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Crossword puzzles and second-language teaching.

When Arthur Wynne published the first crossword puzzle in the puzzle page of Sunday s New York World on December 21, 1913, he probably did not realize the instant success the puzzle was to enjoy. He created the biggest puzzle craze that America had ever seen.

According to Arnot (1981), today 99% of the world's daily newspapers and 677 Sunday newspapers in the United States carry crossword puzzle, and the number of regular solvers is counted in the millions. There is no question that the number of both crossword puzzles and solvers has increased since Arnot made this assertion. Crossword puzzles do not appear only in newspapers but also in hundreds--perhaps in thousands--of magazines dedicated to this puzzle alone.

Roger Millington (1977), one of the first authors to write about the history of crossword puzzles gives an anecdotal description of the reactions to Arthur Wynne's first puzzle.
 Engaged couples announced their good news by composing appropriate
 crosswords and sticking them in the local paper. The Rev. George
 McElveen, a Baptist pastor of Pittsburgh, was the first of many
 preachers to use the crossword puzzle to attract bigger
 congregations. He announced that a large blackboard would be placed
 in front of his pulpit. On it was an original puzzle and the
 audience was required to solve it before he would begin his sermon.
 The solved puzzle, needless to solve proved to be the text for his
 sermon. In Atlantic City, crosswords were distributed in church to
 stir interest in a current missionary campaign in China and Persia.
 Churchgoers were requested, however, not to solve the puzzles during
 the service. (20)

In December 1924, unaware the craze was shortly to achieve similar magnitudes in Britain, The Times took pity on America. In an article entitled "An Enslaved America," it noted that "All America has succumbed to the crossword puzzle." Guessing inaccurately, it continued: "The cross-word puzzle is by no means a new thing; in all likelihood it was known as long as the Civil War." The Times felt that the crossword was "a menace because it is making devastating inroads on working hours of every rank of society." How devastating? Well, according to their New York correspondent, five million hours daily of American people's time--most of them nominally working hours--were used in unprofitable trifling (Millington 21).

Although the crossword puzzle has a very short history, there is no doubt that it is the most popular and widespread of all word games. A quick glance at newspapers and magazines and the hundreds of publications will easily attest to this.

What are crossword puzzles?

According to Augarde (1984), crossword puzzles
 usually consist of chequered diagrams (normally rectangular) in
 which the solver has to write words guessed from clues. The words
 are separated by black squares or by thick bars between squares.
 [...] Crosswords are now usually designed so that they look the
 same when they are turned upside down. But many early crosswords
 lacked this kind of pattern or were designed symmetrically, so that
 the left side as the mirror-image of the right side. (52)

The first puzzles created by Arthur Wynne appeared in the shape of a diamond without any "black" squares and were called "word-cross." My theory is that Wynne called the puzzle "word-cross" because he had positioned the words in the form of a cross (which also resembles a diamond!). It had the word "FUN" written in it because it appeared in the "Fun" page of the newspaper. Through a printer's error, the puzzle was baptized as "cross-word" (Fig. 1).


2-3 What bargain hunters enjoy.

4-5 A written acknowledgement.

6-7 Such and nothing more.

12-13 A bar of wood or iron.

16-17 What artists learn to do.

20-21 Fastened.

10-11 A bird.

14-15 Opposed to less.

18-19 What this puzzle is.

22-23 An animal of prey.

26-27 The close of a day.

28-29 To elude.

30-31 The plural of is.

8-9 To cultivate.

1-32 To govern.

33-34 An aromatic plant.

N-8 A fist

24-25 Found on the seashore.

10-18 The fibre of the gomuti palm.

6-22 What we all should be.

4-26 A day dream.

2-11 A talon.

19-28 A pigeon

F-7 Part of your head.

23-30 A river in Russia.

9-31 To agree with it.

3-12 Part of a ship

20-29 One.

The word "cross-word" (first hyphenated and later with the hyphen removed) was an instant success! According to Millington, after the first "crossword puzzle" was published in the New York World, the newspaper was swamped with requests and the word puzzle remained a regular feature although several typesetting errors kept creeping in. The problem was eventually solved by taking the proof sheet to the Editor's office for him to solve. In 1920, the World decided to hire a young Smith College graduate named Margaret Petherbridge as the solver/proof-reader of the crossword puzzle.

