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Everyday Brain Teasers: 15 Riddles for ESL Students

What gets broken without being held?

Stumped? Read this guide to find the answer.

Riddles and brain teasers are a blast in the ESL classroom!

Some riddles require a high level of English, while others simply demand a strong sense of logic. In either case, students of all ages and levels will enjoy putting their language skills to use by solving these challenging puzzles.

So, here’s everything to know about riddles for ESL students!


Why Use Riddles on Your ESL Students?

Riddles can be used to achieve a number of objectives in the ESL classroom. You can use them as warmers and icebreakers, as part of a larger lesson on a specific topic, or as your closing activity.

Riddles encourage students to think critically and work as a team, where they must practice their English together in order to communicate their ideas, theories and solutions.

You can pick and choose riddles to focus on different aspects of English. For example, some riddles may use the vocabulary you wish to review with your students. You can also use riddles to introduce new vocabulary in a fun and engaging way.

Riddles can also be useful for pronunciation, spelling, rhyming or even teaching English idioms. Below are some riddles that are especially relevant for ESL students.

Fun Activities to Do with Riddles

1. Race to Solve the Riddle

Before class, prepare a list of riddles. Depending on the level of your class, decide whether you want to use riddles using simple or advanced English. You can even start with simple riddles, then add more challenging ones later in the activity if you really want to get your students thinking.

Begin the activity by dividing the class into small groups, then give each group a worksheet with the riddles you selected. The groups must race against each other to answer all of the riddles correctly.

When a group thinks they’ve successfully answered all the riddles, have them raise their hand so you can check their work. The first group to answer all riddles correctly wins the exercise.

2. Choose the Best Answer

Again, prepare a list of riddles before class.

Like the previous exercise, you’ll begin this activity by dividing the class into small groups. Hand out your riddle sheets to each group, instructing them to start once every group has received a worksheet.

When finished, have each group write their answers to the riddles on the board. Instead of determining the right and wrong answers like you did in the previous activity, let your students vote on what answers they think are the best or most likely to be right. Then, have each group explain why they chose that answer.

Groups with the most votes win the game.

3. Write Your Own Riddles

Creative students will love this activity!

For this exercise, learners must write their own riddles and then try to stump their classmates.

Depending on your class’ proficiency level, you can have students work individually or in small groups to create two or three riddles. Generally speaking, beginners and intermediate students tend to work best in pairs or small groups. Once they’ve finished writing their riddles, give each student (or group) a chance to read their riddles to the class. The rest of the class is expected to solve the riddle.

If you really want to give your students the opportunity to explore their creativity while learning English, pair your riddle activities with FluentU.

You can assign students authentic English videos with dual language subtitles, through which they are able to view context-specific definitions for each word they don’t understand. Through FluentU, they’ll discover new and interesting vocabulary that they can include in their riddles.

Easy Riddles

Here are some riddles geared toward beginners. These riddles focus on spelling, pronunciation, specific groups of vocabulary, such as body parts, and how some English words have different meanings.

1. Riddle: How many letters are in the alphabet?

Answer: 11 ( t-h-e a-l-p-h-a-b-e-t).

This riddle is ideal for getting students to think about spelling and to review the alphabet.

2. Riddle: What has a face and two hands but no arms or legs?

Answer: A clock.

This riddle focuses on specific vocabulary related to clocks. It can also encourage a discussion about the many uses or double meanings of English words. For example, “face” on a person and the “face” of a clock and “hands” of a person and the “hands” of a clock.

3. Riddle: There’s a house. One enters it blind and comes out seeing. What is it?

Answer: A school.

This riddle explores a rather common English idiom about the relationship between “seeing” and being “enlightened” or “knowledgeable.”

4. Riddle:

As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives,
Each wife had seven sacks,
Each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits:
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
How many were there going to St. Ives?

– 18th Century England

Answer: One.

This riddle is fun for rhyming and pronunciation practice.

Medium Riddles

For your intermediate students, try some of the following riddles. These riddles will test your ESL students’ knowledge and understanding of different parts of speech, such as adverbs, and homonyms.

5. Riddle: What instrument can you hear but never see? 

Answer: Your voice.

You can explore the different senses with this riddle and look at adverbs such as “never.”

6. Riddle: What occurs once in a minute, twice in a moment and never in one thousand years?

Answer: The letter “M.”

Reviewing words for time. Also, you can review the adverbs “once” and “twice,” which are common phrases used in English.

7. Riddle: Which letter of the alphabet has the most water? 

Answer: C (sea).

Here students must explore the idea of homonyms.

Difficult Riddles

These riddles should be saved for your advanced students. The language skills needed to successfully solve them is more complex than the previous riddles mentioned. Students can use these riddles to practice and review grammar rules, as well as exercise their knowledge of vocabulary.

8. Riddle: What five-letter word becomes shorter when you add two letters to it?

Answer: Short (Short-er).

Students must think about spelling to solve this riddle. Additionally, you could introduce a discussion about comparative adjectives such as “shorter” or “longer.”

9. Riddle: What word begins and ends with an E but only has one letter?

Answer: Envelope.

Again, another brain teaser that tests students’ range in vocabulary and spelling.

10. Riddle: I am a word. If you pronounce me rightly, it will be wrong. If you pronounce me wrong it is right. What word am I?

Answer: Wrong.

Students must think very carefully to analyze what word it could be.

Riddles from Literature

For your students who’re advanced or bookworms, try some of these famous riddles from literature.

11. Riddle:

“What walks on four feet in the morning, 

two in the afternoon,

and three at night?”

– “Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles

Answer: Man.

This riddle is useful for critical thinking and reviewing times of the day.

12. Riddle:

“This thing all things devours;

Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;

Gnaws iron, bites steel;

Grinds hard stones to meal;

Slays king, ruins town,

And beats mountain down.”

– “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien

Answer: Time.

This is a great example of personification, one of the main literary devices used in English literature.

13. Riddle:

“Voiceless it cries,

Wingless flutters,

Toothless bites,

Mouthless mutters.”

– “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien

Answer: Wind.

Again, personification is exhibited here. Your students will need to use their general critical thinking skills, and you can also look at the construction and meaning of a word’s root + “less” such as “wingless,” meaning “without wings.”

14. Riddle:

“If you break me, I’ll not stop working.

 If you can touch me, my work is done. 

If you lose me, you must find me with a ring soon after. What am I?”

– “Wizard and Glass” by Stephen King

Answer: The heart.

A real brain teaser. You could look at words in different forms such as “working” (verb) and “my work” (noun).

15. Riddle:

“First think of the person who lives in disguise,
Who deals in secrets and tells naught but lies,
Next tell me what’s always the last thing to mend,
The middle of middle and end of the end?
And finally give me the sound often heard,
During the search for a hard-to-find word.
Now string them together, and answer me this,
Which creature would you be unwilling to kiss?”

– “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” by J.K. Rowling

Answer: Spider (spy – d – er).

Understanding of rhymes, careful consideration of spelling and general critical thinking are needed to solve this riddle. There may also be some new words, such as “disguise” and “naught,” which should be discussed together as a class.


Were you able to solve the first riddle?

What gets broken without being held?

There are a few possible answers: a heart, trust, silence, a promise. 

And here’s another promise for you: Your classes will enjoy trying to solve these challenging riddles for ESL students, while also practicing and improving their English skills!

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