Workshop Wednesday: Handwriting — Beginning Techniques

Most children struggle with learning handwriting, and yours may currently be having trouble with it. Handwriting is a difficult task, especially in the very beginning. There are all those different letter shapes to remember, and trying to draw them with any consistency at all is tough. Children often wonder how adults write so effortlessly, because they don’t realize that those adults have had years of practice. Beginners can struggle just to hold on to the pencil or to draw the letters—doing both at once is a Herculean effort!

To begin with, young children who are just learning the skill of handwriting may not yet fully understand the need for letters and words to be written in a left-to-right orientation. They aren’t at the full reading stage yet, so (in their view of the world) they don’t yet see the need or importance of a left-to-right progression. Therefore, right-handed students are prone to begin writing on the right side of the paper, a more natural orientation to their pre-reading way of thinking. “Stealth learning” can help here. When reading favorite storybooks aloud to your child, place your finger underneath each word and move your finger smoothly across the page to reinforce the left-to-right movement, even if the child is not yet ready to read the words. Seeing the progression of your finger will help to build that left-to-right idea. You can hold her hand, too, and move her finger from letter to letter and word to word, again casually demonstrating the left-to-right progression as you read each word aloud. As your child learns to recognize individual letters, you can add “Find the letter B on this page” to your visual and comprehension activities.

Remember that reading and handwriting are two separate skills. Reading is much easier, since it’s all in the mind and doesn’t require any new muscle training. “Handwriting” and “composition writing” are also two separate skills: handwriting is the mechanical action of reproducing individual letters and connecting them into words; composition means thinking up the words, sentences, and paragraphs to form a story or essay. This stage is much too early for multitasking, so encourage your student to learn to read words without having to copy them perfectly, and encourage him to learn to copy sentences without having to think up his own sentences. Focusing on each of these skills separately will prevent over-emphasizing handwriting during any composition activities, a distraction that can stifle the creative process that you would much rather inspire.

There’s an important difference between everyday handwriting and special occasion handwriting—I love this analogy. We all have good clothes, and we have play-in-the-mud clothes. We have inside voices and outside voices, and we have indoor toys and outdoor toys. We have our very best handwriting that we use on Grandma’s birthday card, and we have everyday handwriting that we use for the grocery list—just take a peek at Mom’s grocery list! Allow your child to use “everyday” handwriting on daily worksheets that don’t matter as much, and then specify when his “best” handwriting is required, to take the emphasis off of perfection. Discuss with your child how he outgrows clothes quickly and how you can show him that he will outgrow his current handwriting, too. Saving a few copies of both his everyday and his best handwriting will show him that his handwriting is improving over time.

Helpful Tips and Techniques:

  • Start to teach handwriting with all upper-case letters to reduce the likelihood of letter reversals, since there are no b-d-p-q similarities within the upper-case letters. Once the child is confident in all the letters, the lower-case letters can be introduced as the “little brothers” of the capital letters. By that stage, your child will understand which letter is which and be able to discern which sound is needed.
  • When you want your child to copy a word onto paper, try showing her one letter at a time. For example, to write “DADDY,” you write the first letter, D, on the left side of a paper, and have her copy it exactly (both of you should have identical papers at first, to make it even more clear that she is to mimic every action of yours). Then you write the A next to the D, and have her copy it onto her paper. Continue one letter at a time, Mommy writes it first, then child copies. Letter by letter, copying each action individually, your child will learn to reproduce words correctly on the page.
  • Letter cut-outs are an excellent teaching tool for tactile learners. The shape speaks to fingers and transfers the message to the brain in a way that goes far beyond the simple visual connection. Textured cut-outs are even better: sandpaper, textured scrapbooking papers, corduroy or other textured fabrics, foam or chipboard letters, wooden cut-outs, and more can either be made at home or found at craft stores. Some harsh textures may produce a negative reaction, so experiment to find what your student really likes. No matter what texture your student prefers, feeling the outline shape of the letter makes a deeper mental impression than just looking at a letter printed on a flat surface.

