Archive for category: 1-hour ideas

In-car literacy activities

carHere are some good ideas to help boost your child’s literacy without leaving the back seat. (Them, not you. You’re driving. Hands on the wheel!)

The post also has ideas for apps and in-car activities for kids.

From Scholastic.

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beezi: the s-p-e-l-l-i-n-g game for ages 8 and up

beezi: the s-p-e-l-l-I-n-g game

beezi: the s-p-e-l-l-I-n-g game

If your kids could use a little brush-up on their spelling, beezi might be the game that does it.

My son and I took the game for a test drive. He figures he’s a better speller than his mother (who is a writer by trade, a-hem).

We really enjoyed beezi. For off, it was easy to figure out how to play it–a huge plus. I hate having to read through two pages of directions to figure out a game before you can even play it.

And it was fast-playing. Another plus.

Essentially, beezi takes you around a board; you select cards and spell words. The harder the word, the further you go on the board. Special spaces on the board let you roll again, skip a turn or advance.

The game includes spelling challenges at different levels. That’s good because it means that your eight-year-old can play with your 10-year-old at the same time. And it makes it extra flexible for playdates.

There’s also a Teens and Parents edition, which we will definitely have to get (we were given this one by beezi, for review). We did find that the younger game was a bit too easy for my 12-year-old. Although, he did not—I stress, did not—win against his mother.

Because kids write down their answer, rather than just spell it out loud, the game can definitely help kids improve their spelling. The game provides a real incentive to sound words out and try to get them right. It also gives adults a chance to explain why certain words are spelled the way they are.

Some kids are shy or embarrassed about not being able to spell very well. Even my son, who’s a pretty good speller, didn’t like to admit it when he couldn’t spell certain words, and I can see that. So you may want to keep that in mind when you’re playing. Usually, I was able to explain that “everyone gets that one wrong,” or “that spelling rule is tricky” and then roll the dice and keep the game moving.

The game is themed around bees, a riff on “spelling bees.” The bee theme continues with the die, which features six types of bees (from honey bee – the easiest words to spell, to killer bee – the most challenging). My son likes “Shaggy Fuzzyfoot” the best; Shaggy’s a wildcard. And the object of the game is to reach the “beehive” in the middle of the board.

The illustrations are quirky and modern, and the dice is one of those big, chunky ones that are such fun to roll.

Bonus: The next time I go to a restaurant or a long car ride with my son, I’m going to bring along the card deck. It will be a terrific quiz-me activity, even without the game board. beezi would also be a good game to take to the cottage, because everyone can play it, using different level card packs.

beezi: the s-p-e-l-l-i-n-g game sells for $29.99 and is available at toy stores and Chapters/Indigo. You can also purchase it from the beezi website ($10 to $15 shipping within Canada).

(If you’re in Toronto, buy it from my friend Sam at her Playful Minds toy store. Tell her I sent ya.)

On the beezi website, click on Take the Beezi challenge for a fun online spelling challenge.

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Fun, active (and profitable!) literacy game

Dollar_sign_(reflective_metallic); from Wikimedia CommonsMy niece told me about a game that her friend’s mom used to set up to get her kids more interested in reading.

She would scatter letters around the room. Each letter had a price on it.

“Easier” letters like E might be worth a penny or five cents, whereas “harder” letters like Q or Z might be worth a quarter.

(Are you seeing where this is going?)

The kids would run around the room, collecting the letters; they would then put them together into words or phrases.

Then they’d add up the “money” they’d earned and… cash them in, using their parents as the bankers.

My niece said the game succeeded in making her friend much more interested in words and in reading.

And, presumably, in banking.

Here’s another case in which a mom successfully bribed her daughter into reading.

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Phrazzle Me! is a great game for English learners

Phrazzle Me!If you’re teaching English as a second language (ESL) or if you’re wanting to push your students’ English to a more sophisticated level, here’s a well-thought-out game.

Phrazzle Me! is essentially 200 blocks of wood with words imprinted on them.

The simplest way to play the game is to take seven blocks (each block has four words to choose from) and make a sentence. The next person builds on your sentence, going up and down or across. You get a point for every block you use.

If a phrase doesn’t make sense (“The table barked”) you lose a point.