As Millington (1974) narrates, a casual request at a dinner at Dick Simon's aunt was to bring him and his new partner Lincoln Schuster of the newly founded "Simon and Schuster, Publishers" a great deal of wealth. Simon's aunt wondered where she could purchase a book of crossword puzzles for her niece who, apparently, had become addicted to solving the crossword puzzles in the New York World. Both Simon and Schuster immediately realized that such a book did not exist and enlisted the assistance of Margaret Petherbridge and two other colleagues of hers, Prosper Buranelli and F. Gregory Hartswick. They soon had a compilation of 50 puzzles but were advised not to publish them under their company name (they were told that the publication would not augur well in the publishing business) and so they published with the imprint of "The Plaza Publishing Company." "Plaza" was the name of the street of the publishing house.

The book, accompanied with a Venus pencil and an eraser, sold at $1.35 per copy, a steep price for a book in those days, but no sooner was The Cross Word Puzzle Book published that Simon and Schuster's telephone lines were jammed with requests. In less than three months, they sold 40,000 copies and by the end of their first year of publication, they had published three volumes of puzzles with a total sales of over 400,000 copies.

It did not take long for this new puzzle to cross the Atlantic. In France, it was referred as Mots croises, in Spain as Crucigramas, in Portugal as Palavras cruzadas, in Germany as Kreuzwortratsel, in Holland as Kruisswoord, in Finland as Ristisana, in Sweden as Krossord, in Romania as Cuvinte Incrusate, in Yougoslavaia as Krjz-Lica. In Italy, it became known as Parole incrociate, a term which was taken over by the less correct Parole crociate and by the Latinism Cruciverba.

It was again Arthur Wynne who, according to Augarde (1984, p. 54), provided England with the first crossword puzzle, which appeared in the Sunday Express on November 2, 1924. The Times followed six years later, in 1930. The English crossword puzzle, however, was more difficult than the American version. The latter tended to have more straightforward clues and a larger diagram.

Arnot (1981, p. 3) points out that in Britain, in spite of the shortage of paper, the crossword puzzle still found its place in the four-page condensed newspapers. The reason was that the puzzle was considered a therapeutic diversion during the long hours in air-raid shelters.

In France this new word game appeared for the first time in Dimanche Illustre on November 9, 1924 with the name of "Mosaique mysterieuse" (Fig. 2). When the second crossword appeared the following week, however, the newspaper acknowledged that the first puzzle contained two errors: 12 Across should have read "conjonction" and not "preposition" and 1 Down should have read "mode de verbe" and not "temps de verbe." History was repeating itself: errors and misprints that plagued the first few crossword puzzles published in New York World were now plaguing Dimanche Illustre. By December of that same year, the crossword puzzle had undergone another change. It was no longer referred to as "Mosaique mysterieuse" but as "Probleme de mots croises."


Horizontalement: 1. Champetre. 8. Favorable. 9. Chiffre. 10. Note. 11. Arme. 12. Preposition. 15. Fleur. 16. L'eal de quelqu'un. 18. Pronom. 20. Appel. 21. Note. 22. Arbre. 24. Particule d'atome 25. Vive lueur.

Verticalement: 1. Temps de verbe. 2. Conscience intime. 3. Note. 4. Personnage legendaire. 5. Terme de jeu. 6. Depot de liquide. 7. Detruit. 13. Fleuve. 14. Petit animal. 17. Vetement. 19. Meuble. 21. La terre. 23. Negation. 24. Pronom.

Other dailies such as Le Gaulois, L'Excelsior, Le Matin, and L'Intransigeant--to name a few--quickly followed suit by inserting crossword puzzles in their publications. In 1925, Renee David published Le journal des roots croises. That same year he also founded the Academie des roots croises.

In Italy, crossword puzzles appeared for the first time in La Domenica del Corriere on February 8, 1925 (Fig. 3).


Da sinistra a destra: 1. Un tedesco--secondo un francese--durante La Guerra. 2. Coloro che stendono atti pubblici. 3. Paese natio di un celebre ciclista.

Dall'alto in basso: 1. Recipiente. 4. Do da mangiare. 5. Alberi resinosi

The following Sunday, in the same magazine, there appeared an illustration by the famous Achille Beltrame (Fig. 4). Since that time, the crossword puzzle in Italy enjoyed and is enjoying a great success. There are dozen of publications that can be found in the various newsstands throughout Italy.


