Thursday, September 15, 2016

Words Hold the Power to Discourage....or EMPOWER: Use them Wisely


They are powerful.

If used incorrectly, they can make a child feel inferior and not good enough.  They can turn a child away from reading completely.  Forced memorization of insignificant sight words is a prime example of this, as well as forced memorization of letters before a child realizes their purpose.


They are powerful.

If used correctly, they can empower children, and build the best foundation for all future literacy skills to build upon.  They can foster an insaturable urge to know more.  The "mystery word" is a prime example of this.



The mystery word is a technique I use in my play school to build the foundation for future literacy skills.  It's all about teaching letters in their natural habitat, where their purpose is clear, NOT isolated on a worksheet or flashcard, as a meaningless letter.

At the basis of the mystery word is simply attaching a word to a meaningful experience.  It is among the simplest and most basic components of any child's literacy foundation.  Next to reading, reading, reading to a child sits the very basic "attaching words to meaningful experiences".

We can attach words to experiences through conversation.  Simply being in the moment and providing commentary of child-led play is one way of accomplishing this.  Another is writing down a word that is connected to what children are currently doing and physically building that word.   THAT is what the mystery word is all about.

The Mystery Word's beginnings are quite teacher-led.  This technique was originally imagined by my good friend Jennifer Henson.  She was a family childcare provider who was also on a journey, like mine, away from a thematically-led, teacher-controlled program to one where the current interests of children are respected and the children lead, while I follow and scaffold.  (to see where the Mystery Word began in my program, read THIS POST)

Over time, however, it has evolved into something that is completely led, and owned by the littles in my play school.  They, on their own, figured out that the mystery word was connected to what they were currently doing.  And one day, out of the blue, a child suggested a word to me..... and the rest is history.  It is now totally led by children.  There is not a mystery word unless a child suggests one to me.  Some days there are three mystery words, while other days, or even weeks, there are none.


Today, my littles discovered a small photo album that contains upwards 80 index cards with one word on each card.  Those are our mystery words from last year.  That's right almost EIGHTY MEANINGFUL WORDS.  ALL suggested to me, by my littles.  ALL are attached to meaningful memories.

The excitement on the children's faces when they realized what was in this book matched that of a child who just discovered a jar of candy.  

"DENITA!  It's our mystery words!!!  You saved them!!  JUST FOR US!?!  Read them to us!!"

And so I began:  "Costume"

"I remember that day!  It's the first day we had the cow costume and the cat costume and the dinosaur costume!!!  Read some more!!"

"Snap, crack, pumpkin, crash, monster, slimey, wipe...."

"STOP!  I remember that day!  It's the day we learned that we could wipe off the walls in the doodle room, and the color moved to the rags!!  Read some more!!"

"Build, swing, color, push..."

"STOP!!!  I remember those words!  It's the day we had the green swing and we colored on the floor while we were swinging.  We have to do that again this year!  The new kids don't know about the green swing yet!  Read some more!!"

"Dump, suck, ramp, goopy, puppet, magnets, balloon, lights, donuts..."

"STOP!!!  That was Oliver's birthday!  He brought us donuts to eat!!  Read some more!!!"

"Blow, flubber, family, party, snip, drip, stretch, projector..."

"STOP!  Today is the perfect day for the projector!  Will you get it out?"

"That's a grand idea!  I will be right back."

And so.....out came the projector.  And with it, the start of new memories as "fragile" and "light" were suggested for mystery words.

SIDE NOTE:  "Fragile" was suggested because after setting up the projector, I reminded the children that it was fragile.  After saying that, Oliver said "Hey!  Fragile would be a good mystery word because our box is fragile too!" (we have a house/train/rocket ship in our environment that we constructed out of several boxes and duct tape, and let me tell is FRAGILE!! :D ).  "Light"...for obvious reasons.

When a mystery word is suggested, I write it on an index card, show it to the child that suggested it (they usually watch me write it) and then I hang it on the wall.  When the attention is off of the word, and whomever was interested is back to their play, I hide the black letters you see in this picture.  Using poster putty on the back, I hide them anywhere and everywhere.  I then wait.  Quietly.  As the children play, they discover the letters... and let me tell you, it is EXTREMELY exciting to find the letters.  When found, they figure out where the letter goes.  

The most AMAZING thing that has evolved out of the mystery word is extreme letter knowledge.  My littles understand the POWER of a letter.  They know that every letter they add CHANGES the word.  How do I know they know this?  Because they ask "what does it say now, Denita?"  after they add a letter.

This child discovered a problem, and decided to take it upon himself to fix it!  Do you see how the letter "g" is in front of the letter "i"?  Noticing that error takes some fantastic visual tracking abilities and differentiation skills.

PRIDE.  Intrinsically motivated PRIDE.  No one told this child to fix the word.  No one praised this child after he fixed the word.

This Noelle.  She just turned five and is VERY much in love with our mystery words.  She just found the "f" that completed "fragile".  She was just a tad bit excited!!  Insert a sing-songy voice as she is yelling "FRAGILE!!!".  


They are

We can use that power to discourage children..... or
EMPOWER children.

I choose empower, every.single.time.
About the Author:
Denita Dinger is the owner of Play Counts Consulting and is an international keynote speaker on the topic of embracing play.  She is passionate about helping early childhood professionals see the learning power of child-led play.  Her most popular training is the Defender of Play Boot Camp.  

Contact her at for more information about her speaking rates.  You can also learn more about Denita's passion for embracing play on her Facebook pages:  Play Counts, Kaleidoscope Play School and Camp Empower.