Friday, July 19, 2013

Literacy-Based and Other Guessing Games

by Susan Stephenson,

Guessing games are fun. Kids love them, whether they be part of home, school or library activities. I want to share some of my favourites, as well as many suggested by several of the wonderful Teacher Librarians I know. Most of these are best for upper primary-aged children and older. If you feel like having a guess, or adding extra ideas, please do so in comments.

Mystery Object

One simple but powerful idea to engage kids in thinking about a book, a theme or a lesson is to have a mystery object. This could be wrapped, giving children some shape clues, or in a bag, where a blindfolded child must feel the object to guess what it is. In the library, this works well with brown paper-covered books, and clues may surround the book in a display area. Clues can be written, or other objects or images, maybe even audio or video clips, or a combination.

Variation: Make the mystery a book, wrapped to conceal it. Photograph a teacher peeking inside the wrapping, and reacting to the contents in some way. The teacher might wear a costume, carry a prop, say something in a speech bubble edited in, exaggerate facial expression etc, as clues to the book's title.

Another variation: Make the mystery object a teacher/library assistant. Photograph teachers with a favourite library book concealing their faces and kids must use clothing clues etc to determine which teacher is reading which book. This also serves as a great way to introduce children to new books or old favourites.

What's the Wordle?

I love what Wordle and other word cloud generators offer us. In What's the Wordle, encourage kids to choose some words for their word cloud that will capture the essence of a book, yet not give it away too quickly. Adults can also do this for kids to guess. It's a useful way to help kids become more familiar with books in a library. The Wordle could include character names, locations, descriptive words, key words that will help a guesser hone in on a particular book title. You'll see an example I made for children's picture book, The Wrong Book at ABCya Word Cloud below. This one's suitable for kids as young as 7.

What Am I Reading?

Australian TL, Peta Wilson, describes it like this: "...a badge wearing activity where 52 of our teachers wore a badge I made for each of them with the question 'What am I reading?' This was followed by three book (or magazine, etc) titles the teacher gave me, one of which was the true one. Students had to guess which one that teacher really was reading and this opened a conversation between students and teachers about reading for pleasure."

Hink Pink

This is a great word guessing game involving rhyme that my students loved. With a bit of a stretch, it can be used to link to books. Say you want to introduce a book about a fat cat. Think up a semi-cryptic clue or another way of saying "fat cat". You might choose "plump milk-drinking feline" or "chubby pet that fell down a well". Kids need to try to think of another way to say your clue that is two rhyming words of one syllable each. The game can be extended to Hinky Pinky (two syllable rhyming words), like happy chappy - "joyful fellow". Or Hinketty Pinketty (three syllable rhyming words, much harder), like mellower bellower - "less angry bull". Mix and match with Hinky Pinketty or Hinketty Pink!

Here are some Hink Pinks to get you started:

Clues 1. seafood platter 2. huge oinker 3. head cover that's been squashed by a truck 4. warmed up join between two ropes 5. rained on puppy

Answers 1. fish dish 2. big pig 3. flat hat 4. hot knot 5. wet pet

Once kids get the idea, extend the game to lead to books in the bookshelf or library.

Create a Caption

Creating a caption for one given or a choice of given images can work well in a library. Images could be sourced from Creative Commons sites like Wikimedia Commons, or created by kids themselves with a camera or through art. I love the fact that captions involve kids in a small amount of writing. For some kids, writing is daunting, yet a caption becomes something they can achieve. Creating a suitable caption again requires thinking about audience, honing in on the message behind an image, or coming up with a topical twist that will engage an audience. The great thing about competitions like this in the library is not just all the wonderful opportunities for skills development, but also that it can lead to a display that draws positive attention to the library. Often younger children will use display models to inspire their own caption writing and art work. If you're interested in more ideas about using captions with kids, check out Writing Fun for Kids - Create a Caption. Turn a captioned image into a guessing game by having a staff or family member create a caption for a photo, preferably one that's a bit quirky, and then everyone has to try to guess what caption they chose.

