Criss Crossing in the Classroom: Crossword Puzzles as a Strategy for Retrieval and Retention

A crossword is a word puzzle that typically forms a grid of squares, which are filled with letters forming words or phrases. The person completing the crossword needs to solve clues in order to get the correct answers. The correct words and phrases are normally placed “across” the grid (left to right) and “down” the grid (top to bottom). However, I am sure crossword aficionados would point out that there are many versions of the crossword grid and that the exceedingly simple examples below are problematic to purists. For more on this, see here

Crosswords have been used in classrooms for years and many popular websites offer downloadable puzzles for teachers to use. However, it is worth considering – in the current climate of “evidence-informed practice” – whether there is any viable research out there to justify their regular use in school. It is also worth noting that there are different types of crosswords that differ in difficulty and cognitive processing. 

This blog will briefly look at some research into crosswords as a teaching strategy before going through a number of crossword types, including those using: 

  • Quick or straight answers
  • Anagrams
  • Abbreviations
  • Themes
  • In-direct clues
  • Cryptic clues

Research

Crosswords have been shown to be effective teaching strategies for: 

  • the recall of terminology and definitions
  • spelling
  • pairing key concepts with related ideas, examples or names

Studies, largely focused on social science and older learners, have suggested crosswords can result in greater retention and memorisation of facts (Crossman & Crossman, 1983; Childers, 1996; Moore & Detlaff, 2005). More recent studies, centred on science and medical students, also demonstrate a link between solving crosswords and knowledge retention (Luke, 2018, Patrick et al., 2019; Zamani et al. 2021 ). There are also quite a few studies suggesting a positive effect between crossword completion and English as an additional language (Njoroge et al., 2013; Amiri & Salehi, 2017).

In some ways this relates to the idea of the “generation effect” as crosswords require learners to think laterally or critically about a clue in order to generate a response. Cognitive scientists have demonstrated that generating an answer to a question as opposed to simply reading information has an improved impact on memory retention (Jacoby, 1978; Mulligan, 2001; DeWinstanley & Bjork, 2004, Bjork, n.d.). Although these scientists have not signposted crosswords specifically, the cognitive process of generating recall through crosswords is arguably similar to strategies such as generating answers from letter stems or anagrams, which can both be used as crossword clues anyway. 

Some researchers argue that because of the need to spell items correctly to complete crosswords, their use results in increased care in studying (Crossman & Crossman, 1983; Childers, 1996). They can also be used further as a study aid, perhaps serving as prompts for elaborative interrogation or scaffolded practice.

Like low stakes testing, crosswords are also helpful for: 

  • identifying areas of understanding and areas of weakness (Franklin et al., 2003); 
  • increasing confidence when pupils answer questions correctly (Weisskirch, 2006);
  • enhancing pupil satisfaction, which has been shown to reinforce learning (Childers, 1996).

They can also be effective as a strategy for promoting discussion and debate (Franklin et al., 2003).

However, it is worth noting that more studies would need to be conducted in order to establish a fulsome link between crossword completion and memory retention, especially one that can be labelled as “significantly effective”. In a similar vein, an academic debate rages over whether crosswords prevent cognitive decline amongst the elderly; some studies suggest they do and others suggest they don’t (Raphel, 2020). This is also true of some reviews of crossword use in the classroom (Davis et al., 2009).   

Nevertheless, my experience suggests that pupils enjoy crosswords and I feel that their inclusion in occasional lessons offers some diversity in terms of retrieval practice strategies. 

Here are some ways crosswords can be created and used:

Quick crosswords

Sometimes called a “straight crossword”, “quick crosswords” require one word answers to basic definition clues. For example:

  • “Adam’s companion” (3) can be used as a clue for EVE.
  • “The first chapter of the Bible” (7) can be used as a clue for GENESIS. 

They can also give clues which require you to find a missing word in a phrase or name. For instance:

  •  “__________ Tutu” (7) can be used as a clue for DESMOND.
  • “Margaret __________” (8) can be used as a clue for THATCHER. 

Below is an example crossword used in RE revision lessons. The focus is on common quotes from both the Bible and Qur’an. 

Answers – (across then down) 1, others; 2, poor; 3, humanity; 5, impossible; 7, wherever; 9, merciful; 1, orphans; 4, neighbour; 6, believe; 8, kill.

Crosswords often give the length of their answers in parentheses after the clue, especially with multi-word answers, but I tend to forego this when creating crosswords without multiple words in answers, such as the one above.

Anagrams

An anagram is wordplay in which clue letters are simply reordered to give the answer. They are commonly used in crosswords. In class, they can be used for:

  • The generation of keywords/terms
  • Spelling words correctly
  • To set up prompts for other tasks
  • For fun and competitions

In relation to learning, Slamecka and Graf (1978; cited in Bjork, n.d.) found that by unscrambling an anagram (i.e “rolwfe” for “flower”), learners often retained knowledge better than by reading the word. This arguably affects pupils in a similar way to the generation effect mentioned earlier. 

