Workshop Wednesday: Tactile Learning Bag

Children benefit from learning through all their senses and through all learning styles. Visual, eyes-only methods leave out so much of what a child uses to learn: the small muscles of fingers and hands, the big muscles of legs and arms, hearing, smelling, tasting, and so on. By removing eyes from the learning process, even for a few moments, we can actually enhance our students’ learning abilities. Tactile (touching) methods provide many more details to the brain than can be taken in through eyes alone, something which is especially vital for those who have trouble learning or remembering things that have only been seen.

Take one drawstring bag, paper sack, wine gift bag, cloth shopping bag, pillow case, clean sock (all stretched out works best), etc. Dump in pattern blocks, foam beads, letter shapes, number shapes, or random objects. Challenge your students to reach into the bag, feel around, and find a certain shape or object. No peeking allowed, just feeling shapes with fingers to find the right one. It’s a good idea to begin with just a few objects in the bag and work up to more. Also, use only one type of items at a time, unless your kids are prepared for a really big challenge!

Tactile learners will do really well with this type of activity — their fingers are already well acquainted with gathering information, and their minds are already used to forming a mental picture from that tactile information. NON-tactile learners will benefit tremendously from these activities and expand their ability to learn from touching, which is why it’s good to start small and let them get accustomed to identifying shapes with just their fingers. Turning this activity into a game will help expand those tactile skills in a very fun way.

When my kids were preschool age, we had a Lauri Fit-a-Space puzzle set. They loved to pop the shapes out of the circular bases (Lauri calls them “faces,” but my kids called them “pizzas”) and put all the loose shapes into a paper sack. Then they would feel around in the sack to find the correct shape to fit into their chosen base. I also made very simple bingo-type cards by tracing around a few shapes on each card and coloring them in with crayons to match the pieces. My preschoolers got shape and color matching practice in a fun, self-testing activity, trying to find just the right square or heart or oval to go on the cards. (I let them search through a pile of pieces on the table for the color matching.)

A child who is having difficulty learning letter shapes or one who reverses letters can benefit from tactile identification activities. Frequently, a child who mixes up the visual appearance of certain letters is more of a tactile learner, so giving them touchy-feely activities with those letters will help their brains sort out the information and clear up their confusion. For example, let’s use 3-dimensional letters, such as the magnetic letters that live on refrigerator doors and put a single letter into a paper sack (not letting the child see which letter it is), and let the child reach inside and feel the letter’s shape with one or both hands (use a pillow case for ease of getting both hands inside). Now let’s ask this child to find the matching letter on an alphabet chart. I recommend using upper case letters only at this point — fewer opportunities for reversals, and much less confusion over shapes. Consider tracing around each letter to make your own alphabet chart, especially if another chart would vary slightly in the shapes of the letters you have. (Differences to look for: some R’s have an angled “leg,” and others have a straighter leg; some M’s have vertical legs, and others have angled legs; some M’s have an inner “V” that extends to the base line, others have a shorter “v” that only comes down halfway.) Let the child lay the letter shape on top of its matching letter on the chart, and then you can drop another mystery letter into the sack — lather, rinse, repeat. Advanced students can start with all the letters in the sack at once and pull out each one as it is identified. Very advanced students can search through the entire contents of the sack with their fingers to see if they can find specific letters as needed.

When your student has mastered upper case letter shapes, he will probably be ready to tackle lower case letters, even with their look-alike b’s, d’s, p’s, and q’s (not to mention the n’s and u’s that can also feel alike). This activity can be varied again by using number shapes, giving your student the opportunity to notice that 6’s and 9’s can often look and feel very much alike. Ditto for 2’s and 5’s, and sometimes 1’s and 7’s.

Whether the bag contains letters, numbers, geometric pattern blocks, geometric-shaped beads, or random objects, students of all ages can test their own tactile skills by feeling a piece, making a guess at what it is, and then pulling it out of the bag to check. Students with highly developed tactile skills may want to try identifying the letters carved into Scrabble tiles or the number of dots impressed into dominoes, but those activities will be much too difficult for the beginner!

