What if the world decided that every kid needed to learn how to solve crossword puzzles?

It was March 2020, we were stuck indoors, and I was looking for something to take my mind off of [aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah]. My wife is a big crossword fan, so I subscribed to the New York Times Crossword. And now? I’m hooked!

I’m not very good though. For the uninitiated, Monday is the easiest puzzle of the week. Each day is supposed to get a bit harder. Saturday is the hardest, arguably — Sunday is bigger but not trickier. I can get through Monday and Tuesday all on my own, but by Wednesday I almost always need help, either from my wife or “autocheck” (which tells you if you’ve made a mistake).

This has inevitably led me to this urgent question: What if instead of math and reading, every school in the country was tasked with teaching kids to solve crosswords?

In A Mathematician’s Lament Paul Lockhart has a similar thought experiment about music. “A musician wakes from a terrible nightmare. In his dream he finds himself in a society where music education has been made mandatory,” he writes. Lockhart is a present-tense dystopian and he teases out the likely result of mandatory music: drills, memorized rules, joyless schooling in “music.”

But that’s not what I’m interested in for this post. Sure, school would probably ruin crossword puzzles. But what if you really did want to help someone get better at solving them? What sorts of activities would you do?

Here is what I came up with.

Learning Activity #1: Learn the Most Useful Words

Schools currently teach vocabulary, and if we’re going to reorient the educational system around crossword puzzles we’re going to have to learn some new vocab. But which words?

Good news: not all words are equally likely to appear in a crossword. There are various online rankings of the words that most frequently appear in the NY Times puzzles, with “ERA,” “AREA,” “ERE,” “ONE” and “ELI” topping the list.

Those are fairly common words (sort of) but there are other ways of finding the most important words to teach our alt-world students. Noah Veltman has defined something called “crosswordiness,” which measures how much more frequently a word appears in crosswords than it does in books, in general. Topping Noah’s list are the words “ASEA,” “SMEE,” “URSA” and “SNEE.”

From Noah’s website

The best bang for our buck would be to design a curriculum that takes students through as many of these “crosswordy” words as possible. We would need to think carefully about how to group them in meaningful ways, but once the words and their meanings are introduced there are a lot of ways to practice.

The most crosswordy words must have dozens, scores — even hundreds of clues that hint at them. Students would need to practice these clues outside the context of the puzzles. Flashcards, quizzes, matching activities — whatever it takes to teach the crosswordiest words.

Learning Activity #2: Complete the Word

As a sort of experiment in self-improvement, Max Deutsch tried to spend a month getting much better at the NY Times crossword. One of the tools he created to do this (he’s a programmer and entrepreneur) was a “guess the missing letters” tool. (He calls it “a less exciting version of Hangman.”) Why is this useful? He writes:

For example, if I know a particular six-letter answer is I _ O N I _ , would I be able to guess, just based on word shape and my knowledge of the English language, that the last letter is most likely a C, giving me I _ O N I C, and then subsequently guess that the second letter is also a C, giving me ICONIC?

This seems useful. Let’s get every student in our alternate universe to do this too. We’ll also want to coach them in using this technique to push forward when they’re stuck on a puzzle. Which leads us too…

Learning Activity #3: Complete the Puzzle

Without a doubt, you have to try puzzles to get better at solving them. But if you always practice with blank puzzles, you’ll disproportionately practice the beginning of solving them. Why? No matter where you get stuck, you always will start the puzzle. If you are successful at the first stages of solving the puzzle then you’ll get practice on the middle and end of the game. But if you don’t get very far, you’ll still practice the beginnings — just never anything deeper. (Teachers: sound familiar?)

To get around this, teachers would assign students partially completed crosswords to solve. There is a limited amount of strategy that goes into solving a crossword. Starting with a puzzle that has already been partially filled in would give us a chance to talk about choices with kids.

We’d show students puzzles such as these and say things like: using the partially completed corner, complete 1 and 14 across, and then as many other clues as you can.

Of course, there are a lot of other things we would probably do. We’d ask kids to solve puzzles together on whiteboards, and we’d ask them to make their own puzzles at times. We’d have worksheets of puzzles and we’d give our honors classes 100 x 100 puzzles as extra credit. We’d field phone calls from parents worried that they tried to do a Tuesday — a Tuesday! — with their daughter and she wasn’t able to do any of it. There would be crossword tutors (“I have an Ivy League degree in Applied Puzzle Engineering”) and kids would write “LEE” on their finger nails before the big test.

Best of all, we’d get to read Op-Eds about whether kids really needed to learn crosswords these days: “Are Crosswords Outdated?” After all, in the 21st century most puzzles you need to solve don’t even have words at all…

In other words, this is an educational world that would likely be as dumb as our own. Which makes me wonder whether I really should try to get better at crosswords or not. Maybe part of why I enjoy them is because I don’t really care how good I am at them. So what if I suck? In life you need have things that you don’t have to be good at.

But, I have to tell you, I can’t stop looking at that list of “crosswordy” words.

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