The example below is from a RE lesson looking at the Sunni 6 Articles of Faith and the Shia 5 Roots of Religion. They are key terms needed for a following activity. Accompanying questions ask pupils to separate the terms and identify those that overlap. Elaboration is then needed to explain them in the context of a GCSE question.In this example, I have given the length of the answers in parentheses as there are separate words combined in some of the clues. 

Answers  – (across then down) 4, prophethood; 7, oneness of God; 8 devine justice; 9, angels; 1, resurrection; 2, imamate; 3, holy books; 5, predestination, 6, afterlife.

Abbreviations

Crosswords often use abbreviations to clue individual letters or parts of the correct answer. These could include:

  • Conventional abbreviations from a standard dictionary. For instance, in a science lesson on electrical currents a crossword may clue “AC (11,7)” for ALTERNATING CURRENT or “DC (6,7)” for DIRECT CURRENT.
  • Airport codes used in preparation for routing tasks in BTEC Travel and Tourism, such as “LHR (6,8)“ for LONDON HEATHROW. 
  • Roman numerals used in maths. For example, the numerals “LV (5,4)” in the clue might be used to indicate the letters FIFTY FIVE or vice versa.

Below is an example I once used for an A Level RE class (now redundant). It has no numbers indicating a word count in parentheses, but could do. 

Answers – (across then down) 3, Matthew; 4, Exodus; 6, Genesis; 7, Leviticus: 8, Galatians; 1, Numbers; 2, Romans; 5, Deuteronomy.  

Themes 

A themed crossword includes answers that are related or have other common associations. Of course, most crosswords used in classrooms will be themed around a topic or sequence of lessons, so the idea that answers will be connected to the lesson or unit theme may seem like a no brainer to teachers. Nevertheless, typical examples of crossword themes include:

  • Category themes where theme elements are all related to a specific topic. For example, the different parts of Hajj: ARAFAT, MINA, KAABA,  MUZDALIFAH, SAFA, MARWAH etc.
  • Dates and anniversaries, which are useful when looking at the lives of religious founders, prophets or sociologists in the subjects I teach. An example could be clues looking for VIRGIN BIRTH, NATIVITY, BEATITUDES, LAST SUPPER, CRUCIFIXION, RESURRECTION, ASCENSION and PENTECOST in a crossword focused on the life of Christ.
  • Rhyming phrases (again, this is advocated as a good way of generating answers).
  • Homophones, which involve some planning, but are useful in English;
  • Synonyms and antonyms, particularly useful for literacy and English as an additional language For example, visit this site.
  • Spoonerisms, which are essentially errors in speech where corresponding consonants, vowels, or morphemes are switched between two words in a phrase (see here). 

Below is an example from sociology. It is based on core functionalist ideas. Functionalism is a theoretical perspective that pupils return to in various units.  

Answers – (across and then down) 1, social; 2, strain; 7, socialisation; 8, institutions; 9, Durkheim; 1, specialist; 3, nuclear; 4, macro; 5, values; 6, consensus; 7, system.    

In-direct clues

Many crosswords feature clues involving wordplay which are to be taken metaphorically or in some sense other than their literal meaning, requiring some form of lateral or critical thinking. Compared to the examples used above, using in-direct clues could be seen as a “disable difficulty” (see Bjork, n.d.). For instance:

  • If taken literally, ADVENT could clue as “arrival of” or “closet Sunday to 30th November to 24th December”, but it could also simply clue as “coming soon” or “it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas”. 
  • TRINITY could be clued as “three for one!” or “1 x 3 = 1”.
  • NEO-MARXISM could clue as “the new Karls”.
  • CULTURAL DEPRIVATION could cue as “Homer Simpson is your dad!” – I know, but my Sixth Formers would get this. 
  • ETHNOCENTRIC CURRICULUM could clue as “Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Dickens are alright” – the word “alright” is a play on “all white”, which relates to the term taught.

I tend to drop the hyphens in terms such as NEO-MARXISM as most online crossword generators don’t recognise them in answers. Moreover, as suggested above, answers involving terms like CULTURAL DEPRIVATION can be indicated in parentheses by word counts, such as (8,11). 

It is also worth considering the use of question marks at the end of clues or a modifier such as “maybe” or “perhaps” to signify the non-literal meaning. However, in more difficult crosswords, these may be left out to increase the ambiguity of the clue. 

