Using Games to Help Improve Students’ Phonics Skills

Young readers benefit from learning through play, and teachers can introduce familiar games to help support students’ literacy growth.

September 6, 2022
Anastassiya Bezhekeneva / iStock

“You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” This maxim applies 100-fold to getting beginning readers in kindergarten through second grade to practice new phonics patterns. Vinegar: asking students to read aloud a list of 10 words with the short-a sound. Honey: asking students to play bingo with cards that all have words with the short-a sound.

Along the way, game playing also offers opportunities to teach critical educational lessons—learning rules, following them and asking questions for clarification—and the social skills of turn taking, waiting, and being a good winner as well as a good loser. These can’t be practiced too often.

Use a Variety of Fun Games With Small Groups 

At a time when phonics is being welcomed back into many classrooms as a proven strategy for developing young students’ literacy skills, game playing is a useful tool. Keep in mind, though, that games enhance teaching; they don't replace it. They provide the rote practice that most students need to solidify their recognition of phonics patterns and that some need to an even greater degree.

As a result, most of these games work best in small groups, so that there is plenty of playtime and expert oversight. There could even be several different games going at once in a reading group, to keep the numbers even smaller and the focus even tighter.

Although there are many commercial sources of games, and even free ones to download, often simple-to-make familiar games—card games, format games, and board games—work best. These require little explanation and can be aligned directly to the day’s lesson. All you need are index cards and a few formats, including a game board.

For game cards, cut 3½-by-5-inch index cards in half. On one side, write short-vowel words, blends, silent-e words, r-controlled words, or whatever phonics element your students need to practice. Save these decks and make more challenging ones as the students progress. You can create your own templates or the use samples I’ve created for the format and board games described below.

Incorporate Familiar Card Games

These are best for up to five players, depending on age. The player with the most cards at the end wins. Play time will vary with the size and skill of the group and the number of cards you use.

Go Fish: Make 13 four-card sets or 26 two-card sets. You might not use them all for the youngest students or the smallest groups. Players can “fish” for four words with common phonics elements (e.g., the same short vowel, vowel digraph, silent-e, or r-controlled vowel patterns). They could also fish for contrasting pairs (e.g., matching closed and silent-e syllables, as in “I have cap. Do you have cape?”).

Memory: Make 24 pairs of matching words or words with matching pictures. Shuffle as many pairs as you think your students can manage comfortably, and lay them out as a grid. One by one, each player turns two cards faceup. If they match, the player keeps them. If not, they return to their spots facedown. In either case, it's the next player’s turn.

Uh-Oh! (with special cards from Uno): Make a deck of 50 cards with words on them; all of which follow the same phonics pattern. Add in 15 special action cards and label them “Uh-Oh!” Five should say “Reverse” (the direction of play reverses), five of them should say “Skip” (play passes to the next player), and five should say “Draw 2” (the player draws two cards; then play passes). Each player, in turn, picks and reads cards until an action card appears.

Offer Format Games

These are usually quick games. Tic-Tac-Toe can take as little as one minute; Bingo can take less than five, though often need to learn how to search for words efficiently. Rockets and Submarines can take five minutes with two players, but play time increases with more.

Tic-Tac-Toe: A game for two players. The goal is to be the first to make a line of three (horizontal, vertical, or diagonal). Write target words in each square of the grid. Taking turns, students read and mark with their initials the words on the squares they choose. If you add lines for writing in the squares, this can also be a whole-class dictation exercise, sweetened by playing the game afterward in pairs.

Bingo: Fill the boxes on as many boards as there are players with words that have your targeted phonics pattern. The words should be in different places on each board. A rotating caller picks from a stack of cards with those words written on them. Students cross out the words that are called, with the goal of being first to fill a column, row, or diagonal. When the phonics pattern is short vowels, silent-e patterns, vowel-r patterns, or a set of five-vowel digraphs, you can sort them into labeled columns. This reinforces pattern recognition and reduces searching time.

Rockets and Submarines (aka Chutes and Ladders): Students will need tokens and one die to progress from “Go” to “Stop.” Fill the spaces with practice words to read aloud when a token lands there. Players shoot up with the rockets and dive down with the subs when they land on the tail squares of each. The first to reach “Stop” (or the one in the lead when time is up) wins.

Create Your Own Board Games

Board games are my personal favorite because they can be tailored by theme as well as phonics concept, and students can participate in the design. The goal is to get from start to end first. Students roll a die to move along the board and then read the word on the space where they land.

I encourage them to add special features as well as bridges back and forth. I added this one: “Read the next three words and move ahead one.” A student added: “Do three jumping jacks and move ahead two.” Combine game board templates in different ways to create unique-looking games. Mount them on stiff paper or in a file folder. Because the timing of board games is often unpredictable, you can announce in advance when you need to stop and declare the winner then, or mark everyone's place for when you take up the game again later.

Board games can even include aspects of comprehension if they are based on a book or social studies topic. Did you just read about the sled dog Balto, who helped carry the diphtheria vaccine across Alaska in 1925? Instead of “start” and “end,” use Anchorage and Nome. Encourage students to add drawings or names of important incidents in the story for traps and shortcuts and to make their own tokens based on the characters.

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Filed Under

  • Literacy
  • Game-Based Learning
  • English Language Arts
  • K-2 Primary

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