Over the years I have tried to do my bit to help people learn something about solving cryptic crosswords. For a number of semesters I ran a solving cryptic crossword course at one of my local community colleges, with the course running for two hours a week for eight consecutive weeks. Attendance was never great, and early drop-outs (“What have I got myself into!”) were relatively common. When I got really busy with other crossword work, I had to stop these courses, but there was (and still is) a need to have an introductory taster presentation prepared for various groups who want some cryptic insight. I’m generally reluctant to give two-hour presentations unless it’s made abundantly clear to particpants that I’m not teaching people how to solve, I’m just opening a small window into the cryptic world. No-one should expect to be a cryptic crossword solving expert after a two-hour download of pure head knowledge. I think it takes about a year of practice to become proficient at solving. As long as that’s clear, I’ll happily run a session for allcomers.
A couple of years ago I ran some introductory courses for a mob call Laneway Learning, which operates mostly in the inner city. These sessions were one-time only, so I had to come up with something that wasn’t too academic, a bit of fun, and got the message across. The result was a series of word games, each one representing a common cryptic device. After talking briefly about the basic structure of a clue (definition and wordplay), I would seemingly stop the cryptic talk and launch into the word games, saying that I want them in the right frame of mind for what is to come. First one is a letter jumble, starting with direct letter matching, followed by something a little more complex, a letter jumble that results in a word that means the same as a given one. Next, a basic search among words followed by finding hidden words that mean the same as given words. Then, joining words to make new ones, and last putting words around or in others to make new words. In each case, I took the concept beyond the original one by introducing complexity without changing the structure. By the end of the four word games I had the basis to to talk about anagrams, hiddens, charades and container and its contents, four common cryptic clue concepts. I used one example from each of the word games and turned them into cryptic clues, showing how my instructions on playing the word games were replaced by indicators in the clues.
I think this is a really good way to ease newcomers into cryptic solving, using concepts they are familiar with in a non-threatening way. Almost everyone can deal with a few simple word games.