Eggcellent Activities: Scrambled Words

One of the things I often see in posts from other teachers is a need for more ways to practice spelling and vocabulary words. Last year I shared with you three of our favorite spelling games: Spin & Spell, Magnetic Spelling, and Body Boggle. Today I’d like to share with you another activity we often use to practice spelling and vocabulary: Scrambled Words. Besides being hands-on, relatively easy to set up, and good vocabulary practice, this activity is yet another way to use those plastic eggs that are so prevalent this time of year. So, if Contraction Eggs and Coin Eggs were a hit in your room, get ready for another eggcellent idea!

Supplies you’ll need:

  • Letter tiles (I use Scrabble tiles, but you can use anything that has a single letter on it and fits into the egg)
  • Plastic eggs
  • An egg carton (I make one set for every 4-6 students)
  • A recording sheet (described below)

Preparation:

Recording Sheet: I try to keep this very simple. I make three columns: egg number, picture and/or definition, word. The only column I fill in for students is the picture and/or definition. The students record the number from the egg in which they find the word in the egg number column (so I can be sure they actually unscrambled the letters in the eggs), and they write the word in the word column (to practice the spelling). The picture/definition takes this from a simple spelling exercise to a vocabulary exercise by giving the students at least some context for the word.

The Eggs: Each egg is numbered, 1-12 or 1-18 (depending on the size of my word list and carton). I then place the letter tiles to spell one word from our list into each egg. I do not put the words into eggs in the same order as the recording sheet. Doing so would defeat the point of having to unscramble the letters, students would be able to just write the words from the picture/definition alone.

The letter tiles can get a little expensive, especially if you are (like me) making quite a few different sets (we use this activity with nearly all of our themed vocabulary units and our phonics based vocabulary units). I have found letter tiles cheaper on eBay, but even that can get expensive after awhile. My solution was to employ the services of my woodworking father again. He sanded scrap wood and cut it into squares of approximately the same size as Scrabble tiles for me. I then wrote the letters I needed on the wood using a Sharpie marker. The result wasn’t as fancy, but it worked and was much cheaper.

At first I considered reusing the same eggs and letter tiles, just mixing up the combinations for the different lists, but I taught the same units over and over again and didn’t want to have to remake my eggs every year. Instead, I labeled the end of each carton with the unit information so I can quickly grab the set I want. Over the years there have been times when I no longer used a particular set (such as when the curriculum changed), and so those cartons were recycled and the eggs & tiles were reused to make new sets.

In Class Use:

I’ve used Scrambled Words in two ways. Sometimes we’ll do it as part of our whole class practice time. In those instances, I give a set of eggs and recording sheets to each group of students and let them work. The other way I’ve used this activity is as a center activity. I place 1-2 sets of eggs in the center along with a stack of recording sheets. When students get to that center in the rotation, they do the activity and leave their completed recording sheet inside a folder for me to check later.

The only problem I’ve ever run into with this activity is occasionally students will get the letters for two different eggs mixed up, or won’t get all of the letters back into a particular egg. I always remind students to only do one egg at a time, making sure to put the letters for that egg away before getting another one out, but accidents do happen. I am always careful to record on a small piece of paper I can keep in the carton (and remove before giving it to students) a key that tells me what word is in each egg. That allows me to quickly check that all the eggs have the correct letters in them before putting them away to await the next time we need them.

Conclusion:

The first time I tried this activity I didn’t know how it would go over, especially with my middle school and adult students. They didn’t find it too childish though and it is a good way to practice spelling/vocabulary words that’s not writing them over and over again. Scrambled Words, along with Spin & Spell and Magnetic Spelling, is a staple in our vocabulary units, both the themed sets and our phonics based units. So, if you’re looking for a new way to practice spelling and vocabulary words, consider giving Scrambled Words a try. I think your students will like it. Happy teaching, everyone!

