I have an eleven-year-old nephew, George, who has been struggling a bit with reading over the last few years. Our family had been attempting to improve his vocabulary via what we considered to be “traditional” methods; after all, if something works and is tried and true, why mess with it?
For the record, when I say “traditional,” I mean that my family and I were using enrichment books which focused primarily on memorization of new words. Tutoring is expensive, and we have the time, so we thought as long as we had the right materials, we could handle the tutoring ourselves. Boy, were we wrong! Unfortunately, this process was not only ineffective, but horribly boring for all parties involved–I consider myself lucky that none of us passed out from boredom!
I had to come up with an effective way to teach vocabulary that would help George to not only memorize the words, but use them practically as well. Now I understand the struggles that teachers go through on a daily basis–and I was just trying to help one kid! Ultimately, I came up with two methods: comics and video games. It worked better than I expected, to say the least.
“Write your own comic!” I suggested. Just to make things interesting, I told George that there was a comic competition and that the winner would receive a lot of money. George jumped up, grabbed some crayons, and pretty soon, he was well on his way to creating a comic. Before long, George gave me his first draft and asked what I thought.
“Uncle Joe, what do you think? Can it win?” he inquired, barely able to contain his excitement.
“Perhaps….the characters don’t sound too serious, though.”
“What do you mean?”
“When they talk, it just seems so…boring. Everything is just ‘nice’ or ‘mean.’” I saw the look in his eyes of frustration. I gave him some examples of comics I had on hand so that he could see the difference in language. He stormed off and came back about an hour later with a new comic, which I approved of. This time, he used much more complex vocabulary and made it much more emotional as a result. About a week later, I told him that he had lost, but that there would be another competition. He didn’t write one again, but now George is using the words he used in the comics in the proper situation with striking accuracy.
Okay, I admit it–I’m not the first person in the world to think of using educational video games to help my children, but hey, it’s a great idea. George, like many kids of his day (heck, even my day) loves to play video games. So, as an early holiday gift, I bought him some Nintendo DS educational games. Now, I learned from my sister and her husband something which helped quite a bit: never tell your child the video game will help them learn! Tell them that, and they won’t touch it! Knowing this, I said nothing about the games’ educational content–I just gave them to him, and he started playing bit by bit whenever we all went on a long drive. I started noticing last weekend that his vocabulary is beginning to improve, and he is using words that I have never heard him use before.
Lesson here for me: Sometimes, helping a child learn vocabulary (or anything else, for that matter!) requires some creative thinking that goes beyond traditional methods.