Category Archives: idioms

Learn vocabulary through online games

One key to reading well is to understand many vocabulary words.  Is there a fun way to learn new vocabulary words?  How about learning through online vocabulary games? offers many kinds of vocabulary learning games, a few of which are described below.

  • Prefixes offers matching games for various grade levels.  For third through fifth graders, four prefixes appear on the left and four meanings appear on the right.  Click on one prefix; then click on its matching meaning and a line connects them.  When all four have been matched, click on the “check answers” tab, and check marks appear in front of the correct matches.
  • Foreign-language offers matching and other games for English-Spanish, English-French, English-German, and English-Latin learners.
  • Word scrambles ask the player tot unscramble given letters to form a word. You can press “hint” for help.  A clock keeps track of your speed in finding the correct word.
  • Idiom games include matching games and choosing the right meaning of a phrase from four possible choices.
  • Spelling games include word searches, unscrambling of words and choosing the correct part of speech for a given word.
  • Syllable games ask the player to divide words into syllables.
  • SAT vocabulary games offer various kinds of word-building games for older kids.

Twenty-four different kinds of vocabulary learning are offered, and from them, usually there are many choices in kinds of games to play and age or grade level choices.

Turn car rides into educational opportunities

Spring break is almost here.  For many kids, that means road trips to Disney World, the Grand Canyon or maybe to Grandma’s house.

cars in travvic

Those long hours in the car might mean movie time, video game time or time playing on the phone.  But they also offer great learning opportunities.

  • For preschoolers learning their letters or numbers, make a game of finding a particular letter on a billboard, license plate or directional sign.
  • Say a letter sound (not a letter name) and let your child identify which letter matches that sound.
  • If it’s dark, you can say two words and ask the child which word begins with a particular letter. Stick to letters the child knows so she can feel successful.
  • For kids learning rhymes (sometimes called word families), suggest a word which the child can then rhyme once, twice or three times. Or go back and forth, first you, then the child, then you, then the child, until no one can think of another word.  The last one to think of a word could decide what the first word of the next round is.
  • For kids learning how to put letter sounds together to form words, sound out a CVC word and ask the child to identify it.  Then let the child sound out a word and see if you can identify it.
  • Another rhyming game is for the adult to say a nursery rhyme and ask the child to name the words which rhyme. (Hickory, dickory dock, the mouse climbed up the clock.)
  • Sequencing is a skill kindergarteners work on. You could say three activities—not in time order—and the child could put the events in the correct order.  (Mom filled the car with gas.  Dad put the suitcases in the car.  Billy packed his suitcase.)
  • Cause and effect is a skill third graders work on. You could name both a cause and an effect, and the child could identify which is which.  (Sleeping Beauty slept for 100 years.  Sleeping beauty pricked her finger.)
  • Categorizing words is an elementary school-aged skill. For example, you could say blue jay, cardinal and bird.  The child needs to find out which one in the category word.
  • Comparisons are another easy word game. You say that the answers are bigger than, smaller than or the same size.  Then you say, “An elephant is something than a mouse.”  The child tells the correct relationship.  You could use longer than and shorter than, heavier and lighter and older and younger.
  • Working memory is a skill children need to extend. Start with two words (or numbers or letters) which the child needs to repeat.  Let the child add another word and you repeat all three words.  Then let the child repeat all three words and add a fourth.  For some children this skill is incredibly difficult, so for them you might want to cap the list at four words.  For other children, seven or ten words might be possible.
  • This is a great time to review math facts. If your third grader has just learned multiplication, review the facts.
  • For older children or children learning English as a second language, car time can be vocabulary review time. You give the definition and the child gives the word.  Or let your child throw out a word meaning, and you have to identify it.  Children love stumping their parents.
  • Older children encounter idioms all the time, but they don’t always understand them.  Throw out an idiom–Jason is blue–and let your child explain what it means.

Of course these educational moments could also happen on your long flight to India or Taiwan.  They could just as easily happen on the way to school in the morning or on the way to soccer practice in the afternoon.  There are so many times you can exploit one-on-one education with your child.

