George Lucas Educational Foundation
Early Childhood Education

Movement-Based Games That Help Students With Spelling

Games that combine spelling with physical activity can make it easier for young students to learn new words.

March 19, 2024 / Shutterstock

Hamlet’s advice to the players, “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action,” is a great tip, not just for performing, but also for the task of memorizing. Studies have shown that recall is easier when memorization is connected with movement. Many actors find it helpful to use physicality to retain their lines, connecting them with gestures and staging.

Like actors, students are often tasked with memorization. Although education has evolved to incorporate project-based learning and guided play, there’s no getting around the necessity of knowing the multiplication tables, capital cities, and correct spelling.

The following are movement-based games that build students’ abilities to retain spelling words specifically. Ideally, these exercises support them academically as well as socially. Research shows that learning through play promotes listening, focus, empathy, and self-awareness—benefits that build students’ social and emotional learning skills.

4 Games to Improve Students’ Spelling

1. Body Language: In this game, students work with a partner to embody different letters of the alphabet, ultimately spelling an entire word. Start by having two students make a single letter together. For example, they can make the letter M by holding hands and bending down toward the center of their feet. Whisper or show a letter to a team without the rest of the class seeing it. The pair comes up with the way they want to represent it (standing, sitting, joining feet, etc.). Then, the rest of the class guesses the letter that the students have physicalized.

Once the students are familiar with making letters with their bodies, give each team an entire word to spell. Add an extra level of challenge by having the class watch in silence, writing down each letter, until the word is complete.

Not only is this helpful for spelling, but it is a valuable collaborative exercise. In Theater Games for the Classroom, Viola Spolin wrote, “Responsiveness, interaction, attention, observation, physical and vocal expression, narrative skills, sensory agility, emotional awareness, and more will develop more swiftly when students become part of a whole.” In the game Body Language, they must support one another and work as a team in order to spell their word. As they do, they are learning how to contribute meaningfully to a group.

2. Spelling Relay: This game gets kids literally racing each other to spell a word, best done in a gym or movement room. Start by dividing the class into teams. The game can be played with two to three teams at a time. The number of players on each team should be the same as the number of letters in the words you want them to spell. The teams stay intact and spell one word (Team 1: W-H-I-C-H, Team 2: F-L-O-U-R, Team 3: C-L-E-A-R for a class of 15, for example).

Print or write each of the letters on a separate piece of paper. Jumble the letters and place them at one end of the room; the team sits directly opposite the papers at the other end. As in a relay race, at the command “3-2-1-Spell!,” one student from each team runs across the room to retrieve a letter from the pile, runs back to the group, and tags the next student, who runs to get the next letter. Once the teammates have come back with the letters, they work as a group to unscramble them. The team that successfully spells their word first wins the relay race.

You can give this game more drama by pretending to be a sportscaster and narrating the action. For example: “And over in the right lane we have Jamir, racing with a W, to get back to his teammates! The handoff was successful, and he has tagged Emi. Look at her go! What letter will she pick up, and what will the team ultimately spell?” To give the race epic importance, play a musical score in the background, like the theme from Chariots of Fire or John Williams’s “Olympic Fanfare.”

3. Word Machine: In the classic theater game Machine, players contribute a sound and a movement to build a creation. Possibilities abound: You can make a machine to build ice cream sundaes or to spot a UFO. Regardless of what the machine is, the idea is that each student adds both a gesture and a noise, interconnecting like cogs. They repeat their sound and movement, and you can conduct the machine to go faster, go slower, or even break down (which is part of the fun!). Once the students are familiar with how to play, the game can be used as a tool to help spelling. Here’s how:

Propose a word to spell—for example, cat. Then call on three students, each to say one of the letters in the word, combining it with any gesture they like. They contribute their letter and gesture in the correct order that the word is spelled. Then the cycle starts again. This repetition facilitates memorization and reinforces the learning. The key executive function skills of listening and turn-taking are also being practiced through play, since each student’s letter needs to be said in the right sequence in order for the “machine” to run properly.

4. H-O-R-S-E: The game H-O-R-S-E is usually played with a basketball and a hoop; you can fashion something similar in your classroom or bring this outside to the schoolyard. The first player comes up with a unique way to shoot the ball. If they make the basket, the next player has to mimic the previous player’s shot. But if they miss it, they get the letter (H) in the word H-O-R-S-E. Players are eliminated if they spell the whole word. Adapt this for your classroom, using the premise of the game to spell new words.

Eric Jensen, researcher and author of Teaching With the Brain in Mind, says, “We have discovered that exercise is strongly correlated with increased brain mass, better cognition, mood regulation, and new cell growth.” As students exercise while spelling, they get the benefit of improved retention and also better brain health.

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Filed Under

  • Literacy
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • English Language Arts
  • Pre-K
  • K-2 Primary

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