  • Students who have hit a roadblock with letter recognition will benefit from using materials other than pencil and paper. Try some of these options for drawing or shaping letters: finger-writing in dry cornmeal, sand, or shaving cream smeared on a window, patio door, or cookie sheet; Wikki Stix; pipe cleaners (chenille sticks); Pla-Doh or modeling clay; Lego bricks; pennies lined up on the table; or lying on the floor and bending their arms and legs into letter shapes (reasonably close, anyway). The important thing to learn is whether a letter uses short sticks or long sticks or half-circles or whole circles and where each of those parts goes. It doesn’t matter as much if they can form the letter perfectly straight or perfectly round or perfectly connected, as long as they know which parts go where. Elegant penmanship is a different skill, and that can be developed later.
  • A great way to practice writing letters (or numbers) is to trace inside the fat letters of newspaper headlines (lots of wiggle room for shaky lines). Letters or words can be computer-printed in a jumbo font (use a light color and/or draft printing mode) for custom worksheets that use the same tracing technique. This is especially good for students who are having difficulty making steady lines or following connect-the-dots methods. Any thickness of writing utensil can be used with this method: pencils, crayons, markers, etc.

  • Encourage students to practice handwriting by copying a favorite storybook into a notebook (the child will already know the story and can focus on handwriting the words letter by letter and leaving spaces between words. No one has to see their work, unless they choose to show it off, and it won’t be graded, but they will learn a great deal about connecting letters into words and words into sentences, in addition to the spelling of the individual sounds that make up the words.
  • Allow rest breaks and hand exercises (like hand massage or squeezing a stress ball) to relieve sore or tired muscles. Imagine learning to play guitar or violin and how quickly your hands would tire—that’s what he’s going through with learning to write. Also let his legs have some exercise before trying to do writing assignments! Restless kids are much more cooperative for seat work when their bodies are worn out from running, jumping, and playing.
  • Pencil grips make pencils much easier for beginning writers to hold. My kids preferred the Stetro grips (see this link), available in educational supply stores or office supply stores. Stetro grips are adaptable for right-handed or left-handed use and teach kids the correct way to hold a pencil, reducing muscle fatigue, plus their jelly-like texture is fun to hold. We also used the foam core from sponge hair-rollers—cheap, easy to slip onto a pencil, and a pleasing texture. Fat pencils, triangle-shaped pencils, and other unique writing implements are also easier for kids to hold than the average pencil, which is awkward for young writers, just because it is so skinny.
  • Mechanical pencils require a lighter touch (or the lead will break) than standard pencils, which can help kids learn to draw the letters without as much fatigue. These helped my kids learn to let the lead do the work, instead of pressing hard and carving into the paper as often happens with a normal pencil.
  • Smooth-flowing writing implements, such as a whiteboard and markers, are another way to make handwriting easier, since heavy pressure isn’t required to make a dark mark. Whiteboard markers can also be used directly on a cookie sheet—just wipe off with a dry tissue to erase and wash the pan well before the next batch of baking. Wet-erase markers write just as smoothly as the dry-erase whiteboard markers, but won’t disappear from an accidental touch (erase these marks with a damp tissue). Found at office supply stores, these are sometimes called “transparency” markers, since they are usually used on overhead projector sheets.
  • Using light-colored gel-pens on dark paper (see craft stores) changes the visual dynamic enough to get the child’s mind off the act of writing and keep him more focused on the subject matter.
  • Try having your student start with writing little bits instead of full sentences—have him fill in a blank in a sentence or write a brief “label” under pictures he’s drawn. He can write longer portions on a whiteboard (effortless surface) and copy a small portion onto paper. Then every other week (or appropriate interval), gradually increase the amount of writing on paper, until it’s no longer such a chore.
  • We had great results from Italic handwriting workbooks. My fifth-grader had learned the standard cursive at public school but didn’t like the way it looked, so she asked if she could learn to improve her handwriting at home. Italic handwriting was simple and beautiful, and to encourage my daughter, I practiced along with my kids and changed my own handwriting, too. My first-grader learned Italic manuscript first and had no difficulty transitioning into Italic cursive.