How to overcome inference problems

If you know a child has trouble with inference (reading between the lines to come up with an idea which has not been stated but which the reader should know is true), here are some ideas to help.

child questions Rapunzel's actions

  • Go online and search for reading selections with inference questions. Make sure they are the right grade level or age for your child. Ask the child to read the selections aloud and then answer the inference questions provided. Help the child to make connections.
  • Expose your child to various times, places and cultures. Fill in the gaps in his knowledge. Together  read books or watch a TV show or go to a baseball game. Ask your child what seemed strange or unusual, and what reminded him of his own life.  ESL students need to know more about American culture to understand inferences and English language idioms.
  • Model inference-making as you read aloud to your child. “You know what I think will happen next? I think blah, blah, blah. What do you think?” Or, “Cinderella’s stepsisters are so mean. I bet something bad happens to them because they are so mean. What do you think?”
  • Expand your child’s vocabulary. If you encounter a new word or two while reading, explain the word. Use it later that day and the next day. Offer the child a reward—a high five—if he can use the word properly. Don’t baby his vocabulary. Use real words and real grammar. Let your child overhear you using an adult vocabulary, and explain a word if he looks perplexed.  Don’t wait for him to ask.
  • While reading, stop and ask about pronouns. “Who is the ‘he’ in this sentence? What does ‘it’ mean in this sentence? Problems with pronoun antecedents are common, so common that the SAT offers questions to see if high school students can figure them out.
  • Before your child starts to read a story, offer background information. Recently I was working with a sixth grader who was reading a Sherlock Holmes story. I asked who was telling the story. My student had not stopped to consider this, and when he did consider it, he didn’t know. I asked when the story took place? Again, he was clueless. Don’t assume. Provide helpful information to make a story or book clear.
  • When a student makes an inference connection, ask her how she knows. She might be guessing. Let her prove she has picked up the right clues.

Not understanding inference leads to reading comprehension problems

Inference, or reading between the lines, is the ability to use two or more ideas to arrive at another idea which hasn’t been stated.  For example, you see someone come into your home wearing a wet rain coat and carrying a wet umbrella. You can infer that it is raining out even though no one has said so.

A student with poor inference skills has reading comprehension problems.

one child says "when pigs fly" but the other child doesn't understand

But there are many kinds of inferences which children must learn:

  • Pronoun antecedents:  In the sentence, “Mary gave her dog a hug,” the child needs to infer that “her” means Mary.  Figuring out pronoun references is a kind of inference.
  • Physical or emotional responses:  In the sentences, “Alan read the math problem. He frowned,” the inference is that Alan read something puzzling.
  • Cause and effect:  In the sentences, “Mom put the baby on the floor. Mom left him alone for a moment,” the inference could be the effect of a cause. What will the baby do? Will the baby do something dangerous?
  • Cumulative ideas:  When Junie B. Jones hides in a classroom cupboard, plays with clay she isn’t supposed to play with, and sticks dozens of bandages from the nurses’ office on herself, the reader can infer that Junie is a mischievous, fun-loving kid who doesn’t follow the rules.

What leads children to have problems understanding inference?

  • Vocabulary:  If a child does not understand the meaning of a word, and the inference depends on that meaning, making an inference is difficult. ESL children have this problem. I have worked with children who mix up he and she, him and her, or who use those words interchangeably. But native English speakers with limited vocabularies also miss inferences.
  •  Idioms:  ESL children are confounded by idioms and cannot make an inference from words which they interpret literally.
  • Working memory: If a child with a poor working memory must hold a certain idea in his mind over several sentences, making an  inference can be hard.
  • Predicting: Some children do not make predictions while they read. Perhaps they are focusing intently on decoding words or on pronunciation, and they have no mental energy left to make sense of what they read. Or perhaps they have never been taught to ask “why?” while they read. I work with a middle schooler whom I stop while we read together. I ask, “What do you think will happen next.” He always says the same thing. “I don’t know.”
  • Background knowledge:  Children who have encountered a situation, or who have heard their parents talk about a situation, or who have seen a situation on TV will have an easier job of making connections to what they read. Sheltered children without much life experience will have a harder time making inferences.
  • Cultural differences:  A child from one cultural background—say, Chinese—might not understand subtleties of a story about an Italian immigrant child from 100 years ago. Or an only child might miss inferences clear to a child from a large family.

In our next blog, we’ll talk about how you can help your child overcome inference problems.