Phonics Based Vocabulary Acquisition

Set 1
Set 2
Bundle: sets 1 & 2

One year, soon after returning to the USA and K-12 ESL, the intervention dean at my school told me to, “do whatever it takes to improve our ELL’s reading scores.” We had a large number of beginning and low intermediate English language learners in upper elementary and middle school who were reading at a kindergarten or first grade level. Most of these students were classified as having limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE) and fewer than half of the students (and their parents) could read or write in their first languages (primarily Bengali and Arabic). Many different research-based curriculums and interventions had been tried, none produced significant results. Our students were falling further and further behind. Since I was taking an action research course as part of my second master’s degree studies at the time, I decided to make this problem the focus of my research. The question I finally settled on was, “Will intensive and direct phonics instruction help English language learners become better readers more quickly than the general English language development that has been provided to them in the past?” I then spent the next year developing a word family based phonics program and implementing it. I tracked student data for a total of three years and the results were staggering.

The year before I began using my phonics based vocabulary acquisition program, the students’ average growth on the NWEA reading test was 82% (100% is equal to one school year). At the end of the first year, students showed an average growth rate of 245%. The second year of implementation yielded an average growth rate of 336%, and the final year I tracked scores had an average growth rate of 268%. Needless to say, my dean was very happy with the results! After leaving that particular school, I used the same program quite successfully (average growth rate of 123%) with my primarily Spanish-speaking middle schoolers in a different district. While this second population of students were also classified as SLIFE, most could read and write in their first language, as could their parents. I believe the students’ first language literacy, and familiarity with the grapheme system, explain why the average rate of growth was lower.

Enough about the data, let’s talk about the program! The two levels consist of ten units each and begin with a focus on vowels. Set one covers the word families AT, AN/AD, AP/AG, OG/OP/OT, EG/EN/ET, UG/UN/UT, IG/ILL/IP, R-controlled vowels, and VCe (ake, ore, ine). Set two deals more with blends and diagraphs and includes the word families SH, CH, TH, WH, ST, QU, OI/OY, AW/AU, KN, and TION. I typically did a unit, or word family, each week, though I’d stretch it to two weeks for the longer units (those that include 20 words, rather than 12). We typically spent between 20 and 30 minutes a day on the different activities, and we met five days a week. Our typical daily lesson included a review of the sound we were focusing on (particularly the difference between short and long vowels), a read aloud (students would signal when they heard a word with the target sound), a student-read book (list of suggested books for teacher read aloud and students read times is included in the units), a word work game or activity, and a worksheet. Each Friday we’d do an assessment, testing students’ spelling and use of the words.

Some of the word work activities we did included:

  • Sort Cards- students would match a picture care with the corresponding word card. These cards were also used as prompts in other games, as a Memory-style game, and as flashcards.
  • Magnet Spelling– it was during the development of these units that I first discovered my middle schoolers enjoyed using magnets to practice their spelling. I eventually made picture strips for each unit and it became a regular part of our word work routine. You can read all of the details, and get a free digital template version, in the blog post from June, 2021.
  • Match Up Cards– these are cards I designed to go with the match up boards my father designed and built for me (get the free building plans in my TpT store). Students slide the picture cards into the left slot and the word list into the right slot. They then use rubber bands to match the picture to the correct word. (A blog post describing this activity in more detail is planned for May, 2022.)
  • Clip Cards- students use clothes pins to indicate the correct word for the picture in the center of the card. This is another activity I was surprised my middle schoolers enjoyed, but they did and so it too became part of our regular rotation.
  • Scrambled Words– described in the “Trash” section of Toys, Trash, or Teaching Treasures?, this activity involves students choosing a plastic egg and then using the Scrabble tiles inside it to spell a word. Students then record the word next to the correct picture on their recording sheet.
  • Spin, Spell, Sentence– this game was a favorite the students asked to play whenever we had five minutes left at the end of a class. As I explain in a previous blog post, I print CD labels with pictures from our list of target words. I then affix these labels to old CDs and DVDs, and use the CD Spinner my dad designed and built for me (free building plans in my shop). The student spins the spinner, states the word represented by the picture, spells the word, and uses it in a sentence.
  • Body Boggle– it was this set of units that also inspired Body Boggle and its many variations. It was my second group of middle schoolers (almost entirely boys) who came up with the team version–where each person on the team would take turns jumping to the next letter, sometimes running into one another in the process.

