Teaching With Educational Crossword Puzzles Based on Research

educational crossword puzzles

Educational crossword puzzles––are they real or just a myth? Good teachers know that the best educational tools are supported by trusted evidence. Quality research is the best way to know if and how the tool in question helps students.

Although crossword puzzles have been around for decades, researchers still study the efficacy and benefits of crosswords in the classroom.

Do Truly Educational Crosswords Exist?

While the nature of each study shared below differs, most come to the same conclusion: educational crossword puzzles offer a strong learning tool to all kinds of students when applied with a clear and tailored educational purpose.

So, what does this look like in practice? Previously, educational crossword puzzles only came in mass-produced student workbooks. This  meant teachers were unable to adapt them for the needs of their classroom.

However, with new technologies and online crossword puzzle makers, teachers can quickly and easily create crossword puzzles to fit unique lesson plans. In addition to the puzzle creator, there’s also My Crossword Maker, My Word Search Maker, and My Worksheet Maker. These also have a variety of features and free resources for teachers you can customize to meet educational goals.

Using this review of the literature, you can learn more about incorporating crossword puzzles in your lesson plans to suit the needs of your students.

Educational Benefits of Crosswords: The Research

Recent research draws similar conclusions: crossword puzzles can be used to help students in a number of significant ways. One study outlines the potential uses for educational crossword puzzles in the classroom.

In general, benefits of educational crossword puzzles are clumped into the following categories:

  • Introducing and Reinforcing Concepts
  • Identifying Gaps in Learning
  • As a Motivational Tool
  • Reviewing and Testing Knowledge
  • Developing Teamwork Skills
  • Making Puzzles or Solving Puzzles

Below, there’s a summary of each.

Introducing and Reinforcing Concepts with Crossword Puzzles

The research for teaching with educational crossword puzzles covers all sorts of subjects from chemistry to ESL to nursing. That said, the study shows that crossword puzzles helps introduce and reinforce concepts for any subject.

A 2016 study from Indonesia looked into the potential benefits of using a crossword puzzle to teach English. They concluded that crossword puzzles benefit ESL learners for a number of reasons:

  1. First, they motivate students to remember and understand a word’s meaning.
  2. Second, students needed to understand the words given in each clue in addition to the word in the grid, resulting in increased vocabulary.
  3. Third, crossword puzzles required students to consult helpful resources, like a dictionary.

Pro Tip: Learn how to incorporate crosswords into ESL lesson plans. This adds a fun, engaging competent to vocabulary learning.

Educational Crossword Puzzles and Problem Solving

In the abstract of this study, the researchers state that crossword puzzles

“improve the ability of students to solve problems and, when used systematically, contribute to increases in learning.”

The study goes on to explain that this works because students do not attempt to simply memorize definitions and repeat them.

“Instead they reconstruct the definitions of terms and concepts, thus triggering the recall and embedding the correct meanings into their knowledge structure without rote memorization.”

In other words, educational crossword puzzles allow for greater reinforcement of a concept. This is because students must process the meaning of words rather than just memorizing  terms.

Identifying Gaps in Learning with Crosswords

The same study from the end of the last section also found that crosswords go a step above memorization: they help students identify weak spots.

Their methodology involved using clues that required students to consider “different aspects of the same concept.” This occurred when two clues were similar to each other in meaning, but the actual answers differed.

Another 2012 study, done by a group of researchers from a variety of institutions discovered similar results. The researches found that students were “able to cite their weak areas.” Moreover, they “felt that the crossword was a “fun opportunity to evaluate their own level of learning by identifying concepts that were previously unknown or unclear.”

Using Crossword Puzzles as a Motivational Tool

A highly cited study done in 2006 by Robert S. Weisskirch found that students enjoyed doing crossword puzzles as a way to review the material. He states that when students identify the answers of a crossword puzzle correctly, they may experience an increase in self-confidence.

This can have a ripple effect. First, entertaining study materials can increase self-motivation in students to learn and study more. Plus, educational crossword puzzles can ease the anxiety produced by other assessments. Success breeds success by convincing students of their ability.

In the 2012 study mentioned earlier, researchers similarly found that students perceive themselves to be better equipped to handle concepts as a result of the crossword puzzle exercise.

A 2013 study came to a similar conclusion, finding that crossword puzzles can help students improve their knowledge of vocabulary, while also increasing their motivation to learn.

This choice in learning  has a strong impact on the retention, as well. If students are allowed to solve an educational crossword puzzle in their own time, it gives them the opportunity to process the information in their own way. As we’ll see later, educational crossword puzzles can develop teamwork skills, too.

Reviewing and Testing Knowledge through Crossword Puzzles

One study from the University of Wisconsin came to a similar conclusion. The researchers studied two classes. In one class, a crossword puzzle as review for an exam helped. However, it didn’t seem to have the same effect for the other class.

The researchers hypothesized that this may be due to a lack of mixed method for review. Most researchers agree that educational crossword puzzles work best as a formative assessment or as an additional tool rather than a summative assessment.

The anecdotal evidence does not provide a strong case for any subject matter on its own. However, the responses to this Quora question provide good insight into the mixed reactions on using educational crossword puzzles as a testing tool. For some, using crossword puzzles as an actual test or as review for a test works great; for others, it does not.


Developing Teamwork Skills with Crosswords

The abstract of this 2016 study regarding the use of crossword puzzles with ESL students states that students “made substantial progress when working collaboratively.”

Initially, the students in their study were frustrated with the “cultural components” and what seemed to be a “context-less nature” of the crossword puzzle. However, this only happened when working alone. When working collaboratively, they felt much more positive and made greater progress.

Let’s jump back to Weisskirch’s highly cited study from earlier. This also mentioned that students:

“described learning more and finding the exercise more helpful for learning concepts and preparing for the exam when completing the crossword puzzle collaboratively in class rather than individually outside of class.”

The effectiveness of collaboratively solving educational crossword puzzles may differ according to the subject matter of the class and the demographic of the students.


The Educational Benefits of Making Puzzles or Solving Puzzles

Most of the research agrees: a multi-faceted approach to learning, no matter what tools are used, is more effective than any single approach. Therefore, it seems logical that it’s best for  students to both make and solve crosswords. This is likely more effective than just making or solving crosswords.

The researchers draw similar conclusions. The previously discussed study for crossword puzzles in chemistry education shows one example. They believe tasking students with making crossword puzzles instead of or in addition solving them:

“would require students to deconstruct and thus analyse the definitions for all the important factors.”

The research is limited in this realm. However, some anecdotal evidence suggests the theory deserves consideration.  This teacher does not love the idea of students merely solving crossword puzzles in the classroom. However, she does believe making crossword puzzles offers a benefit to students.

Educational Crossword Puzzles: Final Thoughts

Most researchers agree that each student and each classroom are unique. You as the teacher will know best if an educational tool does or does not work for your students. If this research gave you some ideas, test them out by making your own puzzles today.

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