Handwriting is a skill that takes time to develop and shouldn’t be rushed. As with any other skill, students will get faster as they become more confident in using it. Give them good tools and plenty of opportunities for enjoyable practice, and you should see positive results.

See also:

Start with Reading, Handwriting, & Arithmetic, and Save the Rest for Later

Letter or Number Manipulatives (DIY)

Letter and Number Recognition 

Preschool Is Not Brain Surgery

When Is Reading NOT Reading?


Workshop Wednesday: Money Land Game

I absolutely love to teach with games. Playing a game transitions a lesson concept from tedious drill to fun and… well, games. My kids might have balked at the idea of doing yet another set of math problems, but they would voluntarily play board games using money, which required the same adding and subtracting as the math problems — only they could do the money problems aloud or in their heads while handling all those tactile game parts, instead of writing them on paper. The ability to do math in your head is a distinct advantage in life, so I encouraged my kids to play money games as often as possible, but they didn’t need much encouragement at all. They loved to play board games of all types, and games with money were a distinct favorite.

I also believe in borrowing equipment from games and combining those components to create a new game or a new variation of an old game. This is how we got here today, coming up with a new variation of an old game (Candy Land) that often falls into disuse once its players begin to read and move on to more complex games. By adding the math component of money, the Candy Land game once again appeals to older students, and with several variations that increase the complexity of the money transactions, this game can help students of all ages hone their mental math skills in a very stealthy way. Every turn provides all players with opportunities to improve their math skills, whether to avoid paying fines or to catch another player in a mistake and collect a fine from him. Winning the game is highly dependent on chance, giving all players an equal playing field. (Notice that the fines are not intended as meanness, they are simply incentive to pay attention during other players’ turns and to make players aware that they are doing their own math correctly. The fines also provide another way for an alert player to make money.  The fines are intended as a sporting challenge, not a way to make fun of other players. Fines may also be optional — see Fines section below.)


Basic Version #1 — Use the game board, cards, and pawns from a regular Candy Land game, but include the money from Monopoly, Monopoly Junior, or any other source. Begin a money “pot,” by placing $5 (in any combination of bills) on the Home Sweet Home area of the Candy Land game board, and give each player a total of $50 in bills of various denominations. Players do not all need to have the exact same denominations of bills, as long as they all start with the same total. (Suggested amounts for each player — standard denominations: 10 $1’s, 4 $5’s, 2 $10’s; Monopoly Junior denominations: 6 $1’s, 5 $2’s, 4 $3’s, 3 $4’s, 2 $5’s) Any leftover bills should be set aside and not used.

Assign the following number values to the Candy Land color cards, based on the colors of the Candy Land game board:

  • Purple square = $1
  • Blue square = $2
  • Green square = $3
  • Yellow square = $4
  • Orange square = $5
  • Red square = $6

Place the shuffled stack of cards face-down near the starting square. Play begins with the oldest player and proceeds to his left. Each player in turn draws a Candy Land card and moves his pawn to the nearest square of that color as in a normal game, but when his pawn lands on the square, he must pay the corresponding amount listed above into the Home Sweet Home pot. (The Rainbow Trail and Mountain Pass shortcuts have no significance in this game and are not used.)

Special Plays: 

Doubles card — Player moves to the appropriate square and collects an amount of money from the pot that is equal to double the dollar value of his color square (Example: a double-red card = $12). The player may then take a bonus turn.

Sweet Treat card — Player moves to the appropriate square, collects all the money in the pot, and takes a bonus turn.

There is no limit to how many Doubles and/or Sweet Treat cards may be drawn in succession by a single player, as long as the pot contains sufficient funds. However, if the pot does not contain enough money when a player draws a card that would allow him to collect more, that player collects all the money available in the pot, his turn ends, and play moves to the next player. If there is no money in the pot, the player’s turn ends, and he does not move his pawn.