The worksheets we did each week were always the same.

  • Cut and Paste: students cut out pictures and glued them next to the target words.
  • Alphabetical Order: since most of the students were still working on mastering the English alphabet, this was an excellent way for them to practice writing their words and an important skill at the same time.
  • Crossword
  • Word search
  • Cloze (complete the sentences with the target words)
  • Journal: though not technically a worksheet, each student had his/her own journal with 1-2 pages for each word family. Each week the students used each of their words in a sentence. It didn’t take long before my middle schoolers began competing to see who could create a sentence with the most target words in it and still have it make sense.

Every Friday was assessment day. I always started by reading the words in random order, as one would when giving a spelling test. The students would write the words next to the appropriate picture in the table at the top of their test papers. This allowed me to asses their understanding of the vocabulary, as well as their ability to spell the word (they received one point for spelling it correctly and one point for placing it next to the correct picture). The second half of the test was a cloze, requiring students to write the words to complete the sentences.

When I first began this adventure I never could have imagined where it would end up. My dean and I were simply desperate to help our students improve and so decided to try something different. Ending up with a complete curriculum involving spinning CDs, plastic eggs, muffin tins (another review game), and jumping middle schoolers is definitely not what I expected! This past summer I spent some time updating this program. I added more links to supplemental resources and reading books, updated all of the images, and included a few extras (like the Jeopardy review games). I hope the program is helpful to many more students and teachers. Happy teaching, everyone!


Need the links again? Try these buttons, one for each set and one for the bundle (a 20% savings):

Magnetic Spelling

Free Digital Magnetic Spelling Template

When I returned to the USA and started working with middle school students who, due to limited or interrupted education, were struggling with literacy in English, I increased my use of hands on activities. Many of my students were coming to me with first languages that were not based off the Latin alphabet, most had script or symbol based first languages. Most couldn’t read or write in their first language, and neither could their parents. They were struggling with new skills, a new language, and a new alphabet. Hands on activities were a requirement and I tried as many as I could find. I was pleasantly surprised when magnetic spelling became a hit with my middle schoolers, then later my adult learners as well.

I was so convinced that magnetic spelling wouldn’t be a hit with my older learners that I didn’t even buy magnetic letters at first, I borrowed them from the kindergarten teacher. Then we tried it and the students enjoyed it. Later we did another vocabulary lesson, this time without magnetic spelling, and the students asked about it. When the students asked about doing magnetic spelling during yet another vocabulary unit, and then another, I knew it was time to bring it back, permanently this time.

Magnetic spelling is really a very simple activity. All you need are some magnetic letters (as you can see in the picture, mine are a mixture of capital and lower case, but it really doesn’t matter), a metal object to place them on (I use cookie sheets from the dollar store), and some way to communicate the words you want students to spell (I give them a strip with pictures and/or definitions of the terms). Pass out your materials and let the students go to work. Since we always have more words than I can fit on a single strip, students will spell their words, raise their hands (and probably call out “Miss!” or “Teacher!”), I quickly look over the spellings, and if correct take the first strip and give them the second. Once they’ve finished all of their words I recruit them to help me check the work of other students.

This activity is now a standard part of all of my vocabulary units and I automatically create magnet spelling strips to go along with all of our other vocabulary activities. My older students all enjoy digging through the boxes of letters and chatting with one another as they work. Since I have multilingual classes it provides students with the opportunity to practice speaking in English in a very low pressure environment. The use of the magnet letters also provides students who are new to the English alphabet, especially those whose first languages have a very different alphabet, the opportunity to practice distinguishing between similar letters such as U-V-W, B-D, o-a, and E-F. I’ve also been impressed by their creative problem solving skills, such as turning a W upside-down to make an M or using a lower case L in place of an uppercase I.

