Posts Tagged ‘Scrabble’

For my students’ final writing assignment in English 111: Writing and Inquiry, they compose a reflective essay that addresses the features of the course that have contributed to their development as writers and critical thinkers. As I embarked on this final assignment with them, my thoughts repeatedly returned to the hours they had devoted to playing Scrabble on Wordplay Days, a bimonthly feature that I included in my classes for the first time this semester.

When the students in the Monday-Wednesday 8 o’clock class tore the plastic from the boxes of Retro Edition Scrabble, I had no idea how they would respond to the game. Back in August, when I had decided to include bimonthly Wordplay Days on the calendar, I did so to achieve two of my goals as a teacher: first, to offer students an opportunity to collaborate on a low-stakes assignments that would develop their critical thinking skills and word power; and second, to provide another chance for them to turn away from screens.

A year earlier, in August 2017, when I revised my writing class curriculum to minimize my students’ screen time, I did so because both the research of psychologists and my own anecdotal evidence revealed the critical need to do so for the benefit of students’ mental health and cognitive development. With that in mind, I reserved more class time for my students to turn the pages of our textbook, to read aloud and pore over words, and to compose essay drafts in longhand—all while still maintaining blogs and devoting class time to typing essay revisions and posting comments to their classmates’ blogs.

Over the summer, as I looked back on the previous school year, I thought of the students’ faces. Some had seemed to express genuine interest, but more often they conveyed resignation or resistance. Research and my own observations of students’ progress assured me that my teaching practices were sound, but I remained troubled by how reading and writing away from the screen, rereading for deeper understanding, and putting pen to paper all seemed like drudgery to my students. How could I enliven the classroom? I asked myself. Scrabble came to me as an answer as I was mulling over possibilities for collaborative classroom activities. Because my grading system includes a participation and preparedness category, I am able to give students opportunities to improve their grades with low-stakes assignments, such as submitting monthly letters in stamped, addressed, and sealed envelopes. I do not grade the students on the quality of their letter writing (since I don’t read them). Instead, I grade them for the act of submitting the letters for me to mail.

I realized that I could similarly grade students for their participation in Scrabble Days, or—as I chose to call them—Wordplay Days, if I devised a score sheet that I could use to document their participation.

“Each team will appoint a scorekeeper,” I told the students on the first Wordplay Day, “but your grades will not be based on those scores. Instead, they will be based on your participation and the completion of the score sheet. If you participate in the game, don’t reach for your smartphones, and complete the score sheet, you will achieve one-hundred percent participation for the day.”

Then I held my breath.

The students gathered in their designated groups (drawn at random by a student volunteer) and began to play. When the class period ended, I had to remind them that it was time to leave. Let me repeat that: When the class period ended, I had to remind them that it was time to leave. What I had witnessed on that first Wordplay Day was not only students forming words on Scrabble boards but also posing questions about words (Is that a word?), and passing around the box top to study the rules of play. As they played, their postures and facial expressions changed. They were comfortable and happy. It’s not an overstatement to say that Scrabble transformed the classroom.

Noting that transformation isn’t to say that all of the students liked Scrabble. Some clearly didn’t. But even the students who agreed that “Scrabble, to put it bluntly, is a lousy game” (Kay C5) seemed to appreciate the opportunity to earn credit for an activity that didn’t seem dull or menial. And their other work in the classroom began to seem less arduous to them. Perhaps they didn’t mind reading and writing as much when they knew more Wordplay Days were still to come. Or perhaps they began to make connections between their book work and board play as they increased their word power and became more sophisticated strategists.

One of the first reading assignments that followed the inaugural Wordplay Day focused on games—not board games but electronic ones. When my students and I read portions of Sam Anderson’s “Just One More Game . . .” in class, I was struck by his reference to Jane McGonigal. Anderson notes that “[i]n her book Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal argues that play is possibly the best, healthiest, most productive activity a human can undertake—a gateway to our ideal psychological state” (108). What I witnessed when my students played Scrabble seemed to attest to that. But McGonigal, I later learned, is a video game designer. My awareness of the research that links screen time with increased anxiety, depression, and sleep deprivation (Twenge par. 43) makes the notion of video games as a “gateway to our ideal psychological state” (Anderson 108) seem perverse.

