Puzzles as a form of Literacy?

June 12, 2012 at 11:42 pm | Posted in Content Area Literacy | 3 Comments

(By Jeremy Willard)

            Often times in math classes it is hard to get students interested in reading textbooks for content. Many students have a hard time with sitting down and actually reading for understanding, whether it is from lack of interest or confusion. Literacy is not just the act of sitting down and reading. Literacy has been described as the ability to read for knowledge, write coherently, and think critically about the written word. So in order to incorporate literacy into our math classes, there are many different strategies we can introduce to our students other than reading textbooks.

            A great article called, “From Puzzles to Literacy: Off the Beaten Path”, discusses how puzzles are a great form of literacy and why they should be introduced in many of our classrooms. In the article, Jen states that there is more than one path to literacy, and that’s a good thing because we all have different interests and abilities. I think this is a great point, especially since everyone learns a different way. Many students could be visual learners that learn better from looking at patterns and puzzles which will get them to a greater understanding of the concept. She later goes on to state that “puzzles tease us, make us laugh, challenge us, and surprise us. In short, they entertain us while leading us to our destination: literacy”. After reading this quote, it made me realize that there are many different forms of literacy and puzzles are a great way to introduce literacy in a math classroom. To a student in a math classroom, puzzles are associated with games and play, even though they require reading, understanding, and following instructions. Students can have fun with puzzles which is great because it gets them motivated and interested in the topic, but at the same time indulging in literacy. One final thought that Jen has to offer in this article is that building up to difficult puzzles will give students the stamina that is required in reading books. So we can see that puzzles can directly be associated with building children’s reading levels.

Another reason why puzzles can be such a great experience for students can be seen in the article by Samuel Liberty called “Why are Puzzles Good for your Brain?” Liberty states that performing mental exercises, such as puzzles, can help form new connections and increase long term mental-performance. Forming connections in math is a great way to get students motivated and interested in the unit you are trying to teach. Students enjoy puzzles because they feel that it is a break from learning, but actually it is the opposite according to Liberty. Puzzles can help with both memory retrieval and brain health by strengthening the connections between brain cells.

With all these benefits of puzzles, it is hard to argue that they would not be an important part of a math classroom. Literacy is more than just the act of reading textbooks and puzzles can be a great alternative of that. Puzzles can get your students interested in class lessons and also prepare them for the times you do need them to read that dreaded textbook.



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  1. The use of puzzles within math classrooms is an excellent idea for integrating literacy in math. Like you said, many people view math textbooks as boring and they are often ignored or used incorrectly within most classrooms. I have seen that more and more teachers are beginning to go away from using textbooks all together in math classrooms simply because of this. I believe that it all depends on the teacher and their individual classrooms, but textbooks can be a helpful resource for students if used correctly. In his blog titled “Math Study Skills- How to use Your Textbook”, college math professor George Woodbury discusses a strategy that can be used to ensure students get the most out of their textbook. Woodbury writes:

    “For the most part our developmental math students did not make use of their textbook while in high school, and simply don’t realize the resources that are available to them. We simply cannot expect them to intrinsically know how to use their textbook to increase their understanding.”


    The technique Woodbury discusses is very similar to the textbook scavenger hunt strategy we learned about in class this semester and is a technique that should be used if teachers are using a textbook. Many students have never been taught the correct way to use a textbook, even at the college level, which is why they view them as boring or not helpful. I believe that the most important thing for teachers to remember when using a textbook is that this is not the curriculum and they should only be used as an additional resource to further the student’s education.

    I enjoyed the article you mentioned by Jen because I agree that every student within a classroom will have different interests and abilities, so teachers need to incorporate a wide variety of literacy techniques and activities. This is an important part of integrating literacy because teachers must ensure that every student is gaining an understanding of the material and continue to stay involved in the classroom activities. In her article, “How Important is Teaching Literacy in All Content Areas”, Rebecca Alber discusses a few techniques that can be used within any content area classroom that will help integrate literacy. Alber writes:

    “There are an endless number of engaging, effective strategies to get students to think about, write about, read about, and talk about the content you teach. The ultimate goal of literacy instruction is to build a student’s comprehension, writing skills, and overall skills in communication.”


    No matter what strategies teachers use, and every one will most likely be different, it is important to ensure that the students are interested in the material. That’s why I feel that the use of puzzles within the classroom is an excellent technique for math instruction. Literacy is not usually viewed as an important aspect of math, but puzzles are a great way to include it while also keeping the students engaged. I have always been interested in puzzles pertaining to math because, like Samuel Liberty mentioned in your other article, they help to create connections to the material I learned in the past. Even though they are often viewed as fun, I agree that they are a great learning tool that can be used for a wide variety of math topics.

    • How puzzles help in math is a puzzle to me (pun intended), and there are only fleeting references to how they are used or what benefits they have, save for the fact that the puzzles “require reading, understanding, and following instructions.” I do so the value, though, in providing an activity that requires perseverance from the student in order to successfully finish it. This is directly applicable to many areas of life.

      It is difficult, but not impossible, to integrate literacy regimens into a math class. In “Math and Literacy: Not-So-Strange Bedfellows,” (2012, Education Week), Francesca Duffy quotes a teacher who is attempting to integrate it into their classroom that “‘math is usually a little less personal area of a curriculum,'” and that the teacher needs to invent ways to introduce it, such as exit slips in which the students “write about at least one thing that they had learned, using a ‘freewriting’ style often reserved for English classes,” which provided insight into “‘where the gaps were in their understanding and learning.'”

      Textbooks can be drab and boring, and maybe the answer is to not use them. As Dan Meyer noted in his TedTalk, the problem with math textbooks is that they handhold the student through the process of solving a problem. Students won’t learn HOW to solve problems if they are given roadmaps to the solution. They can’t and won’t think for themselves. So maybe by developing your own textbook, you can inject the text with life, interesting facts, and insert connections that are relevant to the students.

  2. It’s no doubt that puzzles spark interest and get students “excited” about solving problems. I believe that Jen’s statement in saying that puzzles “tease” us is especially true. Puzzles are an interesting way to convey points and get students interested, especially math. But let’s be realistic here! The world doesn’t revolve around math (hah! just kidding of course)…”puzzles” can also be applied to other subjects as well! Specifically science class (who would have thought I’d be talking about science?) For all the reasons that Greg and Jeremy mentioned, I think it equally goes for science classrooms too.

    The Science Spot (http://sciencespot.net/Pages/classpuzzle.html) has a multitude of puzzle possibilities that can be used in the classroom. And that resource was found with just a simple google search. The possibilities are endless.

    Scott Kim states in his article (http://www.scottkim.com/education/tenways.html) that puzzles “illustrate strategies”. Not only does it illustrate strategies but it allows for those strategies to stick with the student because the student is more involved with the task at hand. Overall puzzles make for a valuable resource within the classroom.

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