Game facts and game description
Lateral Thinking Puzzles – Can You Say Why? (Erwin Brecher, PhD) is a book of puzzles to
be solved through discussion. There are more than 90 brainteasers, each of varying
length. Each puzzle presents a case scenario using a variety of past tenses and a range of
vocabulary. This game is suitable for ESOL students from Upper Intermediate (B2)
upwards: it draws on the learners’ understanding not only of vocabulary but also complex
situations that require discussion and lateral thinking to solve.
The game can also be played in the form of a card game. Here the solution is on the
reverse side of the card as opposed to the back of the book.
In this game, students who are learning English as a new language work in groups to solve
lateral thinking puzzles.
They read the puzzle together, discuss and follow its clues to answer its final question.
Learners can then create their own lateral thinking conundrums for other students to work
This game involves learners reading, speaking, listening and sometimes writing all at the
same time while engaged in high-level thinking. They were often working at the limits of
their language but the engagement in the problem meant they foregrounded
communicativity and meaning.
After the session, they then wrote about how they felt about the game and whether it was
beneficial to their learning. We played the game with two separate cohorts: one in class
face-to-face and the other over Zoom during the pandemic lock-down. In both sessions,
the game was played for its own sake but it was also used to enable learners to put into
practice work they were doing on relative pronouns, specifically during the writing up of
their experiences of playing.
This game was chosen because its design facilitated the emergence of play,and we were
testing whether play developed learning. In contrast to our other learning design (ACT
ESOL) this play was affected by a more traditional type of game albeit one without
obvious aspects of competition and one without complex rules. The basic rules were
learners needed to (i) suspend disbelief – the stories were often quite fantastical; (ii) resist
turning over the card to find the answers and (iii) attempt to follow or work out the logic
at play. By following these rules, learners became involved and absorbed – caught up and
immersed – in the story and the play. The play here centred around what was at stake –
the ability to solve the problem by thinking up and contesting possible solutions that
were both not immediately obvious but also suggested by the story. In this way,
learners/players became caught up in the typical to and fro movement of play, and in
particular the dialectic of creating and destroying, akin to the process of solving a
detective mystery. As MIguel Sicart writes in ‘Play Matters’, “Play is always dangerous,
dabbling with risks, creating and destroying, and keeping a careful balance between both.
Play is between the rational pleasures of order and creation and the sweeping euphoria of
destruction and rebirth, between the Apollonian and the Dionysiac”. Here the oscillation
was between the creation of a possible solution and the almost immediate realisation
that this establishing of order and resolution needed to be rejected. This swing took place
both within each player and between them. Each game became a short history of proposal
and rejection, of presentation-depresentation, of potential success and realisation of
failure. In becoming so involved in the story-puzzle and its possibilities, the players
became immersed and interested in its forth-coming, in its immanence, following and
being guided by what was emerging from the story, in other words the hints of a solution
that the story itself suggested. As Bourdieu writes, “the good player is the one who, as in
Pascal’s example, ‘places’ the ball better or who places himself not where the ball is but
where it is about to land. In either case, the forth-coming in relation to which he positions
himself is not a possibility which may happen or not happen but something which is
already there in the configuration of the game and in present positions and postures of
team-mates and opponents.” (Pascalian Meditations p208)
In the course of being caught up in the game, learners were not only using their lateral
thinking, they were also exercising their language skills. They were reading and
summarising quite complex information, identifying or selecting areas of the text they
deemed important to its solutions, making connections to parts inside the text but also
outside and developing their interpretation skills. The nature of the debates meant they
needed to keep checking and contesting their understanding and interpretation and while
speaking they had to work on their pronunciation of some unusual words and phrases
such as ‘malignant’. There was also a high demand on listening skills as the
learners/players needed to understand as well as debate each other’s proposals. An often
undervalued skill is the ability to read, speak, present, listen and think at the same time,
which this game demanded.
A student, Shaz, made some interesting points about why game playing is beneficial to
learning a language:
“The puzzles, which were played with by our classmates last week, are the best way to
learn any language. It not only makes any person visualise his thinking power but it also
gives an incentive to read it surely what it says. It makes anyone curious about what may
happen in the end. Despite having difficult grammar in the text, still it helps to reveal the
end of the story. Over time when reading finishes, ideas or opinions from other collaque
could help to solve the mystery and help to learn more vocabulary and phrases. Learning
a language not only can be achieved through a formal way, though a language could be
learned through different other ways such as puzzles, or any other. In my personal
opinion, learning something difficult can be achieved … through a funny way or game.”
