Using Crosswords to Teach Explanation Strategies

Page No.: 
Mike Guest, Miyazaki Medical College


Key Words: Speaking, language strategies

Learner English Level: High Beginner and above

Learner Maturity Level: Almost any

Preparation Time: 1 hour (1st time only)

Activity Time: 50-80 minutes (flexible)

Have you ever been in a position where a student calls you
over to their desk and says, "Teacher, how do you say (a Japanese word)
in English?" You don't know that word, so you ask the student to explain
it. What follows is a comedy of chaos with students offering up similarly
obscure words, making vague kanji-like patterns in the air and offering
a few free-associations that seem to be drawn from outer space.

Or perhaps, if you are Japanese, you have been asked by a non-Japanese
speaker what a certain Japanese thing is or what a certain Japanese word
means and, not knowing a direct equivalent in English, either start to panic
or are reduced to silence.

Such cases demonstrate a difficulty in finding alternate or circumlocutionary
strategies for explaining words and ideas. The pressure to find a direct
equivalent in English can dominate to the point of paralysis. However, even
native speakers in their own languages resort to using alternate explanation
strategies when an appropriate or exact term does not come immediately to
mind, so why not empower students by teaching them some of these useful
strategies? Because of this recurring problem, I have devised a lesson that
addresses and aids in developing such circumlocutionary skills.


1. Make students aware of the problem by citing samples like those mentioned

2. Reveal a list of explanation strategy patterns as follows:

It is a kind/type of...

It is similar to...

It is a part of...

It is the opposite of...

It is a person who...

It is a place where...

It is a time when....

It is something used for/when/by....

It's a way of...

It's how you feel when...

It is something you do/say when...

It's a case in which you...

(Some combination of these strategies should be sufficient to explain
almost any word).

3. Go through the list briefly, explaining how each pattern can be used
to explain a difficult word (i.e. "'It is a person who' can describe
jobs or personality types.")

4. Put the students into groups of three and give them three Japanese
words to explain using these strategies. O-bon, enryo, irori,
chindonya, hansei and mottainai, for example, provide
a varied selection. Half of the groups get three of these words on a slip
of paper, and the other half get the other three.

5. Tell students that they should combine two or three of the strategies
in order to create a good explanation. Also tell them that it is fine to
add an example or extra information to the strategies.

6. After about seven or eight minutes of preparation, put two teams of
three together. They give the explanations of their words while the opposite
team tries to guess which word it is. This is done alternately until all
six words have been explained. Monitor this process.

7. Then, elicit some explanations that were used from students and point
out various weaknesses in their strategies. (The most salient is the tendency
to begin from a very specific or particular characteristic while ignoring
a more general one, such as chindonya "It's a person who makes
a lot of noise on the street.") Tell students, for example, that an
explanation which moves from general to particular qualities is much easier
to process.

8. Proceed to the centre of the lesson--self-made English crossword puzzles
(see "Making the crosswords" section below). There are two versions
of the same puzzle. One has all the vertical words missing, and the other
has all the horizontal words missing. Students are put into pairs such that
they will have opposite versions of the puzzle. Instruct students to find
out the missing words by asking their partners "What's number X down/across?"
The other partner must then explain the word by using some combination of
the strategies practiced earlier. When the word is correctly guessed, it
is filled in on the crossword until all are completed. (It is important
to note here that our goal is not to have students produce exclusive, airtight
definitions as much as it is to use a strategy sufficient to communicate
the word/concept so that one's partner can comprehend it.)

9. Make sure that students are distanced from other pairs so that they
cannot hear others give the answers. Also, make sure that if students don't
understand a word in the crossword, you are able to whisper a Japanese approximation
of the meaning to them.

10. Once most pairs are finished, ask students for examples of the most
difficult words they had to explain. Give concise samples of how you would
explain them.

Making the crosswords

Crossword Creator or any other crossword-generating program
will make the task simpler. The number of horizontal and vertical words
should be equal; sixteen (eight down and eight across) is optimum. The words
should all be known to the students; recently studied vocabulary might be
reviewed here. A variety of different part-of-speech words and a combination
of abstract and concrete words should be used.

Why it works

This lesson works well for several reasons. There is an obvious need
for the language strategies introduced and practiced here, so it has a clear
practical application. The students gain a sense of achievement as the task
has clear goals as well as providing a meaningful opportunity to apply the
language strategies that they have just learned. The information gap task
is easy to understand yet gives students a stimulating challenge. Last but
not least, the game aspect of the crossword puzzles makes it fun. Suffice
to say that I've never had a student fall asleep during this one!