A sack or bag can also add convenience to any games that use tiles or similar pieces. For years, we have kept a paper sack in our Scrabble game, to use instead of a “draw pile.” It takes up much less room on the table, passes easily around to each player, and flattens out fairly well to go back in the box for storage, even with the tiles still inside it. We have a designated cloth bag for our dominoes draw pile, and our Qwirkle game came with its own drawstring bag to draw from — game makers are catching on!

It should be our goal as parents and educators to teach our children how to learn in every possible situation, using every skill they possess. By starting with these simple tactile activities, we can improve skills they already have, provide them with new skills, and open up new realms of knowledge to feed their curiosity. And they may also be able to find their keys in the dark someday.

See also:

Tactile Learners

Math Awareness: Tactile  Counting

Workshop Wednesday: Pocket Charts (DIY)

Have you ever wished you had a pocket chart for use with your homeschool lessons? Letting kids insert flashcards into a pocket chart or rearrange them to suit the lesson concept can provide a tactile element to phonics, reading, spelling, math, geography, etc. If your cards are large enough (3×5″) or if the chart is on the wall or across the room, it can become a kinesthetic method, too. Sometimes you may have just a few uses for a pocket chart in your schooling, but not quite enough to justify investing your hard-earned funds in the fancy teacher-supply-store versions. Try these suggestions for making your own pocket charts.

Secure any of the following to a bulletin board or large sheet of poster board:

Paper envelopes (recycle some junk mail!); the front of the envelope (the side where the address would be written) will be attached to the poster board, so trim the back of the envelope (which will be the front of your pocket) to about 1″ high or enough to allow a card to rest inside but still show the information (I trimmed off the flap, too)

Photo album pages; these come in several sizes that can be carefully cut apart & taped down to poster board as needed  (Consider the variety of special album pages made for film slides, baseball cards, etc.) I turned a trading card page sideways and used a razor knife to slit a side of each pocket open (to become the new top edge) and trimmed it lower (with scissors) for easy insertion of cards, then used clear tape to secure the former open/top edge (now a side).

Plastic page protectors for 8 1/2x 11″ sheets of paper; can be cut down as needed

Clear Contact paper; stick to itself (sticky sides together) to make pockets larger or longer than album pages or page protectors

Clear vinyl zippered bags from sheets, blankets, or pillows; cut them up or use “as is” for jumbo pockets to hold large cards (imagine the possibilities: label the bags with parts of speech & toss a bean bag into the correct one when Mom calls out a word — oh, but we were supposed to be talking about pocket charts here)

Vinyl upholstery fabric can be taped, sewn, or stapled together (if not transparent, cut the front of the pockets low enough that the cards’ information can be seen easily, but the cards will still stay upright in the pocket)

If you don’t have a large bulletin board, you can use brass paper fasteners to secure the pockets to poster board or cardboard, or punch holes with a large yarn needle or awl and sew the pockets to the backing cardboard with yarn or string. Clear packing tape (2″ wide) can also be strong enough to hold the charts to poster board, but is not as easy to remove.

How to use–

  • Letter matching: upper/lower case
  • Letters forming words (use game tiles!)
  • Reading practice with phonics patterns or rhyming words

  • Reading practice with words forming sentences (see photo above)
  • Spelling practice (game tiles again!)
  • Math problems: Insert some numbers and operation symbols, and let the student complete the problem, or let students try to build their own problems correctly.