Target group & Setting
This game was played with groups of adult learners on our advanced Grammar in Practice
course. The students already had a good level of English and were working on deepening
their understanding and practice of how grammar relates to meaning.
Due to the nature of these puzzles, learners need at least a B2 level of English to play the
game without requiring more setting up and pre-game vocabulary work
A virtue of this lateral thinking game is that it is very simple to set up and play. However,
bear in mind the following points:
The concept of lateral thinking may be challenging to some people. It is recommended the
teacher gives an example before playing and the student groups are chosen carefully so
they support each other as they play the game. Students can select their groups, but make
sure all learners are able to participate.
To encourage full learner participation, the teacher should try not to intervene at any
stage. Instead, the teacher should monitor all groups for timing since some of the puzzles
may take a shorter time to ‘solve’ than others. New puzzles can then be chosen. The tutor
can also note down any language issues arising during the discussions.
This is a large scope for language learning in Lateral Thinking Puzzles as well as for
positioning its use within the learning experience. Use the game inductively to elicit a
specific language focus such as modals, or as a means of practising language already
How to embed
This lateral thinking game can be used as a way both of developing learners’ thinking,
problem-solving and connection-making, particularly in a second language, and as a way
of practising multiple language skills at the same time. The game’s challenge is that
learners are stretched in different directions, which takes them to the edge of their
The game can be played to:
develop and test the players’ reading and comprehension skills – how well can they
summarise and cohere complex information, make connections to information outside the
text, read between the lines, make judgements based on evidence?
practise getting a point across, explaining ideas, negotiating with others, dealing with
disagreement, finding compromises
work on pronunciation
develop listening skills
do all of the above at the same time
This game can also be situated within specific language work – such as the following areas
of grammar: question formation, narrative tenses, conditionals 1, 2 and 3, modals of
deduction, reported speech, relative clauses.
Use in class
Learners were working on relative clauses and the write up of their playing experience was
intended to be a means of practising this work. So, the first hour of the class involved
teacher input and student discovery and explanation of the grammar points: defining,
non-defining and reduced relative clauses. The students practised transformations.
Having completed the grammar focus, the aims of the game were introduced – to see how
learning a language can be enhanced through playing a game. The Lateral Thinking game
was explained in brief and clarified as per needs. In the face-to-face session, the students
selected their own groups of two, three or four. It was important that the students got on
well since the game could lead to heated contestations! The tutor held a fan of cards face
down and the students picked three to four different cards at random. They then read
these and together agreed on the ‘problem’ they wanted to discuss and ultimately solve.
In the Zoom version, students worked in breakout rooms and the puzzles were written
onto a single document available via Google Classroom.
In their groups, the students discussed the problem in depth and agreed and disagreed on
the solution. In the face-to-face game, the learners called the teacher, offered their
different solutions and finally turned over the card to read the official answer. On Zoom,
the tutor visited the different breakout rooms and then the learners all came together to
share their stories and discuss the solutions. This cohort then worked in groups to create
their own lateral thinking puzzles, which they then swapped and looked for solutions.
In both cohorts, the learners then wrote up their experiences of playing the game and
reflected on its efficacy.
Watch our students reflecting on their discussion and learning of the solutions and
watch our students creating their own Lateral Thinking Puzzles:
Watch our students play the Lateral Thinking Game online during the Coronavirus
Student experience, testimonials and quotes
However, both cohorts greatly enjoyed this Lateral Thinking game. The students discussed
the problems seriously whilst at the same time not being over serious when they
disagreed with each other. In short, they had fun!
During the in-person session, several of the students were taking photos of the problems
and sending these to those students who were absent! There was much laughter and
when the groups / pairs had finished one problem, they soon asked for another.
For homework students were given this question to write about: Some say that learning a
language is easier through playing games. In the light of the puzzles that you solved in
your class. How far would you say this is true? Give specific examples citing the puzzles
The response to the task was overwhelming. The testimony below bears witness that a
game can be played in the classroom and achieve learning aims. The game can be seen
both as its own end and as a way to stimulate language from the learner.
