Tag Archives: learning through games

Is gesturing by a child learning to read important?

When my son was almost two, and not talking much, I often read to him a picture book by Helen Oxenbury which showed a toddler doing everyday things: pulling on his socks and pants, for example. I would ask my son, “What is the baby doing?” My son would show me by gesturing—pretending to put on his socks, or pretending to pull up his pants. Once he learned to say words, I stopped this practice.

child making letter T with his body

It turns out that I should have continued with the gesturing. Research shows there is a positive relationship between gesturing and learning in children. By noticing your child’s gestures, you might be able to tell when he understands a concept or when he is trying to figure it out.

According to research,If a child understands a concept, the child’s words and gestures are in sync.

  • For example, if you ask the shape of a triangle, and the child says “three sides” and then draws a triangle with his index finger, the gestures and words are in sync, and you can presume the child understands.
  • If a child is still learning a concept, the child’s words and gestures might be out of sync, and there might be an abundance of gestures or a shrug.
  • For example, if you ask a child to tell you what an orbit means, and the child says “space” and draws a rounded triangle,” the child’s words and gestures are not in sync. The child is still learning.
  • Out-of-sync responses offer parents and teachers an opportunity to help the child learn while his understanding is fluid and open to instruction and before he learns something wrong.

Is gesturing necessary for learning? Probably not, yet research shows that children who gesture while they are learning are more likely to learn. This is especially true if the child is asked to explain a general concept.

For more scholarly details on this subject, check out the work Susan Goldin-Meadow of the University of Chicago, an expert in this field.

How to know ahead of time if a child will do well in reading, part 2

In our past blog, we discussed one of the two best predictors of later reading achievement, an awareness of letter sounds, based on the research of Dr. Maryanne Wolf of Tufts University.

Today we will look at the second predictor, an ability to rapidly name objects.

Do you remember the story of Helen Keller, the blind and deaf child, who with the help of a gifted teacher, Annie Sullivan, learned to read and speak? Her progress began when one day she recognized that water has a name. From that “Eureka!” moment, Helen realized that everything has a name.

A toddler goes through the same process of learning that everything has a name. This happens at about 18 months when various parts of the child’s brain work in sync to integrate concepts. First, the child names concrete things (what we call nouns), such as Mom, Dad, cat, and dog. Every day the child adds new words, many of which come from the books read to him.

A little later, a child begins to name letters. This activity is sophisticated. The child realizes that those abstract shapes we call letters mean something. One time my friend offered a two-year-old a small stuffed animal which she had received at a fast food restaurant. The toddler looked at the tag on the toy and said, “Chick-fil-A.” Of course he couldn’t read, but he recognized the familiar shape of the letters on the red background.

Learning to recognize letters and numbers and to give them names is the beginning of reading. Here is how you can help a child learn to name things.

  • Play “Simon Says” so that the child learns her body parts.

Simon says Put your left arm up

  • Play “I see something. . .blue” so that the child needs to name objects in the room, in the car or in the grocery store.
  • Teach your child the ABC song, making sure she eventually learns that “elemeno” is actually four separate letters.
    child making the letter T
  • Point to familiar letters in unfamiliar places, such as the first letter of the child’s name in a sign or on a cereal box.
  • Read to your child. For the youngest children, let them absorb the pictures and name objects in the pictures. For three-year-olds and up, read the words, using your finger to point to the words as you read.

For a well-prepared child, reading doesn’t begin in school. It begins years before.

Is there any way to know ahead of time if my child will do well in reading?

Yes. According to Prof. Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University, the two best predictors of later reading achievement are

  • an awareness of separate sounds (42 in English) and
  • the ability to rapidly name objects.

Today we’ll discuss sound awareness.

When I was a high school student studying French, I used to lie in bed listening to a Montreal radio station. I would try to figure out where one word ended and the next word began.  This same skill is what babies do when they listen to adults talk to them although they don’t realize it. Luckily for most babies, their mothers or caretakers speak slowly and distinctly and repeat words over and over.

