Spelling with LEGOs: Reading Activities for Kinesthetic Learning



Introduction:

Spelling with LEGOs

I wanted to find a way to help my 4-year-old son engage with reading. We've tried to sit down and go through a "learn-to-read" book with him but he's not interested in doing it for more than 5 minutes.

So much of the childhood education literature today shows that young children, especially boys, learn best by being free to move and manipulate objects, not just sit at a desk and stare at words on a page. So I started looking for ideas to help him learn to read kinesthetically and I came across a great idea to teach reading and "writing" not by looking just at words on a page but by manipulating letters written on LEGO bricks.

He's mostly played with Duplos so far but he has absolutely loved the few times he's gotten to play with LEGOs with older kids. I thought LEGO letters might be the perfect hook for him, and I was right!

(In addition to the issue of learning while sitting still or learning while engaged in motion, there is also the issue that schools now want kids to learn to read and write at the same time. But since many kids' fine motor skills lag behind their ability to learn to read, learning to write can end up being an impediment to learning to read. Working with LEGO bricks doesn't require the same degree of fine motor control that writing does, but it still helps the child gain some practice in fine motor control.)





Step 1:

Collect the LEGO bricks

  1. 2x4 bricks for letters with ascenders and descenders

  2. 2x2 bricks for small letters without ascenders/descenders

I got LEGOs for this project by visiting the LEGO store at our local mall. I bought a bunch of 2x4 LEGO bricks from their pick-a-brick bins, and stocked up on 2x2 bricks by purchasing one of their classic LEGO sets, after checking the back panel to find a set that came with a lot of 2x2 bricks. This is the expensive way to do it though. Other options for collecting your bricks include:

  • You may already have a big bin of LEGOs in your basement or attic or closet. Use those!
  • You may be able to buy them on the cheap at a yard sale, thrift store, etc.
  • Check various online locations like CraigsList, eBay, Amazon, or the LEGO website.
  • There are a lot of other brands of building bricks that may be available at a much cheaper price than LEGO bricks. So you may want to check those out.

Here are the kinds of bricks you need:

2x4 bricks for letters that have descenders (g, j, p, q, y) or ascenders (b, d, f, h, k, l, t). I included capital I in my list of ascenders since the first person pronoun in English is always capitalized. That's 13 tall letters in total.

I decided to put each of those letters on a separate color, since the LEGO store I was at happened to have 13 different colored 2x4 bricks in their grab-bins. You could still accomplish the same thing with fewer colors or even only one color. But multiple colors is definitely more exciting visually. Just make sure not to choose colors that are too dark. The dark purple and brown ended up being a little too dark even though they are still usable.

2x2 bricks for letters with no descenders or ascenders (a, c, e, i, m, n, o, r, s, u, v, w, x, z). That's 14 small letters on 2x2 bricks. I was only able to get 8 different colors at the LEGO store I visited, so I ended up writing one letter on one side and a different letter on the other side. This is OK for the small letters, but ascenders/descenders probably shouldn't be doubled up like that since certain pairs could be confused, e.g. b/p/d/q.

Step 2:

Sort the bricks and assign letters to them

I wanted to assign each letter to only one color of brick. That would make finding a particular letter easier. If I wanted to find an "h" for example, I could just look for a green brick (or whatever color "h" ended up being.) That worked fine for the tall/tail letters (ascenders and descenders) but since I didn't find as many 2x2 bricks, I had to double up two "short" letters (a, c, e, i, m, n, o, r, s, u, v, w, x, z) on a single brick, front and back.​

I had more of some color bricks than others, and so I decided to assign letters based on letter frequency in English. After a visit to Wikipedia, I was able to determine a list of the letters from most frequent to least frequent:
 

Tall/tail letters: t, h, d, l, f, g, y, p, b, k, j, q
Short letters: a, c, e, i, m, n, o, r, s, u, v, w, x, z

So I assigned the most frequent letters to the color bricks I had the most of: t, h, d, l, and f all got 6 bricks each; the rest of the tall/tail letters got 4 bricks each.

For the short letters, I paired the most frequent letters on the front with the least frequent on the back, and put the two most frequent vowels on 2 colors each, so they were paired like this:

  • e/z
  • a/x
  • o/v
  • i/w
  • n/m
  • s/u
  • r/a
  • c/e

This has worked out fine but I would still recommend having one color for each short letter (i.e. 14 colors).

Step 3:

Write the letters

I started out by turning all the bricks so that their attachment bumps pointed right, in the direction of reading in English.

Then I wrote all the short letters on the 2x2 bricks. I wrote all the a's on all the magenta 2x2 bricks, then moved on to all the e's on the pink 2x2 bricks, and so on.