Testimonials & Quotes
Alicia: “An excellent way of learning a language is through playing games.
For example, when in class we played in Lateral Thinking Puzzles we had to concentrate on
a short piece of text and discuss any possible outcomes to the story in it to solve the
puzzle. Our card was called The Judgment, which consisted of about 500 words. When
trying to solve the puzzle we had to employ many strategies, one of which included
reading the text out loud. At first, we discussed the topic of the puzzle given to us, which
was about finding out why the judge had reversed his decision to acquit (acquitting) the
man for killing an indigenous species bird. Then we went through the meaning of each
word we were not sure of. By doing this we engaged in the thinking process of every
member of the teams’ brain power. For instance, we figured out that a ‘long eared owl’ was
a type of an owl that is very rare. Everyone in our team had an opportunity to work on the
text on their own then share their knowledge and thoughts with others. The overall team
play environment was light and stimulating. Although the answer we gave was not the
correct one, we still had a feeling of satisfaction after the game. One of the reasons for
this was that during the game the correct answer came up in the discussion. The other
reason was that learning by playing games is more fun than being a solitary learner”
Tamara: “I totally agree that learning a language through playing different games is an
extremely successful idea about a way of studying.
Firstly, playing games is an activity, which is associated with an enjoyable situation, in
which you are supposed to forget about your problems, stress and anxiety, and your mind
is open to access new challenges, in our example it is learning a language. Playing games,
enjoying conversation creates a better situation for our brain work, remembering new
words, phrases and even rules.
Secondly, playing can improve your skills, help your reading, listening and speaking. When
we played the puzzle in the classroom, I started with reading the text, which was written
on one side of the card, trying to understand the problem, which needed to be solved.
After that my partner, who once had more than one idea, gave me her decision on the
problem, which I had to listen to carefully and that was my listening test.
Finally, despite all the positive impact of joy and fun, I think if you want to learn more and
have better results you are supposed to write down some of the new words or phrases
and repeat them later to revise your vocabulary”.
Suela, who played the game online over Zoom: “In general, I think learning a foreign
language through playing games can be an enjoyable way in hard work like learning.
I do agree that learning a new language is easier when you do it through playing as it is
more pleasure, no pressure and less demanding.
I would say that the puzzle that me and my classmates chose was too far for the correct
answer but at least we enjoyed it.
Our puzzle was about a guy and a trip that he had to do with his donkey. We need to find
out how he came back on Friday…or this is what we thought that we had to be focused on,
to find out how he came back a day earlier. He left on Monday, he travelled for 2 days. He
slept two days at the place that he visited and it took him two days to come back. In total
6 days he should be back on Saturday instead of Friday as the puzzle says.
The only answer that we found was that he travelled Monday Tuesday. That is two days
after he stayed two nights there, so Tuesday, Wednesday and he travelled back Thursday,
Friday. So our conversation was all around the weekdays…. None of us thought that it may
be something different and to see it in a different way to think out of box I will say.
When our time was finished we announced the answer to our teacher [Louisa] and then
she said that the answer wasn’t correct. The correct answer was that Friday was the name
of the donkey…. What a surprise…no one of us got so far even close to the correct answer.
The author of this puzzle was very smart as he/she found the way to take the attention of
the people to the wrong fact.
I think I should do more of these games to improve my English. It has double benefits,
mind gaming and learning English much easier in a funny way”.
Student 1: “We often regard playing games as the opposite of learning. Playing games is
often associated with pleasure time while the other is associated with a more serious and
concentrated time of the day. Throughout my learning experience, I often find this notion
not to be true. For example, learning languages in a playful way can be more varied and
enjoyable. I have come to realise that learning languages requires a persistent process of
repeatedly using, trying out and practising the new learned vocabularies and phrases.
In this essence, playful learning can prove very useful, as we are more willing to repeat
and practise while having fun.
Recently I have been involved in trying to solve puzzles as a part of a learning experiment
during my advanced grammar course. I have found this experience to be very useful and
fun at the same time, because we get to share and discuss our thoughts as a group of players. Meaning we get to play together and challenge ourselves in a fun way while we
are improving our English at the same time.
