ADD and information processing problems. I also find her switching letters in words or with her spelling having all the letters in the word there but in the wrong order. You can see why wordsearches would be a daunting task for her. She loves the computer and is always wanting to learn how to type faster so this is definatly going to be the way to go. Thanks so much!

Cathy - I agree that word searches are merely level I recall based activity. They require students to use only simple skills without any analysis of text. With that said, I am not convinced that 94-142 was ever developed so that parents like you could control/micromanage how teachers would be permitted to evaluate children….. It is evident that you are laying down a red carpet in front of your child to ensure that he/she will never have to face challenges or adversity. How is that working for you?

I use both word searches and crossword puzzles in my remedial program. I work with emotionally disturbed students with multiple learning needs. Many have attention difficulties and trouble focusing on task. As others have stated, I use specific puzzles (based on the needs, skill level and emotional stamina of the student) to provide practice with vocabulary, attention to word patterns, spelling and more. Often children are asked to use the words in sentences or to select a number of words to use in an essay. Word searches and crosswords (in print and online) are non-threatening to my students, all of whom have failed in prior placements and so have learned to hate reading and school, and to distust adults, especially teachers. My students work willingly at these puzzles, and over time learn to use the fundamental skills required to solve them in other areas of their school day.

Talk about a leap...because serious educators have No use for ...NO USE for this type of activity. I noticed someone suggesting this is a helpful activity for ELL learners....hmmmm??? Please tell me a program that teaches second language learners using word searches. Teaches vocabulary??? Teaches spelling ???Reallllly, I'm looking for the word "Quetzalcoatlus" I bet I'll be able to spell it as soon as I isolate the "z's". And to Mike (yes, a sentence that starts with and) your logic system allows you to extrapolate that not doing a word search ensures that her child "will never have to face challenges or adversity". That's some logical fallacy you having going... How is that working for YOU?

The only teachers I know that use these are not high achievers. Of the 6 teachers that use them in our school ALL of them have told me they don't check them. I had my son just circle random letters when we got frustrated one night and we decided to do it for the rest of the year. Neither one of the teachers noticed and he got full credit the entire year. I surveyed students in my classes and the students that like them said they were fun and easy credit. What's next math credit for Sudoku???

I see no educational benefit to word searches! The words are often backwards so how can they help a child recognize words. I do the word searches for my children so they will not waste time on them. I hate doing them, they give me a headache. My high schooler still gets them! craziness. Sudoku is not for math but maybe the kenken puzzles.

Word Finds and Word Searches are assigned as homework at my son's school quite often. They seem like a big waste of time to me since they take an hour or more to do and he isn't learning anything by doing them.

I get so annoyed when I see that my children have been assigned a word search. They stare blindly at the page hunting for cryptic letter after cryptic letter with no regard for the overall word. They scan around. They finish without learning how to spell the word or how to use it in a sentence. I will now read the other comments so see if any of the arguments sway me.

I teach high school. Word searches are a waste of time for bright kids, they should be learning soemthing important. Word searches are a waste of time for students with learning difficulties. They frustrate and turn them off. Word searches are a waste of time for students who like them. They use them as an excuse not to do their other work.

There is absolutely no value in word searches for the normal child. Let's open the book and read or memorize vocabulary or do something that actually involves learning the subject.

I gove wordsearches and wordfinds to my students- but with other activities and related to the topic. They are useful- to remember yesterday's work, reinforce key words and terms and help spelling patterns, however giving these as meaningful activities requires the same effort as any other activity. I ahve never given out one larger than 20 by 25 becuase otherwise they are easily wasting too much time. Just because the research hasn't been done doesn't mean it isn't useful.

As an Educational Major, our teachers will not let us use word searches as a student activity. They all say they have no educational value.

word searches are an excellent way to get students to recognize Math vocabulary especially since many of these words are not used on a daily basis!

I always thought they might be useful in that way. My oldest son use to have severe trouble with word searches. He found it difficult to find a single word. I use to love them as a kid and find that the row by row scan my son does with his finger weird and slow. After a developmental eye exam it was determined he has tracking issues which explains his difficulty with copying things accurately. He also has poor spelling skills, penmanship, use of grammar and writing conventions. This is affecting every other subject because they all require writing.

