Scrabble as an Instructional Tool

April 13th is the official day to celebrate every word-lover’s favorite board game—Scrabble! This beloved game-cabinet staple has been around since the 1930s, but its relevance in the classroom is eternally apparent. Not only Scrabble, but countless other board games and childhood favorites, can also be used to support learning and spur student engagement. Browse the ideas below to see how Scrabble could be incorporated into your own learning environment, whether it be in the classroom or at home.

 

Scrabble:

  • Use the letters as a form of equity sticks or calling sticks. Each student will be assigned a letter. When that letter is drawn, that student is selected to participate, read aloud, share their example, etc. Use the letters to correspond to students’ names. Similarly to calling sticks, if the teacher or another student draws the letter “D,” the next participant/classroom speaker’s name must start with or include the letter “D.”
  • Use the letter pieces to spell sight words for students. They can recreate the sight word from memory when the letters are scrambled up. Conversely, to challenge the strong spellers or provide enrichment, teachers may want to spell a sight word incorrectly and ask the student to remove or swap out the incorrect or misplaced letter.
  • Split students into groups and provide them with a pile of letters. Groups must race to sort the consonants and vowels into two different piles. The first group with everything sorted correctly wins!
  • Provide students with two vowels and three consonants. Then challenge them to see how many words they can spell with their letters by rearranging the squares.
  • For students just learning the alphabet, provide them with several letters and an alphabet reference strip if needed. Ask students to then put the letters in alphabetical order, skipping any letters that are not part of the sequence they were given.
  • Divvy up the letters to small groups of students. Put a photo up on the board to represent a spelling word, like “table,” for example. Then ask students to raise their hands if they think their letter is involved in the spelling of the word. If so, then as students with hands raised to arrange themselves in the correct order to spell that word.
  • Set up a “photo album” of images that contain consonant blends or digraphs that students have been learning about. For each photo, ask students to place the Scrabble squares of the letters that form that digraph or blend. For instance, if the photo depicts a flower, the student would place “f” and “l” on the picture; a stop sign would mean that “s” and “t” should be placed on the image.
  • As an extension activity, or to challenge students with strong phonics skills, provide them with a recorded sound, like “ew.” Then ask them to come up with all of the vowel/consonant combinations that could compose a word with that vowel sound: blue, too, crew, shoe, bruise, two, flu, etc. The key for this activity is that students begin to recognize the different combinations of letters that can make the same or similar sounds.

Visualization as a Cognitive Tool Pt. II

As previously discussed in part one, visual prompts, tools, and strategies can help learners who may struggle with linguistic presentations. Whether attentive issues, behavioral struggles, or deficits in auditory processing are the obstacle, visualization methods can assist with students whose needs vary in and out of the classroom.

 

Reading/Writing/Literacy

  • Use visuals to provide context for vocabulary terms. Teachers can boost memory and recall by pairing terms with images that explain or represent the definition. For example, science teachers may want to accompany terms for the parts of a flower with a diagram that depicts each part. They could use photos or time lapse videos to demonstrate how organic matter decays or decomposes. In history or world studies, students can benefit from seeing locations, countries, and landmarks that they are studying so that they have a better grasp of its importance. Instead of simply discussing Tanzania, teachers will want to show Tanzania on a map so that students can conceptualize its location with background knowledge of the surrounding areas.
  • For practices involving phonics and fluency, obviously pronouncing new words for students to chime back is beneficial to start. However, when working independently to decode, students may find that visual cue cards for prefixes/suffixes are more helpful for their visual approach to reading. For example, struggling decoders might find it helpful to see how words are segmented or broken down into parts and then physically put them back together like a puzzle. Visually speaking, words like “cub” versus “cube” could be confusing to beginning readers or English language learners. Teachers should provide opportunities to use letter cards or scrabble pieces to match “cub” with the photo of a baby bear; then add the “e” to match the word with an image of an ice cube. The physical manipulatives, combined with the images, help young readers visualize the proper spelling while also solidifying pronunciation and definitions.
  • Similarly, teachers and parents can help beginning readers by incorporating visual aids into sight words. As a memorization tool, basic flashcards only go so far. Instead, think about how the letters of the word could be constructed or decorated with images that relate to the word’s meaning. For example, the sight word “look” could be spelled using googly eyes for the double “o” to demonstrate someone looking at something. Perhaps the word “play” could incorporate athletic equipment to form the letters, with “p” resembling a basketball, “L” formed by a hockey stick, and “y” in the shape of a tennis racket.