Cryptic crosswords

In a similar vein to crosswords using in-direct clues, cryptic crosswords use clues that are puzzles in and of themselves. For example:

  • Words in a definition are substituted with various words or phrases that convey a similar meaning. For example, NET MIGRATION is given by the clue “Those that come but don’t go might get caught”. Here, to “get caught” conveys a similar meaning to “net”. Of course, this is not a literal meaning of net migration but does allow a cryptic connection to be made.
  • Another example could be “child’s play” (7)”, which is solved by NATIVITY, since this is a common “play” performed at Christmas and typically by children in primary school; hence “child’s”. (It is worth noting that most online crossword generators do not allow for apostrophes).
  • In newspaper crosswords, a double meaning is commonly used as another form of wordplay. For example, “being three” (7)” is solved by TRINITY, since the Trinity is a “being” that is also ”three”.

A typical cryptic clue can contain both a definition at the beginning or end of the clue and provide a way to formulate the answer indicated by the definition. This formulation, which needs to be cognitively processed or thought through, can be either logical or illogical. 

Conclusion

Anecdotally, my pupils say they like doing crossword puzzles, and I would argue that – where possible – enjoyment is an essential element of best practice. Hopefully, the research above justifies crosswords inclusion in lessons in terms of pedagogy. Of course, they should not be overused, and it is probably sensible to vary the types of crosswords you use in class. 

If you want to create crosswords, which is much better than relying, or even paying, for those online, use Discovery Puzzle Maker. It is free and allows you to cut and paste grids and answers onto Word or Google documents. There are, of course, other crossword makers easily found online.

References 

Amiri, B & Salehi, H. (2017).  Effects of Using Crossword Puzzles on Improving Spelling Among Intermediate EFL Learners. Asian Journal of Education and e-Learning, 5(5)

Bjork, R. (n.d.). Applying Cognitive Psychology to Enhance Educational Practice. Available online: https://bit.ly/3Kjb2eO [accessed April 2021].

Childers, C. D. (1996). Using Crossword Puzzles as an AID to Studying Sociological Concepts. Teaching Sociology. 24(1), 231-235.

Crossman, E., & Crossman, S. M. (1983). The Crossword Puzzle as a Teaching Tool.

Teaching Psychology. 10(2), 98-99.

Davis, T.M. Brooke S. & Zwiefelhofer, T. (2009). Reviewing for Exams: Do Crossword Puzzles Help in the Success of Student Learning? The Journal of Effective Teaching, 9(3), 4-10. 

DeWinstanley, Patricia; Elizabeth Bjork (2004). Processing Strategies and the Generation Effect: Implications for Making a Better Reader. Memory & Cognition, 32 (6): 945–955.

Franklin, S., Peat, M., & Lewis, A.. (2003). Non-Traditional Interventions to Stimulate

Discussion: The Use of Games and Puzzles. Journal of Biological Education.

37(2), 76-82.

Jacoby, L.L. (1978). On Interpreting the Effects of Repetition: Solving a Problem Versus Remembering a Solution. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior17(6): 649–668.

Luke, A. (2018).  Crossword Puzzles – an Enjoyable Way to Aid Learning and Problem-Solving. Available online: https://bit.ly/3uLqdbl [accessed April 2021].

Moore, L. S., & Detlaff, A. J. (2005). Using Educational Games as a Form of Teaching in Social Work. Arete, 29(1), 58-72.

Njoroge, C., Ndung, R. W., & Gathigia, M G. (2013). The Use of Crossword Puzzles as a Vocabulary Learning Strategy: A case of English as a Second Language in Kenyan Secondary Schools. International Journal of Current Research, 5(2), 313-321.

Patrick, S., Vishwakarma, K., Giri, V. P., Datta, D., Kumawat, P., Singh, P., & Matreja, P. S. (2018). The Usefulness of Crossword Puzzle as a Self-learning Tool in Pharmacology. Journal of Advances in Medical Education & Professionalism, 6(4), 181–185.

Mulligan, N.W. (2001). “Generation and hypermnesia”. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition27 (2): 436–450.

Raphel, A (2020). This Is Your Brain on Crosswords. Scientific American. Available online: https://bit.ly/3EhOUix [accessed April 2021].

Shah, S. , Lynch, L.M.J. & Macias-Moriarity, L.Z. (2010). Crossword Puzzles as a Tool to Enhance Learning About Anti-Ulcer Agents. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, 74(7) 117.

Slamecka, N. J., & Graf, P. (1978). The Generation Effect: Delineation of a phenomenon. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 4(6), 592–604.

Zamani, P., Biparva Haghighi, S., & Ravanbakhsh, M. (2021). The Use Of Crossword Puzzles As An Educational Tool. Journal Of Advances In Medical Education & Professionalism, 9(2), 102–108. 

Weisskirch, R. S. (2006). An Analysis of Instructor-Created Crossword Puzzles or Student Review. College Teaching, 54(1), 198-202.


This article was originally published by Andrew Jones here, and re-published here with kind permission.

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