That said, I am not opposed to electronic versions of Scrabble and similar word games, such as Words with Friends. But replacing board-game Scrabble with its digital counterpart—or with another video game, or smartphone app—would be contrary to my aim of limiting students’ screen time. And bearing in mind the research, I believe there’s a critical need to repeat this unpopular line at the beginning of class: “Your digital devices should be tucked away.”

As the semester progressed, fewer students were staring at screens when I entered the classroom, and rarely—and in some classes never—did I find myself asking a student to put away a phone during a Scrabble game.

About a month before the semester’s end, on a day when the students enjoyed a scheduled break from classes, our school’s administrators, faculty, and staff were on hand for an event called the Tenth-Grade Extravaganza, which brings more than one-thousand high school students to our campus to learn about the college.

Late in the day, one of the campus administrators shepherded the last tour group to the Blackbox Theatre, where I was assisting the theatre professor and her student volunteers. The last portion of the Theatre Department’s tour took place in the costume area, where we had set up a station for selfies and group photos. On a table nearby, we’d placed hats and various props for students to pose with. As the students fiddled with the hats and props, trying one, then another, their shepherd-administrator nudged me and said: “That girl over there has looked sad throughout the tour, but when she put that sock puppet on her arm, her face lit up with joy.” When I turned and saw that tenth-grader’s joyful face, she became one of my own students who had transformed before my eyes. The sock puppet was her Scrabble.

My return this semester to public higher education marked my first experience with lockdown drills. While they are new to me, most of my students’ years in school have long been disrupted by periodic exercises in avoiding slaughter. Witnessing how quickly they sprang into action, how the protocol was second nature to them, was heartbreaking. As I crouched with them in the corner, I thought of how now, more than ever, classrooms need to provide our students with a gateway out of the darkness and into joy.

Works Cited

Anderson, Sam. “Just One More Game . . . : Angry Birds, Farmville, and Other Hyperaddictive Stupid Games.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed., by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg. Norton, 2016, pp. 105-110.

Kay, Jonathan. Review. “Scrabble is a Lousy Game.” The Wall Street Journal, 6-7 Oct. 2018, C.5.

Twenge, Jean. “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/Sept. 2017, Accessed 28 Aug. 2018.

Scrabble Game Changer

In October, after I read Jonathan Kay’s Wall Street Journal review “Scrabble is a Lousy Game,” I meditated on his criticism of Scrabble as a word game that deemphasizes semantics. I asked myself, if I want my students to play a board game that cultivates word power and critical thinking skills, is Scrabble the game to choose? Thus, Kay’s review became the starting point for my research on the cognitive benefits of Scrabble play. As I scrolled through search results, I found only a couple of articles that specifically addressed Scrabble in the college classroom, but many that focused on the value of the game, itself, for sharpening the mind.

Article and draft

The dearth of articles on Scrabble in the college classroom may be explained by the emphasis on classwork with assessable outcomes rather than activities that foster the habits of mind essential to lifelong learning. The bibliography that follows includes Kay’s review, the starting point for my research, along with three refereed research articles. Two offer windows into the classrooms of professors whose students play Scrabble: one an English professor at a two-year college in California, the other a professor of engineering at a polytechnic university in Russia. The third article addresses cognitive evaluations of competitive Scrabble players and what they reveal about how experience shapes word recognition.

How much does Scrabble play cultivate our word power? The answer to that question remains unclear, but the research of psychologists and educators points to the merits of team Scrabble for improving not only our language skills, but also our facility with critical thinking, team-building, and spatial skills.

As I review my research on Scrabble, I look forward to searching for additional studies and commentary on the game. Whether it will lead to a larger project of my own, I do not know. But the knowledge I have gained will inform my teaching as I continue to revise the curriculum and consider additional opportunities for wordplay in the classroom.

Annotated Bibliography

Fletcher, Jennifer. “Critical Habits of Mind: Exposing the Process of Development.” Liberal Education, Winter 2013, pp. 50-55. Association of American Colleges and Universities, https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/critical-habits-mind-exposing-process-development. Accessed 26 Nov. 2018.