 

Additional Concepts

  • If content involves a process or step-by-step explanation, consider using flow charts, mind maps, or other visual diagrams to help students conceptualize the process. For differentiation, teachers may ask advanced students to create their own flow chart using their text or class notes, while struggling students may use a word bank/concept bank to complete a fill-in-the-blank flow chart. Either way, the objective is the same; students are demonstrating knowledge of a specific process by constructing a visual/diagram.
  • For essays, written responses, and notetaking, teachers should instruct and encourage students to utilize graphic organizers to visually compose comprehensive outlines of their drafts. In spider diagrams, the main idea of the written response is the spider’s body, while the legs connect to supporting details, quotes, and examples, which helps students visually compose a well-supported argument or claim as a prewriting activity.

Besides standard images or symbols to help students, teachers can expand upon the idea of visuals to include videos, films/documentaries, art, graphic novel excerpts, artifacts, and video games. The more engagement and connections to prior knowledge that visuals can offer, the stronger the learning experience will be.

Visualization as a Cognitive Tool Pt. I

Visualization as a learning strategy is most commonly seen in the language arts department. Teachers may prompt students to visualize what is happening in the text to boost comprehension and recall before, during, and after reading. This is a proven, worthwhile technique, especially for struggling readers and those with attention difficulties. However, there are numerous other ways in which educators can use visualization and visual tools to enhance learning opportunities that span far beyond the “try to picture or visualize what is happening” cue.

 

Visual Awareness

Some students, especially those with attentive or behavioral issues, often find that they are most successful when educational tasks encourage the use of spatial areas of the brain, as opposed to linguistic areas. To initiate visualization processes, teachers and parents can practice many different strategies, across any content area.

 

Math

Because mathematics can often involve complex, abstract, nebulous concepts and values, even grasping a math question can be daunting, especially for people who struggle to tap into their “math brains,” like myself. For instance, questions involving exponents, decimals, and measurements, can be very intimidating. Students may not know where to begin when working with what they believe to be ambiguous concepts or terminology.

 

  • Accompany measurements, whether weight, height, temperature, density, etc., with familiar, tangible comparisons. For example, if the question involves calculating the area of a surface, provide visual context by telling students that the surface would be about the size of a tennis court, classroom tile, standard doorway, etc. On assessments, consider providing images to represent that object, as opposed to just the calculations or measurements. If asking students about three-dimensional objects, prompt them to picture an everyday object that represents the size and shape.
  • Provide learners with opportunities to conceptualize number functions in different ways. For example, understanding exponents, like 2 to the 8th power, might leave young learners scratching their heads. If teachers provide visual context or long-written forms, students can better prepare to grapple with the task. Even a simple visual process, such as writing out the simplified exponent, 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2, and then grouping them while multiplying, can assist with the otherwise unfamiliar concept.
  • Post visuals around the classroom of commonly used terminology. Especially for younger learners, simple symbols used to exhibit addition or subtraction processes can serve as a subtle reminder to students during instruction and practice.
  • Consider taping simple visual resources to each desk during the start of a new math unit. If beginning to discuss fractions, use a photos of segmented chocolate chip cookies for reference. With a visual, some students may find that decimals and fractions are more approachable when they can see what that fraction looks like in a physical sense; ⅛ of a cookie is much less appealing than ¾ of the same cookie.
  • Teachers can prompt visual thinking as well by asking clarifying questions or having students come up with their own comparisons. If measuring objects, ask students to brainstorm what they think would be a similar sized object. What would be slightly smaller or bigger? Which might weigh more? Ask students to visualize patterns and proceed with the next series of figures.

A Change of Perspective: Activities for the Classroom

While viewpoints and perspectives tend to be seen as literature-based concepts, learners can truly benefit from this critical thinking skill in any academic content. Why is perspective-taking an important skill? Of course there are the obvious social implications that hinge on one’s ability to see things from another’s vantage point—like developing empathy, navigating others’ emotions, and building deeper connections with peers. In addition, students who are able to cognizantly adopt a different perspective while learning also initiate a better understanding of the content because they are engaging with it in a new or complex way.

 

Below are classroom suggestions and various activities that foster collaboration while encouraging learners to view subjects and opinions from a different lens.

