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Charlotte-area teachers say Wordle can make learning addictive

PDS Wordle 2.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
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WFAE
Sixth-graders in Eliza Williams' English class at Providence Day School work on Tuesday's Wordle.

In just a couple of months, Wordle has gone from an obscure online word game to a pop culture phenomenon inspiring social media competition, spin-offs and spoof videos. As teachers get hooked, it’s also spreading into Charlotte-area classrooms.

Teachers say the same things that make the game fun for adults — figuring out strategies, competing with friends and celebrating quick solutions — make it a great activity for kids.

As Providence Day School teacher Eliza Williams told her sixth-graders this week, “whether you realize this or not, your vocabulary’s growing as we play this game every morning.”

For anyone who somehow missed it, Wordle gives players a shot at one five-letter word per day. When you type in a guess, the letter turns green if it’s in the right place, gold if it’s in the word but in the wrong place and gray if it’s not in the word. It also lets you share your results on social media with the letters blanked out, which is why so many feeds are full of friends gloating or lamenting their luck that day.

Helping English learners

At its most basic, Wordle helps students think about – or learn for the first time – how letters combine in the English language.

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Alecia Davis
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Luis Morales, a student in Alecia Davis' fourth-grade class at Greenway Park Elementary School, shows off his Wordle solution.

Alecia Davis, a fourth-grade teacher at Charlotte's Greenway Park Elementary, uses a version of Wordle that lets her create words that work well for her struggling readers and her students who are just learning to speak English.

“I have Spanish, Portuguese and Russian in my group,” she said.

Davis makes sure her kids get easy words that emphasize that day’s lesson, such as the S-H sound or L-blends at the end of a word. She says they start to pick up basic patterns, like knowing a vowel needs to go in the middle of a word.

“So there’s that challenge of only having a certain amount of tries to get it right, as well as some strategy of knowing where letters can and cannot go in the English language,” Davis said. "It doesn’t take a lot of time out of the day for them to do it and it does have a lot of educational benefits."

Even young kids get competitive

At Stallings Elementary in Union County, Amy Erb uses Wordle for second- through fifth-graders.

“It really just reinforces some spelling patterns that they’re exposed to, in kind of like a non-threatening way,” Erb said. “You know, there’s no penalty if you get it wrong but it really reinforces when they get it right.” 

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Amy Erb
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Brooks Conklin, a student in Amy Erb's class at Stallings Elementary, shows off his class's solution to a Wordle she created.

Erb teaches STEAM classes, an acronym for science, technology, engineering, arts and math. So she gets different age groups rotating through. She says the older students are better at Wordle, but the youngest enjoy it just as much.

“I end the day with second grade,” she said. “And you know, they are 7 years old and they are the most competitive out of anybody.”

Wordle gives you up to six tries to figure out the daily word through the process of elimination, and the competition comes from getting it in fewer tries than others solving it that day. Picking a good first word is crucial, and Erb says her kids tend to go with the obvious: Steam.

“You know, it’s got some good letters in it,” Erb said. “You’ve got two vowels and the S and T are really common.”

Sixth-grade strategies

At Providence Day School, Eliza Williams’ sixth-graders have given their strategy a lot of thought.

Williams was home sick with COVID-19 when she checked out Wordle. She introduced it to her students when she returned, so they've been playing for about a month.

On Tuesday, they reviewed their strategy, starting with the first word.

Some students like to begin with a lot of common consonants, using words like “black” or “smart.” The class favorite is “audio,” because that gets four vowels out of the way. Connor Cui offered an alternative: “I choose ‘adieu’ over ‘audio’ because the E is used more than O.”

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Ann Doss Helms
/
WFAE
Students in Eliza Williams' English class at Providence Day School discuss what their fourth guess for Tuesday's Wordle should be.

Williams was intrigued. She reminded the class that it’s French for “farewell.”

“I didn’t know Wordle accepted French words, or non-English words,” she said. “Interesting. Interesting.”

But on a day when the class was being recorded for radio, they decided it was appropriate to stick with tradition.

“All right,” Williams said. “Let’s all do ‘audio.’”

She typed it into a laptop projected onto a screen while students played along on their own tablet.

“Audio” gave them an A as the first letter, and an O somewhere other than the last letter. They followed up with “among,” and then “atoms.” For the fourth guess, Dara Onafuye suggested “aroma.”

“Ooh, it’s a double-A. It would fit, though,” Williams said. “What is an aroma? A smell, right?”

Cheers erupted as they typed it in — and got the word right in four tries. That’s “splendid,” in the encouraging labels of Wordle.

Vocabulary and family

 Several of Williams’ students, including Aaryana Mehta, say they like learning new words.

“Cause we’re only in sixth grade so, like, it also helps you feel like the SATs, kind of planning ahead,” she said.

The previous day’s word was “cynic,” a new word for Aaryana and several classmates. They said they looked it up or asked older family members.

Campbell Dascal says his granddad’s doctor suggested playing word games to prevent the loss of memory and vocabulary.

“Every day when we go home I always go sit down and play the Wordle with him,” Campbell said. “It’s always nice to play with him.”

Williams and her students plan to write a thank-you letter to Josh Wardle, a Brooklyn software engineer who created the game and put it on the internet in October. On Jan. 31, The New York Times announced it had bought the game for a price “in the low seven figures.”

Will the craze last?

Wordle has already spawned copycats, using math equations, Harry Potter vocabulary and even words that aren’t suitable for classrooms.

Last week Kim and Penn Holderness, a Raleigh couple that produces humor videos, posted “A Whole New Wordle,” which got more than 200,000 views on YouTube in the first five days.

Internet fads have a tendency to fizzle as quickly as they emerge. But Connor Cui, from Williams’ sixth grade class, says this one could have staying power, just based on the number of five-letter words.

“So my friend did the math,” he announced. “You could do Wordle for 26 years, I’m pretty sure.”

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.