That same year, 1925, Mondadori published a book, Cruciverba, with a rather lenghty subtitle (Dossena, 1994), reminiscent of the title published by Simon and Schuster:
 50 problemi scelti e inediti di parole incrociate, composti da
 valenti enigmisti preceduti da una prefazione "all'antica" di
 Fernando Palazzi, da uno scritto di Emilio Cecchi e da una
 "Introduzione alla scienza del puzzle"; raccolti, ordinati
 commentati a tempo perso da V. Bombiani e da E. Piceni, illustrati
 da Piero Bernardini e da altri. (245)

Seven years later, on January 23 , 1932, the best-known crossword puzzle magazine was born, La Settimana Enigmistica (Fig. 5). The magazine has kept the same format since its inception and, unlike other puzzles published in the World and other newspapers, it can proudly and justly boast of being free of misprints. It kept the term "parole crociate" instead of the more correct, "parole incrociate." Unlike New York World's and Dimanche Illustre's crossword puzzle, La Settimana Enigmistica can boast of being misprint free. While there are numerous crossword magazines published in Italy, La Settimana Enigmistica remains perhaps the most popular.


To what does one attribute the popularity of the crossword puzzle? Augarde (1984) cites three reasons given by Prosper Buranelli and Margaret Petherbridge for its phenomenal success:

1. the fascination of words common to an articulate race,

2. self-education, and

3. time-killing. (61)

Augarde adds still another factor: the challenge of solving the clues, each of which may be a miniature puzzle or riddle.

Crossword Puzzles as a Pedagogical Tool

Crossword puzzles have also been recognized as a valid pedagogical tool. In fact, the Italian Ministry of Education in a Memorandum, dated July 16, 1999, suggested and encouraged the introduction of crossword puzzles in the Italian school curriculum (Fig. 6).

Many attribute the origin of the crossword puzzle to the acrostic and the word square (Parlett, 1995; Amende, 2001) although there are dissenting voices (Dossena, 1994).

A great deal has been written on the crossword puzzle in the language class using the printed word as stimulus. Dino Bressan (1970), classifies direct-definition clues into nine different headings (translations into Italian of French examples in original article are mine):

1. Generic. Clue: Pronoun. Answer. Loro

2. Synonymic. Clue: Assolutamente naturale. Answer. Innato

3. Antonymic. Clue: Non fittizio. Answer: Autentico.

4. Allusive. Clue: Sfugge al sognatore. Answer: Realta.

5. Allusive-negatory. Clue: Molti non ne conoscono che i limiti. Answer. Legge.

6. Definitory. Clue: Nessuno lo disturba, nulla lo agita. Answer. Tranquillo.

7. Descriptive. Clue: Vi si internano gli sfortunati. Answer: Asili.

8. Punny. Clue: E anche al plurale. Answer: Anca.

9. "In" clue. Clue: Lettere d'amore. Answer: Am.

Bressan prefers the crossword puzzle for the obvious contribution it can make from a linguistic point of view and maintains: "A carefully graded selection of crosswords in order of complexity will contribute to the acquisition of new words and phrases as well as the consolidation of knowledge through repetition."

G. Latorre and Gloria Baeza (1975) point out that:
 The clues are central to the drilling objective of the crossword
 puzzle, since most of the information the student gets for doing the
 exercise is found in them. The clue is to the crossword exercise
 almost what the prompt is to the old pattern drill: it is the
 stimulus that keeps the drill going. As such, there is no place here
 for ambiguity, deliberate or otherwise. On the contrary, clarity is
 essential. By reading the clue, the student must know with a fair
 degree of accuracy which word is required, since in most cases he is
 being confronted with a linguistic problem within his capabilities
 and knowledge. (51)


David E. Wolfe (1972) in an article published in The Audio Visual Language Journal acknowledges Bressan's worthwhile contribution and offers a number of examples as "perhaps more realizable in the language class, assuming that the crossword puzzle is teacher-prepared and is based on material previously studied by the student."

One of the examples Wolfe suggests is the picture clue and declares, "Any concrete noun which the teacher can draw is appropriate as a clue assuming the noun has been taught."

Mollica concurs with Wolfe and, as he suggested in various publications (Mollica, 1987, 1988a, 1988b, 1991a, 1991b, 1995, 2001), the picture clue is an effective way of preparing a crossword puzzle particularly when teachers wish to review or the expand the student's vocabulary dealing with a specific theme. The success of Mollica's publications prompted other Italian and non-Italian publishers to follow suit.

As far as I know, the first suggestion for the insertion of crossword puzzles in Italian second-language pedagogy was proposed by Mollica (1971) in an article published in Italica.

