Using Jigsaws to Teach English featured image

Teachers sometimes ask me how a normally quiet settled puzzle activity can possibly be useful for English language practice. They are not what you typically think of in the interactive communicative classroom. However, there are several ways that I use jigsaw puzzles with very young learners to facilitate natural English practice, and provide repeated exposure to target language. 

How can jigsaw puzzles help me to teach English?

You can use jigsaw puzzles in opening routines, team games and craft activities. The way you conduct the activity can be adjusted depending on whether you are working on receptive skills or productive skills. You have the opportunity to use the target language to talk about what is on the puzzle pieces. You are also able to give clues and ask questions with the target language to help students find the correct parts of the puzzle. Once the puzzle is completed, you can use the image for further opportunities for language practice. If you use a jigsaw puzzle in a craft activity, there are even more opportunities to help your students learn English.

Types of jigsaw puzzles

When we first think of jigsaw puzzles, we usually think of irregular pieces that slot together. They can be much simpler though, and the puzzles I use in my classes consist of straight lines that students need to put together in the correct order. In the puzzles I make, I often like to add numbers down the side. This lets me offer support to the children, so they are not only relying on the image clues. It also helps me work on number vocabulary, and gives me flexibility so that I can make the puzzle more challenging by chopping off the numerals and/or number text. Below are some examples of my jigsaw puzzles, but it would be really easy to make your versions too. Simply find an image including vocabulary you’re working on, and cut it into segments.

Go Away Big Green Monster jigsaw 200
old lady swallowed a fly jigsaw 200
Meg and Mog Jigsaw image
Monkey Puzzle jigsaw
One duck stuck jigsaw 200

Using jigsaw puzzles in opening routines

With very young learners, it’s a good idea to have something to get them engaged right from the start of the lesson. At the beginning of the school year especially, new students can be nervous. They might not know you or the other children yet and can be reluctant to leave their parents or guardians. Having something that stimulates their curiosity can really help distract them from potential nerves and helps them make the transition into your English classroom.

Greeting and giving at the door

Before the learners enter the room, you can offer them a jigsaw piece. You can show interest in what’s on their piece of the puzzle. “Ooh! What’s that? Is it a dog?” You can ask them what they see, or ask them to tell you the number on their puzzle piece. Point the child to a table or area of the room where you’d like the kids to gather. As more children enter the room, they join together in this area and try to match the puzzle together.

Treasure hunt

Rather than giving each child a puzzle piece as they come in, you can arrange the pieces face down on the floor or in different nooks and crannies around the room. Each child takes one or two pieces then they join together to try to complete the puzzle. You could make this more challenging by having two or more puzzles for the children to complete! A word of advice though – you need to make it clear at the start, how many pieces each child is allowed to pick up. You don’t want the first child gathering up everything and having someone with nothing in their hands!

In either of the above scenarios, you will finish with the children gathered around one space with a completed puzzle. You can then practise language from the puzzle by having the children listen and point to different things in the image or asking them to tell you what they see. With very young learners, I like to use a song or chant to manage listen and point activities. One Little Finger by Super Simple Songs works well, or just simply chanting with actions: “Point your finger up, point your finger down, point it to the…..(cat)”.

Using jigsaw puzzles in team games

group doing jigsaw

Quite often in very young learner classes, activities can be quite teacher-centred because you are trying to give the kids as much exposure to English as possible. This is tiring though, for both you and the kids. Doing jigsaw puzzles in groups, is a nice activity that gives them the space to work more independently and gives you the chance, as the teacher, to monitor and interact with each child. You can still provide that exposure to the target language by prompting them, e.g, “Oh, you have the cat’s tail? Where is the cat’s head?”; “Oh look! Jorge has number 4. Who has number 5?”; “Great! You’ve found the tree. Hmm…what’s this?”; “What can you see at number 8?”