Invent Your Own

Have you thought about asking your kids to invent their own guessing games for family members, friends or classmates? I love this activity because it's a truly authentic learning experience. Children need to think about their purpose for communication, their audience, and think creatively about clues that will lead to the answer they want. Getting the balance between too easy and too hard is a delicate process that requires trial and error, and develops perseverance. If you want your kids to try some simple guessing games before they create their own, check out the ideas in Play Guessing Games with Kids. Short on time for a library competition? Have kids create their own competitions as a competition!


That's what they call this activity at Australian Teacher Librarian, Katie Sword's school. The idea in Book-Alikes is for kids to work out exactly what it is that certain books have in common. As Katie says of Book-Alikes: "The commonality is normally something that can be figured out just by looking at the front, back and/or spine of the book. So far we've done: 3rd book in a series, books made into movies, 'Paul' somewhere in the author's first or last name (including Pauline, Paulsen etc), a culture/nationality in the title, author's surnames all the same as teachers at the school (that one was popular!), title containing words to do with Easter (eg rabbit, chocolate, cross, egg etc; that was at Easter time, obviously), books with animals as the main character, books with ordinal numbers in the title, all puffin books (ie with the little puffin symbol), a weapon on each cover, all with time travel, author's first and last name starting with the same letter, the covers predominantly the same colour…" Katie usually has five or so books when she and her students play this guessing game. (NB Katie didn't come up with this idea originally, but can't remember the source. She suspects it was someone in the wonderful Australian Teacher Librarian network.)

Here's one of mine: What do these five picture books have in common? For All Creatures, In the Lion, Feathers for Phoebe, Hop on Pop, and Yoo Hoo, Ladybug! 

It reminds me a lot of a game I play called My Aunt Likes, where kids need to determine what factors some things my aunt likes actually share. You can read about that game in the Book Chook Bag of Tricks. It might be fun to change the name to Our Librarian Likes!

Picture Clues

Rebus puzzles have been around a while and are great for prompting kids to think outside the box. Some you will know from text that is mixed with small images, like "I can see the dog" where see is replaced with a picture of a letter C and dog replaced with a small sketch of a dog. Others are actually word pictures, where the words are written in a way to provide a clue for the answer. For instance, take the word LEVEL. Split it in two and you have "spit level" as in the image above. While not leading to book exploration, rebus puzzles still make a great guessing competition for kids. You can find more examples at NIEHS Kids Pages, and Fun with Words.

Australian TL, Clare Treloar, did a similar activity at Harristown SHS. Developed by teacher, Elaine Reeve, the activity was called 4Pics1Story. Students received a paper with 4 pictures and a blank space for writing their guess as to the story. Students had to record their guess and race the sheet to the Library. Below are the suggestions for pictures from some story titles to give you the idea.

Charlotte’s Web – spider, pig, girl/pigtails, web
Treasure Island – treasure chest, pirate’s hat, island, pirate ship
Pride and Prejudice – wedding ring, girl in Edwardian gown, pemberley castle, pride logo
The Hunger Games – bow and arrow, mockingjay, fire, lottery ticket
The Hobbit – dwarf, Bilbo, city in fire, hobbit hole (many drawn images, not movie stills)
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – go with those three as pictures and picture of three children
The Wizard of Oz – red shoe, poppy field, straw, alfoil
Around the World in Eighty Days – train, hot air balloon, world map, top hat or 2013 calendar with day 80 circled (March 21)
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – milky way, 42, cup of tea and towel or fish
Waltzing Matilda – hat with corks, sheep, policeman, man on horse
The Phantom – purple swatch, mask, ghost, skull (for skull cave)

This is a variation on Rebus: Geek Mom have an example in one of their puzzles. There are four images. The first picture is Agent Phil Coulson, the second is some lips, the third is a clipart of someone pulling a rope and the last is Leonardo's famous image of the Vetruvian man. Put it all together and you have PHIL+LIP+PULL+MAN = author, Philip Pullman. GeekMom have lots more puzzles librarians and teachers could adapt.