With time toddlers begin to hear parts of words and realize that some words have one part (for example, Mom) while other words have more than one part (for example, Grandma).

Still later, usually around age four, children learn their ABC’s, not understanding what they are all about. But with instruction, they learn that each sound in English corresponds to a letter or a pair of letters in the ABC’s.

How can you enhance your child’s success in reading?

Make your child aware of words, syllables and individual sounds.

  • Encourage prereaders to write using invented spelling, advises Dr. Wolf. When the child writes, he sounds out a word and uses the letter symbols which seem appropriate. The “words” might not conform to proper spelling, but that is not the point. The child is working to figure out sounds, a skill he will need in order to read.Girl reading "inventive" writing of younger sister.
  • Encourage the child to listen to someone reading nursery rhymes. Then encourage the child to say the rhymes herself, advises Dr. Wolf.  Take “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” for example.

The itsy bitsy spider
Climbed up the waterspout.

Down came the rain
And washed the spider out.

Out came the sun
And dried up all the rain.

So the itsy-bitsy spider
Climbed up the spout again!

  • Notice how “itsy bitsy,” “waterspout” and “out,” and “rain” and “again” rhyme. Notice the repetition of the word “rain” and the emphasis on the words “down” and “out.” Other nursery rhymes show alliteration (repetition of consonant sounds) and assonance (repetition of vowel sounds). When children listen to these sounds they learn to discriminate among similar sounds, figuring out what sounds the same and what sounds different.
  • Research shows that exposure to rhymes and alliteration helps children to figure out sounds and later, to read.

In our next blog we will discuss the other predictor of reading achievement, the ability to name.

My child keeps mixing up left and right. She’s only six, but still. What can I do to help her?

"Left? Right?" says boy, flailing arms, "I'm so confused!"For a child so young, make learning a game so she will want to continue.

  • Have her hold up her hands, fingers touching and thumbs sticking out, with palms facing away from her body. Ask which side makes a proper “L.” That is the left side. (My son used this method throughout elementary school.)Girl looking at how the thumb and forefinger of the left hand make an L shape.
  • Play Simon Says using left and right directions. “Simon says touch your right ear.”
  • Play a guessing game. “I see something on the left side of the room that is red.”
  • Create a wristband for the dominant or nondominant hand and mark it L or R.
  • Write L on left palm and R on right palm.
  • Have the child trace her hands (or if she can’t, you do it) and label one hand L and the other R. Cut out pictures for a simple wordless story, and have the child sequence them properly, left to right.
  • Let the child sit on your lap and type on your computer. Point out the way the letters always go, from left to right.
  • Your child might already play some electronic games on your phone or tablet. Show her how the Angry Bird’s shot arches from left to right.
  • Create a book mark with an L on one side and a R on the other side.
  • Create a series of dots and have the child connect them, left to right.
  • Using a doll or teddy bear, ask which is the doll’s left leg, or right arm, or left eye.
  • Play hopscotch, asking her to name the leg she is stepping on.
  • Give her a bracelet or watch to wear on special occasions on one of her wrists. Remind her which wrist she is putting it on.

Don’t get annoyed if this skill takes time. Gently offer her the correct choice and move on. Eventually we all figure it out. –Mrs. K

What should a typical reading lesson be like for a beginning reader?

First, review work from the previous lesson that the child can do.  If he can’t be successful yet with the past lesson’s work, review work from an earlier lesson that allows the child to be successful.  This gives the child confidence and eases the child into a learning situation which he may not like.

Reviewing past lessons before adding a new lesson.

Adding a new letter combination to an already learned long A sound list.

An education teacher of mine once drew two sets of circles on the board.  The first two circles were side by side, but they did not overlap.  The second set overlapped.  The teacher said the first two circles represented learning new material with no connection to what we already know.  If we read and speak English (the first circle), and we are trying to learn Spanish (the second circle) with no common words or culture, the learning is extremely hard.

