Crossword Puzzles for Learners



            On Sunday, 22nd December 2013, it will be the 100th anniversary of the first crossword puzzles to appear in Britain, so as we say “Happy Birthday!” to the crossword puzzle, let’s analyse their use and learning value in English language learning.

            The first crossword puzzles appeared in newspapers published in New York. Owners of newspapers in London saw the style of the puzzles and started to make their own puzzles. Soon every newspaper and magazine had its own crossword puzzle. Some had easy clues, but others were much more difficult. Passengers on morning trains travelling to London would all be trying to solve the crossword puzzle in their favourite newspaper.

            Crossword puzzles became a popular pastime for passengers on trains and buses. Regular passengers would meet in the same carriage every day and see who could be the first to complete the crossword puzzle. The crossword puzzle quickly became part of the culture in Britain and the fashion travelled all over the world.

Learning from crossword puzzles

            For learners of English, the crossword clues exploit the meaning of words, whilst the grid exploits accurate spelling. In the grid the vertical and horizontal words are interlinked so the completed responses either confirm that the responses are correct or provide an extra clue to the other answers.

            Reading the clues involves the learner in very careful reading practice, writing the answers requires very careful spelling. Regular use of crosswords expands the learner’s vocabulary, improves reading and develops spelling. The interlinking of vertical and horizontal words exploits the learner’s understanding of regular spelling patterns in English.

            Many English nouns end with –er or –or. Verbs and gerunds often end with –s, -ed, –ing or –tion. Many English words start with ch-, ph-, sh-, st-, str-, th- or wh-. Some letters are usually followed by a vowel. Some letters are frequently doubled. Other letters are frequently used in pairs; qu-, -ck are two examples. This knowledge of spelling patterns is gradually acquired by native speakers through their reading. Learners of English, who usually spend less time reading, can get the same sort of practice in spelling patterns through crossword puzzles.

The easiest crossword puzzle in English

            The comedian, Spike Milligan, invented the easiest crossword puzzle in English. The grid was completely black, except for one white square. Two clues were offered: 1 ACROSS First letter of the Alphabet  and 1 DOWN Indefinite article.


Different forms of crossword puzzle

            Not all crossword puzzles have the standard rectangular grid of black, white and numbered squares. Some crosswords use a triangular grid or other shapes. For teaching purposes, when teaching a particular lexical set, we often use a “skeleton crossword” which simply links the words in the lexical set.

Different forms of clue

            Crossword clues should be thought of as prompts, stimuli which will prompt the answer to come into the player’s mind. Crosswords use different forms of clue exploiting different areas of the player’s knowledge. Players will often choose their crossword puzzle because the like the style of clue.

            Very simple crosswords use pictures as clues:

The picture above might suggest SEAT as the answer or CHAIR. From the number of letter squares, we can see that the expected answer in CHAIR.

Simple crossword puzzles use the same techniques used by lexicographers to explain the meanings of words; synonyms as clues, so bit > PIECE, at this place > HERE, at that place > THERE. Some simple crossword puzzles use generic words as clues, so vehicle > CAR, citrus fruit > LEMON, close relative > AUNT. Some crosswords use descriptions as clues, so yellow curved fruit > BANANA, famous film actor > STAR. Some crosswords use functions as clues, so a tool for unscrewing a nut > SPANNER, a sheet for writing a letter > PAPER. Some crosswords use general knowledge quiz questions as clues, so Indian film centre > BOLLYWOOD, French capital > PARIS, disgraced US President > NIXON.

            Another style of clue gives the player a phrase containing a blank space. The answer is found by completing the phrase; so It’s ______________ cats and dogs > RAINING, To be or ______ to be > NOT.

            Some more difficult crosswords use so-called cryptic clues. These are much more difficult and involve the player in much more thought in finding the required answer. A cryptic clue is usually a short sentence in two parts; the one part is a definition clue, the second part is some kind of wordplay, including anagrams, charades, containers, reversals, homophones, deletions, double definitions, hidden words, and literary references. Cryptic clues are much loved by native speaker crossword players but are usually too difficult to be attempted by learners of English.

Writing crossword puzzles for learners

            There are many excellent, on-line websites which can be used by teachers for creating crossword puzzles for learners.

            Try these different websites. Many are free and very good, others require a download which you must pay for. Choose a website which allows you to print out a blank and numbered version of the crossword grid which you will be able to share with your learners.

            You will need to start with a bank of words which will become your answers. The computer will attempt to create a crossword including as many of these words as possible. When you have your completed grid, you can start to write your clues. Crosswords for learners should not be too difficult. It is only a practice activity and you will want your learners to get as many answers correct as possible.

Writing clues

            Choose a style of clue which will make the learners think, but they should not have to think too much. Crosswords as practice activities are intended to be fun, so don’t spoil the fun by making the clues too difficult. Some websites allow you to include pictures as clues, but then you will have to find or draw the pictures. Look at the styles of clue described above. Most crosswords will include clues of many different styles.

Using dictionaries to help with writing clues

            Lexicographers, dictionary makers, work very hard to write clear definitions which explain the meanings of words. Take advantage of their work when you are writing clues for your learners. The best dictionaries for English language learners will include an example sentence or phrase to show how a word is used. This example phrase or sentence presented with a blank space for the key word, can produce a very good clue. The examples are particularly useful because they are written to indicate the topic and situation in which a word might be used. Some dictionaries include a thesaurus section. These can be useful in helping you to think of synonyms or related words which you can use in your clue.

            If your aims in English language teaching include aspects of translation, some or all of your clues might be written in L1. Anyone who has used small bilingual dictionaries regularly will know that there is rarely a direct correlation between the meaning and usage of words in different languages, so you should be very careful about using translation clues.

Principles for writing clues

            Learners learn English because they think. Crosswords are an entertaining activity which will encourage learners to think. When we are writing clues, we are not attempting to demonstrate to learners their ignorance. We are attempting to stimulate their brains and activate their knowledge. When we are writing clues, we should be thinking: “How will my learners need to think, in order to solve this clue?”

Learners creating crossword puzzles

            When you are familiar with a website for creating crosswords, you may want to introduce your learners to making crossword puzzles in English. You will have discovered that creating crossword puzzles and writing clues requires some deep thinking about language and vocabulary. Learners, working individually, or in small groups, can experience this same level of deep thought as they create crossword puzzles for their classmates. They might do this in class or it may be assigned as a homework task. Learners will discover that creating crosswords and writing clues can be very enjoyable activities and they will learn a lot of English by doing it.

            Learners can often start by writing a crossword in the form of a quiz, perhaps based on a reading text or a book which they have all shared. Learners enjoy quizzing their classmates and so these learner-created crossword puzzles can be an enjoyable and valuable way to re-activate and reinforce knowledge.


            Crossword puzzles are not as serious as tests and exams. A learner, who is challenged by a crossword clue, does not feel the same tension and risk of humiliation which might be felt in other contexts. But, as we have seen, crosswords can generate the levels of deep thought and linguistic analysis without the accompanying fear of failure. In this way, crosswords are a safe playground in which learners can exercise their linguistic knowledge.

            Learners learn English in only one place: inside their brains. Any task which stimulates mental activity will contribute to learning and progress, so let’s start crossword puzzling!

Nick Dawson 2013


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