But Phrazzle Me! (“phrase” + “puzzle”) can go beyond just game-play. If you’re teaching ESL, you can take the game in lots of different directions.

For one thing, the words are colour-coded. For instance, green is “to be” and gerunds “-ing words.” Red is “to have” and past participles.

Now, people who already speak English will probably stop right there. Because in North America, most people don’t know their gerund from their modal–that’s just not the way we normally like to learn languages.

But in most of the rest of the world, teachers and students are very familiar with past participles and auxiliary verbs, and are quite comfortable learning that way.

So for them especially, Phrazzle Me! can be a tremendous teaching tool.

For instance, the teacher can take just the question words, the auxiliary verbs and the subjects and then tell the students to make questions using this format:

Question + auxiliary + subject + verb.

“Where are they flying?” Boom, that’s a great question with every word in the right order.

You can easily change the rules. If you’re working on gerunds, make them worth double the points. If you’re working on past tense, make that key to the game. Let students take more or fewer blocks.

Phrazzle Me! is elegantly designed and sturdy. There’s no board; players set up the game on any flat surface. And it includes a draw-string bag that holds the pieces afterwards.

The game can be played without a moderator, but it works much better when a teacher is involved who decides if phrases are correct or not. It’s designed to provoke discussion and a long-term understanding of English.

We played Phrazzle Me! with our family and found that it can be quite challenging. It just goes to show how complex and difficult the English language is, even for native speakers.

The game is available through phrazzleme.com. There is also a Toronto-based distributor; contact them at dr.montecinos@gmail.com.

At $100 UPDATE: $79.99 a game (which includes shipping) it’s not in the same pricing ballpark as most just-for-fun games. But this is the kind of game an ESL teacher would buy and use throughout her career because it will last forever.

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A book full of book bites

Breakfast On A Dragon'sTailIf you’re looking for an activity that will get your kid writing, Breakfast on a Dragon’s Tail, by Martin Springett, is a new and interesting concept book.

Dragon’s Tail gives you the beginning of a story, and your kid writes the rest.

There are 13 book bites in all, each one an intriguing start, whimsically illustrated, to a story that your child will finish.

Here’s my favourite:

Dracula and Son

“Wake up, son! It’s time to terrify the neighbourhood!”

Papa Drac stretched and yawned, flexing his long, white hands and testing his bright, white fangs with a handy fork.

Ping! They were solid and scary–ready for all the terrifying stuff he had planned for the surrounding countryside, the lonely farmhouses, and the craggy castles.

“Nah, I’m tired,” said Drac Junior. “I wanna sleep in.”Dracula And Son

“You’ve already slept in for nine months! It’s Hallowe’en–time to sharpen those pearly whites and to practise blood-curdling screeches, climbing down walls, and flapping about in a creepy way!”

It goes on, but you get the idea.

Dragon’s Tail would be great for homeschooling, for teachers and for parents with kids who are keen to write but need a bit of inspiration.

And best of all, kids can go to the book publisher’s website and upload the endings they’ve written for any of the stories. Fun!

 

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Help your child understand what he’s reading

Chocolate_chip_cookies; photo by Dan Smith, Wikimedia Commons
Photo by Dan Smith, Wikimedia Commons

I was talking to a mom today about a child who is having some trouble with reading comprehension. In other words, he reads a paragraph and has trouble understanding and summarizing what he’s just read.

He also isn’t reading a lot—possibly he doesn’t enjoy reading because of his difficulties with comprehension.

There are lots of fun activities to help with that and here are a few that I suggested.

1) Take a newspaper and turn to an interesting story. Reading just the headline and looking at the pictures, ask him what he thinks the news story will be about. If he’s having trouble, get him to identify and circle the verbs in the headline and/or the nouns. Use those key words as “hints” as to what the article will be about.

Make sure you pick a headline that’s not too convoluted, and that’s about something interesting for him. If he likes sports, turn to a sports story. (Our sister website, TeachingKidsNews has hundreds of kid-friendly news articles and headlines.)

2) Ask your child to tell you about a video game he likes to play or movie he just saw. Ask him a specific question about it, that encourages him to explain it—for instance, “what scene in the movie made you laugh out loud?” or, “what powers does the main character in the video game have?”

