I remember being a freshman in college, sitting around the dorms throwing mental puzzles at my floormates.
Some would call them riddles. They weren’t scientific or academic. They were just fun ways to challenge our minds while we hung out and got to know each other. We would talk, laugh, and make feeble attempts at figuring out the solutions. Usually, when we finally figured out the riddle, we had a good laugh and moved on to the next one only to start the entire process over again. It was fun and memorable, and that’s why these mental puzzles are great activities to include in your ESL class.
How to Use Riddles in Your Classroom Successfully
Why Try Riddles?
Riddles are fun. They are social. They are a healthy challenge that isn’t highly academic or intellectual, and you have a good time solving them. Plus it’s not a big deal if you come to the solution or not. It’s the process that matters. It doesn’t matter if your first language is English or Swahili. Anyone can have fun solving riddles. They have even more to offer the ESL students, though. Riddles get you talking. You have to ask questions, test hypotheses, and use precise language when you are wrestling with the sneaky little conundrums. When you include them in your ESL class, students will find themselves using the thought and language of logic. Cause and effect. Why and because. If and then. All of these are language strategies that a hopeful riddle solver will have to master, or at least use adequately, to accomplish their goal.
How To Use Riddles in Class?
So how does a brave and enthusiastic ESL teacher introduce riddles to her class? There are several ways to use mental puzzles with your students, and how you introduce them partially depends on what kind of puzzle you want your students to solve.
Type One: I Know and You Don’t
One type of riddle you can use in class is what I like to call the I-know-and-you-don’t riddle. In this type of riddle, something happens in class for a reason only the teacher or a select few in class know. The rest of the class members work together to try and figure out the rule for the action.
My favorite of these is called “One up, One down.” In this puzzle, have your class sit in a circle. Go around the circle, and each person chooses to say one of the following phrases: one up, one down; two down; or two up. The person directing the puzzle then tells the speaker if they said the correct phrase. The secret behind this puzzle is that the correct phrase depends on where your hands are when you say it. The phrase you choose must describe where your hands are at that time. For example, if both of my hands were on my desk or in my lap, I would have to say, “two down.” If I had my hands behind my head and was leaning back from my desk, I would say, “two up.” If I had one hand resting on my desk and was resting my chin in the other one, propped up by my elbow, I would say, “one up, one down.” Start the puzzle by listing the three phrases each person can choose from, but do not explain what they mean. Then go around the circle and have each person choose a phrase. Tell each person if they are correct or incorrect after they say their answer. Subtly change your position throughout the game so you can change your answer each time it is your turn. As the game proceeds, have students work in groups of three or four to solve the secret behind the answers. They will have to talk to each other using precise language, offer suggestions, and ask each other questions. You will know that students have solved the puzzle when they consistently give the correct answer on their turns.
Type Two: Ask Me and I’ll Tell You
Another type of riddle involves knowing a secret and having your students ask you questions to unravel that secret. In a way, it’s like playing twenty questions, but there is no limit to how many questions players can ask.
My favorite game of this sort is simple and yet oh so complicated. It starts by telling your students a situation and then asking a question. “The man in the mask is waiting at home. Who is the man in the mask?” To solve this riddle, have students talk in groups of three or four, and give the groups turns asking you yes/no questions. The solution behind the riddle is this: the man in the mask is a catcher, and he is waiting at home plate. This is not an easy solution to come to though it looks simple when written in black and white.
Type Three: an Impossible Situation
A third type of riddle you can give your class to solve is one that portrays an impossible situation. In this type of riddle, tell students the situation or let them read in on paper and have groups discuss it to try and come up with the solution.
One such type of riddle is the mystery of the light switches. The situation is this. In a room that you cannot see from your position is a light bulb. In another room, where you are, are three light switches. Only one switch will turn on the light. You must determine which switch will turn on the light. You are only allowed to go to the room with the light bulb one time.
If you are giving your students this type of riddle, break your class into four groups to discuss the possible solution to the riddle. Each group must come up with a solution. Once they do, put one person from each group into a second group. Have individuals share their group’s solution, and have the new group discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the solution.
The accepted solution to this riddle is this. Turn on the first switch and wait thirty minutes before turning in off. Then turn on the second switch and go to the other room. If the light is on, the second switch controls it. If the light is not on, feel the bulb. If it is hot, the first switch controls it. If the bulb is neither hot nor lit, the third switch controls it.
When you use riddles and mental puzzles in your ESL class, it’s not really about solving the riddle. The real point is to get students talking and using the language of problem solving. As a bonus, your students will have fun, too. If you want to try other riddles or need more for class, you can find them at Wu’s Riddles.
Have you tried using mental puzzles and riddles in class?
What are your favorites?