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Puzzling out an answer is revealing

New York Teacher
Puzzling out

Using multiple-choice puzzles can give a teacher insight into who their students are as well as what they have grasped in class.

Which of the following sentences is correct?

  1. Central Park in Manhattan is more larger and more noisier than Prospect Park in Brooklyn.
  2. Central Park in Manhattan is the larger and noisier than Prospect Park in Brooklyn.
  3. Central Park in Manhattan is larger and noisier than Prospect Park in Brooklyn.
  4. Central Park in Manhattan is large and noisy than Prospect Park in Brooklyn.

If you were a student in my high school English as a New Language class, hopefully you chose C as your answer to my weekly Proofreading Puzzle. It would show that you were paying attention in class when we studied comparative adjectives and that you can recognize their correct usage.

My Proofreading Puzzles always focus on an important point from class, and my question is always the same: Which sentence is correct? It takes me about five minutes to set up one as a multiple-choice question in Google Classroom.

These puzzles provide me with a good bit of formative feedback. Some students respond immediately at any hour that you post the question. Some students may ignore it until you invite them in person to participate. Both of these scenarios provide insight into who your students are.

Another great feature of the Proofreading Puzzle is that students can’t see one another’s answers until after they have responded.

As an English teacher of multilingual learners, I often use Proofreading Puzzles to ascertain whether my students grasp a grammar point or understand a new vocabulary word. But you can use this puzzle concept to test for all manner of content, ranging from historical names and places to mathematical concepts, organelles and musical notes. It’s also appropriate for all grade levels.

I launched Proofreading Puzzles during remote teaching. Sometimes, students who did not show up to remote classes still participated — and many times they got the answer correct! It was then that I realized I had a strategy that would engage even reluctant students. Proofreading Puzzles continue to serve as a touchstone for me to connect with students and a way to see very quickly if my lessons are sticking.

During remote learning, I recorded an explanatory video as a follow-up strategy. I would do a think-aloud to show students how I arrived at the correct answer to the puzzle. I posted the question on Thursday evenings, and students were eager for the next day to see if and why their answers were correct or incorrect. Did their reasoning align with my thinking process?

Now, in class, I don’t record videos. Instead, I invite students to quickly debate their answers until they arrive at the correct answer and can explain why it is correct.

The secret? I don’t intervene in the conversation. Being able to explain and teach others is a higher-level thinking skill that demonstrates an aspect of mastery. My students love the confidence boost it gives when they can solve a problem and explain how.

While not a revolutionary tool for moving students forward, adding a puzzle of this sort to your toolbox gives you another opportunity to check in with your students, makes learning visible and develops some of the same skills needed for close reading.

Dustin Brumit is an English as a New Language teacher at Emma Lazarus HS, a transfer high school for multilingual learners, on the Lower East Side.

Related Topics: Pedagogy