 

  • Optical illusion images are great resources for introducing the concept of multiple perspectives to students, especially for the younger groups. Images like “The old woman/young lady” are natural discussion starters for students to begin to use alternate viewpoints. Teachers can collect and project optical illusion images for students to view. Ask students to remain silent while viewing, but to capture what they seen on a capture sheet for later discussion. After an initial viewing, ask students to pair up with someone that had at least one different observation or conflicting answer on the capture sheet. Then allow pairs to explain their viewpoints to one another.
  • Visuals, such as photos from news articles, magazines, graphic novels, or even stock photos can be the springboard for introducing the concept of perspective-taking with students. Display an image from the local newspaper, preferably one that exhibits or elicits an emotion. Without providing any context or headline, ask students to respond by writing the emotion that the subject or onlooker in the photo might be feeling. Ask students to discuss in groups, specifically focusing on why they think the person in the photo feels this particular way. Next, provide students with the text or article—ask them if their assumptions were correct. As the conversation progresses, ask students to consider the last time that they felt a similar emotion. What caused it? How was their scenario different from the actual news article/event? These group discussions allow students to not only connect with and relate to the article, but also connect with each other through speaking and listening.
  • A lesson around homophones and homographs can be a great way to spark discussions about perspectives and cultural implications. For instance, take a look at the homographs below:

minute – tiny OR a unit of time

moped – behavior demonstrating sadness OR a motorcycle

number – more numb OR a numerical value

row – a line OR to propel a boat

sewer – a drain OR a person who sews

wave – to greet someone by moving the hand OR sea water coming into shore

Depending on a person’s experiences, country/language of origin, home life, environment, etc., the homographs above could generate a number of different instantaneous visuals or subconscious thoughts from person to person. Especially as students age and their abilities to take different vantage points evolves, it is important that they explore the reasons behind all of our different perspectives. Many times, our cultural identities shroud our understanding of the “other side.” Therefore, these intentional practices allow students to come face-to-face with their own perspectives and to question them.

  • “Save the last word for me” is a close reading activity that also prompts discussion and alternate viewpoints. Students begin by reading the same passage independently. Readers are instructed to mark or highlight the line or sentence that they believed was most significant within the passage. One volunteer reads his chosen/highlighted sentence, but provides no reasoning or explanation as to why he considers it to be the most significant. Group mates must add their own interpretation of why that line is significant to the passage; the original volunteer speaks last and confirms/elaborates/clarifies his original choice. This activity encourages discourse around a common text, but relies heavily on the task of “getting into another person’s head.” Students must consider why their peer selected that specific line as significant, and can then speak on how they agree or perhaps found a different line to be more crucial.

 

Vocabulary for Elementary: How To

According to experts, kids should be acquiring 2,000 to 3,000 new words annually from 3rd grade onward. This figure would mean that children learn roughly sixeight new terms every day—pretty amazing if you think about it. While professionals have long debated the biological and environmental factors at play when it comes to language and vocabulary acquisition, one thing is for certain—a child’s vocabulary grows and develops with exposure.

Here are a few ways to expose students to new words and help them further develop their vocabulary.

Expressive Word Labels

Consider borrowing a tip from ESOL or world language classes by using labels to introduce a more expressive term in place of a mundane word. For instance, print out multiple photos of a range of peoples’ facial expressions. Prompt students to replace typical or low-level words like “sad” or “happy” with “gloomy” or “pleased.” Once students get the hang of synonyms, ask them to collect as many synonyms as they can while learning new words.

Synonym Challenge

Students should feel free to ask clarifying questions like, “What is another way to say….?” This helps young learners to begin to see not only the context of the word, but also its grammatical function. After some scaffolding and practice, challenge your students to see how many words they can think of to replace happy. Be clear about the expectation by emphasizing that the synonyms must fully match the meaning and usage—since happy is an adjective, their synonyms must be adjectives, as well. Students with the longest list of true synonyms could be rewarded with a new mechanical pencil, their choice of seat for the day, a happy phone call home, etc. Even bragging rights are certain to make any child happy, ecstatic, cheerful, glad, amused, exuberant, elated, delighted, thrilled, jovial, jubilant, and merry.   

Word Apps

Elementary teachers can also make use of technology in order to help increase students’ vocabulary. Free apps like Wordle and Wordsift help students to learn and analyze new terms and phrases by using a visual component. Students are able to paste a portion of text and watch as Wordle or Wordsift breaks down and arranges the text. Often times, the Wordle presents the information in more than just a visually appealing way. The software helps students see how terms are related, distinguished, aligned, etc. It is also designed to manipulate font size and color based on how frequently a term is used in the excerpt. For instance, if students paste text from an article about cloud formation, repetition of the word “cloud” will cause the Wordle to increase the font size of that particular term in the final visual.  

