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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?


Im glad im not alone in my childs struggle to do word searches and feel like there is no vaule.

I agree that word searches at a higher grade level are probably just busy work, but I do think they can be beneficial at a lower elementary level. Let's not forget that a child needs to use their scanning abilities in order to find the words. This is a very fundamental skill for reading that a lot of my students lack coming into my classroom. I teach struggling readers from K-3. It is also a great way for students to review their vocabulary words without realizing. Another plus is that it teaches stamina and working until a task is actually done. A great number of children during this day and age do not have the attention span to persevere simply because they have never had to. With TV and videos games, Ipads, Iphones and such they are instantly gratified. However, if the child has a diagnosis that obviously makes this kind of task next to impossible, ie dygraphia, teachers need to respect that. It really boils down to the teacher's intentions - as with all activities in the classroom! There are good teachers who put thought into their assignments and choose what will help their students grow while still enjoying themselves and then there are teachers who give busy work. The question is who's lives are you trying to improve, yours by assigning useless work that you don't need to correct or think about or your students' by helping them obtain the skills they need for life. It's all about intentions!!!!

I teach first grade and had my more capable students create a word search. They have solved them only one or two times at the beginning of the year when they were still only sounding out CVC words. I presented the idea and was willing to set it aside. I just wanted to see their reaction and they were SO EXCITED. I truly feel this should be only a one time activity that is "required". I did not grade them but they took them home with their personally created answer key to give to their parents to solve. I felt it reinforced focus, neatness, and following through on a long task. It took 30 minutes for almost all of the 24 to complete satisfactorily. By the way, there were 30 words. They were not told to use them all but they CHOSE to, Will I try it next year? Most definitely. Next week we are creating game boards in pairs, based on their focus story and creating questions using the 5Ws. Busy work - no way.

I was helping my 5 year granddaughter complete a word search. I am having difficulty in finding any educational value in the assignment. Especially the words that are written backwards. I have been helping her with her popcorn words all year, she has been doing an excellent job. We read every day, she reads her dick and jane book to me almost daily. I have read the majority of the comments.

I can tell you the application of this assignment is a waste of her time. I am having problems finding the words. I have to go to the letter and search for the next letter, I find no value in this. We will complete the assignment, however I believe the time could be better used. For instance use a group of words and form a sentence. Countless other assignments.

As a special education teacher working with students with reading deficits I believe that word searches can be a useful eye training tool. Students with reading difficulties often have issues in visual discrimination and the use of word searches, jigsaw puzzles, hidden object games, etc. help them develop those skills that are necessary for discriminating letters. Also, anytime the brain is actively engaged in an activity there are positive results that while they may not be teaching specific skills, they are developing the parts of the brain needed to be successful in other areas. Much like music develops the skills needed to be successful in math.

i'm a teacher and i'm doing my post-graduate study now.I did an action research on ‘The effectiveness of using Word Search Games to enhance reading comprehension achievements amongst low English proficiency’ with my pupil. As what had been anticipated, it has reached some expected and unexpected findings. The most significant finding was that the Word Search Games can really help the low English proficiency to improve their reading comprehension achievements. This finding support David (2005,p 96) statements; “It is critical for children to develop fluency in word recognition. When they are fluent, word recognition requires far less mental effort, freeing up the child’s cognitive capacity for understanding what is read”.
“There is no reason to believe that the kind of creative energy exhibited in game wouldn’t be applicable to these disciplines”. (Eric, Scot & Katie, 2009).The word search games help the low English proficiency to enhance their word recognition skill and directly it will help them to improve their reading comprehension achievement. The finding supports the statements by Spencer and Hay(1998) that ‘Word recognition is an essential component in the mastery of reading and considerable evidence suggests that the major difficulty confronting the beginning reader is the development of rapid, automatic word recognition skills.’
Furthermore, the research has shown that the use of Word Search Games in reading comprehension’s lesson is capable of the following:
a. The used of Word Search Games in reading lesson can help the Low English proficiency’s pupils to enhance their word recognition skill. Therefore, it can help them to answer the questions with same keywords in the questions’ sentences to what they have in the text only. The pupils will have problem to answer the high level of reading comprehension questions where they need to apply their high order thinking.
b. The pupils were more responsive in the classroom during the research. They actively participate in the activities. They compete with each other to complete the games as soon as possible. Hence, without realizing it, they had enhanced their word recognition skill.
c. Word Search Games also can be a good mechanism to train the pupils to be alert and focus in their task. They need to look for the words in the letter box and to do that; focus is what they really need. Hence, the games will train them to focus and alert in the class. To be focus and alert in the class will make them a better learner.

My High School Students love word searches before the quiz. The words are all written in English and the
students have to search for the words in Spanish. It will reinforce the vocabulary words before the Quiz or test. It is very useful for developing the right side of the brain skills. Wonderful for world language speakers.

My son is 8 and he brings home maybe 1 word search a month.
It looks like a kindergartner could do it.
I, with my love for word searches, will find all 15 words in less than 5 minutes.
He, on the other hand, will sit there for HOURS, not even trying to find them, just staring blankly at the paper because he gets frustrated and doesn't want to do it. He's not dyslexic, and he doesn't have a learning disability. He just refuses to try.
I don't understand this, but I assume it has to do with the fact that it's not an electronic he enjoys playing, it's a piece of paper with words on it, he could give a crap less about.
I don't know what to do about this because, although not often, on the occasion that he DOES bring home a word search, he gets whiny and refuses to try.....

Word searches would be good for someone that knows how to code in a computer language. I do word searches daily at it has made me much better at recognizing patterns. If I mess up when I am coding I am able to find my mistakes much faster than some of my peers, this is just something I have come to notice.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

As a secondary teacher I have sometimes used crossword puzzles as a review--with and without word banks--for vocabulary. I like them because they are very self-checking. In order to finish it and make it all fit, the answers have to be correct. However, I have never used a word find. Beyond kindergarten or first grade word discrimination I find no value in them. Particularly now that I am a parent and my elementary-aged sons come home with these and agonize and fret over them. They are not good learning tools, create high frustration, and take away from our quality family time (which can include helping with VALUABLE homework). Crossword puzzles can be seen as helping to build skills, albeit rote skills, but beyond young children, word searches are just an excuse to keep kids in their seats or an avoidance of grading writing--using that vocabulary in actual context. The principal is wrong to lump them together, however, I praise his efforts to improve the quality of educational assignments being produced by the teachers at his school.

I speak 5 different language fluently and the way I learned vocabulary was by doing word search puzzle. When I have a bank of words that I don't know in a set language, I will concentrate to find a word throughout the puzzle. By the time I find the word I have probably repeated 10, 20 times, then I proceed to find next word and continue to find the remaining words. After findings the words say about 20, then I rewrite down the unknown words to find out how many word with its meaning I remember. It is amazing to me that 80% of words will be remembered. This is how I increased my foreign language vocabulary. It worked for me and still works. I would think the same thing for other people that want to learn a foreign language. I would agree that in some school subjects areas may not work as other people think. If anyone wants to learn a foreign language try word search. Is not an excuse nor waste as some people have indicated.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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