When it came time to write the ascenders and descenders on the 2x4 bricks, I alternated one tall brick (to be written on) and one short vowel brick (already written on) as a guide so that I could get the central part of the tall/tail letters the right size and in the right place.

The tall letters should extend above the short letters with nothing below. The tail letters should extend below the short letters with nothing above. This will help the difference between ascenders and descenders really stand out when the letters are put together into words, which should be helpful since the overall shape of a word (our bouma shape) is part of what our brains use to determine what a word is while reading.

Note that although the "t" is an ascender, it does not ascend as high as the other ascenders.

Writing the ascenders/descenders on a 2x4 brick definitely led to longer staves or tails that I normally write, but the letters came out looking fine, and it accentuates the difference between the short letters and the tall/tail letters.

I ended up having an extra color in the 2x4 bricks which is why I decided to write capital I's on the brown bricks. The first person singular subject pronoun ("I") in English is always capitalized, so I thought it would be good to include it for some simple sentences that we might make with the letters. I also left a few of the light pink 2x4 bricks blank to use as spaces between words.

Step 4:

Test drive your letters

After all that work of collecting, sorting, assigning, and writing, I decided to take my new LEGO letters for a test drive. Somehow I didn't have quite enough letters to spell the traditional favorite:

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.

So I had to settle for:

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy pig.

​Add a few wheels to really get things rolling!

Step 5:

Prepare the lessons

I downloaded the ultimate-phonics-word-lists.pdf from spencerlearning.com. Then I printed out the first few lessons.

The lessons start with a list of basic words that follow regular spelling rules from the Anglo-Saxon side of English (as opposed to the Franco-Romance side), e.g. sat, fat, cat, rat, bat, and sit, fit, kit, lit, bit. Then it has a set of sentences that use the words in the list or previous lists.

 

Step 6:

Reading and spelling lessons with your child

In our lessons, we take one of the sheets of simple words and work through them a column at a time. I find the correct letters for one of the words and give them to my child. I point to the word on the paper and ask him to make that word. Once he puts the letters together, I ask him to tell me what word it is. After he sounds it out and tells me the word, I underline the word and we move on to the next word.

During our first lesson I also explained an analogy that I learned as a child. Letters live in a letter house that has an attic, a ground floor, and a basement. Tall letters (ascenders) have their heads in the attic. "Tail" letters (descenders) have their tails in the basement. When your child is hooking their LEGO letters together, if they attach the letter in the wrong way, you can remind them: "The 'f' lives in the upstairs, right?" or: "The 'g' should have its tail in the basement, remember?"

At the end of a column of words, I ask him if he wants to keep going. I only continue the lesson for as long as he is interested. Often at the end I will go back through all the words we have done in that session, point to them on the paper, and ask him to tell me what they are again. That gives him practices reading from a paper as opposed to reading from a set of LEGO bricks.

Occasionally I will make a short sentence with the words we've just made and ask him to tell me what the sentence says. Sometimes he likes this but usually he doesn't. We aren't using the sentences from the phonics PDF at all because he finds them frustrating. This will all depend on your child's reading level.

Variations:

  • Depending on your child's abilities, you could ask them to find the letters from the pile of bricks.
  • Use the sentences in the phonics guide or make up your own. Put them together with LEGO bricks and then have your child read them.
  • If your child is ready to start spelling (as opposed to just reading) but not ready to start writing because their small motor skills haven't developed yet, you can give them spelling exercises with the LEGO letters. This lets them spell even when they haven't developed their writing skills yet. It also helps them practice small motor skills which are necessary to put LEGOs together.
  • Your child may also enjoy putting words together on his own, or asking how to spell a word and then building it himself.
  • Give your child a few letters and ask them what words they can make themselves.
  • Ask your child to change the first or last letter of a three letter word, e.g. given [tab] (already assembled) and the letters d, g, n, p, t, x, ask your child to change the last letter of the word and tell you what it says. (tad, tag, tan, tap, tat, tax)

Step 7:

Free play

After doing a few columns of words from the phonics worksheet, my son loves to have free play time where he gets to build things out of the LEGOs we have. You can have this be proportional to the time your child worked on reading/spelling: if they worked on the lesson for 15 minutes, they get 15 minutes of free play, for example.

Since part of the materials for my implementation of this project included a classic LEGO building set, I have spent time with my son after each lesson building one of the models from the set. I help him find the pieces from the pile and he follows the instructions and puts the building together. So even if reading is the main focus of this activity, it can have the additional benefits of exercising the child's 2D to 3D mapping skills, diagram recognition, step-by-step instruction following, and spatial reasoning skills.

Above all, try to keep these activities enjoyable for your child. If it starts to become a chore for them, it may be time to look for a new activity to keep them engaged. But if your child is like mine, your problem will be that they beg you to do LEGOs all day long until you finally have time to sit down with them and do it!




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