Why Crosswords May Be the Most Useless Comprehension/Vocabulary Building Activity You’re Giving Your Students (And What To Give Them Instead)

So, you all know I tutor kids with dyslexia and other print disabilities. 

Now, I want to share an experience I had the other day using the app One Minute Reader by Read Naturally, Inc. (an app that I absolutely LOVE, by the way. More on that later). 

My student and I got through the Read For One Minute and the Read Along sections beautifully, and then moved to the comprehension-checking activities at the end. One of the activities is a crossword puzzle using words from the story. The idea is the student reads the clue, or definition, then chooses the answer, or matching vocab word, from the word bank and fills in the corresponding blanks in the crossword. 

Sound familiar? That’s because almost every teacher uses crosswords for this very purpose (or just to keep kids busy while you do other stuff, like prep a lesson, or run to make some copies). I’ve subbed in hundreds of classrooms, and seen the vocabulary crossword many times.

This is all well and good for your typical reader. For the 10-20% of kids with a print disability, though, a crossword is pretty pointless. Here’s why.

As soon as we got to that section, my student, who is in fifth grade and has seen a few a lot of crosswords in his school career, immediately used the most effective strategy he knows: he counted the boxes in a an ‘across’ or ‘down’ space, and then counted the letters in the words from the word bank until he found one that had the same number of letters. He can easily get 100% of the words right using this strategy without actually decoding, or reading, a single word or knowing what it means. 

In other words, our well-meaning effort to provide exposure to vocabulary words and check comprehension has failed pathetically, at least for our kids with print disabilities. Some students with dyslexia may not even be able to decode effectively enough to read the clue, let alone the unknown vocabulary word.

The use of this counting strategy is further incentivized if your classroom culture is one of competition and hierarchy. Because your dyslexic students can finish in about the same amount of time and with the same accuracy as their typical-reading peers, and this seems to be your desired outcome, there’s no reason for them to seek any other strategy.


There are several words of the same length. 

At this point, the breakdown in decoding strategy becomes apparent, and our kids with dyslexia begin to hate crosswords. They might even feel resentful without knowing why. They may not even have enough letter recognition to use the strategy of “This one ends in s and there’s already an s on the crossword, so I’ll put it there.”

It’s our fault. Because we’ve failed to teach them effective decoding strategies, they’re a little pissed that we keep handing them ‘fun’ worksheets that highlight their weakness. I don’t blame them. I’d be annoyed, too.

So, if you think, because you’ve added a word bank and definition clues, that you’re teaching or reinforcing vocabulary and checking comprehension, you are losing 2 out of 10 of your kids. You’re wasting their time, and time is something dyslexic kids can never get enough of.

But don’t beat yourself up. We’ve all been there with too much to do and a classroom full of wiggly bodies that need something to direct their attention. In those situations, it can be comforting to have a drawer full of emergency worksheets. 

So, what can you do instead?

Great question! There’s a simple solution that serves both your typical and non-typical reading kids.

Stick to free response activities that ask the student to read a passage silently and then respond in their own words to questions about the passage and its vocabulary. Most dyslexic kids have big understood vocabularies, even if they don’t have big spoken or written vocabularies, as outlined in this post. Most of them are also excellent at gleaning meaning from context, even if they can’t decode some of the words.

And, if you have keyboarding capability in your classroom and spell-check or autocorrect, more power to you. Extra points if you can somehow use speech-to-text.

Using free response assessments of comprehension and vocabulary, combined with the power of keyboarding or speech-to-text WILL more accurately achieve your goal of giving exposure to new vocabulary and checking comprehension. 

All the dyslexic kids I know have GREAT ideas and love to write, so long as they’re not being criticized for their spelling and handwriting.

And let’s be real. If what you want to assess is how well they’re comprehending and gaining new vocabulary, you don’t need handwriting and spelling (save those for when you actually want to target them). Move your kids with dyslexia to keyboarding and speech-to-text asap so that the island of weakness that is their spelling and handwriting ability doesn’t impede the sea of strength that is their creativity and problem solving. 

For more on dyslexia, and how to support your students who have it, read my other posts and consider following this blog: homeschoolingwithdyslexia.com (the mother lode of all dyslexia teaching strategies).

Follow my blog, or find me on Facebook to stay up-to-the-minute on all the cool stuff happening @thetransienttutor


2 thoughts on “Why Crosswords May Be the Most Useless Comprehension/Vocabulary Building Activity You’re Giving Your Students (And What To Give Them Instead)

  1. Judy Heaton says:

    Wow! Your ideas would have definitely played into my “Super Strengths” instead of my not-so-super deficits as a child! As a full fledged adult, with super powers in speech, I still shy away from cross word type activities! I just take my super powers and leave the room…cuz I can! 😎
    Love your posts! 💝💝💝Keep it coming!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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