This is part of a process known as “retelling.” Gradually, you can build the activity to the point where he’s retelling the whole movie or video game.

Incidentally, if you’ve got a super active kid, walk around outside with him while having this conversation. Sometimes a kid thinks better when his body is moving. (You’re not his teacher—you don’t have to confine your interactions to a classroom or a desk!)

3) Do a simple recipe together. Bake some chocolate chip cookies (after you’ve simplified the recipe and made it easy to read). While the cookies are in the oven, get him to describe what you did to make the cookies. “First, we melted the butter…” Don’t worry if he misses steps or goes into too much, or too little, detail.

Just have him hit the highlights: We mixed the ingredients together, put it in the oven and baked the cookies. That gives you something to work with; you can fine-tune his retelling skills with questions like, “wasn’t there something before we put them in the oven? Didn’t we have to scoop something?”

Of course, watch for his cues to make sure he isn’t getting frustrated. If he’s done with the whole exercise, then just go and have a cookie together. He’ll get better at it over time.

4) Try a story-building game like GROSS-ABULARY (we just did a review on this terrific game) or Rory’s Story Cubes (we’re about to review it in the next week or so, but if you’re interested now, here’s a link to their website).

5) Write a three-sentence story on a long piece of paper. Make sure it has a beginning, a middle and an end. For instance:

We went to the zoo. We saw some monkeys. The monkey tried to steal my ice cream cone.

This activity can work for older kids as well:

Obi-Wan was driving past a Stormtrooper with C3PO and R2D2. He used a Jedi mind-trick to convince the Stormtrooper, “these are not the droids you’re looking for.” The Stormtrooper let them pass.

Cut the sentences apart and mix them up; have him put the sentences back in the right order. If that’s too easy, take two stories and mix all six sentences up. Have him sort them into individual stories and then put them in the right ordeuKloo scavenger hunt gamer.

6) Reading comprehension can bring instant rewards. Play a game in which reading and understanding what you’ve read brings a quick and fun reward. For instance, give him a paragraph that says something like, “If you look in your shoe by the front door, you will find a clue.” Then, in his shoe hide a second instruction, “Look under the sink for your next instructions.” And of course under the sink there’s another clue. Do as many or as few as you think he’ll enjoy… the last one is accompanied by a treat like a small present or a Hershey’s Kiss.

If you’d rather not create your own scavenger hunt, UKloo is a wonderful scavenger hunt that’s all ready to go. Here’s my review of this excellent game.

Two more things you need to know: First, I’m baking cookies as I write this post, so my whole house smells like literacy. Yum. And second, you know that I don’t get paid by any companies to endorse products, right? I’m just always on the lookout for excellent literacy games and toys. And I find ‘em, oh yes, I find ‘em!

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Get your kid excited about the news

newspapersEvery week, I do a half-hour presentation at my son’s school on “the news.”

It’s often the best half-hour of my week. And a lot of the kids – and the parents – tell me they look forward to the class.

What I do is pretty simple; you can do it, too. Either at your kids’ school (especially if they’ve got an open-minded teacher like ours) or just at home.

What it will do for your kid is to get him interested in reading the newspaper, following news stories and learning about what’s going on in the world. You’ll be helping him develop a life-long habit of curiosity and general knowledge.

Here’s what I do
I read the newspapers for a week. Simple – most of us do it anyway. So at the end of the week I know stuff, like that Kim Jong-Il died, and that there’s a problem in Syria, and that Sidney Crosby’s out of the game again, and that Justin Bieber’s in Toronto doing a charity concert. In other words – the news.

Then, once a week, I tell the kids about it.

And although it’s a class of grade fours and fives, when I’m talking about the news you can hear a pin drop. That’s because kids are very interested in knowing what’s happening.

In half an hour I might do six or seven stories. The most important thing I do is to use my “adult” knowledge of the world and put events in context. For instance, when an adult reads “Kim Jong-Il has died,” we think “uh-oh – what will that mean for South Korea?” Whereas kids think, “What is a Kim Jong-Il?”

So I open by explaining that there’s a country in Asia called North Korea, and for 17 years it’s been run by guy named Kim Jong-Il… and I explain. I don’t get too graphic and I certainly avoid scary stuff – and I try to point out the positives. For instance, in this case to illustrate his eccentric nature I tell them about how Kim Jong-Il used to dress up as Elvis and sing Blue Suede Shoes. The kids laugh but then they quickly jump to the understanding that if the leader of your country is doing that stuff, it may be amusing but it’s probably not good.

