Numerous articles citing various studies like to point out the importance of reading aloud to young children in order to help them develop a proper grasp of language skills. In addition, conversations around the family dinner table are hailed as instrumental in cultivating verbal and social skills necessary to conduct proper conversations.
I certainly don’t discount the importance of reading aloud to children or prioritizing dinnertime conversation. These are some of the foundation blocks upon which conversational skills are built. (Those of us who are not fond of repetitiously reading children’s books aloud can always outsource the task to more patient souls.)
In our family, however, linguistic excellence is more than just an academic goal enhanced by frequent reading and family conversations—it permeates every aspect of our lives. We correct grammar, we make literary puns, we quote our favorite lines from books, and we play lots and lots of games with words.
I don’t suppose these games are solely responsible for our kids’ general affinity for language arts, but they certainly contribute to their comfort with their mother tongue. Our 7-year-old is highly conscious of rhymes and palindromes, for instance, although he was so very fond of exclaiming, “Hey, it rhymes!” that I had to explain the difference between actual rhymes and mere assonance.
Here are three of our favorite games involving words.
The License-Plate Game
I assume this one was originally invented to relieve the tedium of long car trips, but it’s a classic whenever out and about. The premise is to take a sequence of three letters—as normally appears on your standard license plate—and craft the best word from it. According to the rules under which my family operated, the word must have a minimum of four letters; no proper or foreign words are allowed; in case of a tie, alphabetical precedence wins; and the second place goes to the longest word. It’s not an uncommon thing to hear dialogues like the following ring out: “VBZ: verbalize!”
Alas for our errand-running verbal adventures! We now reside in a state where the cost of vanity plates is so ridiculously low that it seems most cars now sport customized plates instead of the standard three-letter-three-number pattern. We still play this game, though, using Scrabble pieces, pens, and paper. The advantage of playing this at home is that we can time the rounds and record best words.
Even now, whenever I see any random three-letter combination, I’m likely to call out, “Hey! What’s the best word you can make with B-Y-G?”
The Poem Game
This crowd-pleasing parlor game is a family favorite. A piece of lined paper and a writing implement per player are the only props required. (A table is helpful, but not necessary.) Each person writes down one line, then passes the paper to his or her neighbor, who must compose a line to rhyme with the first line and then another line. The process repeats itself until each paper returns to the original owner, or until a pre-determined length (say, eight lines).
One variation requires an original line of poetry, resulting in rambling masterpieces like the following:
At the dawn of the day when the dew was still new
The birds were all flitting in boughs of the yew;
The badger was digging, the larks they did flit
But my heart was heavy, way down in the pit.
My girl had been stolen by a Don Juan
(A lovely horse he had ridden upon)
With soft words on his lips but a blackened heart
What a sad end to a promising start!
Another variation allows the usage of famous first lines, leading to such auspicious beginnings as:
Listen, my children, and you shall hear
How Paul Revere drank all the beer
I think that I shall never see;
My contact lens fell in my tea
Once upon a midnight gloomy
Pled a lawyer, “Please don’t sue me!”
This fun game, invented by my grandfather, is a bit of an anachronism, as it requires a lot of headlines clipped from newspapers. My grandfather maintained a collection of headlines, and we played this game frequently during family reunions while I was growing up. Basically, everyone picks two headlines at random from the box, tapes them to a blank piece of paper, and then spends about five minutes composing a short article that ties the two headlines together, preferably in as hilarious a manner as possible. After five minutes, everyone passes his paper to his neighbor and takes turns reading aloud his selection. This game hones writing skills, creative storytelling, quick thinking, and mellifluous reading ability.
Beyond these personal family favorites, there always are the standard word games such as Boggle, Scrabble, Scattergories, and Balderdash, to name a few. If word games haven’t been your cup of tea hitherto, give them a try. Learning is so much more memorable when it’s fun!
Photo Credit: Images courtesy of author.