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Read Time: 11.5 minutes
Fun Learning Activities Based on Sound Academic Principles
Dress-ups, silly songs, and giggles. Rapping and tapping with improvised instruments. Making hats for fat cats and bats. The children don’t even realize they are learning.
You can trust the McKay School to deliver academically solid educational materials for the young learner. Professors Barbara Culatta and Kendra Hall-Kenyon offer some activities from the popular Systematic and Engaging Early Literacy (SEEL), found at education.byu.edu/seel in English and Spanish, and the learning app Hideout, found in the iTunes store. Go ahead—we hear it is fun for adults too.
Scripted-play activities use a theme-based sequence of events in a story-like fashion. Together the children and adult take on character roles, encounter a problem, set a goal, make attempts to achieve the goal, and react to the results of their attempts. For example, the book Sheep on a Ship by Nancy E. Shaw tells the story of sheep that sail into a storm on their deep-sea trip. Children can be guided through an imaginary ship trip. Players skip to a ship, slip and trip getting on the ship, grip onto the ship as the ship starts to zip quickly along, feel the ship tip and flip, and get sprinkled with the drips of water from the wet ship as the ship dips down.
Activities can include manipulating interesting hands-on materials. Provided with readily available recycled materials, children explore props that highlight target words and word endings.
Children can use scrap paper to wrap simple water-bottle caps or shampoo caps with lids that flap and snap. They can also manipulate caps as they read and recite a chant: “Tap, tap, tap a cap; flap, flap, flap a cap; snap, snap, snap a cap; slap, slap, slap a cap; clap, clap, clap a cap; and then we stop!”
Another SEEL activity involves cutting the top off recyclable water bottles. Children are told that the top of the bottle is the spout—the part where the water comes out—and that it looks like a snout. Children then experience an activity in which they shout out the spout.
A game-like routine consists of a predictable action sequence with recurring key words that target a literacy skill. One example that is designed to teach the initial sp- blend entails spilling, sprinkling, or spooning spools (empty thread spools) to see if they land on spots or spaces between the spots and then spinning the spools on spots or in spaces.
In an interactive routine focused on the -et word ending, children make paper airplanes with -et words written on them and attempt to get the jet in a net that the adult holds over a blue piece of paper to represent water. “Did you get your jet into the net? Or did your jet get wet?”
Art and construction projects entail creating things. One activity highlights -ap words as children make wearable caps out of scraps by snapping on flaps, straps, and snaps (paper ones) with a stapler. SEEL art activities permit children to explore sound and word patterns through music and movement (see the “Pig in a Wig” or “Rap a Tap” lesson plans on the SEEL website). The intent is to capture children’s interest, maintain their attention, and ensure that encounters with the literacy patterns are remembered.
Principles of Playful Practice
In addition to presenting children with compelling lesson activities, a strong program should draw upon instructional strategies that increase playfulness, draw attention to phonic patterns, and provide frequent opportunities to practice particular reading and writing skills. Playful and engaging instructional interactions occur as adults convey enthusiasm and emotion, facilitate conversational turn-taking, arrange for children to read and write about the activities, and connect hands-on with digital experiences.
When conducting SEEL activities, the adult should model an energetic, playful stance. This enthusiasm is displayed in expressions of positive affect, animated gestures, and the use of varied facial expressions and intonation. Interacting in a playful, entertaining way serves to maintain children’s interest and call their attention to targeted word patterns.
Closely related to conveying enthusiasm is expressing emotion. In addition to the basic emotions of happy, sad, mad, and afraid, the adult evokes and expresses emotions such as curiosity, amazement, frustration, and surprise. The adult uses intonation, gestures, emotion words, and facial expressions to convey this array of feelings.
