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Improving Reading by Playing With Words: Four Classroom Activities

St. Louis

This morning at the International Literacy Association conference here, renowned reading expert Timothy Rasinski shared some of his favorite ways for developing students' foundational reading skills—many of which involve word play.

"I'm going to talk about the most important part of reading," began Rasinski, a professor of literacy education at Kent State University. "Well, actually, it's not; it's the least important part. ... The most important part, we agree, is comprehension. But to get there, you have to be able to decode words, sound them out, and spell them."

(Before that, Rasinski really started the session, endearingly, by getting the group to sing a song, which he said calms his nerves.)

His talk served as a counterpoint to the notion that phonics instruction is a necessary but tedious task—the medicine students and teachers choke down to get to the good stuff (real reading). The crowd was engaged and playing along during his hour-long talk.

Here are a few of the activities he posed:

1) Making Words

Remember when your teacher would put a long word on the board after recess and then ask the class to make as many small words as possible with those letters? Rasinski does a variation on this activity, with a bit more scaffolding for the struggling reader. 

The students are given a series of consonants and vowels, for instance a, e, i, b, l, n, and p. The teacher walks them through different words they can make with those letters. How about something you cook in? Pan. From there, turn it into something you feel when you hurt yourself. Pain. They continue as a group until they make a word using all the letters—in this case, biplane.

2) Greek/Latin Roots

Rasinski has been banging this drum for a while, saying that teachers can use Greek and Latin roots as early as 1st grade to improve students' reading. 

For instance, by teaching the Greek word pan, meaning all, students can better understand words like panoramic, panacea, and pandemic. Or by knowing the Latin root terra, or earth, they can figure out the meaning of words like terrain, terrace, and territory. 

"This is going to be a game changer once we get everyone on board with these Latin and Greek roots," Rasinski said. 

3) Vocabulary Ladders

Rasinski asked the audience to write down five words that mean the same thing as tell or say. Thumbnail image for Screen Shot 2015-07-18 at 2.43.17 PM.png
The educators came up with words like whisper, state, exclaim, yell, and murmur. "Now create a ladder from softest to loudest," he said.

A nice way to present this for students is on samples from the paint store, which show colors from lightest to darkest. Students can write a synonym on each strip to show "shades of meaning." 

4) Teaching Idioms

Idiomatic phrases can be confusing for not just English-language learners, but all students. 

Rasinski challenged the group to come up with a list of baseball expressions that can also be used when talking about things other than baseball. (Stop for a moment and try it!) 

Strike three, home run, out in left field, on deck, throw a curveball—it turns out there are tons. "We don't spend enough time exploring these figures of speech with our children," he said. 

Rasinski recommended the book There's a Frog in My Throat: 440 Animal Sayings a Little Bird Told Me by Loreen Leedy to get things hopping (sorry). 

During the session, Rasinski also spoke about fluency—emphasizing the importance of reading with expression (not just speed) and the research-based effectiveness of reading passages repeatedly. For more on this, see the EdWeek story "Reading Fluency Viewed as Neglected Skill, which quotes Rasinski. 

Overall, his message this morning about phonics and words was this: "Language should be something we play with."

Rasinski has been working with the publisher Teacher Created Materials, so these and other activities that he recommends should be available through its website


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