  • Illustrate place value, borrowing, and carrying (regrouping) for understanding. The physical act of changing ten ones into a ten and moving it from the ones’ column to the tens’ column is a very powerful transformation in a young mathematician’s mind!
  • Chore chart
  • Calendar
  • Matching states, capitals, & postal abbreviations (see photo above)
  • Match vocabulary words with definitions


Once you have made a few dozen word cards, a handy way to store them is in an index card file box. Add a set of ABC divider cards and teach your student how to sort the word cards alphabetically. Your student can even become the Official Keeper of the Word Cards, so he can pull out only the cards needed for each lesson, and then put them away again for next time. He’ll get the bonus activity of learning and practicing alphabetizing, and he’ll never realize that this fun activity is a great lesson in itself!



Workshop Wednesday: Math Measuring Tape

Do you have a child who needs to see things for himself in order to understand lesson concepts? Have you used math manipulative blocks but he’s still just not quite getting it? Here’s a unique idea for a powerful math tool that you can make yourself from simple graph paper. By making a special measuring tape that exactly corresponds to the size of whatever math manipulatives you use, your students will have a customized tactile and visual learning aid.

Cut 1 or 2 sheets of graph paper into 1-inch wide strips and tape them together for the length you desire (make sure that no strips end in a partial square). Graph paper marked with five squares per inch (available in office supply stores) is compatible with the centimeter-scale Cuisenaire Rods that we used: 2 graph-squares = 1 centimeter, so marking numbers on every other line produces a centimeter measuring tape. (Yes, centimeter graph paper would have been easier to use, but I couldn’t find any in my area — so I improvised!)

To illustrate skip-counting by 2′s, accordion-fold the tape on every other number, and then say (auditory) the number for each fold-increment. Adapt and repeat for other skip-counting intervals. (The measuring tape in the photo only has numbers at intervals of 5, but feel free to write on as many numbers as your children need.)

Your students can lay Cuisenaire Rods on the tape to demonstrate addition & subtraction facts. Arranging different length rods to equal the same total (1+5, 2+4, 3+3, etc.) helps them see by yet another method that different numbers can add up to the same total. The measuring tape becomes a learning aid for memorizing facts as your kids line up blocks or rods on it and see the resulting numbers.

Repeat the same process for multiplication & division facts: 3×5, 5×3 — both measure to 15.

This method can also help students understand uneven division problems. For 15 divided by 4, start placing 4-rods at the 15 and filling in backwards toward 0, but fill in the gap with a “remainder” rod, in this case a 3-rod fits as the remainder.

We used this measuring tape by itself to illustrate multiplication and division facts by accordion-folding the paper tape into 6 sections of 8 centimeters to show 6 x 8 = 48 and other facts. My origami-loving son really enjoyed this foldable number line, and he would take a few seconds during a math problem to fold it back and forth, just to be certain of his answers.

The measuring tape can also be used as your kids run around the house, measuring everything in sight (kinesthetic) for practice at measuring and estimating how large certain objects will be, according to the scale used by your math manipulatives. For instance, my sofa may be 86″ long, but measuring it with a centimeter scale makes it 215 centimeters. My kids liked the challenge of guessing how many centimeters first, then measuring an object to confirm the answer. This is also a great way to compare inches and centimeters, and they can use a ruler, yardstick, or measuring tape in inches to confirm their answers.

If you use another form of math manipulatives other than Cuisenaire Rods, you can adapt the size of the measuring intervals on this homemade tape to coordinate with your own manipulatives.  Graph paper with 4 squares per inch (1/4″ squares) can be marked for 1/2″, 3/4″, or 1-inch manipulatives. Remember the sofa we talked about above? It would be almost 115 connecting cubes long, when measured according to a scale for these 3/4″ cubes.

P.S. — We stored our measuring tape neatly by folding it up and using a large paper clip to hold it in place. ;-)

Workshop Wednesday: Patterns, Part 2 — Number Patterns

Are you ready for some more patterns? How about making them a little trickier? Our previous article on Patterns focused on learning to recognize patterns of colors or shapes and reproduce them accurately. This article steps that up a few notches with patterns of numbers.