Some publishers are happy for schools to use book cover images. It's a good idea to check first. For this next picture clue game, you need to use an image editor to "cut out" a section of a digital image of a book cover, then add other clues that lead to a title. Extra clues could be cryptic and textual, leading to a wonderful learning opportunity where kids next attempt cryptic crosswords. I found a book cover in the public domain I could use, and found clipart at Clker and another CClicensed image to make my picture clue below. Can you work out the book it represents?

Double Speak

Double-speak proverbs are an excellent way to introduce children to a thesaurus and using convoluted synonyms to express an idea. It's easily adapted to a library guessing game by having children come up with their own book titles heavily disguised by extra verbiage.

Can you guess the stories I'm referring to with these titles?

Prestidigitation from an Australian marsupial (Possum Magic)
Less than four diminutive farmyard inhabitants (Three Little Pigs)

Kids could also double-speak short book descriptions. Find some proverb examples at NIEHS. Extend the activity to include short book summaries as well as titles.

I Spy

On Pinterest, I saw St John's Library's I Spy bulletin board. Each week, they had a different I Spy Riddle ending in the title of a book. So, if I'm understanding correctly, this rhyming couplet might work:
I spy a cup, a saucer, a rat
And I spy the book, The Cat in the Hat.
You could have a display board with a collage style display of clipart or photos, representing all the objects in your riddles plus some extras, then the book cover hidden among other book covers on the board. Rhyming couplets are fairly easy to devise if you work backwards from the book title. For a regular I Spy downloadable PDF, perfect for all sorts of guessing games with younger kids, check out Just Something I Made.


I love drama-based games. Charades is a guessing game that's ideal for book titles, sayings, movie titles etc. Find Me a Gift UK have a Charades page that includes instructions and a PDF of printable titles to use. Kids can also make still pictures (tableaux) with their bodies to represent a scene from a book and have others guess.

Story Sports

NZ author, Brian Faulkner, came up with the idea of Story Sports. He describes them a little and gives examples on his website.

Book Character Displays

This is a perennial favourite, especially for Children's Book Week. Young kids like to dress up as a favourite character. With older kids, try a twist like dress a vegetable as your favourite book character, or create a scene using grocery items to represent your favourite book title. This becomes a guessing game as onlookers try to determine the book. Can't you just imagine the fun kids will have dressing a pumpkin as Captain Underpants?

Book Review Quiz

Travis Jonkers of 100ScopeNotes has a quiz on his blog, prompting us to guess a classic children's book from its one star review on Amazon or Good Reads. This would be a fun one to adapt for home or the library, or have kids write their own tongue-in-cheek one star reviews for children's book or movie classics.

60 Second Stories

This brings me to another fun idea. Have kids create their own ultra-condensed stories for favourite books, library books or a random book from their bookcase. Or create some yourself for children to guess. Check out the Book-a-Minute website for ideas but note that not all are suitable for children. Two of my favourites: The Hobbit, and this model of brevity, The Little Engine that Could. Book-a-Minute also have classics you might use with older kids eg The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Jane Austen's Emma, and movies eg Return of the Jedi.

Nail the Book Blurb!

Similar to 60 second stories, in this you have kids check out and discuss the blurbs publishers use on the back of paperback books for promotion. With younger kids, collectively write a one sentence summary of books and stories kids know well. Make it a guessing game by getting older students to create them for younger ones to guess.

Here's one of mine: When an asthmatic demolition expert meets three porky builders, he finds himself in hot water. Can you guess the tale?

A spin-off from blurbs is to create newspaper headlines that represent books, nursery rhymes or classic tales. Can you guess these?

Hungry Children Destroy Dwelling

Wall-sitter Critical After Shattering Accident

Woodsman Catches Senior Citizen Impersonator

Break and Enter is Tiring Work

Grandmother and Pet Face Starvation

Online Quizzes

Sporcle has lots of literature-based quizzes. You can access the list here.

