December 5, 2021

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Buzzy Puzzles: 5 Spelling Bee Games to Use in the Classroom

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While The New York Times’s best-known word game may be the Crossword, educators should not overlook its younger, less intimidating cousin: Spelling Bee.

The hive-shaped puzzle challenges readers to make as many words as they can from a set of seven unique letters. Since its print debut in 2014 and the introduction of the digital game in 2018, Spelling Bee has spawned a mascot named Beeatrice, an ardent online #HiveMind and daily forums for solvers.

Teachers say they use Spelling Bee to connect vocabulary to the curriculum, build classroom community and even spur friendly competition. Read their ideas below, then try them out in your classroom. The five puzzles in this post can be used without a New York Times subscription and have been selected to engage students of all levels.

These five Spelling Bee puzzles, created by Sam Ezersky, The Times’s digital puzzles editor, are appropriate for middle and high school students and are ordered by difficulty from easy to hard. Display these puzzles onscreen, or share them with students in this printable PDF. Check your work with this answer key.

Here are instructions from Mr. Ezersky:

How many lowercase English words, of four letters or more, can you find using the seven letters in the Hive?

Letters can be used more than once, though each word must include the center letter. (For instance, in the first puzzle: Both KEPT and KEEP are acceptable answers, but PUCK is not.)

Each puzzle has at least one word that uses all seven letters — a “pangram” — which is worth three points. All other words are worth one point. In this PDF, we’ve listed the answers and point totals for “Good,” “Excellent” and “Genius” ratings. Happy solving!

Four educators shared their ideas for translating this game into an engaging classroom activity.

Make it a collaboration.

John Lieb, a middle-school math teacher in Boston, displays the Spelling Bee on the screen at the front of the room and has his class work together to try to reach the Genius level. Some of his students focus on finding eight- or nine-letter words while others look for shorter ones. One student surprised the class by finding the word TABARD — a medieval garment. “We were like, How did you know that word?” Mr. Lieb said. The student recognized it from a Renaissance-themed video game.

Or a competition.

Frances S. Della Penna, a substitute teacher in Butler, N.J., uses Spelling Bee to engage students who descend into “vacation/free time mode” when they find out that their classroom teacher is out. Once they finish their class work, students are allowed to organize themselves into teams and see who can find the greatest total of words. “Students respond to the challenge, very competitively,” she said.

In Rebekah O’Dell’s middle-school classroom in Richmond, Va., students compete with Spelling Bee, too — but they’re up against their teacher. Last year in her school, because of the pandemic, students stayed in one classroom while teachers traveled from room to room. In the morning, Ms. O’Dell would draw the Spelling Bee on the whiteboard. Then, students would collaborate on a list of words throughout the day. When Ms. O’Dell cycled back to the classroom, they would compare their list to hers to see who got the most words.

Connect it to the curriculum.

Teachers can also connect Spelling Bee to the texts they are reading in class, said Miah Daughtery, a former English teacher and the literacy director of content advocacy and design at NWEA. She suggests putting students in pairs to find words in the puzzle, then giving them a set of follow-up questions to relate it to their reading:

  • What word on your list could be used to describe any character from the book we’re reading and why?

  • If a character were to say one of the words on your list, what word would they say and why?

  • Consider the setting of the text we’re reading. What words from the puzzle would you use to describe the setting?

  • Choose two words from your list. Now, think about the text we’re reading. How would you use the two words you chose to describe the text to someone who has not read it?

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