Caption Game

Ask students to provide captions for selected photos or magazine ads using new vocabulary words. Allow students to work in groups to collaborate and generate a brief explanation or caption for what is happening in the photo. For example, if the image depicts a complete standstill on a highway while a family of ducks crosses the interstate, ask students to write a caption using the word “peculiar.” Perhaps another image portrays a beautiful snow-covered cabin in the woods. Ask students to create a caption or conversation between two of the cabin-dwellers using the word “enchanting.”

How to Acquire New Vocabulary: At the Middle School Level

While vocabulary instruction has drastically changed in the past decade, some of the basic principles of language acquisition still pertain to building students’ vocabulary. For instance, a voracious appetite for reading has long been linked to a stronger vocabulary—and this belief still stands, as it is widely supported by research. Additionally, repeated exposure over time also helps to solidify words to memory. Both of these basic methods, reading and repetition, are still utilized in classrooms today.

However, best practices focus on more than mere memorization. Vocabulary acquisition can and should be taken to the next step to ensure that terms are not only committed to memory, but are essentially committed to a student’s academic and everyday language.

Teach connotation: Too often, direct vocabulary instruction relies on a student’s memorization or understanding of a word’s definition—which makes sense since students must know what a word means before adding it to their lexicon. However, if focusing solely on a word’s definition, students are missing a key aspect of the importance of vocabulary, which involves context and connotation. Vocabulary instruction is more than knowing the meaning of a word—it’s the ability to choose the most appropriate form of a word or term for a specific context or purpose. Take the words smell, scent, odor, fragrance, and aroma. The definition of each of these terms is rather similar; at a glance, students may declare these terms to be synonymous. However, teaching these words in their appropriate contexts and with an understood connotation allows students to see how each of these so-called synonyms would serve a strikingly different purpose.

Scent, fragrance, and aroma all have a generally positive connotation. Scent and fragrance are more frequently used when describing non-food items like flowers, perfume, natural surroundings, etc. Aroma differs slightly in that it often denotes a combination of smells, like a laundry room’s aroma of fresh cotton, rain, and rose petals, for example. Odor, conversely, typically has a negative connotation. You wouldn’t likely want to describe someone’s cooking by saying that it has a “unique odor.” Something with an odor is usually deemed smelly, stinky or unpleasant. So, even the simple practice of matching scenarios to their most appropriate terms helps middle schoolers to begin to see the value in vocabulary. Words are much more than their definitions; they allow speakers and writers to specify more precisely depending on the context or situation.

Teach using synonym/antonym games: Another method to help prompt middle schoolers to step outside of their everyday language boxes involves a modified skit from the game show “Whose Line is it Anyway?” Have students sit in a circle. Explain that students will go from person to person saying essentially the same phrase, “I feel happy.” The catch, however, is that students must replace the word happy with a new synonym each time. If a student cannot think of a new synonym for the initial emotion, he or she is eliminate from the circle. After a while, switch from synonyms to antonyms. For instance, students would respond to “I feel happy” with “I feel…sad, forlorn, melancholy, depressed, low, glum, gloomy, blue, unhappy, negative, sullen, etc. The key here is for students to begin to see the vastness of their options for expressing and expanding upon a simple emotion such as “happy.”

Encourage the use of expressive words in student writing: Once vocabulary instruction is solidly underway, begin to track overused, misused, or “elementary-level” terms in student writing. Prompt students to be more specific when saying that they “went” somewhere. Perhaps they moseyed to the store; strolled to the store; travelled to the store; wandered to the store; meandered to the store; rushed to the store. Again, the point is for students to see the plethora of options at their disposal when writing or speaking. The more they practice, the more equipped they’ll be to say precisely what they mean.

 

How to Acquire New Vocabulary: At the High School Level

A robust vocabulary is a key asset when it comes to college and career readiness. I like to equate vocabulary acquisition to a toolbox—the more expansive your toolbox, the more capable you’ll be when fixing, creating, building and assisting. Much like having the right tools for any task at hand, we need to be able to communicate using different manners of speech and appropriate word choice for any number of scenarios. Yes, a hammer and nail can prove to be helpful; however, there are certain to be instances where the job requires more than the standard basics.

Alright, enough with the analogy—how can high school students continue to build a strong repertoire when it comes to vocabulary? Let’s take a look!