But if the English circle and the Spanish circle overlap, with words in common, learning Spanish is easier.  And the more information in the intersecting part of the circles, the easier it is to learn new material.

Reviewing what is in the first circle is a good way to begin lessons.  Help the student recall what she already knows and the progress she has made so far before introducing new work.

 “Emily, you’ve learned so many letter patterns for the sound of ‘a.’  Good for you.  Now let’s learn another one.”

Next, introduce new work.  Use several approaches, if possible, and encourage plenty of hand manipulation so the new ideas stick.

The younger the child, the shyer the child, and the less confident the child, the more important it is to have multiple ways to learn and to demonstrate learning.  In school, a teacher often asks a child to read aloud to assess reading skills, but many children are not comfortable reading aloud.  Provide other ways to show mastery—matching pictures with letters or words; acting out words in mime; drawing letters with a finger in the air; moving letter tiles around; writing; or telling a story in pictures.

Third, end the lesson with a game.  If the child knows there will be a game at the end, he will endure the difficult learning for the pleasure of the game.  Plus, he will feel good about coming back for another lesson knowing he will be rewarded with another game.

You might think you are wasting time with a game, but my experience says you’re not.  I’ve played word BINGO, Scrabble, who can write the most words from the letters in a phrase the fastest, pantomimes, and games the child makes up herself.  If you can, relate the game to the topic you’ve been teaching.  Or relate the game to a favorite interest of the child—dinosaurs, for example.  Or read to the child.

In the last minute of the lesson, review one more time the new information. Research shows this is a good teaching practice that leads to retention.

Do you have a successful lesson procedure?  We’d love to hear about it.

How can I teach my child vowel sounds?

I have followed a low tech system somewhat similar to teaching consonant sounds, but a system that is a little different too.  This phonetic approach works well with ESL students, young native English speakers getting ready to read and even adults because it makes learning fun.

Looking "over the shoulder" of a young girl sorting pictures of things that have a short A sound when spoken.

To enlarge, click on the picture.

  • I make a set of a dozen or more picture cards for ă:  apple, astronaut, alligator and ax (which begin with ă sound), and other CVC words using ă such as hat, man, dad and bag.
  • I also make one card with ă written on it.
  • At the same time, I make picture (flash) cards with pictures for the other short vowels, and I take some of those cards and temporarily add them to the ă deck.
  • Knowing that discerning vowel sounds is hard, I put the apple card next to the ă card and say the word apple many times, focusing on the vowel sound.  Slowly I help the child say the words in the deck of cards and place the cards near the ă card or in a discard area.
  • When the ă sound is learned (usually this takes several sessions), I take ĕ, ĭ, ŏ and ŭ words, and one short vowel at a time, go through the process with each sound.  Because ĕ and ĭ are hard to distinguish, I do them after ă, ŏ and ŭ, and spend more time on them.
  • Then I start mixing up two of the sounds, such as ă and ŏ.  I put both the ă and ŏ cards on the table, and take the picture cards for only those two sounds, shuffle them, and go through them with the child.  Once the child can distinguish those sounds, I gradually add ŭ to the mix and have the child sort ă, ŏ and ŭ.
  • I leave ĕ and ĭ to last and do those two letters together before I include them with the other short vowel sounds.  It takes many weeks of practice to distinguish ĕ and ĭ sounds.  When the child has mastered them, I add the other three vowels to the deck and the child sorts all five short vowel sounds.
  • When the child has mastered all five short vowel sounds, I go through the same process with ā, ē, ī, ō and ū.  The process for the long vowels goes quicker than for the short vowels.
  • As I move on teaching the child other sounds, I review the vowel sounds if I notice the child is forgetting some of the sounds or mixing up any of them.  This happens with every child I have taught.

