The scramble-search

Steve Connolly, Seigakuin Elementary School


Quick guide

  • Key words:Word search, word scramble, puzzles
  • Learner English level:False beginners and up
  • Learner maturity:Elementary through university
  • Preparation time:20 minutes
  • Activity time:One period, filler, or homework
  • Materials:Copies of handouts


Letter scrambles and word searches are used by many language teachers and are common in commercially-available texts, especially those aimed at younger learners. However, most word puzzles suffer from a combination of maladies, the worst being that they are often so simple as to have almost no educational value. Herein is an activity that has value beyond its deceptively simple appearance: the Scramble-Search. I have found it very popular with most students of all ages.

There is an example using the numbers 1-20 in the Appendix.

There are three adaptations that make the educational value of this activity superior to puzzles used separately. First, the two puzzle types are worked on concurrently. Second, both puzzle types include more lexical items than found in commercially available puzzles. Finally, the puzzles are on opposite sides of the same piece of paper(please remember to construct your prints in this manner).


Step 1:To make the scramble portion, create a table with a word processing program. Format each column and row as you wish, and use the Borders tool to add or eliminate the desired boxes. The boxes are important in forcing students to mentally segment portions of the word into phonetic units. The words themselves, however, must be carefully scrambled manually. See the appendix for a sample word scramble template.

Step 2: To produce the word-search portion of the activity, you can use the following website: <>.If you use this resource, follow these directions to create your puzzle:

  • Choose a lexical set, such as fruits, vegetables, months, or country names. Younger students enjoy Japanese place names and common animation characters (Mickey Mouse, Doraemon, Sazae-san).
  • In the “Create Puzzles Online” column, select “Word Search” from the pull-down menu.
  • Enter a title for your word search.
  • Select 15 x 15 (sufficient for most puzzles).
  • Choose “Use each letter only once” so lines do not cross.
  • Choose “Lowercase Text”, for common nouns.
  • “Enter your words” per the instructions.
  • Click “Create My Puzzle!”
  • Print your puzzle directly from your browser, or copy the puzzle, paste it into a word processing document, and adjust it to your liking.

Step 3: Administer the activity:

  • Introduce the lexical set, but avoid giving hints as to the specific lexical items.
  • Do the first item on the board in exactly the same form as on the sheet.
  • Point out that either side of the sheet may be used to provide hints as to the items on the other side.
  • For maximum enjoyment, pair up the students (pairing a strong reader with a weaker one is ideal). Groups of three are also workable, but larger groups should be avoided because the weaker readers may not participate.
  • Circulate and help those groups having trouble, giving hints as needed.


After one or two scramble-searches, the activity becomes self-starting and sustaining. Thereafter it can be used as the focus of a lesson, as filler, or as homework. It can be used to support learning of specific lexical items, or as an activity in which the lexical items are merely for fun, such as Disney characters. However, overuse of this activity is not recommended. It should be used with other activities in providing a well-rounded approach.

The potential contribution of the scramble-search to phonetic training lacks empirical support. However, during the working of the puzzles, the number of engagements with the lexical items is far higher than other game-like activities. Accordingly, a strong case could be made for a contribution to the development of automaticity (critical to fluent reading), field independence, and short-term memory.

Appendix: Sample word scramble template

The appendix can be found below.