ESL crossword puzzles in the classroom are great for ESL students: they’re fun, they’re educational, and they’re customizable. There are plenty of pre-made ESL crossword puzzles teachers can use. Even better, teachers can make their own educational ESL crosswords to meet their class’s specific needs.
How do teachers make fun, educational, and effective ESL crossword puzzles? Here are four ways, backed by research.
*Note: For this article, we will refer to this category as ESL crosswords to remain within the style of the research. The crossword puzzles available at Crossword Hobbyist may appear as ESL crosswords, ELL crosswords, EFL crosswords, or another variation in the title, as our creators know the appropriate term can depend on a number of factors.
#1 Build Vocabulary
Turning vocabulary lists into crossword puzzles is common among teachers, and for good reason: they’re effective. By turning definitions of words into clues and adding the word itself to a crossword puzzle, a rote memorization exercise turns into a fun game. And with a crossword puzzle maker, it’s easy to do.
The ease and effectiveness of vocabulary crossword puzzles applies to all subjects as shown in our infographic.
However, plenty of research has been done on the benefits of ESL crosswords in particular.
One study from Kenya on ESL crosswords specifically determined: “[T]he use of crossword puzzles… helps learners enlarge vocabulary and deepen their mastery” of English. Another study from Indonesia took it a step further. Not only did they find a significant positive effect on vocabulary use, but crossword puzzles also improved the students’ ability to write, spell, reason, learn, and answer questions about the subject.
The ESL crossword puzzles teachers make demonstrate the popularity of ESL crossword puzzles for vocabulary as well. The vast majority of crossword puzzles focus on vocabulary building, sometimes listing “vocabulary” directly into the title, such as the crossword puzzle below.
#2 Encourage Conversation
Students like solving worksheets and doing activities in groups. In each of the studies on ESL crosswords, there is a strong preference from researchers and students alike for allowing students to solve ESL crossword puzzles in groups, or to ask for help with solving the crossword puzzles. Many studies allowed students to do both.
Encourage conversation through crossword puzzles by taking standard conversation exercises and putting them into a crossword. A standard conversation exercise might direct students to ask questions about their peers, such as “What’s your favorite color?” or “Do you have any pets?” Teachers can gather this information from their students beforehand, then put it into a crossword so the students then have to talk to each other in English to find the correct answers to the crossword.
Crossword puzzles can also encourage students to ask for assistance and correct errors. One study used crosswords specifically as a platform to encourage student communication.”
Using crosswords to foster student communication doesn’t just work in academia. A teacher at Busy Teacher uses different strategies for encouraging communication in ESL students while using crosswords. When given a crossword as a communication exercise, students can practice:
- Seeking attention politely
- Correctly phrasing any questions
- Thanking the helper
#3 Teach Culture
Some of the ESL crossword puzzles made at Crossword Hobbyist focus on culture as an important part of ESL education. This ESL Holiday Crossword provides an example:
Another crossword puzzle focuses on words pertaining to the American Dream – a subject near and dear to the hearts of many ESL students. A crossword like this one will allow students to fully understand how Americans see the “American Dream.” Then, students will be able to communicate where they hope to fit into it.
Some of the teachers surveyed in this study suggested crossword puzzles as an effective tool to teach English idioms. Making a crossword puzzle focused on English idioms will strengthen vocabulary, but will also need to be culturally-aware as idioms can change according to the country of origin. ESL students in America, for example, will learn different idioms from those in Britain.
Cultural crossword puzzles could focus on any number of cultural elements relevant to students. To create a cultural crossword for ESL students, browse other categories that might be relevant culturally, such as history, sports, or states; or visit the culture browse page for more ideas.
#4 Make Learning Fun
Students like crossword puzzles. Multiple studies (e.g. here and here) mentioned the students’ positive attitudes toward the ESL crossword puzzles, even when they were frustrating. Students are more successful when they are engaged and enjoying themselves, making ESL crossword puzzles a powerful tool for teachers.
Students will also have a lot of fun and will engage on a deeper level by making their own crossword puzzles for the class to solve, as this article in the Internet TESL Journal recommends. In the article, the author suggests the following steps for students:
- Find a reading passage
- Create clues and answers from that passage
- Trade crossword puzzles for solving
The ESL crossword puzzle is, once again, recommended as a group exercise. First, students create crossword puzzles in groups. Then, they trade their puzzle with another group to solve.
Making ESL Crosswords for ESL Students
Using these categories and this research will allow teachers to make (or help students to make) effective ESL crossword puzzles. Each ESL crossword puzzle will be unique, but the best crosswords focus on the following elements:
Keep Your Goals in Mind
It’s easy to get swept away when creating a fun exercise, which is why it’s important to keep the objective in mind. Remember to ask one question above all else: What do students need to learn? Students may need to focus on learning certain information (like vocabulary), or on developing a certain skill set (such as communication skills). The crossword puzzle should reflect these goals.
Remember Cultural Differences
This matters most when writing clues. What may seem quite obvious to a native speaker might not make sense to ESL students. It’s also important to remember that the crossword format itself may be new to some ESL students. For example, many Asian languages do not have crossword puzzles because the characters of most Asian languages do not easily fit into the crossword puzzle format.
Write Consistent and Effective Crosswords
Since the goal of ESL crossword puzzles is not to confuse students, it’s best to keep clues and answers consistent within a puzzle. Here are some ways to provide consistency between clues and answers:
- List all of the clues in the students’ native language and all of the answers in English, or vice versa.
- List all of the clues in complete sentences (as opposed to writing some clues in complete sentences and some as fragments).
- Have all of the clues and answers agree in tense. All of the answers can be in past tense, for example.
- Give your crossword a theme, which may include subject matter, parts of speech, synonyms or antonyms, and more.
Developing a crossword puzzle routine will also provide consistency. Consistently solving a crossword will allow students to focus on the goals of the crossword puzzle rather than spending too much time learning how to solve the puzzle itself.
It may be helpful to start with small crosswords. Or, fill in half of the crossword puzzle as in this study. This might be effective for beginner ESL students or for ESL students newer to the crossword puzzle format.
Get and Give Feedback
The best way to decide if ESL crossword puzzles are working for your students is to ask them! Have them rate each puzzle on a scale of 1-5, then ask them to provide feedback on the puzzle to see what they liked and didn’t like about it. This helps teachers make or select more effective puzzles in the future.
Choose a Good Program
Then, of course, it’s important to have the right crossword puzzle creation platform to make and solve crossword puzzles. A different article form The Internet TESL Journal provides guidelines for websites when offering effective online ESL crossword puzzles. They recommend the following three ideas:
- Keep it simple.
- Keep it fast.
- Keep it focused.
Crossword Hobbyist adheres to these guidelines, which is why so many teachers of all subjects use Crossword Hobbyist for their educational crossword puzzles.
To use ESL crossword puzzles in the classroom made by another teacher, visit our ESL browse page. Even better, make your own using your specialized knowledge, tips from the research, and examples from other ESL teachers. If you find or make a crossword that is especially helpful for your students, give it a rating in the left-hand sidebar. Share it in the comments as well for other ESL teachers to share with their students.
Kristen Seikaly used her artistic background, research skills, and love for the internet to launch her first blog, Operaversity. Now she uses the skills to connect teachers, parents, and game enthusiasts with Crossword Hobbyist and My Word Search. She studied music at the University of Michigan, and now lives in Philadelphia.