In agreement with Clifford T. Morgan and Richard A. King (1996) that "most, if not all people, experience images and that images often help thinking, [and that] some individuals have such vivid imagery that they can recall things almost perfectly," Mollica decided to use the visual stimulus.

As a matter of fact, it is becoming more and more apparent, both from the psycholinguistic research (Jeffries, 1985) and from the experience of daily classroom routine, that the way into the learner's mind and personality is not through mechanistic, repetitive training techniques, but through those that allow us to enter into the mind's "imaginative" channels. This implies not only the application of "imaginative" teaching in the etymological sense of the word, but also "image or imagistic eliciting" procedures. One device that fell conspicuously into this pedagogical domain was obviously the crossword puzzle.

Mollica is strongly convinced that at the early stages of language learning, the crossword puzzle can be an alternative to translation, definitions and descriptions, by relating language to context and by establishing a direct association between language and image.

Firmly believing in the direct association between image and word to facilitate learning, he chose 10 themes and arbitrarily selected 20 words for each theme. He then created four different crossword puzzles for the 20 words: Crossword Puzzles A, B, C and D.

Crossword Puzzle A (Fig. 7) contains ten illustrations. At the bottom of each page, listed in alphabetical order, are printed the ten words that are required to complete the puzzle correctly. Students who may not know the meaning of an illustrated word may quite ingeniously dis cover it by counting the letters of the answer and inserting it in the proper spaces. The activity then becomes an exercise in learning new vocabulary as well.


Crossword Puzzle B (Fig. 8) contains the other ten illustrations and repeats five illustrations from Crossword Puzzle A. At the bottom of the page, listed in alphabetical order, are printed fifteen words that are required to complete the puzzle correctly.


Crossword Puzzle C (Fig. 9) repeats the ten illustrations that first appeared in Crossword Puzzle B and repeats the other five illustrations of Crossword Puzzle A not used in Crossword Puzzle B. At the bottom of the page, listed in alphabetical order, are printed the fifteen words that are required to complete the puzzle correctly.


Crossword Puzzle D (Fig. 10) contains all twenty illustrations using only the visual stimulus. By the time, the student has seen and written the words twice before solving this last puzzle and the final activity can be considered as a "test" puzzle to verify whether the student has learned all the words of the visual vocabulary page.


Graphically, the process may summarized as follows:
Words Crossword Puzzzle

 A B C D

5 5 5 5
5 5 5 5
5 5 5 5
5 5 5 5

The aim has been to provide cumulative learning as well as a fun element.

Clearly, teachers are provided with the option of selecting a crossword puzzle activity as required by their students' linguistic ability. They may decide to use the cumulative approach or simply use the last puzzle as a "test" item. Therefore, if students are already familiar with the vocabulary, they may be given the last puzzle that contains only the visual stimulus. Students who may be less familiar with the vocabulary presented may be given the others.

Mollica suggested that these puzzles may also be given to students who are not completely familiar with the theme and the activity will become a learning experience for them, since they will have to identify the illustration. Counting the letters of each printed word and inserting them in the proper spaces will provide the solution they seek.

Of all word games, the crossword puzzle is the most popular and the most versatile in language teaching/learning. It is the most useful and multifaceted tool to teach, learn, and recall, as well as expand one's knowledge of vocabulary. Like the search-a-word, the crossword puzzle is very useful in language teaching/learning, for it complements the students' learning styles: kinaesthetic, auditory, or visual:

* The kinaesthetic learner needs to write down words to determine if they "feel" right.

* The auditory learner may mouth the words silently while reading.

* The visual learner recognizes words by their configurations.

1. Teachers may wish to highlight keywords of a short story (Mollica and Convertini, 1976). The keywords in this crossword puzzle, based on the short story "La Ragazzina" by Alba de Cespedes, may be used as a mnemonic device to summarize the short story (Fig. 11).

Orizzontali: 2. la scotevano spesso la colleghe della ragazzina; 4. il nome del "fidanzato" napoletano; 8. il nome di una compagna della ragazzinal 11. il mestiere di Osvaldo; 12. le avrebbe date il padre allaragazzina se l'avesse vista vestita cosi; 15. la mandavano per ogni sciocchezza; 16. luogo dove la ragazzina aveva visto per la prima volta gli innamorati baciarsi; 17. viale che costeggia il fiume che passa per Roma; 18. l'ha detta la ragazzina per fare ingelosire Osvaldo.