Sticky Spot– A player whose pawn lands on a Sticky Spot must pay double the amount for its color, but may move on his next turn (he is not required to remain on that square until the appropriate color card is drawn). No bonus turn is awarded. In the rare event that a player draws a Doubles card that lands him on a Sticky Spot, no money is either paid or collected, and the player’s turn ends.

Fines —  If a player either pays or collects an incorrect amount of money, or pays when he should be collecting, or collects when he should be paying, any other player who notices this mistake may point it out at the end of the player’s turn, before the next player has drawn his card. In the case of a player who has earned a bonus turn, the mistake must be pointed out before the next card is drawn. In each case, the player who made the mistake must correct the amount AND pay a $5 fine to the player who pointed it out. If a player catches himself in a mistake and corrects it before the next card is drawn, no fine is required. (Fines may be considered optional, especially when young players are just beginning to learn math facts.  The fines can also be imposed by much younger players against more experienced players, and not vice versa, depending on the skill levels involved.)

Players who need to do so may make change from the pot in order to obtain the correct amount required for their turn. (Example: A player owing $8 to the pot may pay with a $10 bill and remove $2.) A player may also trade a large bill to another player in exchange for an equivalent amount of smaller bills, if the pot does not contain a sufficient amount for exchange.

If a player’s pawn lands on an occupied space, the other player’s pawn is moved backwards to the nearest empty space. The owner of the moved pawn does not pay or collect any money because his pawn was moved.

If the stack of cards runs out before the game has been won, the stack should be shuffled well and turned over to start again.


1) he has drawn a card, moved his pawn to the appropriate square, and paid the correct amount into the pot, OR

2) he has met condition #1 as a bonus turn, following a Doubles card or Sweet Treat card, OR

3) he has collected less than what was owed to him from the pot, because it didn’t contain enough money, OR

4) he pays all of his remaining money into the pot. Any player who runs out of money during the game is out for the remainder of the game.


1) one player ends up with all the money, OR

2) the game is down to the final 2 players and one is eliminated by running out of money, OR

3) one player reaches Home Sweet Home and collects any money remaining in the pot.  Home Sweet Home is considered to be located anywhere after the final square of the trail (no exact count is needed). A player whose pawn lands on the final square is not considered to have reached Home Sweet Home until his next turn, provided he draws any color card and not a Sweet Treat card that would send him back to another location on the trail.

Winning — Winner is the player with the most money at the end of the game.

Basic Version #2 (Dice-Addition) — Include a regular, 6-sided game die. Players will add the number on the die to the card’s dollar value. The rest of the rules apply as above, with the only change being the amount of money paid or collected on each turn. Each player rolls the die in addition to drawing a card, and alters the dollar value of the card according to the die. If any bonus turns are awarded, the player draws a new card and rolls the die for each additional turn. The die is not rolled whenever a Sweet Treat card is turned up. The amount paid for a Sticky Spot is not affected by the die. In the case of rolling Doubles and collecting money from the pot, the number on the die is added to the doubled value of the color square (Example: double-red = $12 + 4 on the die, collect $16).


Advanced Version #1 — Play proceeds as in Basic Version #1, but players receive a starting total of $200 (Suggested amounts for each player: 10 $1’s, 4 $5’s, 3 $10’s, 2 $20’s, 2 $50’s). The starting pot is increased to $20, and Fines are also increased to $20 each. The dollar value of each square changes as follows:

  • Purple square = $1
  • Blue square = $4
  • Green square = $8
  • Yellow square = $12
  • Orange square = $16
  • Red square = $20

Advanced Version #2 (Dice/Addition) — Include a regular, 6-sided game die. Players will add the number on the die to the card’s dollar value. Play proceeds as Basic Version #2 (Dice-Addition), but increases the starting value of the cards to Advanced Version #1 levels before adding the number shown on the game die. Pencil and paper may be used for calculating correct values. Starting pot is increased to $100, and each player’s starting total of cash is increased to $500 (10 $1’s, 4 $5’s, 7 $10’s, 5 $20’s, 4 $50’s, and 1 $100’s). Fines are also increased to $100 each. If any bonus turns are awarded, the player draws a new card and rolls the die for each additional turn. The die is not rolled whenever a Sweet Treat card is turned up. The amount paid for a Sticky Spot is not affected by the die. In the case of rolling Doubles and collecting money from the pot, the number on the die is added to the doubled value of the color square (Example: double-red = $40 + 4 on the die, collect $44).