We all learn a very simple number pattern when we first learn to count to 10: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 — a series that increases by one with each step. Skip-counting is increasing each step by an amount larger than one, whether counting by 2’s, 3’s, 5’s, 10’s, or 87’s.

We could even select our starting point and then add by a set increment for another variation of skip-counting:

What if we varied the increments with a consistent pattern? Suppose we started at 0 and added 1, then added 2, then 3, then 4, and so on. Our number pattern would look like this: 1, 3, 6, 10, 15, 21, 28, 36, 45, 55, and on and on. If our increment added only by even numbers, the pattern would look like this: 2, 6, 12, 20, 30, 42, 56, 72, 90, 110.

My kids loved to watch an old PBS television show called Square One TV that had a segment called Mathnet, where math “detectives” solved mysteries dealing with numbers. One episode of Mathnet (The Case of the Unnatural) involved a couple of friends who regularly challenged each other with a game they called “Guess My Rule,” where a player had to figure out what rule had been used to create a series of numbers and respond with the next four numbers in the series. The strings of numbers they gave were more complicated than simple skip-counting. For example, the series of 1, 3, 7, 15 is achieved by doubling a number and adding 1: starting at zero, double it (still zero), then add 1, gives 1 as the first number in the series; double it to 2 and add 1, equals 3; and so on. This rule is “double plus 1,” and the next number after 15 would be 31. To play it yourselves, have one player create a series of at least four numbers, and the second player has to determine the “rule” and give the next four number in the series. What number rules can you create to make interesting number patterns? Remember that the rule must be consistent throughout your series.

Another fascinating number pattern is called the Fibonacci series, in which the next number is created by adding the previous two numbers together, for as long as you’d like to keep adding.

Fibonacci numbers are found throughout nature in very intriguing places. You may already know that if you slice a banana and then break that slice apart, the banana will naturally separate into 3 segments. But notice the banana skin: there are 5 segments or sides to an unpeeled banana — 3 and 5 are adjacent Fibonacci numbers. Some very interesting Fibonacci numbers have been observed in nature — petals on some flowers, leaves and branches on some plants, scales on pineapples, bracts on pine cones, and seeds in sunflowers all occur in arrangements that use Fibonacci numbers. Just like the banana segments and the sides of an unpeeled banana, the numbers often show up as adjacent Fibonacci numbers. The Creator of the universe is not just an artist, He’s a mathematician, too!

Check out these websites for more fascinating info on number patterns:

Square One TV/Mathnet, The Case of the Unnatural

Fibonacci in Nature

Fibonacci Numbers, the Golden Section and Plants  — detailed site including do-it-yourself activity ideas

Who Was Fibonacci?  Leonardo of Pisa

See also:



Workshop Wednesday: Patterns

Patterns are everywhere! Patterns can be small, large, or in-between. Patterns can be simple or complex. Recognizing patterns is a fundamental math skill that we use everyday, from sunrise and sunset to left and right shoes. Patterns are not just what keeps the peanut butter on the inside of our sandwiches, they are also what makes life fun and interesting. Let’s explore some designs, just to see if we can spot the patterns (hold your cursor over each picture for a hint). Looking for patterns sharpens your visual skills!

Create a simple pattern of colors or shapes using game pieces, beads, coins, buttons, or anything suitable you have on hand, and challenge your students to repeat it. Beginners may need a little help with recognizing what makes the pattern, analyzing when and how it repeats, and the logic of what comes next, but they will catch on quickly. Some students may repeat a pattern accurately the first time, but may not catch a mistake if they are repeating it multiple times. Help them learn to check their own work for errors.

Anne Sullivan taught Helen Keller using this method and stringing beads.