“Critical Habits of Mind” addresses the teaching practices of a group of college math and writing faculty who collaborated to develop lessons to foster intellectual capacities, such as motivation and self-efficacy. Developmental educational instructors from three California colleges, Cabrillo, California State University-Monterey Bay, and Hartnell College, partnered to pilot classroom activities, including clicker technology, peer writing review, improvisation, metacognitive writing activities (e.g. “Math Anxiety Essays”), and Scrabble Fridays. Reflecting on their collaboration, author Jennifer Fletcher, associate professor of English at CSUMB, observes that foregrounding procedural knowledge, as their pilot activities did, enabled them to couple their teaching of discipline-specific content with the set of behaviors essential to teaching and learning.

Fletcher’s account of Hartnell writing instructor Hetty Yelland’s Scrabble Fridays is of particular value to educators who are considering Scrabble play as a classroom activity. Fletcher notes that Yelland’s observes “the extra effort students have to make to overcome the boredom—and their passive word knowledge—that eventually leads to more active and internalized language practices” (54).

Hargreaves, Ian S., et al. “How a Hobby Can Shape Cognition: Visual Word Recognition in Competitive Scrabble Players.” Memory & Cognition, vol. 40, no. 1, 2012, pp. 1-7. ProQuest, http://nclive.org/cgi-bin/nclsm?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/952889499?accountid=9935.

“How a Hobby Can Shape Cognition” presents the findings of Canadian researchers in the Departments of Psychology and Medicine at Calgary University who investigated how the word recognition skills of competitive Scrabble players differed from those of age-matched nonexperts. The researchers’ cognitive evaluations revealed differences only in Scrabble-specific skills, such as anagramming. Also, the researchers observed that Scrabble expertise was associated with two specific effects: vertical fluency and semantic deemphasis. The study’s results indicate that experience shapes visual word recognition.

The research of Ian Hargreaves and his colleagues at the University of Calgary is pertinent to educators who seek to understand the cognitive benefits of frequent Scrabble play. Notably, the semantic deemphasis that the study identifies—and that Jonathan Kay addresses in his review—contrasts the gains in language skills that Hetty Yelland observes in her English students.

Kay, Jonathan. Review. “Scrabble is a Lousy Game.” The Wall Street Journal, 6-7 Oct. p. C. 5.

In “Scrabble is a Lousy Game,” writer and editor Jonathan Kay criticizes Scrabble for its lack of emphasis on semantics. In Kay’s words, the game “is like a math contest in which you are rewarded for reciting pi to the 1,000th decimal place but not knowing that it expresses the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter” (C5). Kay asserts that the best board games for casual players involve a mix of luck and skill and recommends two other board games, Codenames and Paperback, as better options for wordplay.

While Kay’s review focuses on the competitive player’s approach to Scrabble, the concerns he raises about the game’s deemphasis of word meaning and the frustration that novice players can experience warrant the attention of educators who are considering introducing Scrabble play into their classrooms. And his recommendations of Codenames and Paperback offer teachers two word-game options to pursue as alternatives Scrabble.

Kobzeva, Nadezda. “Scrabble as a Tool for Engineering Students’ Critical Thinking Skills and Development.” Procedia: Social and Behavioral Sciences, no. 182, 2015, pp. 369-74. ScienceDirect, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042815030669. Accessed 26 Nov. 2018.

“Scrabble as a Tool for Engineering Students’ Critical Thinking Skills and Development” presents research involving second-year engineering students and teachers of EFL (English as a Foreign Language) at Tomsk Polytechnic University in Tomsk, Russia. The students—all non-native speakers of English—played Scrabble as an in-class and out-of-class-activity for one academic year. At the end of the year, the best six student players competed in teams in a tournament against two teams of the six EFL teachers. Throughout the tournament—which was conducted outside of the classroom to relieve students of the pressure to obtain a high score—the researcher, Nadezda Kobzeva, observed the contrast in the students’ and teachers’ practices as players. While the EFL instructors possessed an advanced knowledge of English language, they were newcomers to Scrabble. On the other hand, the engineering students with limited knowledge of English relied on the skills they developed throughout their year-long Scrabble program. In the feedback the students provided after the tournament, which they won, the majority of students rated the skills they developed as Scrabble players as excellent in all five fields assessed, including team-building, thinking, spatial skills, vocabulary, and spelling.

Kobzeva, a professor of engineering at Tomsk, focused his research on engineering students, but his findings are valuable to researchers and teachers in other fields who seek answers to the questions of how Scrabble can be used effectively as a learning tool, and what specific skills students may develop through frequent play.