by Paul Moliken
Senior Editor and Former High School English Teacher
During the twenty years I taught High School English, primarily to slower students, who were unmotivated and resented being in class in the first place, I found some techniques unrelated to what my classes believed were English-oriented could be used to begin a class period; employing these sometimes settled down some of the distracting issues students had. Certainly, it didn’t work all the time, but the bored, the hyperactive, the angry, the jilted, etc., could at least have something other than “work” to look forward to, at least for a few minutes, before their “actual English” class began.
Cryptograms are useful, and these can be enjoyable, as most kids like to solve puzzles, especially if the solutions contain some element of humor. You can make them up yourself or have a computer organize them for you. Puzzles about topical subjects, people in the news, or odd bits of information are good ones for students to decipher. Google “cryptogram-generator” if you decide to pursue the computer route; many exist, and some will offer a hint that will aid students in completing the cryptogram. My students appreciated those with apostrophes, double letters, or one-letter words in the puzzles. Sometimes, if the day called for in-class compositions, the cryptogram could provide an impetus.
Related to cryptograms are anagrams. Compose a phrase and see how many words of more than three or four letters students can locate. The question I always had to answer was similar to, “Can we use a letter more than once?” Of course, the answer was, “Only if it’s in there more than once.”
Another quick, easy beginning that I used was to place an interesting, complicated, amorphous, or even extremely specific and concrete picture in front of the class that students would see immediately upon entering the room. I would survey the class and ask for captions, titles, or general reactions. These, like the cryptograms, could also inspire or stimulate creative student writing.
Simple puzzles that are word-related stimulated the students’ thought process also. Some examples, both old ones and a few I just looked up:
a. What’s a common eight-letter singular noun that has only one vowel?
b. Change punctuation and capitalization on the following text message so that it means the opposite of what is intended. It is from a Governor to a prison warden about a prisoner: “Pardon impossible! To be executed tomorrow.”
c. Take the letters ERGRO. Put three letters in front of it, and the same three letters behind to form a common English word.
d. What singer’s name can be made by rearranging these words: Western Video
e. Place the same three letters in front of these words to make completely different words: sport, time, sage, sword.
f. What common word contains a double C, double S, and double L in that order?
g. Name ten parts of your body that have only three letters each. [For this one, you need to make sure to eliminate slang and any vulgarity as possible choices.]
h. Place the same three letters in the missing spaces to form new words: TE_ _ _ER and EAR_ _ _E
i. What popular TV show’s title can be formed by rearranging these words? A PERSON SHOT
j. What do these three sentences have in common?
· Eat to live; never live to eat.
· All for one and one for all.
· You can cage a swallow, can't you, but you can't swallow a cage, can you?
Many more word puzzles can be found online simply by searching for “puzzles,” “word games,” etc. The answers to the questions appear at the end of this blog entry, by the way.
A quick game of “hangman” to start a class may seem like a waste of time, but solving the puzzle within a five-minute time limit can give reluctant students something to be proud of—at the least, many will enjoy seeing the cartoon figure hanged.
Use the Internet to generate your own crossword, word find, or other types of popular puzzles, hand these out, and see students who wouldn’t usually be interested show some spark. It’s certainly easier nowadays than when I tried to find them last century.
b. Pardon! Impossible to be executed tomorrow!
d. Stevie Wonder
g. arm, lip, ear, gum, rib, leg, toe, eye, hip, jaw
h. teACHer, earACHe
i. The Sopranos
j. They are all “word palindromes”; they read word-for-word the same backwards as forwards. Don’t confuse them
with actual palindromes, which are spelled the same way backwards as forwards: toot; Otto; Madam, I’m Adam; A
man, a plan, a canal, Panama.