I've used word searches for years with kids with tracking problems. They do help with fluency.

I also thought that word searches may have value for improving eye tracking and eye teaming issues. My oldest son has similar issues with regards to copying, penmanship, grammar and convection use, spelling and accurate copying. He was told he had eye teaming issues after a comprehensive eye exam. Word searches were always difficult for him. My other son who does not have the eye teaming issues but has Asperger's, focus and temper issues also finds them difficult. I almost want to use them therapeutically for him to teach him patience, focus, attention to details and perseverance. He is very bright and is currently enrolled in the gifted middle school where his Latin teacher uses them occasionally with the English meanings listed and he searches for the Latin equivalent. His technique is as weird as your son's where as I who loved these as a child almost find most words effortlessly. Both these boys also despise using paper dictionaries and have similar opinions about them being a waste of time versus the online versions. I don't know if word searches are of any educational use but I do believe they would be of some therapeutic benefit such as the development of patience, persistence, helping kids understand that in real life at a job they will sometime have to do things in a manner they may not like, as well as helping with eye tracking/teaming issues. In the world of instantaneous information at your finger tips I believe our children may not get many opportunities to practice the patience required to do things like offline research. I for one feel that they are definitely losing something important.

No one said it better than the rising eighth grader. Finding an argument to support the use of these would take precious time away from a valid assignment.

As a music teacher I sometimes assign crosswords and word searches to reinforce music vocabulary, but I view the word search as kind of a reward for completing the crossword. I do not give credit for the word search unless the crossword is also complete. The word search is worth half the points of a crossword. I do not send them home as homework. Most substitute teachers cannot teach music, so the puzzles can also prevent my sick days from being total losses for my music classes.

If someone gave me a wordsearch in German, I would be able to hunt and find, hunt and find-- but I would have no idea what I was hunting for other than a letter and then another one and I would have no idea what I had circled. Children who are not yet readers will have the same experience with word searches. On the other side, children who are reading-- really aren't reading in a word search they are seeking and finding and likely looking at their neighbor's paper to get through the exercise as soon as possible. The best way for children to learn to be better readers, writers, vocabulary detectives and problem solvers it through REAL reading and writing. Worksheets should be used minimally and when they are they should be thoughtful and help take children to the next level.... not just keep them quiet and busy. With all that we know about how children learn, can't we do better?

I'm in an AP (College Level) Class, and my teacher uses word searches and crosswords both as 'quizzes'. They of course have no word bank, but only vague hints to help us think of the words. I feel like he simply uses these supposed 'simple' tasks to accompany his quizzes in a way to mock us, as juniors and seniors in high school. It is mildly degrading, however the act of writing or finding the words actually does seem to help memory of the content in a way, and encourages the students to study.

Gwen: Thank you for your comment! I love the analogy to a wordsearch in German, and the focus on real reading and writing.

Hmmm....okay, so as I teach you червено, жълто, портокалаво, синъо, зелено, кафяво, сиво...and then give you a puzzle that is non-graded to help reinforce the letter order to write these words that are foreign to you both orally and visually, there is no value to the light-hearted reinforcement when another 2000 new words await you before the end of the semester? Then bin it and instead, sit down and write each one about 500 times a piece, and give yourself a dose of feel good for having done something more productive. Now let's go to work on the numbers and shapes next.

Does anyone have valid research to back up the fact that word search puzzles have no value?

I think there is actually a small contribution to the vocabulary work we do in conjunction with our reading.The reading trainings I’ve gotten so often all say that repetition of looking at, reading, hearing read, saying etc., is important in the process of taking ownership of new words. Some readers might need to see, hear, say, read a new word 40 or 50 times before they really possess it. Even the best readers need 8 or 10 iterations. A word search (the list of which serves as the word bank for a crossword on the other side) makes just a little bit more work—in a little bit different way—with those new words. Most language teachers would agree that variety of uses and exposures is better. I expect that word searches (even in this way of connecting them to crossword work) are lower in ‘productivity’ than other modalities, but the point is that variety of exposure is most productive.This is not to ‘defend’ word searches, but rather to proclaim that such blanket claims of “no educational value” might be more extreme that reason or evidence warrant.

