Wednesday, October 30, 2013

When Cross Words are a Good Thing

OK, I really meant "crosswords"!

Thanks to Brian Aydemir
Lately, crossword puzzles are playing more of a role in my classes and in my reflections.

Just as in my experience with timelines, I've progressed from using crosswords in a fairly superficial way to seeing them as a useful tool -- and one that learners enjoy!

We've all encountered ready-made crossword puzzles, either in a textbook or offered as worksheets online.  I've used them to fill out the last 15 minutes of a lesson or to occupy learners who finish a test early.  Higher level learners are usually familiar with the format and don't seem to mind working on them. Naturally, I would choose a puzzle topic that's related to what was happening in class so that many of the clues or answers would be language that we'd seen recently.  If a learner didn't know some language, it could be a good opportunity for expansion.  But much of the time, the unknown words are relatively unimportant: in a Thanksgiving Day puzzle, "What does a turkey say?"  Other times, the word is not one that I care to reinforce: while we discuss both "Indian" and "Native American" in class, the latter is what I would prefer to recycle in later activities.

from Andreanna Moya
Online crossword-creators are a much better option.  You can make sure that every clue is directly relevant to a particular group of learners.  You can include clues that exercise a noticed weakness (spelling of irregular past verbs?).  You can include incidental vocabulary, recycle older vocabulary, introduce variations on known words, etc.  And who says that you have to make the puzzle?  What if you ask each learner to submit three clues based on recent vocabulary, then brought in a puzzle made from their submissions?  What if small groups worked together to make a list of clues and generate a puzzle, then swapped their puzzles with other groups?  Here are a couple of online puzzle-makers I have used.  Since my beginners are not comfortable on computers, I like generators that can produce PDF:

The Teachers Corner Crossword Puzzle Maker lets you save to PDF and allows you to add pictures for illustration.  You also get some formatting options.

Armored Penguin Crossword Puzzle Maker  also allows PDF and gives you many different formatting options.  If you don't like the way a puzzle looks, generate it again for a new arrangement.

If you are working with beginners or others who have never done this kind of puzzle, be prepared for a big learning curve.  It might be good to start with small puzzle with 6 or 8 obvious and easy words so they can focus on learning the format.  New puzzlers need to know:

- what across and down mean
- that you can write a letter in the numbered squares
- that two words SHARE a letter where they intersect

New puzzlers are also unsure what to do with clues that are written in traditional crossword language, such as "a small boat made from a tree".  I would rewrite as "What is a small boat made from a tree?"  Writing the clues in question form also offers meaningful exposure to question words in use.  And if students write their own clues, they will get good question-writing practice.

Some learners may also discover these important concepts:

- that a letter from one word can be a hint for the intersecting word
- to look carefully at the clue (it will probably tell you if a word is plural or singular, for example)
- that if you KNOW a word but the letters from an intersecting word don't match, maybe you should double-check your answer for the intersecting word

This is highly-valuable practice in general problem-solving skills!

courtesy of Justin Grimes

When I write a puzzle, I tend to focus on vocabulary rather than testing of factual information ("On what day is Thanksgiving celebrated?").  I'm always looking for ways to give productive vocabulary practice -- where the learner must try to recall the word and its spelling.  That's not to say that fact-checking can't be included, of course!

For the last year or so, I've been doing crosswords for my own entertainment on an almost-daily basis and this has provoked even more thoughts on how this activity might be used in class.  I'm using the New York Times Crossword app, which provides a new puzzle every day, gives access to a vast number of past puzzles, and offers puzzle packs on various themes.  The New York Times puzzle, for those who are not familiar with it, progresses in difficulty during the week.  The Monday puzzle is pretty easy, with many answers that are common knowledge to a person who's well-embedded in this culture.  For me, the Tuesday puzzle is also pretty easy.  The Wednesday puzzle sometimes requires a little homework (looking something up or asking a friend ... no it's NOT cheating to learn something new!).  I haven't progressed to later days of the week yet -- I like the gratification of finishing in less than an hour.

One aspect of these "real" crossword puzzles that we don't see in a typical classroom puzzle is the wordplay.  Collocations, puns, and ambiguous clues play a big role.  Examples from recent NYT puzzles:

collocation: "it's impressive" is the clue ... the answer is "feat"

pun: "punch lines?" ... "ows"

ambiguous clue: "series opener" ... "part I" (in the US, "series opener" is a baseball collocation so you might be misled into thinking about baseball terms)

I haven't tried it, but I don't see why I couldn't add some rudimentary word play to a puzzle for higher level students.  Maybe title the puzzle "Give me an S" and have every answer begin with the letter, be a regular plural, or be a third-person singular -- I certainly don't have time to do anything fancy!

ETA: I just remembered the source of inspiration for expanding my use of crossword puzzles.  Carol Goodey posted about them some months ago.  My thanks to her!

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