Managing jigsaw puzzles in groups

You can make jigsaws competitive or not. It’s up to you! Occasionally, I have 3 groups competing to finish their puzzle the fastest. Sometimes adding a competitive element can be great for keeping kids motivated and creating a change of pace, but  sometimes it adds unnecessary stress. It all depends on your students’ and the energy levels that day. Other things to consider are:

  • Is one student dominating too much? You can set up the activity so that each learner has the same amount of pieces. This avoids arguments of one child taking all the bits and another being left with nothing. Remember very young learners are still learning how to share.
  • Are they all able to participate in the space? Make sure they are all in a position to work in a central space. This may be as simple as asking one student to move to the other side of a table. Little bodies will struggle to do the puzzle if they are all sitting in a line!
  • Is there enough English going on? Actively monitor and encourage them to notice and find things that you are trying to teach them the English for. As mentioned above, this can simply be pointing out something in English: “Oh, you have the monster’s arm. Where’s the monster’s hand?”; “Good. You have one, two, three… Where’s number four?” Quite often the learners will pick up on this and use the words you say. My students’ first language is Spanish so a typical utterance would be, “Aquí está el ‘hand’!”
  • What do you do when one group finishes and the others are still working? Get them to point out things in the completed picture. Ask them what they can see, ask them to tell you all the things that are blue. You can also hand over the reins and give someone in the group the teacher’s role, while you monitor another group. They can play a guessing game where one student chooses an item in the picture, while the others ask questions to guess what it is: “Is it the dog? Is it the spider?” You can even get the students to go and help other groups.

Using jigsaw puzzles as interactive crafts

Part of the reason I like having the students make their own jigsaws, is so that they have something to take home to their families. It is something tangible that the parents can play with their kids and help them bring English outside of the classroom. Another reason is that it adds another dimension to make for a more interesting dictation or colouring activity. Here are a couple of ways I like to use jigsaws as crafts.

Puzzle craft practice in the classroom

There are two main ways that I have kids complete jigsaws as craft activities. Sometimes, I have kids cut out the pieces themselves, but I usually prefer to pre-cut the pieces before class because it gives allows me to create more language practice opportunities. I give each child a piece of A3 paper. I have used A4 before but I find that a piece of paper that is bigger than the size of the jigsaw works best. I then conduct the activity in one of two ways:

Teacher jigsaw craft
  • Organise the cut-up puzzle pieces into sets and place them around the room. I tell them the first piece to collect and stick, then the second, then the third etc. until they have completed their jigsaw. The way I tell them which piece is next depends on their English level and the story or topic the puzzle is based on. For example, with the My Teacher is a Monster puzzle, you can say, “Where is the hair?”; “I can see the hair”; “The monster has black hair” etc. With There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, you can sing the song, pausing at the animal that appears in the puzzle piece. You can also simply practise numbers: “Where’s number 7?” Instead of telling them what to find, you can elicit what should come next too. See other dictation ideas in our post: How to teach English through arts and crafts.
  • Organise the cut-up puzzle pieces into sets and place them in front of me. The kids work at their own pace and ask me for the piece they need next. This provides more one on one interaction. If they don’t have the English to say what is in the piece or what number it is, they have the opportunity to hear it again: “Do you need the monster’s eyes?”; “Do you want number 4?” Conducting the craft in this way, gives the kids the chance to use request language: “Can I have…please?” Because they work at their own pace, this means they will finish at different times too. This isn’t a problem because the ones who finish quickly can start colouring their completed jigsaw, or you could give them a puzzle or mini-card game to play (see our Activity Packs that all have card sets included).

Quite often, I will tell them that they can finish colouring their jigsaws at home. They can even cut it up again and play with it as the puzzle! You could, of course, use it in a colouring dictation activity in the next class.

Puzzle craft practice at home

With very young learners, I often prefer to conduct the activity as a colouring dictation or as free colouring with the children requesting the colours they need. One reason for this, is that I want to avoid anyone losing their puzzle pieces before they make it home. Another reason is that it gives families the chance to get involved. They can help their child cut up the puzzle and play with it. This is a nice way for them to use English vocabulary and phrases with their child, without ‘testing’ them by asking them what each thing is in the picture. If the image is based on a story or song, this is a nice way for families to know what their child is learning and it helps them use English outside the classroom. I’ll share links to the particular story or topic pages from this site so that they can watch the videos with their child.

Final thoughts and top tips

  • Think carefully about what your group of kids is capable of. I’ve made the mistake of choosing jigsaws with 20 pieces, when really they were only able to deal with 10 pieces max. This can be demotivating. Make sure what you ask is achieveable.
  • Don’t have too many children in one group. They are still learning how to share and they will manage with groups of 3 or 4 but any larger and there will be someone left out.
  • Make a model of the jigsaw to play with before class, even if the main activity you want to do is the craft. You can even do it whole class first, then in groups and finally as a craft activity. This will get them much more motivated about doing the craft and they will be excited to share it at home.

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