by Julie Williams
Experts agree: parents need to turn
off the TV as much as possible. But come to the hour before dinner, when stews
boil, everyone’s whiny, and the phone keeps ringing… well, it can get pretty
tempting to steer your children straight towards the remote control.
If you’ve got an emerging reader,
here’s another way to go: try bringing your kid into your kitchen for a round
of “Making Words,” an easy at-home activity based on techniques popular with
To get started, you’ll need one set
of cheap refrigerator letter magnets, which you can find at many drugstores,
toy stores, or supermarkets. Letter magnets are a lot of fun. You may remember
messing around with them when you were small. But teachers use them with a
specific goal in mind: they want young readers not just to see letter
combinations but to hear, touch, and explore them.
So what is “Making Words”? Start by
getting a comfortable place for your child to sit, near a blank space on your
refrigerator. Don’t neglect your cooking – keep that chili cooking! Just give
directions, and have your child do the letter moving.
Here are a few steps to get you
started. For very early readers, just the first few may be enough. Stop if your
child feels frustrated, and get them comfortable with each level before moving
on to another. With regular practice, they’ll get the hang of it and delight in
mastering these letter games.
Encourage your children to use letters to spell out the words on the
ingredients you’re using: “milk,” for example, or “jam.” They can keep going
until they’ve used up all the letters, or until someone starts throwing
Swap it up! Tell your child to select one short, simple word, such as “jam.”
Now ask him to change the initial letters and see how many variations he can
make before he runs out (such as “spam," "ram," "dam,"
etc.). Which three-letter word can make the most variations?
Change letters to make related new words. This is the most complicated letter
game, but great fun. Start with a word like “jam” but challenge your child to
change it one letter at a time, on your cue, to make a “secret” new word. (For
example, you can say, “Change the ‘m’ to ‘r.’ Now change the ‘j’ to ‘t.’ Now
put an ‘s’ in front. What do we have now? ‘Star.’")
Why play “Making Words”? For
starters, so you can cook dinner successfully while your child stays busy,
happy, and tantrum-free. But at a deeper level, you’re helping your child learn
– in a relaxed, supportive way – how letters and sounds combine to form a
bounty of words. It’s a new twist on mac and cheese – and the kind of
nourishment that can stick with kids for life.
Julie Williams, MA Education, taught
English and History for seventeen years at Aragon High School in San Mateo,
California. For the last five years, she has worked in classrooms with
primary-level students learning to read. She is the mother of two young sons.