Advanced Version #3 (Dice/Multiplication) — Include a regular, 6-sided game die. Players will multiply the number on the die times the card’s dollar value. Play proceeds as Advanced Version #2 (Dice-Addition), with the only change being the amount of money paid or collected on each turn. Pencil and paper may be used for calculating correct values. Starting pot is $100, Fines are $100 each, and each player’s starting total of cash is $500. If any bonus turns are awarded, the player draws a new card and rolls the die for each additional turn. The die is not rolled whenever a Sweet Treat card is turned up. The amount paid for a Sticky Spot is not affected by the die. In the case of rolling Doubles and collecting money from the pot, the number on the die is multiplied times the doubled value of the color square (Example: double-red = $40 x 4 on the die, collect $160).

Advanced players may choose to play subsequent games, continuing with the cash accumulated from previous games (instead of re-counting to starting cash amounts). In this case, no cash is placed on Home Sweet Home as a starting pot. Each subsequent game is started by the next player to the left of the one who began the previous game. Very advanced players may choose to add more than one die to Advanced Versions #2 & 3.

© 2013 Carolyn Morrison. These rules may be printed for personal use or shared for free, but these game concepts and their rules may not be reproduced for sale. This copyright restriction must appear on any printed copies.

Workshop Wednesday: Beanbags (No-Sew DIY)

Who has a child who can’t focus on anything while sitting in a chair? Who has a child who loves playing games and sports, but hates worksheets and written assignments? Who has a child who tries to make everything into an exhibition of physical abilities? You’re in luck! Let us help with some great ideas using beanbags that will enthuse your kinesthetic learner and keep him doing these learning activities on his own while you sneak in a coffee break!

Those energetic students are kinesthetic learners who need to move to be able to learn. Their brains don’t fully wake up and begin to learn until their arms and legs get moving, so these beanbag activities are ideal for getting them involved, holding their attention, and helping them remember what they’re learning.

Inexpensive, no-sew beanbags can be made quickly from discarded socks (no holes or thin spots) by cutting them to an appropriate size and pouring in dry beans or uncooked rice. Tie the ends shut tightly with string, yarn, or plastic zip-ties (trim the ends with scissors), leaving each beanbag about two-thirds full, so that the contents have room to slide around—if filled too full, the bag will be more likely to burst when it lands. Aquarium gravel is a suitable waterproof filler, just in case your beanbags are likely to get left outside in the rain.

What can you do with all the wonderful beanbags you’ll create from your orphan sock stash? Use them for “throwing stones” for hopscotch (and all its variations), whether playing on the sidewalk, driveway, or patio. For indoor activities, hopscotch grids can be drawn with permanent markers onto an old bed sheet or tablecloth, but please use caution when using a cloth on hard surfaces to avoid slipping.

Learning Activities with Beanbags

Matching — If your clothes dryer has given you an abundance of sock orphans, you can mark them with letters or numbers for some preschooler’s matching activities.

ABC’s — Toss a beanbag onto a jumbo ABC-grid and make the sound of the letter selected. Older students may say a word that is spelled with that letter (beginning, ending, etc. your choice). A bigger challenge is to toss two or more beanbags onto the ABC-grid and think of a word that uses all of them.

1-Sentence Stories — Lay out word cards on the floor (sticky notes will stay in place), toss beanbags onto several words, and create a one-sentence story that includes the words selected.

