Riddle Me This: How to Make Fantastic Crosswords for ESL

Riddle Me This: How to Make Fantastic Crosswords for ESL

I’m a huge fan of crosswords for ESL students.

They’re a quick way to practice vocabulary and spelling in a challenging, even competitive context, and my students love them. Developing my own crosswords, tailored to my classes, has been a lot of fun and lets me specifically target certain words, make reference to class events, and use my own students’ names in the clues, which always gets some laughs.

I’ve found the best crossword software is the Eclipse Crossword Maker. It’s free, easy to use, contains no advertising, and is very flexible. They’ve also just produced versions for mobile devices, so you can create crosswords on the fly.

I use crosswords for review at the beginning of a class, inviting the students to compete in pairs or teams and see who can finish first. I also add them to exams and quizzes, but only once the students have done a few of them and know the format.

Here are some thoughts on how to get the best from crosswords:

Apply These 10 Tips to Make Fantastic Crosswords for ESL

  1. 1

    Keep Your Aims in Mind

    A game or puzzle, whatever kind it might be, should address the students’ learning aims. Good examples might be Monopoly or Settlers of Catan for students who are learning negotiating and compromise skills. Playing poker might be good, if you’re working on numbers or fractions, but the language of poker itself is highly specific to the game and, outside of metaphors and movie references, your students aren’t going to need it. Besides which, if the game is played largely in silence, it might not be the best form of language practice.

  2. 2

    Consider the Likely Uptake

    Some cultures don’t really have crosswords; they don’t work in pictographic, east Asian languages, for example. You may need to do some serious modeling and monitoring for the concept to sink in; once you do, though, these students will be as engaged as the others.

  3. 3

    Consider Social Engineering

    Choosing the teams of pairs for a crossword can help bridge some cultural gaps, introduce some new people, or break up an L1-group (students who all speak the same first language). Also think about the levels of the students; will the more able members of the group quickly finish the crossword and deny the others the chance to think and talk about the questions?

  4. 4

    Think about Time

    Try a few experiments with this and see how long it takes for your students to finish a crossword of given complexity. Factor this into future lesson plans. I’ve found that students who are new to crosswords can take inordinate amounts of time - up to twenty-five minutes - on a relatively simple, 12-word task.

  5. 5

    How Will You Help?

    With time in mind, consider what help you might offer. Good examples include telling the students one or more letters of the crossword in advance; you can write these onto the master edition before photocopying. You could elicit the word through referring back to the examples, or through synonyms, antonyms, or rhymes.

  6. 6

    Write Good Clues

    Your clues should include enough target language to be a good check of the students’ understanding, but not too much that they stall. It might be best to avoid using answer words in your clues; try this once or twice and see the effect it has. I prefer using full sentences for my clues, so I would use ‘What is the capital of Belgium?’ instead of, ‘Belgium’s capital’, just because of my obsessive focus on complete sentences.

    On the other hand, you could try adding a little personality and color to your clues. For example, if you’re producing a crossword which deals with the vocabulary for shapes, consider:

    Parallelogram: ‘These two sides will never, ever meet.’
    Pyramid: ‘A 3-D triangle.’
    Octagon: ‘As many sides as a spider has legs.’
    Square: ‘360/4 degrees in each corner.’
  7. 7

    Make Crosswords Routine

    The more crosswords your students complete, the faster they will get through them. There’s a knack to interpreting the clues, for one thing, but your students will also learn that the previous lesson’s (or week’s) vocabulary is going to come up again, so they may as well review it before class to make the process easier.

  8. 8

    Exploit the Feedback

    Once the students are finished, make full use of the feedback. Here’s an exchange we recorded during a business class at my school in Boston:

    Teacher: We’re doing good, gang. Almost finished. What about nine down? Any takers?
    Julia: (Hand up)
    Teacher: Go for it, Julia. Can we have the question first?
    Julia: Sure. ‘What’s the name of the US national bank?’
    Teacher: And the answer?
    Julia: ‘Federal Reserve’
    Teacher: Agreed, guys?
    All: Yes / Good.
    Teacher: So, what’s a synonym for Federal?
    All: (Thinking)
    Teacher: You know, if something affects the whole country?
    Doris: National?
    Teacher: Outstanding! And the opposite? If something is just maybe for our city, or region?
    Valerie: Local?
    Julia: Regional?
    Teacher: Local is good for that, well done. OK, what’s nine across?
  9. 9

    Avoid Cheating

    As in any game, cheating makes things less fun. I makes sure the students aren’t using phones, dictionaries or notebooks to complete the crossword. It has taken time to learn how to make the crossword just difficult enough so that it’s a good challenge without being so hard that the students seek illicit help. Trial and error seems to be the only way here, but making a note of very difficult clues, or those which didn’t work so well, helps future planning.

  10. q

    Reward Achievement

    I keep a stock of candy, and Trader Joe’s wasabi peanuts (which, I warn you, are incredibly addictive) to reward students for their achievements. It’s nice if everyone who practiced well receives some kind of reward, so I don’t think gifts should be restricted to a single team; I’m sure you have you own way to incentivize good work through sugar or other treats.

Crosswords can be produced in ten minutes flat, practice useful language, can be exploited, and bring students together to achieve a common aim.

I recommend them for review of vocabulary and concepts, and as a less intimidating vocab check at exam time.

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