Covid restrictions and regulations might have made this activity impossible (even if we could have met in person, sharing the magnets would not have been allowed), but I created a simple digital version of it instead. It doesn’t produce quite the same interaction and results as the physical activity, but it does get the job done. You can get your own free digital “magnetic” spelling template using the links here in the text, or by clicking the picture above. Make copies of the slide, add your pictures or definitions, share it with students, and you’re ready to go. The letters are “infinite” piles of 20 (later this summer I’ll do a blog post that explains how to make “infinite” piles) that students can drag and drop onto the slide to spell the words.

If you’re interested in how this fits into my overall vocabulary units, you can read about all of the various activities in the blog post Vocabulary Activities, or you can get the ESL Vocabulary Practice Bundle that covers many different topics. Also available are the Phonics Based Vocabulary Acquisition Units that I developed and was using when I first tried out magnetic spelling (freshly updated this past winter). I know this seems like a strange activity for middle, high school, and adult learners, I was surprised at their interest as well, but it really is one of the more popular vocabulary activities we do. Happy teaching, everyone!

Spin & Spell

My family is full of good sports, at one time or another all of them have been pulled into helping with my teaching ideas in some way. My father is quite possibly the most patient of all, and has definitely been pulled in more often than most (he even pulled empty paint cans out of the garbage in another state for my Paint Can Question Words activity). He’s always been quick to jump in and help bring my imaginings and plans to life, and without his help the game I’d like to share with you today wouldn’t work nearly as well.

One afternoon one of the other ESL teachers and I were talking about a game we wanted to play with students. The problem was the game required a spinner, and we were trying to figure out the best way to go about creating one. We finally hit upon the idea of using Avery CD Labels to print the face, and sticking the labels on old CDs to form the spinner itself. The problem was how to actually use the spinners. We tried spinning them around pencils and stopping them with a finger. We could get it to work, but the students struggled to hold the pencil, spin the CD, and stop it without something going flying off in a direction it wasn’t meant to. Then we tried spinning them around a single finger. A couple of band-aids later we realized the flaw in that plan. We finally gave up for the afternoon and went our separate ways to think about the problem.

At a later time I was describing the problem to my father and expressing my desire for some type of stand to act as our spinner frame. My father asked a few questions, lead me down to his workshop, dug out some scrap wood, and soon presented me with a spinner stand (pictured), asking if it would do. Not only did it “do,” but it was exactly what we needed!

Fast forward a few years and I now have a collection of CD spinner stands (handcrafted by my father, of course), as well as a large collection of scratched, outdated, or otherwise useless CDs and DVDs awaiting labels. I make labels to use in place of dice for games, labels specifically for games, labels for vocabulary practice, and for a host of other uses. One of my students’ favorite games to play with CD spinners though is Spin ‘N Spell.

Spin ‘N Spell is a very simple game that I started playing with my students to help them practice vocabulary and spelling. I create a spinner by printing pictures or definitions of their spelling or vocabulary words in the various sections. The students then take turns spinning the CD, naming the vocabulary word represented, spelling the word, and using it in a sentence. They get one point for identifying the word, one for spelling it correctly, and one for creating a unique sentence (no fair repeating someone else’s sentence) with the word. Each turn has the potential of earning between one and three points, and it is rare that a student will earn zero points. The spinner and stand are then passed to the next student who spins, identifies, spells, and creates a sentence. Play continues until a designated point value is reached, or we run out of time.

Spin ‘N Spell is great because it is quick to set up (the CDs and spinner stands live in my classroom year round), simple to understand, and can be played for any length of time. It makes for a perfect brain break, or five-minutes-left-in-the-period activity. The students enjoy it and like trying to come up with the funniest or most unique sentences possible. The best part is that it really does improve their vocabulary and spelling skills.

If you’re thinking, “That’s great for you, but what am I supposed to do?” fear not. You too can have your own set of cd spinners. The building plans are available for free via the button or links above. A very basic level of woodworking skill is required to assemble them, but even I (who was very nearly and eighth grade shop drop out) can put one together, so you can too, or you can find someone who’ll do it for you. (Time to make friends with the shop teacher?) If you can’t get spinner stands made, you can always try spinning the CDs around pencils or some other object…just learn from our mistake and avoid using your finger as the object. Happy teaching, everyone!