Blind Dating/Speed Booking

Many libraries are trying some version of 'blind date a book'. Guessing is implied here, because the book is wrapped in brown paper so you can only guess what's inside. Read about the way Maplewood Library does it, with a rating slip and raffle prize.

TL Peta Wilson from Lyneham HS calls a similar activity 'Speed Booking': "I’ve done ‘speed booking’ with students a few times now – with classes who have to choose something to read for English, and with interested students at lunchtime at the very beginning of the “Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge” one year, using the books on the lists. For the lunchtime activity we included food and it was by invitation only. Students let us know in the week beforehand that they wanted to participate and they were then given their invitation.

I followed the lunch session up a few weeks later with another lunch meeting (more food) where the same students sat in small groups and each one had one and a half minutes to talk to their group about the book they had ‘fallen in love with’. The others had to actively listen but remain silent, then they had 30 seconds to ask any questions about the book.Teenagers tend to keep interrupting each other so some of the students found it hard not to butt in, but others enjoyed having the time to speak without the interruptions. Afterwards other students could choose to borrow the books that had been raved about."

Peta has two more competitions. The first is called This Week’s Book in the Bag:

"·         Get an extra big brown paper bag.

·         Find a really popular book and put it in the bag.  Add a tiny surprise and close the bag.

·         Make up a series of clues about the book – hard ones through to easier ones.

·         Put up a new clue each day to let students work out the name of the book and author.  Start with really hard ones and then gradually let the clues become easier.

·         The first to correctly identify the book and author gets the surprise (and borrow the book if they want it)."

The next is called Lunch for your Brain:

"·         Select some interesting, not-too-long non-fiction books.  They could be some of the Horrible Histories /Geography /Science kinds, or the series of Introducing… (Einstein, Freud), or any other books that are on a non-fiction subject students might not normally look for on the shelves but are written in an accessible way.

·         Put them each in a paper bag and twist the tops as if it is someone’s lunch.

·         Print off a copy of the book’s barcode without the title on it (you can scan the barcode into  a document using a barcode font) and stick it toward the bottom of the bag.  (Or write the barcode number manually near the bottom of the bag.)

·         Students can choose a ‘lunch’ bag but must not look inside before borrowing.  They need to promise they will read the book (or give it a good try).

·         Once you have scanned the book to lend it to them, they can open the bag and begin to feed their brain.

·         When they return it, ask them to tell you what they thought of the subject and the way the book was written.  Then you can give them a ‘treat’ – like a library-made laminated book mark that says something like ‘My brain has a healthy appetite’  (or  a longer version - ‘My brain has a healthy appetite for knowledge’.)"

Thanks Peta!

If you've enjoyed this post, or any others at The Book Chook, I'd love you to help me spread my literacy, learning and literature ideas by promoting via Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, StumbleUpon, G+ or any other way you decide. 

You might also like to read Let's Celebrate Children's Literacy on World Book Day, Free PDF, Activity Booklet for Kids - Read Across the Universe and Activities for Children's Book Week 2013.

Image credits:

We Can Do it By J. Howard Miller, artist employed by Westinghouse, poster used by the War Production Co-ordinating Committee [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Catcher in the Rye By Aavindraa [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Rye Grass from WildPlantDatabase, CC licensed.


  1. wow, fantastic ideas! I thought I was a pretty creative teacher, but now I think I never even scratched the surface of possibilities that are out there to get kids interested in books! My favourites are 'nail the book blurb' and 'double speak'.

  2. Hi Liz, I love those too! Isn't it great to have so many different ways to choose from to involve kids in literacy?

  3. I have just bookmarked this post! Love all the ideas listed here :) We often play "guess the book" when on the move by asking questions about "where did we read about..." or anything that comes to mind! so much fun :)

  4. These are wonderful suggestions! I can use some of them in my book club meetings. Thanks!


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