Hopscotch Variations — Make a parts-of-speech hopscotch grid and play the standard hopscotch game with the rules for numbers, but have players give an example of the part of speech selected, such as saying “ticklish” when picking up the beanbag from the adjective section, “skeleton” for a noun, or “angrily” for an adverb. This method can be varied for other subjects, too, such as naming the sections Nations, States, Cities, Lakes, Rivers, and so on for geography. Students would then have to name an appropriate geographical feature.

Math Symbols — Mark some beanbags with math operation symbols and toss them onto a jumbo 100-grid for instant math problems. Throw an unmarked beanbag onto a random square for a starting number, then draw a random operation-symbol beanbag from a sack or pillowcase and toss it onto another square, using that number for the designated operation. Repeat as long as your supply of beanbags lasts. Pencil and paper may be used to assist in calculations, but careful aim and an accurate toss may be the most help.

Target Practice — Use laundry baskets or cardboard boxes for target practice to improve eye-to-hand coordination and tossing skills (just don’t hit the lamp!).

Juggle — Learn to juggle!

These beanbags are quick to make and will add hours of fun to indoor or outdoor playtime, and they are a great way to make lessons kinesthetic for your active students!

See also:

Hopscotch, a Powerful Learning Game

100-Grids & Flashcard Bingo

Letter or Number Manipulatives (DIY)

Kinesthetic Learners


Workshop Wednesday: Lacing Shapes, DIY

Whether you call it lacing or sewing, the activity of threading a string through consecutive holes is great for building finger dexterity and coordination, building sequential thinking skills, and teaching cause and effect relationships. Whew, that was a long-winded explanation of why lacing is a good skill builder, but to most kids, it’s just a fun thing to do! It also provides the bonus of independent entertainment for those kids when Mom has other things to do.

To create my own lacing cards, I turned to my ready stash of “upcyclables,” cereal box cardboard and clean milk jugs. Poster board and craft foam are also suitable materials. Cut out a variety of shapes with scissors and use a paper punch to punch holes around the edges (not too close to the edge), spacing the holes about 1/2-inch to 1-inch apart.

I’ve made geometric shapes, letter and number shapes, and all sorts of symbols: hearts, stars, smiley faces, etc. I traced around my hand and traced around cookie cutters for even more variety. An assortment of smaller geometric shapes with 2 holes in the middle (like a button) can be threaded in a long line to make patterns, such as square-circle-triangle, square-circle-triangle. If you have colored cardboard or craft foam, the combinations can become more complex. Vary the sizes for yet another pattern characteristic.

I can hear some of you thinking that you don’t want to trust your little ones with a sharp needle — no need! Wrap a piece of masking tape around the end of a length of yarn, starting at a slight angle to form a tapered “needle” that poses no risks, but will stand up to being threaded through lots and lots of holes. Older children can use a large plastic yarn needle (available in the craft department) to help them learn the fine art of sewing with a needle without having to re-thread it after each and every stitch. [Bonus tip: to easily thread yarn through the eye of a needle, cut a strip of paper about 2 1/2″ long and a bit narrower than the eye. Fold the paper in half the short way, lay the end of the yarn inside the folded strip, and insert the folded edge through the eye. Ta-da!] Other types of “strings” to use are narrow ribbons, heavy crochet thread, shoestrings, leather boot laces, and plastic craft lacing.

There is no wrong way to lace a string through the holes, but you can help your little ones learn some basic sewing techniques. A basting stitch goes up through one hole and down through the next one, repeating up and down, over and over. A whipstitch goes up through one hole, then wraps around the edge of the lacing shape to go up again through the next hole, repeating up and around, up and around, over and over. As their skills advance, your children may enjoy using two colors of yarn in opposite directions (one at a time) for an interesting effect. They can further test their sequencing and patterning skills by alternating whipstitches and basting stitches! Don’t forget to teach that un-threading the strings to make the shapes ready for next time is all part of the learning activity. Yet another older-child challenge is to make several identical shapes that can be sewn together, edge to edge, to create 3-dimensional creations, such as a box made from several squares sewn together (plastic canvas works great for this).