Verticali: 1. luogo dove Osvaldo aspettava la ragazzina; 2. gli anni della cassiera; 3. alla madre della ragazzina le basta solo questo per conoscere gli uomini; 5. erano mature quelle frequentate da Osvaldo; 6. il "peso" della madre della ragazzina; 7. le compro col denaro rubato alla madre; 9. la macchina di "Armando'; 10. gli anni della ragazzina; 12. persona presso la quale lavorava la ragazzina; 13. luogo dove lavorava Osvaldo; 14. quello del vestito lo cuciva spesso la ragazzina


2. Teachers may also decide to provide students with key words of a short story in a crossword puzzle and students are required to provide the clues. This is obviously the opposite of the activity suggested above (Fig. 12).

Crossword puzzles may be used in conjunction with the game "the intruder" (see Fig. 13) to expand the students' knowledge of synonyms and antonyms. The student who finds the activity difficult can easily solve it by counting the number of squares in the crossword puzzles and find the equivalent number of letters in the clue.



3. Teachers may decide to teach or review grammatical topics using crossword puzzles. The student may be asked to complete the crossword puzzle with the correct form of the present tense (or any other tense) by giving the clues as the simuli for the answer (Fig. 14). Or students may be asked to complete a puzzle in which the clues are not given and they will have to provide them in order to solve the crossword puzzle. The activity is not as easy as it first appears. The purpose of this activity is to recall the endings of the various forms of the verb (Fig. 15).




4. Similarly, students may be asked to identify the adverbs that correspond to the adjective (Fig. 16). The opposite activity is also valid: teachers may give the adverb as the clue and students will have to provide the corresponding adjectives.


Crossword puzzles will help students learn, recall, or expand their basic vocabulary and, at the same time, provide them with hours of fun and relaxation. *


Amende, Coral. 2001. The Crossword Obsession. History and Lore of the World's Most Popular Pastime. New York: Berkley Books.

Arnot, Michelle. 1981. What's Gnu. A History of the Crossword Puzzle. New York: Vintage Books.

Augarde, Tony. 1984. Oxford A to Z of Word Games. 250 Word Games and How to Play Them. New York: Oxford UP.

Bressan, Dino. 1970. "Crossword Puzzles in Modern Language Training." Audio-Visual Language Journal 8.2: 93-95.

Jeffries, Sophie. 1985. "English Grammar Terminology as an Obstacle to Second Language Learning." The Modern Language Journal 69: 385-90.

Latorre, G., and Gloria Baeza. 1975. "The Construction and Use of the EFL Crossword Puzzles." English Language Teaching Journal 30: 45-55.

Millington, Roger. 1977. Crossword Puzzles. Their History and Their Cult. New York: Pocket Books.

Mollica, Anthony. 1971. "The Reading Program and Oral Practice." Italica 48.4 (Winter): 522-41.

--, and Angela Convertini, eds. 1976. L'Italia racconta ... Toronto: Copp Clark.

--. 1978b. "The Film Advertisement: A Source for Language Activities." The Canadian Modern Language Review/La Revue canadienne des langues vivantes 34.2: 221-43.

--.1981. "Visual Puzzles in the Second-Language Classroom." The Canadian Modern Language Review/La Revue canadienne des langues vivantes 37.3: 582-622.

--. 1987. Mots croises pour les debutants. Welland, ON: Soleil.

--. 1988a. Crossword Puzzles for Beginners. Welland, ON: Soleil.

--. 1988b. Crucigramas para principiantes. Welland, ON: Soleil.

--. 1991a. Parole crociate per principianti. Welland, ON: Soleil.

--. 1991b. Kreuzwortratsel fur Anfanger. Welland, ON: Soleil.

--. 1995. Parole crociate per principianti. Perugia: Guerra.

--. 2001. Mots croises pour les debutants. Nouvelle edition. Welland, ON: Soleil.

Morgan, Clifford T., and Richard A. King. 1966. Introduction to Psychology. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Parlett, David. 1995. The Guiness Book of Word Games. Middlessex, UK: Guiness.

Wolfe, David E. 1972. "Teacher-made Crossword Puzzles." Audio-Visual Language Journal 10.3: 177-81.

* This paper is based on a chapter of a work in progress for a book on Ludolin--guistica, creativita e motivazione nella glottodidattica soon to be co-published by editions Soleil publishing inc., Welland, ON, and Guerra edizioni, Perugia.


Brock University
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Author:Mollica, Anthony
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Date:Mar 22, 2007
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