Children's writing

Literacy: Off the Beaten Path

A puzzle book filled with natural history facts, jokes, and images of Alaska.

The Share a Story, Shape a Future theme today is Literacy Your Way, Literacy My Way.

As the theme suggests, there is more than one path to literacy. Reading with kids may be the expressway, but there are scenic byways that offer fresh views and fun while still getting us there. Puzzles are a scenic byway that shouldn’t be missed.

Puzzles–math, word, logic, you name it–approach words, ideas, and literacy in a roundabout way. They highlight the drama of language, the absurdities, the bizarre, and the fun. Puzzles tease us, make us laugh, challenge us, and surprise us. In short, they entertain us while leading us to our destination: literacy.

Just as a Sunday drive is associated with recreation and relaxation, puzzles are associated with games and play, even though they require reading, understanding, and following instructions. They are short excursions into brain work–they don’t require a huge commitment of time, and the reward comes quickly. As kids attempt more difficult puzzles, they build the stamina that reading longer books requires.

When kids solve puzzles they learn to play with words. They get comfortable with them and enjoy them. They learn that sometimes words don’t mean what they seem to mean and that sometimes they can mean more than one thing. Discovering the complexity of words introduces kids to their beauty, revealing what’s clever and what’s funny. When kids embrace words as play things, they aren’t intimidated by them.

Like unfamiliar roads, puzzles have an air of mystery. We don’t know where they’re going, but we’re eager to find out. In the process of solving the mystery, kids learn how to think.

Puzzles can help pre- and early-readers develop letter recognition and writing skills and build vocabulary. Solving more advanced puzzles requires critical and creative thinking: developing and using logic, reasoning, fluency, associative thinking, and identifying forced relationships.

The challenges posed by puzzles can encourage us to step back and take a panoramic view of a problem, searching for a new perspective. Learning to try different approaches and to see things from new angles teaches kids flexible thinking and persistence, useful skills as they tackle more difficult words and text.

I approach puzzles from the opposite direction: I write them. Making puzzles is as fun, mysterious, and surprising as solving them. It’s the same adventure, just in reverse. I start with an answer–riddles and trivia are great puzzle fodder–then select a puzzle style that fits the answer: is it a one-word answer, a sentence, a shape or picture, a number? From there I work backward to generate the necessary clues, seeking out twists and turns to challenge puzzle solvers.

We all want kids to reach a place where they can read and write effectively. How they get there doesn’t matter. Providing alternate routes entices more kids to find their way.

How do we improve kids’ chances for success and thereby improve the world? By way of literacy. Be sure to include puzzles in your itinerary.

14 replies »

  1. Thanks Jen! I love the ideas of using puzzles. Math is a hard sell in our house, but my 8YO often asks to help me solve the crossword puzzles in the newspaper. Some things she won’t know, but when synonyms and antonyms are involved, or the occasional Disney reference, she LOVES yelling the answer.

    PS – I added your giveaway to the Share a Story blog (upper right).

  2. Jen, this is a truly excellent summary of why we need puzzles. I honestly had never fully realized the many thinking skills involved. Playing with words is such a wonderful gift for kids – gosh, for chooks too!

    I am intrigued by your puzzle making process and would love to read about it in more detail. Please let me know if you write about this.

    Terry, if your daughter likes crossword puzzles, why not introduce her to Hink Pink? It’s a great precursor to cryptic crosswords IMO. You can find my version on my blog under Book Chook Bag of Tricks, or just google. I think Scholastic have an online version called …yep, found it, Annie’s Rhyme Time.

  3. Glad I found you through SAS! Very interesting idea – have you all heard of Bananagrams? I just bought it for my kids today and it’s a blast! You would love it if you don’t already.

    My joke:
    Knock, knock.
    Who’s there?
    Interrupting cow.
    Interrupting co . . .?

  4. This is such a great post and idea!! I too would love to read more on how you actually make your own puzzles. I’m very intrigued!!

    Here’s one of my favorite jokes from my childhood . . .

    Did you hear the joke about the skunk?
    (You reply no.)
    That’s good because it stinks anyways!! 🙂

  5. Very well-written explanation of the importance of puzzles. I use them as a part of occupational therapy intervention with school kids. You hit on so many of the salient issues. Disguising analytical thinking as a game is so cool. I love puzzles!
    I was the lucky winner of Puzzle Bears last year, so I won’t enter this one.

  6. My daughter really likes the Surprize Ink! Game/puzzle books. They’re magical! 🙂

    Her favorite joke right now:
    What do you use to clean a tuba? A tuba-toothpaste!

  7. My granddaughter is 7 and would love this.

    Her joke:
    Why did the man put the dog in the oven?
    Because he wanted a hot dog!

  8. those look like amazing books…perfect for any family

    why didn’t the skeleton cross the street?

    he didn’t have any guts

    har har

  9. I love puzzles and this would be great for the classroom.

    What did the Daddy Buffalo say to his son when he was leaving for work?


  10. And the winners are…

    Tif and Kristie!

    Please send your mailing addresses to

    mail [AT] funkandweber [DOT] com

    Thanks, Everyone, for reading, commenting, and offering jokes.