Posted in Games, Vocabulary

Step Up Your Game with Word Ladders

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  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 (for grades K through 3) or  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  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.

Ladders Carroll

Posted in Games

Game-Changer: Practice Disguised as Play

We’ve all been there.  You deliver a brilliant lesson.  It is engaging, students readily grasp the new information and demonstrate their understanding by applying it to the task at hand.  Fast-forward a few weeks (let’s call it “test day”), and students now appear to be struggling with a concept you were sure they had already mastered.  It’s not that the original lesson failed; the information you taught just didn’t transition from working memory to long-term memory.

Now, take that same lesson, add a few techniques proven to aid the retention of knowledge–repetition, use of multiple formats, and emotional engagement–and those new ideas become truly unforgettable.  Using games, which include all of the aforementioned memory-boosters, to practice new skills can take learning to that next level.

First, games provide for repetition, and unlike the traditional worksheet, well-designed games give students immediate feedback.   Games are multi-sensory, using touch, color, and sound to engage and stimulate players’ minds and bodies.   Also, games with multiple players who either collaborate or engage in friendly competition require interaction and foster authentic social and emotional connections.   Finally, unlike graded assignments, games are often perceived as low-risk activities by struggling students.   Some of my reluctant readers who chronically “misplace” paper and pencil assignments are among the first in line to play learning games that challenge them to exercise the exact same skills.  They also have more stamina for repeated practice when it is delivered in game form.


Some skills and standards naturally lend themselves to game-play.   Anything calling for students to analyze a sentence or paragraph, such as text structures, author’s purpose, context clues, or figurative language, can be made into a game using task cards to score points or move around a game board.   Teaching character traits?  Challenge students to write a few descriptive sentences detailing positive traits about a classmate on index cards.  Read the cards aloud, and challenge students to identify the student.   Need to reinforce a lesson on cause and effect?  Create a series of cause-effect card pairs, distribute them among students, challenge them to circulate and compare cards until they find their “match.”


For instance, one card might read, “I left them in the oven too long,” and another would read, “The cookies burned.”  You can even add a writing task to practice transitions by challenging students to then write a sentence that joins the cause-effect statements with an appropriate signal phrase.  I tell my students that they have to combine the sentences, writing their card’s statement first and their partner’s statement second, so they learn which transitions signal causes and which signal effects.  So, one student writes “Since I left them in the oven too long, the cookies burned.”  Their partner writes, ” The cookies burned because I left them in the oven too long.”  (If you’d like to try this in your classroom, you can download my cause-effect matching cards here.)

Technology can also be employed for game-style learning reinforcement.   I often use  Quizizz as a warm-up to review material we’re going to build on later that day.  Read.Write.Think. and  Shepperd Games have a variety of read-to-play Language Arts interactives that promote literacy.

Whether you’re using online games, task cards, game boards or the ubiquitous Jeopardy PowerPoint, games are a sure-fire way to get student buy-in for deliberate practice.


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(This is a paid product, but the free preview includes 12 figurative language task cards.)