Beads can be strung in patterns on yarn, ribbon, shoestrings, leather boot laces, fishing line, pipe cleaners, toothpicks, etc. Use large wooden beads, plastic pony beads, Hama beads, tiny glass beads, etc. Slice pool noodles into jumbo beads to string onto heavy wire, garden hose, or a yardstick. Start a pattern, and let your kids finish it — or let them challenge themselves or each other in making patterns.
We make patterns when we set the table with plates and silverware. We make patterns when we match up socks in the laundry. We make patterns with our footprints when we walk through sand or snow.  Pattern recognition can be applied to all phases of life, from lining up toy trucks to analyzing when a machine can be expected to break down from wear. Yes, that’s another application of patterns! And now, just for fun, watch this crazy video from Weird Al, all about PATTERNS!  Want to grab some graph paper and colored pencils and make more patterns?

See also:
What Is the Missing Element?
100-Grids and flashcard Bingo

Workshop Wednesday: Letter or Number Manipulatives (DIY)

Have you ever found yourself wishing you had a whole big bunch of fancy-schmancy letter or number manipulatives to help your struggling learner? Well, don’t move, because you’re about to learn how to make them inexpensively for yourself!

A child who has difficulty learning letters or phonics patterns, identifying syllables, spelling words, or reading will usually benefit from using letter manipulatives, something he can move around and re-position himself. The struggling student might be any age, so using letter tiles is helpful for older students who already know the letters but struggle in spelling or syllable divisions.

Number manipulatives are helpful for the student who struggles with math, as are extra tiles with math operation symbols, to use them in building and solving equations. It’s one thing to use math cubes to illustrate 3 + 2 = 5, but it’s another thing entirely to use number tiles to solve 3 + 2 = 4 + y.

It’s fairly easy to cut out letter or number shapes by enlarging a simple font to super-size status, about 3″ tall (or around 350 points) on your computer’s word processor. Experiment to find a font you like, enlarge the letters or numbers, then print them on cardstock and cut out. These shapes can also be used as templates for making cut-out letters or numbers from materials that can’t be put through a computer printer, or to get more letters or numbers from a single sheet of paper.

Squares or rectangles can be turned into cards or tiles by writing the letters or numbers on them with a Sharpie marker. I have used cardstock, sandpaper, and cereal box cardboard for these with great success. The sandpaper adds a nice tactile element for kids whose learning styles appreciate more texture. I have varied the sizes, depending on the age of the kids using them and the application they will fulfill — 6″ squares are great for matching games on the floor, but 1″ squares work great as tabletop tiles for spelling practice. We had a few hundred small letter tiles made from cardstock, which were great for building a list of spelling words.

For students who are just learning their letters, I highly recommend starting with upper case letters first, then once the student knows them without mistakes, introducing the lower case letters as the “little brothers” of the upper case. This results in less confusion and fewer possibilities for reversals.

These cut-out letter shapes are wonderful tools for teaching and learning recognition, matching, phonics, spelling, syllables, and so on, whether by themselves or in combination with cards, tiles, and a variety of sizes and font styles (especially helpful for learning to recognize all the different appearances letters can have). You could even make some in the exact same size and shape as the letter tiles from a Scrabble or Bananagrams game and combine them all for even more learning fun!

I have made letter and number shapes and cards from these materials:

  • Sandpaper (fine to medium texture works best)
  • Craft foam
  • Textured fabrics (corduroy, vinyl, fleece, denim, etc.)
  • Cardboard (including cereal boxes), poster board, etc.
  • Cardstock
  • Textured scrapbooking paper

Bonus Tips:

  • Sometimes I needed to glue an identical shape of cardstock or cardboard to the backs of some flimsy materials for stability and durability, especially with cloth or thin paper.
  • Wood or foam cut-outs can sometimes be found with craft supplies for a quicker start.
  • It can also be helpful to decorate the front side and/or bottom edge of letters and numbers to help kids learn to orient them correctly (even a line drawn with a marker can be enough to discern top from bottom or front from back).

