Word Puzzle Tactics

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Word Puzzles and Word Games are a fun, engaging, and effective way to practice vocabulary, spelling pronunciation, word-building, and more. If you’d like to try some with your students, here are some tips to give them.

Word Scrambles

Word Scrambles are collections of letters that can be rearranged into words. The initial collection may be random, or it may come in the form of another word (for example, you can ask your class to form as many words as they can from the letters in ‘Thanksgiving’ without duplicating any letters).

In most variations, the words you form can be any length, which means some of the letters will go unused. This is the case with games like Scrabble, Countdown, and Bananagrams. The goal may to come up with the longest word, the most number of words, or other. Other variations require that you use all the letters, and if the letters are initially presented as another word, this is called an ‘anagram’.

Suffixes and prefixes are a great way to expand your options or lengthen a word. They also help narrow your focus. For example, if the scramble includes an ‘e’ and an ‘r’, you can use those for the prefix ‘re-’ or the suffix ‘-er’. Set those letters aside. Now you have two less letters to think about, and perhaps other combinations will stand out to you that didn’t before. If you can form a verb out of the remaining letters, know that you also have an additional word or two of a longer length once you add ‘re-’ or ‘-er’.

Here are some common suffixes and prefixes to look for:

 
  • -er

  • -ed

  • -ing

  • -est

  • -en

  • re-

  • de-

  • dis-

  • pre-

  • -en

Of course, there are plenty of others, but these ones are more likely to pop up due to how common those letters are.

Frequent letter combinations are also helpful. If you have an ‘h’, place it right after a ‘t’, ‘c’, or ‘s’. Keep that pair together for a while. Here are some pairs to keep an eye out for (beyond the prefixes and suffixes listed earlier):

 
  • th

  • sh

  • ct

  • pt

  • nd

  • wr

  • fl

  • in

  • pr

  • sp

  • tr

  • ld

This restricts your possibilities, which initially is helpful. But if you start to get stuck, unpair those letters and consider more options with those letters apart.

Cryptograms

Suppose you are presented with a message in which every letter was turned into a different letter. It’s a code. For example, “MZZP LZAGWGM!” might be code for “GOOD MORNING!”. In this case, if ‘Z’ represents ‘O’, then it represents not just one ‘O’ but every ‘O’ in the message. For the most part, your focus is on individual letters, rather than the word they form.

However, to start off, you’ll need to find some commonly-used and easily identifiable words. For example, if you have any three-letter words in your message, there’s a strong chance that at least one of them is ‘THE’, especially if that same word appears multiple times. ‘AND’ is another common three-letter word.

Some easily-identifiable words include ones with apostrophes. If there is only one letter after an apostrophe, it’s probably an ‘S’, although it might be a ‘D’ or a ‘T’ (in which case the letter just before the apostrophe is an ‘N’). If there are two different letters after the apostrophe, it’s either ‘VE’ or ‘RE’; either way, you can be sure of the last letter. If there are two identical letters after the apostrophe, they both must be ‘L’.

Single-letter words are both easily-identifiable and commonly-used. Each is either ‘I’ or ‘A’. Combined with your knowledge of the previous paragraph, “F’VV” must be “I’LL”; “W’O” must be “I’M”; and “T’DU” must be “I’VE”.

But looking at words in isolation will rarely get you anywhere. If you have an idea of what a small word might be, or at least what a letter might be, look around to see where else the coded letter is. For example, if you suspect a three-letter word might be ‘THE’, where else do you see the first two letters (since ’TH’ is a common combination)? Also, you should find the third letter in a lot of places, since ‘E’ is the most common letter.

In general, once you have an idea for a letter, see how frequently it shows up. ‘A’, ‘E’, ‘I’, and ‘O’ will each likely appear a bunch of times, as will ‘T’, ‘S’, ‘N’, and ‘R’ (but not necessarily, since your message won’t perfectly reflect the whole of the English language in terms of frequency). If you see a coded letter popping up more than a couple times, it’s probably not ‘Z’, ‘Q’, ‘X’, or ‘J’, unless the exact same word is used multiple times.

There are lots of two letter words, so it may be hard at first to figure out which ones you’re looking at, but keep in mind that one of the letters is a vowel. ‘A’ or ‘I’ might be the first letter, while ‘O’ could be either letter.

Also keep the placement of a letter within a word in mind. For example, if the same coded letter shows up as the final letter for multiple words, there’s a good chance it’s ‘S’, ‘D’, or ‘E’, or possibly ‘G’.

It feels like a lot of guesswork, but the trickiest part is usually the beginning. If you use these tricks in combination for the smaller words, hopefully that will be enough for you to get started. Once you’ve got a few letters on the board, other words will gradually become more evident. And as you complete one word, you then know each of its letters, most of which will be found in other words. Continue that cycle until the end.

A final tip that I don’t do myself but which may be helpful for others is to keep a list of all 24 letters. Once you identify one, cross it off the list. As you move along, you can look for places that a remaining but common-enough letter might be used.


Try doing some word puzzles as a class and encourage your students to think out loud so that they can get used to these different tactics.

 

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