Jigsaw Crossword Puzzles for Conversation Management and Lexical Review

Keith Lane and Roberta Golliher, Miyazaki International College


  • Key Words: vocabulary, conversation skills
  • Learner English Level: All levels
  • Learner Maturity Level: Jr. High - Adult
  • Preparation Time: varies
  • Activity Time: Varies

The jigsaw crossword puzzle is a cooperative learning activity which provides students a combination of conversation practice and lexical review. Groups of four students have to devise and give each other oral hints in order to complete a crossword frame. In the process they practice turn-taking, repair, negotiation of meaning, and circumlocution, all aspects of good conversational competence. Vocabulary is reinforced when students recall the needed vocabulary after listening to their classmates describe it. At the same time, the meanings of words and their relationships to other words are elaborated throughout the process of reflection and explanation.

Here is how to prepare a jigsaw crossword puzzle. First, the teacher must create an original crossword frame. This sample frame consists of words in a reading on flamingos that the students would have studied.

Once the teacher has the basic frame, he is ready to make it a "jigsaw" crossword puzzle-one that provides four students with different pieces of the puzzle which they must fit together during the activity. The teacher should make four blank versions of the crossword frame and include and omit some of the words in each. Each student in a group of four will get one of these. In the sample frame above there are fifteen words and each student should get half of these words (seven or eight), but no two papers should be identical. The end result should guarantee that each word is provided to two students and is left blank on the pages of two students. My method for doing this is fairly simple, though initially teachers may find it rather labor intensive. Take the four blank sheets. One paper is 'EE' (even across, even down). On this page all even numbered words are included, all odd numbered words removed. The next paper is 'OO' (odd across, odd down); all odd numbered words are included and even numbered words removed. The third paper is 'EO' (even across, odd down). The fourth paper is, logically, 'OE' (odd across, even down). The flamingo puzzle above would be parsed like this:

The effect of this division is that all participants have fifty percent of the puzzle completed and fifty percent to complete. Also, each word appears on the sheets of two students. This is important. Sometimes students will not recognize the meaning of a word well enough to explain it, and the result of only one student having that particular word could easily cause the activity to come to a halt. On the receptive end a similar process is at work. The probability of successful recall is increased when two are guessing. Often one students incorrect guess will trigger another's correct guess. Weak students and strong students are not as imposed upon as when working together in two-way information gap activities. Here is how the flamingo puzzle may play out, for instance:


EE: Who has number seven down?

OO: I do. It means 'make babies.'

EO: Flamingos do this by laying eggs.

OE: (guessing) Is it 'reproduce?'

OO: Good. Yes.


Notice in this exchange that EE does not direct her question to OO but to the entire group. This is because she does not know exactly who has an answer for the question. While the teacher knows that EE and OO are completely complementary, and that EO and OE are, too, this information is not given to the students nor are they aware of who in the group is OO, EE, etc. Both OO and EO are obligated to answer EE. OE listens, too, because she also has a blank seven down; it is actually she who guesses the answer and either OO or EO could confirm it. This creates a very interesting and collaborative dynamic among the participants more or less equally. A fifth or even sixth student (an extra EE and OO, for example) can be added to an unsupervised group without it disintegrating into two camps. Once the word is said, it can be written down, and students should be encouraged to ask about and confirm spelling. This is a nice, additional interactive gambit.

The best words to select for the puzzle are those which have been taught in class at some point. Reviewing vocabulary reinforces retention but also contributes to the 'culture' of the class, an important affective feature. Additionally, you will want to include words which are very easy. In the examples the words 'or', 'ate', 'on', and 'are' were included not because the students needed reinforcement with these words but because they provide additional explanation practice and, when added to the puzzle, provide letters in some of the boxes to help students recall the harder words. Words which students are likely to have little or no familiarity with are to be avoided; this is an activity for reviewing vocabulary rather than introducing it.

Additional suggestions: The first time this activity is tried, the puzzle creator and the students will both feel more satisfied if the puzzle is shorter and easier rather than longer and harder. Do not imagine that you will be able to fit each and every one of the review vocabulary words into your puzzle; you will get frustrated. Crossword puzzle software programs, such as Mindscape's Crossword Magic, can relieve a lot of preparation frustration, but even these will require a degree of low-tech pencil and paper work. Finally, this discussion assumes an English-only rule. However, with exceptionally low-level students, or secondary school classes, teachers may want to consider using this as a translation exercise. In that case the hint for number four across would be hane. Of course some of the conversational value of the activity is reduced if this is done, but it still elicits recall of the item and can be more motivating than merely working from a list of words.