Letter Activities:

  • Matching — sort lots of different letter shapes, tiles, and cards into separate piles for each letter. Alphabetizing — mix up one set of letters (A-Z) and put them into alphabetical order.
  • Phonics Practice — use letters to make short words (2-3 letters) and practice reading their sounds in order to read the words. Change one consonant and read again; repeat. Ditto for changing the vowel. Repeat for longer words as skills increase.
  • Spelling practice — use your supply of letter manipulatives to build spelling or vocabulary words. Add as many words as possible that use the same phonics patterns.
  • Syllables — build a vocabulary word, then scoot the letters apart to divide the word into its proper syllables. Compare to the dictionary entry to self-check.

Number Activities:

  • Matching — sort lots of different number shapes, tiles, and cards into separate piles for each number.
  • Numerical order — mix up a set of numbers (0-9 or 1-10) and put them into numerical order.
  • Number value — match the appropriate number shapes, tiles, and cards with the dots on dice or dominoes.
  • Double-digit numbers — combine digits to make teens, twenties, etc. and practice reading them. Ditto for three-digit numbers and beyond.
  • Arithmetic practice — build arithmetic problems using the number shapes, tiles, cards, and operation symbols, and put the correct numbers in place for the answers.
  • More operations — be sure to make some commas, decimal points, fraction bars, dollar & cent signs, percent signs, and anything else your student will encounter in his math lessons.


For more activity ideas, see also (in any order):

ABC Flashcards

Building Blocks for Success in Spelling

Building Blocks for Success in Math

“Stealth Learning” Through Free Play

What Is the Missing Element?

Letter & Number Recognition

Tactile Learners

Workshop Wednesday: Untangling the Math Pages

Do your student’s math papers sometimes look more like a tangled jumble of numbers instead of neatly arranged problems? Do you have a student who gets confused over complex math problems? Our old friends, graph paper and color, can come to the rescue once again!

Graph paper was a blessing when my young students began writing math problems, but their numbers sometimes wandered aimlessly down the page, causing us to wonder which place value some digits represented. Using 1/4″ graph paper (4 squares per inch), I showed my son how to put one digit in each square and line up all of the ones’ column digits. That way, the tens’ digits ended up in the correct column, as did every other place value. It helped my student keep track of his math problems, which helped him perform the calculations correctly, which led to faster learning. It was a great benefit for the small price of a pad of graph paper.

Math function signs can be written in colors for kids who struggle with noticing which operation is required or in which order certain operations should be done. For example, parentheses in their favorite blue may catch their eyes first, and they know to do that before going on to the yellow plus signs later.

For particularly large and difficult math problems with complex fractions or higher math, I encouraged my kids to use an entire sheet of paper for each problem, if necessary. I told them they could make only as many changes per step as they were comfortable with and instructed them to leave a blank line after each step of the problem. That made it much easier for them to tell where they were and what they were doing. It also helped them to know they could use as much paper as necessary to be able to understand the steps and the transformations of tricky calculations (paper is cheap; understanding is priceless). Spread those numbers out so you can see exactly which digit belongs where, and skip a line between steps for amazing clarity in those super complicated problems.

Something my daughter Jen came up with on her own was to write each step with a different colored pencil. She is a strong visual learner, so color often played an important role in her schoolwork, and her set of colored pencils seemed like a natural tool to use for understanding the transitions in how each step changed from the one before it. The colors helped her eyes and brain differentiate one step from another, so the changes were much easier to see and understand. Using colored pencils can also work for students who get overwhelmed by trying to solve large math problems, helping them to focus on only one step at a time.

For those students who have difficulty understanding what is happening in each step, color can also be used to show the process of solving. The parent-teacher can write out everything in black pencil that remains the same for the next step, and use color only for the changing elements, to clarify what was changed in each step and exactly how it changed. Use a different color for each step to keep the transitions easier to follow.

Color can also make math more interesting for students who find math to be boring but find art to be all kinds of fun. Perhaps doing math in color is just the enticement little Billy or Sally needs! Bonus tip: Erasable colored pencils are well worth the slightly higher price!