I really appreciate this discussion-I would like to see research and what those who study educational psychology and instructional strategies and their affect on achievement have to say. Thanks again, our instructional minutes are limited and precious.

word searches that are mazed based, in other words contextual have a long history of valid research for comprehension skills. Word searches in tables and charts are considered "games" and are very useful for developing right brain intuitive skills. One should not throw out the baby with the bathwater nor use lower level searches as higher level assignments. A good teacher knows how to use all and differentiate. The administrator was narrow minded and out of line. However Heil Hitler continues to exist under sripted RTT curriculums. I would question the adminsitrator's research knowledge and keep using the word searches more appropriately.

I have a hard time buying the arguments made here for word searches. 20+ years ago I did assign them as a way to keep students busy in class. Since that time, I've concluded there is no real value to word searches compared to another half hour of reading or working on a good piece of writing. I'm unhappy when my daughter brings homework that includes word searches, word scrambles, and even Sodoku. I'd ask teachers to respect their students' time better than that. If the homework can't be meaningful, then don't assign homework.

First of all, let me thank all of the teachers out there who against all odds have to train our future leaders to think logically and comminicate effectively. But these word search puzzles need to stop. Word searches have little value and continue to frustrate my 9 year old son. He gets at least 1-2 word search puzzles every week. Each one costs him 2 hours and I end up finishing them for him. I'd rather he spend the two hours writing a short story or even practicing spelling words through repetition. Our kids are busy enough--we really don't need "busy work" at home.

What I find interesting is that all these comments are based on adult intellectual analysis and reasoning. I can reason that college is a waste of time depending on what your justification of success and means is regarding the future of oneself. Word searches, especially for youngsters provides extrordinary visual acquity skills, repetitive vowel and consonant thinking as they search for letters and cluster grouping. It combines visual and auditory learning as they repeat the letters over and over while stimulating "neuronal connections" to engrave these letters. Ir introduces youngsters to word formation, fluency and is a way to incorporate new vocabulary and pronunciation. I feel that many adults believe they know what's best when in fact they have little if any standard or intellectual based evidence to supoport their views, as most people do these days. I understand that we don't like many things as that is the American way to simply dsay I dont like it therefore it must not be relevant. I have a 3 year old who I have worked with extensively to learn his letters over the past year and nothing has worked. While at a local pizzeria, there was a word search on an advertisment and he showed an interest in the search. I explained to him what to do and he began looking for the letters himself, after I told him what each letter was. What I found out was as he searched for each letter, he repeated it to himself over and over until he found that letter. Then he did the same thing for the next and so on. After the word was located, he was able to remember the letters much faster than all the time combined I had worked with him previously. Point being, we may think we "know" what's best when it comes to teaching children but I feel sometimes you have to let the children teach us. They will show you things they respond well to and that's when we incorporate what they respond to into learning. Now I can go on and list another tangent about what i think is the reasoning the adults above expressed their dislike for these searches is, then again I would be doing basically the same thing yous are doing and that is expressing your personal dislike without representation or factual evidence. What I will do is start an evidence based research study utilizing word searches alone to determine if in fact they are beneficial for developing letter recognition at a quicker pace and will posts the results here when finished.

I teach ESL students in Asia and they absolutely LOVE Word Search puzzles. When I watch them find the words, they repeat the spelling over and over again. For example, I hear 'ai', 'ai', 'ai'. Compared to their other dull textbooks, word search exercises are a breath of fresh air. They will not stop until it's done. Whether or not they remember the vocabulary later down the line is not clear. However, they do find them fun.