Vocabulary instruction and acquisition has drastically changed in even just the last 10 years. My own flashbacks of flashcards (see what I did there?) and rote memorization, while sensible at the time, have proven to be of little assistance to students. Instead of pounding definitions of vocabulary words and teaching terms in a vacuum, disconnected from any real usage, students need more of a real-world approach to adopt new words into their own vocabulary. Exposure is key when it comes to boosting vocabulary at the high school level. In order for students to begin to acquire and use new vocabulary naturally, they must be exposed to a term in both frequent and various contexts.

Consider the term multifaceted—a standard dictionary definition of this word is “having many facets or aspects.” Okay, but what does that really mean? If we want high schoolers to begin to make sense of the word in various contexts, we must model the usage of such terms at home and in the classroom. This accounts for cross-curricular instruction, as well. For instance, students in a geometry class might use multifaceted in the literal context to describe an object with many sides. Similarly, in science, students may examine a crystal or other prism to see how sunlight converges on a multifaceted object. Quite conversely, however, an English or history class might use multifaceted to describe a character or famous person from history with many diverse skills or strengths.   

Another way to look at a term such as multifaceted is to use Latin or Greek roots and affixes (prefixes and suffixes). You don’t have to go into an in depth linguistic study—instead, use a cliff notes-esque approach. When introducing such a word, pair it with other familiar words with the same prefix, like multipurpose, multiplication, multidimensional, etc. Prompt a conversation about what all of these words have in common. Then examine faceted—ask students if this word is familiar or if it reminds them of any other word. For some high schoolers, facet is already part of their vocabulary; for others, you may want to scale the conversation down to “facets sounds like faces, so a multifaceted object has many faces or sides.” These word analogies take memorization to another level. Not only do learners equate the new word to a simpler, already acquired term, but they also derive meaning from the relationship between the terms to help solidify the meaning into memory.

Building a Strong Vocabulary: Secondary Level

Comprehensive studies estimate that there are likely three quarters of a million English words, and this is a conservative estimation. With seemingly limitless options to choose from when speaking, writing, or reading, vocabulary acquisition is a vital, albeit somewhat disregarded, aspect of academic development. Surprisingly, many schools greatly limit vocabulary instruction after a certain grade, some even forgoing it altogether. So, how exactly can we foster a rich vocabulary for teens as they work their way through the upper grades?

Use theater practices or role play to encourage alternate ways of communicating. The idea behind these types of activities involves the practical uses of vocabulary. One major benefit, if not the most important gain from having a vast vocabulary, is the fact that it allows us to be chameleons, so to speak. The more ways that we can express ourselves, the better. Vocabulary is a key component when speaking for different purposes, audiences, or scenarios. When employing certain vocabulary, you are making a conscious decision about how to appeal to the person or persons with whom you are speaking. A sign of intelligence, as well as a major benefit for college and career-ready students, is the ability to alter speech and vocabulary for various circumstances. The more you can practice “playing” certain roles, the better.

Studies suggest that direct instruction of vocabulary does little to build an understanding. Word games, however, are a fun and easy way to practice building vocabulary at any age. Scrabble, Boggle, and crossword puzzles will provide students with skills to build a robust vocabulary. Even using an activity such as Mad Libs can help teens practice vocabulary use in a “play-like” format. Utilizing word games is a great way to build motivation and comprehension without making it seem like instruction.

Incorporating synonyms is another valuable manner of building vocabulary. When your teen is expressing emotions, prompt him or her to use other words beyond “mad,” “sad,” and “happy.” Expressions, actions, emotions—the categories are limitless for introducing synonyms. The point here is to provide as much exposure as possible. Even when speaking around your teens, introduce advanced or unfamiliar words so that they can hear them being used in everyday speech. When doing this, be sure to provide adequate context so that the new terms are rooted in speech or language that they already know. Otherwise, the new terms will be literally lost in translation.

Reading is a very obvious, yet necessary aspect of building a strong vocabulary. When adolescents encounter new texts, they are bound to face new terms, as well. Reading is a natural way to use context clues for vocabulary acquisition. Not every word meaning is going to be handed to a reader—the text will make the reader work for it. Encourage your middle or high schooler to recognize and pause when a word is not decipherable through the context. After rereading, if the word is still unidentifiable, prompt him or her to look it up. Nowadays, technology literally puts resources in the palms of students’ hands. Two seconds is all it takes to add that new definition or understanding to a teen’s repertoire.