This crafty activity is full of low-cost gift potential: make a set of lacing shapes and cut several lengths of yarn or ribbon for a youngster’s birthday, Christmas gift, or for a travel diversion on a long car trip. This can also be a great quiet activity for “down time.” Older kids may even enjoy the challenge of making bookmarks or Christmas ornaments from plastic canvas and yarn to give as gifts or to use as safe decorations for their younger siblings.

Workshop Wednesday: Wikki Stix as Learning Tools

Does your hands-on learner need a new challenge? Try using Wikki Stix as manipulatives. If you’re not familiar with them, Wikki Stix are thin, wax-coated strings that resemble pipe cleaners or chenille sticks, except that they aren’t fuzzy, and they will stick to each other. The sticking-together aspect makes them wonderful learning tools, because they will also stay where you put them, and you can put them just about anywhere: table, window, cookie sheet, poster board — this list can go on forever. Stick them on the glass patio door or the refrigerator door for a kinesthetic, standing-up lesson activity. The Stix are waxy, but leave very little residue, and it is easily cleaned away. Bonus tip: If they accidentally get dropped on the floor and collect a few dust bunnies, cereal crumbs, and pet hair, holding them under running water and air-drying will restore them back to good-as-new condition.

Wikki Stix come in a variety of colors, including neons, and I have also found knock-off brands — check your favorite stores for craft or school supplies. (Wikki Stix brand have a unique bumpy texture that is both tactilely and visually interesting.) Use them full length (8″ long) or cut them into small lengths with scissors, and start creating. Let your students make letters and words, make numbers and math problems, or just have fun making all sorts of fun art projects.

Your older students can combine letters and numbers into the latest complicated formula they are trying to memorize. Yes, Wikki Stix are a fantastic tactile and visual method for color-coding the components of a mathematic or scientific formula! The tactile process of assembling a complex formula from Wikki Stix, complete with color-coding, is a very subtle way of memorizing — once your student has finished this project, he may find he has it committed to memory without even trying!

How can Wikki Stix help with lessons? First of all, let your students use the Wikki Stix as their learning aids — the kids will learn much more if they do it themselves, than if Mom just shows them what she’s made for them. The extended process of building each letter, number, or shape keeps your student’s fingers involved in the lesson, and the child’s brain has to think the process through from a different perspective than if he was just writing normally with a pencil. (By all means, do help the child who needs help getting started with this activity, but encourage his independence once he’s understood what to do.)

Color-code certain parts of words (vowels, phonics patterns, prefixes & suffixes, etc.) or math problems (use different colors for positive and negative numbers, or x-components in one color and y-components in another color).

Make Wikki Stix flashcards with spelling words, vocabulary words, or formulas on a sheet of cardstock and insert the finished cards into plastic page sleeves. Works for spelling, phonics, math, science, geography, history, foreign language, etc. Using this method to “write” troublesome spelling or vocabulary words allows the student to focus on getting each letter and each syllable in the correct order.

Make geometric shapes on flashcards, just like the idea above, and use them for identification and recall drills, or use the shapes as tactile manipulatives for math problems. For a bigger challenge, let your students try identifying the shapes by touch alone, by feeling them with their eyes closed.

Cursive writing can be tricky to practice, especially for those who are just learning it. Stick several Wikki Stix together end-to-end and shape them into cursive writing. Using Wikki Stix for cursive slows the process down considerably and allows the writer to put the lines exactly where they need to go! (and no pesky eraser crumbs!)

Workshop Wednesday: Grammar with Giggles, Mad Libs Style

Do grammar lessons rank among the favorite subjects at your house? Would you like to make sure they do? Would you also like to incorporate other learning style methods into a subject that typically requires only the visual skill of reading?