One of the kids in the class is now working on a news website himself. He wants to become a journalist. My son is thinking about a career as a sports journalist. Other kids in the class go home and talk about the news with their parents. One time, I had a parent come up to me and say, “my son explained to me what the G8 is!” So that’s pretty fun.

More than that, the kids are reading. Reading. Seeing newspapers as relevant to them, and not just boring adult stuff.

Since newspapers are not specifically kid-friendly, I point kids to our website, TeachingKidsNews.com, which offers daily kid-friendly news articles. You certainly don’t have to use this website, but if you need kid-friendly news articles, it’s always appropriate. Plus, it’s free.

However you do it, introduce your kids to the news. You’ll quickly find out that they want to know what’s happening in the world, and not just what the toy companies tell them is important. And it’ll get them reading.

 

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“Got caught reading, I did!”

Yoda gets caught readingIf you’re trying to encourage your child to read more, surround her with good examples. Read, yourself, especially when she’s around to see you setting a good example.

And here’s another good thing to do. Go to Get Caught Reading and print off one of their celebrity posters. You can download it for free and print it on your colour printer. Or, I just email my colour printing to a quick-printer and pick it up later. Costs about a buck or so to have them print something in colour on larger-sized paper.

Then you’ve got a great poster for your kid’s room.

When your child’s hero is seen reading, your child will get the message that reading is a worthwhile activity.

Get Caught Reading has sports heros like NBA players Jerryd Bayless and Grant Hill; fictional characters like Dora the Explorer, Clifford and The Rugrats; singers like Alicia Keys and Gloria Estefan; and celebrities like Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen.

Frankly, I don’t know half of them – but your kid will. (What is “Friday Night Lights,” anyway? No idea.)

And you’re not going to find the ones you really want – Justin Bieber or Hannah Montana. But it’s a collection that grows, so you can check back with them and maybe even post a note asking for your favourite celebrity to be included.

Postering your child’s wall with a celebrity reading. “Mmm! A good idea it is!” Yoda out.

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Fun new, brain-challenging jigsaw puzzle

Ji Ga Zo puzzleThey’ve finally come up with a new, addictive, fun and brain-saving type of jigsaw puzzle that kids will actually enjoy.

It’s difficult – if not downright impossible – to explain exactly how Ji Ga Zo works. You have to try it for yourself, and you’ll understand. (Which is why I asked Hasbro to send me one – I couldn’t figure it out from the literature and now I know why.)

Here’s what Ji Ga Zo (worst. product. name. ever.) is:

1) A puzzle that you create from your own photo.

2) A game in which you (or your kids) have to find pieces with specific icons on them and locate where they go using a grid (the “acorn” goes on A-15).

3) A game that teaches “orientation” since every piece can be fitted into the puzzle rightside-up, upside-down or sideways—and only one of those options is correct for each piece.

Ji Ga Zo puzzle, icon board

This is the icon board. Kids have to find the pieces that match up to these icons, and put them in place.

4) A puzzle that can be reused over and over again, with any picture you choose.

It’s a little hard to believe, isn’t it? I’ll try to explain it.

First, you choose a photo you’d like the puzzle to be. It can’t be just any photo—faces work best, and even they need to be close up and high-contrast. You put the Ji Ga Zo (how I hate that name!) in your computer and follow the very simple instructions to create an “icon board” for your specific photo.

You print out the icon board, which is a grid containing 300 one-centimetre squares. Each square contains an icon: it could be a house, a duck, an exclamation mark.

Then, you create the puzzle by finding the appropriate icons and fitting them onto your puzzle space according to the icon board… this sounds ridiculously difficult. In fact, it’s very easy—it’s just really, really hard to explain.

Ji Ga Zo (seriously, Hasbro, you couldn’t have called it Re-puzzler because it’s reusable or Griddle because it’s a puzzle with an icon grid? And these are just off the top of my head!) is very addictive and quite soothing. Harkens you back to those days when you and your mom would sit in the kitchen doing a puzzle, something we rarely take the time to do these days. And because it’s a puzzle of your child’s face, you’re more likely to want to continue making it until it’s done. And so is your kid.

