Word games are a wonderful way to incorporate vocabulary activities into your classroom. Word searches and crossword puzzles reinforce spelling skills, and if you use word definitions as clues rather than giving students a word bank, it aids retention of new vocabulary and encourages critical thinking. The word ladder is another brain-building activity involving word play.
Word ladders challenge players to identify a string of words all having the same number of letters. In fact, each word shares all but one letter with the word immediately above or below it. Using the given clue for each word, players must change just one letter to form a new word that satisfies the given definition or clue. The simplest puzzles, suitable for younger children or ELLs, involve just three- or four- letter words and have fewer rungs, or words, moving through words like walk… talk…tale… and tile. More advanced puzzles use longer words with more challenging vocabulary, like halved… halted… halter… falter… filter… and so on.
Here are some word ladders I created for my 6th grade intensive reading classes (where every day either begins or ends with vocabulary practice). I start them out with four-word puzzles, until they get the hang of it. Then we progress to five- and six-word ladders. I let them work with a partner, so students engage one another in dialogue about the target words and definitions (a sneaky way to add an auditory learning component). The first time they work through a word ladder it might take them 7-10 minutes, but as they gain experience with this activity, they can easily complete one in under five minutes. For me, this makes word ladders the ideal bell ringer or enrichment activity for fast finishers. The activity is inherently fun, and students love to compare their finished puzzles with their peers’, so it’s a self-checked learning activity that requires no grading!
You can create your own word ladders with this free puzzle-maker by edu-games.org. If you want to build a puzzle using specific words (or create a themed puzzle) you can generate a word ladder list on this site created by Stanford professor Keith Schwartz.
Looking for something a little more turnkey? You’ll find read-to-play online word ladders at turlediary.com (for grades K through 3) or sporcle.com. There are word ladder apps for the iPad like this one by Ventura Educational Systems (costs less than $1).
Access print-ready word ladders at puzzlechoice.com. This scholastic resource for grades 4 through 6 is the book that first introduced me (and by extension my students) to word ladders. I still use it as a go-to for quick bell ringers or extension work.
If you’re looking for a low-prep, high-value vocabulary activity to add to your teaching toolbox, I heartily recommend Word Ladders.