Mad Libs are part party game and part puzzle book. They remove key words from nursery rhymes, letters, and simple stories, and replace those words with blanks marked with the appropriate part of speech that is needed to fill in the gap. The fun comes from asking your audience for the random words first, and then reading them the completed story, using their suggested words in place of the expected ones: (adj.) Phony Miss Muffet sat on a (noun) frog, eating her (noun) henhouse and (noun) giraffe. Most kids will be begging for more at this point! Reading the sentences aloud and hearing the crazy wording are both auditory components, and the sillier these sentences come out, the more likely your students are to remember them! “Phony Miss Muffet” may even become a permanent addition to your family’s vocabulary.

I was introduced to Mad Libs back in my elementary school years, along about the time my classmates and I were learning the difference between adjectives and adverbs. Someone in my family brought home a Mad Libs book, and the next thing I remember is that we were all holding our sides, laughing until we couldn’t breathe, and the tears were running down our cheeks. We had to take turns reading the completed Mad Libs stories, because the last person to read one could no longer speak from prolonged laughter. Anything capable of producing that much hilarity is guaranteed to stick in my mind, and I very quickly learned that adjectives tell what kind and adverbs tell how or when. Years later, I used the Mad Libs process to help my own kids learn parts of speech, and they had just as much fun with it as I did.

Go grab some index cards and some colored markers, and let’s get ready to add some giggles to those grammar lessons. Take turns around the family circle choosing the words, and write one word per card, nice and large. If you already use a color code for parts of speech (great visual method), continue it in this activity, writing nouns in color #1, verbs in color #2, adjectives in color #3, adverbs in color #4, and so on. Write NOUN on the back of all the noun cards, ADVERB on the back of all the adverb cards — you get the idea. Make as many of each kind as you’d like, but keep each kind in its own stack (you’ll see why in a minute). Be sure to include articles, conjunctions, proper nouns, pronouns, and prepositions, but keep the cards and markers handy so your students can add more words whenever they want to. As your students’ grammar knowledge increases, they can add more complex parts of speech: for example, linking verbs and participles. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

To play, I mean learn, shuffle each individual stack of cards and place them upside-down, so the parts of speech (on the back) are plainly visible, and select an appropriately ordered group of cards (without peeking at the words on the face of each one) and lay them out in the order of a sentence, such as article, adjective, noun, verb, adverb. Now turn them over one at a time to watch your silly sentence take shape: The fluffy elephant danced fiercely. It will probably only take one or two rounds of this for your kids to begin thinking up more words to add! Let them make new cards to change the existing sentence, or shuffle those cards back into the stacks and start over with a new sentence combination. All the shuffling and dealing of cards are good tactile methods to keep the hands and fingers involved in the lesson. As a bonus lesson, have your students copy each silly sentence into their notebooks, underlining the words with colored pencils, if desired, to reinforce the color code for the parts of speech.

Diagramming sentences is also a valuable skill for learning grammar, and the cards can be rearranged into the proper diagram, using yarn, string, or ribbon to form the diagram lines. Spreading all the cards out into long sentences or large diagrams on the floor or table brings a kinesthetic component to normally visual-only grammar lessons. Be sure your students copy each diagram into their notebooks, too — those notes become valuable reference material for future lessons, uniting the visual skill of reading with all the other learning skills used in the same lesson.

As their grammar knowledge grows, your students can add multiple modifiers, use conjunctions to create compound subjects and verbs, expand into direct and indirect objects, plop down some prepositional phrases, and giggle their way through learning to diagram introductory adverb clauses!

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 divider cards marked for the parts of speech, and choose a student to become the Official Keeper of the Parts of Speech for the day, so he can sort them into the right categories to put them away again for next time. He’ll get the bonus activity of learning to recognize the parts of speech, and he’ll never realize that this fun activity is a great lesson in itself! (You’ll want to keep these word cards, because we’ll use them in more great grammar ideas coming soon!)

You can use the links below to find Mad Libs products or to play Mad Libs online. (No, I’m not getting a commission from this, I just love the product!)
It’s a Mad Libs World
Mad Libs
WordLibs Mad Libs Online game

See also:
Teaching Spelling (and Grammar) Through Reading and Listening
How Did You Learn to Write?

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!