Every parent and early childhood educator has experienced the pleasure and confusion of sentences such as ‘The door is eating an onion’ or ‘Pickles and pineapple in the park!’ followed by a bellowing laugh. Young children acquire language at a remarkable rate. And just like everything else in their environment, words can be played with too. As young children hear new words, they manipulate them, twist them, rhyme them, stretch them out, and jumble them for their amusement.
Reading specific words on a page requires a more straightforward approach. The sentences are already created, and the joy comes from the meaning. However, educators are increasingly recognizing the value of utilizing a child’s fascination with words when teaching literacy. It is why young children are encouraged to make up their own stories as they look at the pictures. Other tools for teaching emergent readers include silly poems, tongue twisters, and books with extremely whimsical language (e.g. Dr. Seuss). These build on a child’s innate desire to view words as toys and engage with them as such.
While recently observing at a kindergarten classroom, the teacher had the sentence, ‘Good morning! Today is ______! Who wants to go to the_______?’ As children walked in, they ran towards the chart, touched the words, read them with different levels of fluency and support, and filled in the blanks with the endless possibilities of their imaginations. Some were very pleased filling in this sentence with ‘Thursday’ and ‘playground.’ Others decided that today would be ‘banana’ and that they wanted to go the ‘Moon.’ I watched as a parent furled his eyebrows and asked the teacher the point of this ‘nonsense.’ The teacher smiled and pointed out that the words on the chart were high-frequency words, that the children were changing their voices to indicate punctuation, that they were recognizing sentence structures, and, most importantly, reading for fun. The parent looked at the chart once again, now seeing all the benefits, smiled and said, ‘Ooooh!’
This inspired us to create our latest learning activity, Wordplay Mix & Match. In this activity, children can experiment with building their own silly sentences, while learning about nouns, verbs, sentence structure and punctuation.
Creating and reading silly sentences also allows for conversations about meaning. Asking a child, ‘Does that make sense?’ and laughing along with them makes the children consider the meaning of the written text.
Emergent readers, who are caught up with decoding words, often miscue and do not stop to consider what they have just read. They depend on visual cues, such as initial letter sounds, but do not give much attention to meaning. Therefore, an emergent reader might read ‘The roots of the tree are in the ground’ as ‘The rooms of the tree are in the ground’ and not see anything wrong with this sentence. Wordplay with children is not only fun for them, it promotes key literacy skills such as reading for meaning.