Preschoolers and primary school children like this method of learning because they are learning through a game.  They like the control they have—holding the cards and placing them.  They like working one on one with an adult tutor who is paying special attention to them.  Sometimes I do one card and the child does one card to emphasize the fun of learning.  No worksheets, no writing—just fun.  Yet children learn their letter sounds.

Do electronic games teach kids how to read?

A father of a four-year-old told me his son recently said, “Dad, I know how to spell exit.  E-X-I-T.”

“You’re right.  How did you learn that?” the father asked.

“Easy,” the child replied.  “Playing Mario.”

Seated young boy is playing a portable video game..

Click on picture to enlarge it.

The father explained that the boy is crazy about Mario games.  He can read little words, but not big ones, so sometimes he pauses the game and asks his father what a particular word means.  “He wants to know all the words so that he can beat the game,” the father explained.

So eager is the boy to win the games that on his own he learned how to navigate to YouTube on an iPad and typed in “Mario” and “Super Mario Bros. U.”  Then he listened to college kids commenting on how to win the games.  “He picked up the lingo and improved his vocabulary,” said the father.  And he won the games.  Now he wants to teach other little kids how to win the Mario games which are the rage at his preschool.

This child has been raised with electronics.  At two he received a Leapster and a dozen games, some of which taught letter recognition and small words.  On the family iPad he routinely searches Google for tips on playing Mario games.

Kneeling young girl is playing a portable video game.

Click on the picture to enlarge it.

Sometimes he finds what he thinks might be useful information, but he can’t read it, so he and his father read it together.

Similar to how bilingual children merge words from one language into another, this child mixes “electronic” terms into his “analog” life.  On a family vacation his grandfather was reading a book to him when his mother called the child for a minute.  “Pause it, Grandpa,” the four-year-old said.  “Navigate” is as natural to him as “go.”

How about your child?  Has he or she learned how to read from playing electronic games?

How can I make learning to read fun for my child?

The key is to make learning a game.  The more game-like learning is, the more likely the child is to want to participate.  If the child can use her hands or whole body, learning will seem more like a game.  Try these strategies:

  • Let the child put a star child playing letter  BINGOor some other sticker on the corner of an alphabet card when the child knows a letter.  Or if the child is reading a book you own, let the child paste a star on each page she can read.  The child will enjoy pasting the star, will have visible proof of learning, and will have something concrete to prove progress for Dad or Grandma.
  • Let the child stamp alphabet cards with the date when the child knows them.  Remember how the librarian used to stamp the books with the return date?  Those kinds of stamps are still available at office supply stores.  (You can buy a deck of alphabet cards for a dollar or two at dollar stores, so don’t be concerned if the cards are defaced.)
  • Let the child hit or shake some kind of noisemaker for a successful answer.
  • If you play BINGO letter or word games, ask the child to create or accumulate the markers.  Plastic caps from milk or juice containers, Barbie doll high heels, shapes that the child has colored and cut, coins, stamps cut off of envelopes—let the child decide what markers to use today.  What fun to cover a BINGO card with Angry Birds and pigs.
  • As the child begins to read books, let the child underline the words she knows in pencil or highlight them with markers.  Read the same book a week later and let the child underline in a different color.  Do it a week later with a third color.  The child should notice more and more underlined words.  (You can buy used children’s books for a dollar or two at Goodwill and other resale stores, so don’t fret if the books are marked.)
  • Let the child write his name or other words on the refrigerator using magnetized letters.  Point out the work proudly to family members.
  • On the computer, pull up a blank page and let the child hunt and peck for ABC’s or the letters of his name.  Use a large font—size 36 or bigger.  Vary the color of the ink and the type faces.  Print the page and display it proudly.
  • For reluctant learners, use a kitchen timer to limit the time for any learning activity.  Usually, the younger the child, the shorter the time.  Five minutes might be long enough.  Let your child’s behavior guide you.