One of the recent research in this area seems to prove that things we practise during play
have excellent chances of being well interconnected and long term stored in our brain”.
Student 2: “We will naturally spend more time on learning a language if it makes us feel
joy and excitement. I believe games help to reduce the anxiety which people, especially
beginners, feel when they speak in a foreign language. Also, it‘s easier to remember new
words and structures of grammar as a consequence of repetition in many games.
Solving puzzles in English was not an easy task as it challenged us to think outside the
box. I read the puzzle several times in order to find hints, some of which helped me to get
closer to the answer. The puzzle was about a the businessman who left an urgent meeting
request on his colleague’s answering machine, knowing that he checked it frequently. In
his message he asked the man to meet him after 40 minutes as he had to pass some
important documents to him. We had to figure out the reason why the colleague, who
most likely had heard the message, did not arrive to take the documents as requested.
One of the best things about this game was the moment when we realised how simple the
answer was. This game can teach players to pay attention to details, which is a useful skill
in learning languages.
Even though there is no doubt that games can be a great tool in teaching and learning a
language, it may not have the same effect or be effective for everyone. I have met some
people who don‘t like playing board games due to different reasons, so in that case
traditional learning techniques may be more beneficial for them”.
Student 3: “Some say that learning a language is easier through playing games. I couldn’t
At least from my experience, when I started emulating my favourite singers in front of the
mirror as when I was a teenager, there has always been a massive ludic component in
learning English. It was also a way of creating another reality, where I dared to be and
behave the way I was too shy to carry myself in real life. Of course, I was always aware of
the difference. But somehow my favourite pastimes involved some kind of role play, in the
same way that my classmates and I performed last week in the game with the cards.
Because in that game, just the same as in the activities I do in my spare time, most of
which require a certain level of involvement and empathy, like reading a book, watching a
film, following a show… from my point of view, to be ready to wear the shoes of the
different characters is paramount.
That’s how you try to figure out the solution of the mystery, or how the story is going to
develop in the next chapter, or if the next scene is going to be one whose dialogues are
going to stay with you for years…
Last week’s game was not only fun, but it also surprised me that although at the beginning
we felt a little paralyzed, little by little we were able to make many assumptions and one
of them was more or less in the range of the solution.
And last but not least, I can’t finish without mentioning my passion for quiz contests
(which are basically a game) since I was very young. I love to fantasise that I am the
contestant and I know all the answers.
“Learning a new language can be stressful, daunting and overwhelming. All these
overwhelming feelings, which complicate further acquiring any new skill, can be put at
ease by learning through playing games. Games provide an alter natural way of learning
which not only puts learners at ease, but also helps retain new words and grammar
There are a wide range of games aimed at increasing vocabulary and retention, tasks that
are certainly boring to do by mere memorisation, such as scrabble, playhouse and
crossword puzzles. There are also other games that offer a dynamic learning atmosphere
where the players need to interact with others such as by talking, solving puzzles and
practising listening skills. All these interactions put the players at ease, while they remain
engaged and learning the new language.
For instance, in our grammar course last week, we played a game called “snapped” which
involves reading about a puzzling scenario where the players need to find out the solution
to the problem posed. The players who I played with had difficulty understanding the
puzzle because she did not understand the meaning of key words. So I practised my
listening and memorising skills and explained to her the meaning of those words. My
playmate also helped me by constructing grammatically sound sentences to explain
potential solutions to the problems posed. The game snapped in addition to facilitating
learning a new language and also allowed us to practice lateral thinking -a method used
to solve problems via reasoning and flexible thinking- an essential skill for anyone to
“There’s not a right way to learn a language; some people prefer through books, while
others go for apps, games or traditional lessons with a tutor.
As with other skills, the only way to get confidence in speaking English is to keep
practising. English is a difficult language to master.
I have never been particularly good with languages. Even though I have been in English
school for a dozen years and living in the UK for many years, I’m ashamed to admit that
I’m still not fluent.
However, I think games can help you learn some vocabulary and are a fun way to practice
English. The good thing about this method is that you don’t need to motivate yourself and
it offers a welcome break from the usual method of learning. But playing games is
probably not the only way to learn the language. Learning the language means learning
how to communicate with people. It means you need to start speaking, writing, listening,
asking and answering questions. It is hard to get these skills through a game”.