Crosswords: Boring or Fabulous?

April is the perfect time to deeply immerse students in reading. After having spent the year focused on the ‘two conversations each day’ your students will have acquired enough language to be able read on their own with the teacher providing a loose scaffold to make sure that all students are successful. In today’s newsletter I want to describe how I modify several traditional reading comprehension activities so that they don’t negatively impact your students’ reading pleasure and provide them with just the information they need to keep everyone reading successfully.

The ideal crossword puzzle for a CI class is a reading activity, not a decoding activity. We are not providing clues in English. In addition, they are very quick to do. I can post these crosswords as a warm-up activity by projecting them on the white screen and I don’t even need to spend time photocopying. When done as a warm-up the purpose of the activity is not to get a grade but rather to allow students to confirm that they really did understand the reading even before our class conversation.

The clues are full sentences that refer back to the plot of the novel. Members of the CI Master Class and their students have free access to the eBook version of my novel Superburguesas (look in the Reading Module in the essay titled “Free Access…”). I have also placed lots of free resources on my Superburguesas homepage, including a detailed description of how I teach the novel, crosswords, word walls and comprehension questions for every chapter.

The crossword puzzles can be an even better experience when wrapped inside an exciting group activity. This is how we used to do it pre-Covid… and someday we will be able to work in active small groups again! This is a variation of Jason Fritz’s activity “running dictations”. Students work in groups of three. Each group has one copy of the puzzle (without clues). The clues are taped outside against the wall, in the hallway. Each group member is assigned one job. One student, the runner, goes outside to read the clues. The writer stays inside guarding their clue sheet (one per team) and writes the answers. The last student is the reader, who can consult the novel to find answers that the runner does not know.

When I say Go! the runner runs out into the hallway where the clues are posted and then returns to the writer to fill out the crossword or discuss with the team’s reader if s/he does not know the answer. I allow group members to tag out so that they can all run, but only one can run at a time.

These “running dictation” crossword games are meant to be short… just a quick burst of movement to keep the blood flowing.

We also have word walls for every chapter in ‘Superburguesas’ as well as the stories in ‘Good Stories for Language Learners’ (also available in the Reading Module). These word walls can be used for pre or post reading activities. As a post-reading output activity you could ask students to either talk in pairs or write individually producing a summary of the chapter, with only the word wall as a guide. As a pre-reading activity author Margarita Pérez García told me she uses these word walls to build her student’s confidence. Margarita writes:

“Hi Mike, thanks for these resources. I will be reading Superburguesas during the second term (January-March) with my classes, so I’m super grateful every time you publish resources for the novel. I tried a word cloud activity yesterday as a pre-reading for a short story. First, I did the cognate challenge. The students loved it, in particular those with ASD. I asked them to count how many they could find, and even if they were beginners they could say “tengo 8”. I copied the names of the students and the number of cognates on the board with many repetitions of “tiene/tienen” + rejoinders of amazement. All very quick. Then I asked the group with less cognates to give one, and I moved up to the groups that found more cognates. In few minutes, we had a comprehensive list of cognates that weren’t unfamiliar any more. After that, I asked them to read again the words of the cloud, and I asked “¿Quién?”, then “¿Dónde?”, then “¿Qué va a ocurrir?, using “es posible” and “a lo mejor”. Then they got to the reading, they were much more confident. Such a great idea, these word clouds. Thank you!”

Finally, whenever there are sets of comprehension questions I almost always review them orally in class and ask spontaneous follow-up questions for each written question to keep the conversation organic and lively. Use your question word posters and your Sweet 16 verb posters to keep the questions unexpected. I would not simply assign the questions and accept written answers as proof of comprehension… that would be way too tempting for students to fall into ‘playing the game’ and copying homework in the hallway without understanding what they are copying. Instead you want to make sure that students are truly understanding the language in the moment. When they waver, you’ve learned what you needed. Rescue them immediately and transform the question into an either/or question: I ask in Spanish, “What does Mr. Superburguesas want?” and if the student wavers I fairly quickly ask, “Does he want the dog or the painting?” as if that were my original question all along.

After so many experiences with the language of the novel I think it is perfectly valid to ask for output– for example a five-minute fluency write in which students describe what happened and what they think might happen in the next chapter. A more open-ended assessment tends to be perceived by students as a more empowering exercise. Let them demonstrate what they are capable of! However, if you really want them to focus on the details and finely demonstrate their reading comprehension, I have a few summative assessments for Superburguesas including a chronology quiz and a fill-in-the-blank paragraph. There are available in the full description of ‘how I teach Superburguesas without killing the joy of reading‘.