For students in America, particularly those in middle school, rather than elementary school, assigning word searches for homework is a completely worthless, pathetic, liberal waste of time. I have personally seen my students rage and quit over a lousy, stupid word search and must continue to work on it for hours because their grade depends on a jungle-frenzied search. The only way I see wordsearches helpful to the student is perhaps teaching the spelling of the words. Otherwise, they are a pathetic waste of time to the student. No wonder education in America is going down the drain. Crosswords, however, are pretty useful. That's for sure.

I don't particularly see wordfinds as a good educational tool. In my opinion, they don't really offer much vocab. If you think about it, if you changed each letter into a coloured shape, you would get the same result. It's all just finding and circing shapes.Crosswords, on the other hand, I think do have educational value. They can be used to test content and contextual knowledge, and, as someone else said, if children create their own, their understanding can be gauged.

Jerry's comment is possibly the best one here. If we judge the educational needs of children by our own standards then we'll never teach them anything.

In answer to the teacher's original and follow-up questions, I just have to ask, "What if we use vocabulary learning strategies and vocabulary content enhancement routines that are proven to be highly effective for diverse learners based on scientific research? What if we serve to our students the best that research has found for us to use when teaching our students? Don't we want to give them the best that we can find for them?" No, I do NOT use word searches or cross-word puzzles with my students. They LOVE our vocabulary lessons and learn to use their new words in various contexts. This fall, they surprised me numerous times by correctly, spontaneously using vocabulary we had studied in the previous school year in assignments for other classes this fall. I was thrilled. So were my students!

In answer to the teacher's original and follow-up questions, I just have to ask, "What if we use vocabulary learning strategies and vocabulary content enhancement routines that are proven to be highly effective for diverse learners based on scientific research? What if we serve to our students the best that research has found for us to use when teaching our students? Don't we want to give them the best that we can find for them?" No, I do NOT use word searches or cross-word puzzles with my students. They LOVE our vocabulary lessons and learn to use their new words in various contexts. This fall, they surprised me numerous times by correctly, spontaneously using vocabulary we had studied in the previous school year in assignments for other classes this fall. I was thrilled. So were my students!

I have been in education for 22 years and have taught countless children to read--children no one thought could ever learn. Word searches, friends, are pretty much a waste of time in teaching a child to read. Dress it up, Jerry, with fancy talk about acuity and neuronal this and that...humorous...word searches can be done successfully with absolutely no reading skill whatsoever...just let it go and choose an activity which requires children to actually think.

I would like to start by saying that I am a first grade teacher. I have also taught kindergarten in the past. I feel very strongly about this area, but it is not as black and white as some of the pervious posts. D I think word finds should be used with students above the age of second grade? Not really. BUT...if students enjoy them, what is the harm if they do a word find for morning work once in a while? No, I don't think a teacher should do one once a week nor assign any for homework. I personally use word finds maybe once a month for morning work. Sme people say it is busy work. I don't agree. I believe word finds help students locate a spelling or vocabulary word amongst a jungle of letters. If my students can see a word visually, how is that not helping them recognize it? I also love this for group work. My students love helping each other with this. It helps them with skills of working together. It helps them get focused on a Monday morning from a long weekend. IHoliday ones are exposing them to different vocabulary. Spelling ones are helping them spell the words. I see nothing wrong with giving younger students word finds. I feel like some administrators want to take all fun out of the schools. It's all about testing, testing, testing. There is nothing wrong with having some fun in school. They are kids after all, and I think some people forget that. And, one more note...about the person who said teaching s going down the must not e an educator. Because if you were, you would know that nowadays we teach WAY more skills to kids in kindergarten and primary grades than ever before. Kids are being tested all the time. Hell, there are times that I feel like a test administrator more than a teacher! When I was in school I remember coloring, recess, tying my shoe, and nap time. Kindergarten today read and write more than ever before. The accusation about schooling in America is going downhill is just making you look ignorant of today's schooling.

Word Search puzzles are a total waste of time used by teachers who don't understand instruction and/or their content area. They are great for long road trips and waiting for your food to arrive. Maybe they might help help develop eye muscles? I'd be embarrassed to defend their practice. We all know they are just a way to keep kids occupied. Just because they like it doesn't mean that they are learning.

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