Word Searches – A Waste Of Time?

Should we bin word searches?

Teachers love dishing out word searches.

Children love doing them.

But are they a waste of time?

Tait Coles (2014) in ‘Never Mind The Inspectors Here’s Punk Learning’ certainly doesn’t like them. He says,

Word seacrhes. If you really think word puzzles are going to improve or help student understanding and literacy skills, I suggest you have a long hard look in the mirror.

They seem to divide opinion but they are a classic ‘stand-by’ and off-the-shelf ‘busy work’ option.

Many teachers use them as ‘fun’ activities especially around the peak rush hour times of a year such as Christmas and in the dying weeks of a summer term. In these frenzied moments they seem to be nothing more than holding activities to contain children and give them something to do.

They invariably end up on the floor and being thrown away or they are shoved in a tray or bag and hang onto life by a thread.

But others don’t use them and say they are good for long car journeys or taking on holiday but keep them out of the classroom. They say that word search puzzles have no educational value so they are wasting precious learning time.

I’m not aware that there is any research about whether word searches have any educational impact but I think they do have a place on occasions and not always just for ‘fun’.

There are plenty of benefits:

  1. They engage children in lots of scanning, sifting and searching
  2. They develop word recognition and can improve spelling
  3. They introduce and review new vocabulary
  4. They help develop pattern recognition
  5. They improve problem-solving
  6. They support learning context clues
  7. They are self-differentiating
  8. They can boost working memory
  9. They foster persistence
  10. They can improve self-confidence

Word searches can be picked up and put down at anytime so they are flexible as a stop-start activity.

To dismiss word searches out of hand and call them a waste of time does seem extreme because any activity in the right hands can be productive. If you just give children a word search and tell them to get on with it then that is a waste of time. You have to do something with it and make something out of it.

The word search has to be an activity that goes beyond searching and lets children dip their toes into researching. A challenging word search is going to test children’s knowledge and understanding so this is the time for children to find out more and explore beyond the box of letters.

But are we forgetting something here….the children themselves. I said that children love doing word searches but they don’t suit all learners. We need to be mindful that some children won’t benefit from doing these at all.

The website www.dyslexics.org.uk says that there are some activities that

are unnecessary (time wasting), ineffective, and in some cases harmful, and should play no part in any dyslexia / intervention / catch-up or basic skills programme.

If you click on the link then you will see a mighty long list of things that we should be avoiding when supporting dyslexic learners and yes, you guessed it, word searches is one of the bad guys. There is confusion though as the British Dyslexia Association has word searches on its site.

So the message is clear: use them but don’t abuse them and always know what will serve your children best.

Time is precious and I’m not sure we should be spending much time on doing word searches unless they have a laser-sharp rationale and link to something useful.

In No More Sharpening Pencils During Work Time and Other Time Wasters, Elizabeth Brinkerhoff and Alysia Roehrig remind us that

We need to evaluate how we spend time in our classroom by asking whether it is proportional to how valuable the activity is in fostering students’ independence and growth.

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