For example, surprise is conveyed in an activity in which a balloon with a fat cat drawn on it starts to fly erratically around the room so that the fat cat goes splat and becomes flat. Another example occurs when children stop at a soda pop store and then hop away from the shop with a can of pop and then pop off the top and watch the can go “pop!” and slop all over the place. In an activity that deals with the theme of managing trash, the adult can be puzzled about how to fit trash into a trash can, delighted when bashing and smashing trash makes the trash fit, and surprised when bashing trash creates a crashing noise and even some splashing.
The expression, stimulation, and simulation of such emotions increases children’s memory of the learning experiences.
The adult facilitates conversational interactions by responding to children’s contributions and, when possible, incorporating their ideas into the activity. Elaborating on children’s verbalizations lets them know that what they say is valued. For example, if a child starts to put tags all over a rag in an activity that entails making tags and rags for rag bags, the adult can comment, “Wow, tags and tags on rags and bags. A rag with lots of tags!” The adult exposes children to a target literacy pattern as she elaborates on children’s verbal contributions and comments on their actions. Responding to what children say and do is one way to keep up a two-way exchange.
Within the SEEL activities, adults also provide children with reasons to read and write targeted words to achieve communicative functions. In an activity that entails making hats for cats and bats, the adult can give the child choices (“Want to make a fat hat for a bat or a flat hat for a cat?”), ask questions (“Is that a hat for a cat or a hat for a bat?”), arrange for the child to convey information (“We make fat and flat hats for cats and bats.”), and provide instructions (“Put three hats on the cat and one hat on the bat.”). The adult capitalizes on varied communicative functions to model and evoke target words and to arrange for children to encounter reasons to read and write those same targeted phonic patterns.
In addition to finding reasons to read and write within the activities, children are provided with the opportunity to read controlled, personalized texts after they have encountered an experience. For example, the children taking a ship trip can read the following text:
Let’s go on a ship trip.
Skip to the ship!
Do not trip. Do not slip.
The ship zips along.
The ship tips and flips.
And the ship dips down in the water.
The ship drips. And we drip too!
With supported shared reading strategies, children read phonic patterns they encountered during the activities. The texts and ideas for writing about the activities are included as part of the activity plans available on the website.
SEEL also uses digital materials to support children’s reading and writing about their experiences. Digital books are created with bookmaking apps as children are supported in writing about or dictating their experience and illustrating their e-books with pictures taken during instruction. After participating in writing about what they did, the children engage in reading what they wrote. Their experiences are turned into personal digital books.
The use of digital media is an additional way to provide children with opportunities to practice using targeted literacy skills. For example, after a hands-on experience with the popcorn shop activity, children gain additional practice through a virtual experience of popping pop-corn and then making it stop when it overflows. Digital experiences such as this one are provided from an iPad app—Hideout: Early Reading—that was inspired by SEEL activities and is intended to be used as a supplement to the hands-on activities provided on the website. The app, which contains a large core of free learning activities, gives children theme-based, digitally delivered experiences that they read and write about.
This early literacy instructional approach uses many activity types that permit frequent and varied exposure to literacy skills. The program uses the principle of frequent exposure and others to provide explicit and engaging literacy instruction to young children. SEEL focuses on teaching children critical sound awareness and phonics skills that will lead them to later reading success.
Want to learn more about early literacy apps? Visit joanganzcooneycenter.org to read the authors’ blog post entitled “Five Questions Everyone Should Ask Before Choosing Early Literacy Apps.” See goo.gl/JPbrsm for a direct link.
Barbara Culatta is a professor of communication disorders at BYU. She completed her PhD at the University of Pittsburgh and her postdoctoral fellowship at Johns Hopkins University. Barbara has written books, chapters, and journal articles on language and literacy interventions. Her research evaluates the effectiveness of assessment and intervention procedures related to improving children's language, literacy, and communicative functioning.
Kendra M. Hall-Kenyon is a professor of early childhood education and department chair in the Department of Teacher Education at Brigham Young University. Hall-Kenyon’s research focuses on early literacy instruction and assessment and early childhood teacher education.