Ransom Notes

If you’re looking for a different type of in-class activity to get students thinking about word choice, you’ll find it with this fun but challenging task. Ransom notes are ideal for having students think about word choice because they can’t just pick any words to build their sentences, they can only use the words they find in the newspapers and magazines they have in front of them. 

This group activity works well either on its own or following a lesson on parts of speech or word choice. But it requires a little planning and set up: 

  • Provide the supplies: newspapers and/or magazines, scissors, and glue. 
  • Arrange the groups: 3-4 is an ideal group size for this activity. Sometimes I set the groups and try to balance personalities and abilities, but other times I let students pick their own groups. I haven’t noticed too much of a difference in how this effects the results.
  • Explain the situation: I like to set up a hypothetical ransom note situation. Usually, I tell students that they’re involved in kidnapping a rival school’s mascot. 
  • Set the rules: The more rigid the guidelines, the challenging the task. But you need to set some rules to guide the activity. I usually require the following:
    • Students must create a ransom note of five complete sentences, each with their own purpose. The first must make it clear that a mascot has been kidnapped. The second must explain why. The third must say who is responsible for the kidnapping. The fourth must make the demands clear and the last sentence must provide instructions for delivering the demands.
    • They can only use whole words. No cutting out individual letters or portions of words.
  • Observe: It’s interesting to watch how the groups work together to build their sentences. Some scour their magazines for words and then build their sentences. Others plan what they want to say then search for the words. Taking note of the different routes each group takes helps with discussion after the activity
  • Compare: Students seem to enjoy a little competition in their group work, so comparing their ransom and having students vote for the most persuasive one adds another level of engagement.
  • Discuss the results: You can foster discussion by asking students to reflect on their process and thoughts during the activity and how this differed from when their writing is not limited by the quantity and number of words available.

I usually allow 30-40 minutes for the activity and 10-15 minutes for discussion. 

While this activity requires more setup than we usually expect in the college classroom (providing scissors, glue, and newspapers or magazines), asking students to provide their own supplies might add a touch of anticipation and cut down on your own prep work. 



Feature image courtesy of Amador Loureiro on Unsplash
Teaching Assistant at University of Illinois at Chicago |

Hannah Green is a PhD student in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. While a creative writer by nature, she’s a teacher at heart and enjoys teaching writing in all its forms including composition, professional, technical, and creative writing. Her research interests include the place of the asylum in narratives of mental illness, the literature of Southern Africa, and oral storytelling. Her creative writing appears both in print and online in places such as The Rumpus, PANK, and McSweeney's. Hannah is also the Editor-in-Chief of During Office Hours.


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