The puzzle pieces are very sturdy and fit nicely together. There’s none of the wiggle-wobbling and coming apart so common to cheaper puzzles.

And you can make it easier for younger kids by sorting the puzzle pieces according to colour. Really young kids can simply help you find the pieces, which they’d find really fun. Slightly older kids can find pieces that are sorted by colour and try to find them on the grid. Older kids can do the whole thing, with or without your help.

The image itself is going to be sort of abstract. It’s not going to be a great representation of your child’s face, because it’s actually made up of shadow and light. Again, you have to see it to understand. And if you don’t have a photo you want to use, the game comes with a few including the Mona Lisa.

So here’s what I recommend. Don’t hesitate to buy Ji Ga-whatsit. It would be good for a birthday present for a party your child’s going to, or a present from gramma for your own kid. And it’s definitely got some great learning components. And it’s fun.

Once I find out from Hasbro how much it costs and where to buy it, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, I’m thinking of offering a contest to rename this thing…

Update: Hasbro got  back to me… $24.99. Name’s staying.

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Current events

I’ve been doing current events at my son’s school.

I approached my son’s teacher a few weeks ago, and proposed a weekly, half-hour current events discussion for the grade 3 / 4 class. My son’s teacher is very cool, and progressive and totally supported the idea. He also helped to provide structure for my amateur (I’m a journalist, not a teacher) efforts.

I’ve gone in twice now, and the kids do seem to enjoy it.

It occurred to me that what I’m doing with the class can easily be done by parents (and educators) with their own kids.

The Current Events class
The first class was a review of the news from the past few days. I wanted to tell the kids about some of the major news stories that were unfolding – like the oil spill and the G20 summit that’s coming to our city this summer. And then I just picked out a bunch of interesting stories that I thought kids could relate to.

I held up each newspaper article, read the headline and then explained what the article was about. I also gave a bit of information about the various newspapers available in Canada and what they were all about. I talked to them about “how” to read a newspaper – for instance, you don’t have to read every word of an article – and how to understand headlines even though they’re often written in a very truncated way.

We talked about the G20 summit – what it is and the various ways in which it would impact the city. And the oil spill, and what BP was trying to do to stop it (including shoving golf balls into the pipe! We had a show of hands as to how many kids thought that would work.)

And then we reviewed a handful of other stories including the discovery of some new species in New Guinea, the fact that our city is missing millions of dollars in unpaid speeding ticket fines, and Robert Munsch’s revelation of his alcohol addiction (we were careful to present that in a positive light—how he had overcome adversity).

The children were very interested in the news and how it affects them. For many of them, it was an introduction to parts of the newspaper that didn’t have comics or Sudoku.

And then the teacher did something really, really smart. He took a vote on which stories the kids wanted me to follow up on the next week. That way, we could see what the kids were interested in and hone the presentation to be of the most interest.

The kids picked the G20, the oil spill and the species, which I thought was an incredibly mature list—this is some heavy stuff.

Week 2
The second week I followed up on the G20: the $1B security tab for the summit, and the many tourist attractions (including the CN Tower) that will be shut down during the talks. And I was also able to report that the golf-ball idea is going ahead – and that one of the back-up plans is to use human hair to clog the spill. Seriously. (No one in the class thinks that will work, either. Maybe BP should call us.)

And we added in a few new stories that were interesting that week: the boy in Alberta who was refused the right to wear a kilt to his graduation (his principal has since changed his mind); the million works of art that are currently in the hands of the Toronto District School Board and which may be loaned out to schools; and the fact that vending machines in our city’s recreation centres will be going healthy (the class cheered).

Reading the news is a fantastic literacy exercise. Kids are keen to know what’s going on around them, but newspapers can be daunting. Headlines are hard to read and articles generally require a lot of general and historic knowledge in order to understand them. But once an adult puts things in context, kids just jump right in.

And that’s a gigantic step towards getting kids reading.

Sorry I haven’t been blogging as much as usual – but you can see how busy I’ve been. Add our school’s FunFest and other activities to the mix, on top of my “money-making” job and it hasn’t left much time for blogging. But I hope to be back on the horse again soon.

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