Five Games You Can Use Today To Skyrocket Student Success

When students come to work with me, I ask them to do the tasks that are hardest for them.  Then I ask them to do those tasks again and again.   All this after a full day of school, where these same students fight tooth and nail to keep up with their classmates.

I can’t help but feel complimented when my students run down the hallway and burst through the office door to see me (…to the frustration of the accountant and architect next door.  Sorry about that!).   Bar none, the biggest reason my students are excited about our educational therapy sessions – games.  Kids love games.  We know this, but it can be easy to forget the power of play.

We all know that academic learning time (ALT) is hugely important.  Some research indicates that kids only spend about 20% of their day successfully engaged in academic tasks (Archer & Hughes, 2010).  Twenty percent.  Good heavens!  Think about it – kids feel successful and excited when playing, which in turn boosts their attention and retention.  Games are the secret sauce for ALT.   This is why I want to share with you five of the top-requested, most-played games I use every week in my practice.

These lighthearted games require zero prep.  You probably already have the materials you need: counters, pens, and balls. If you don’t have these materials already, you can visit the Resources Page for a few friendly links.

Now, to be fair, I’m a bit embarrassed to call these “games.”  As you will soon see, they’re embarrassingly simple.  Really, they’re a way to structure standard practice activities to be more playful, but the important thing is they work.

  1. 5Games

    TV Show. A cheerful, imaginative fourth grader invented this game with me.

    Write a set of math problems on the board.  The student then demonstrates to a “TV audience” how to solve the problems.  It’s a lot like a cooking show.  You can play this same game with multisyllable words, spelling, grammar, or sentence writing.

    I typically lounge in my chair eating imaginary popcorn while the student puts on their performance.  I might make comments, “Wow, look at her doing that regrouping!” or, “Gosh, I wonder if she’s going to get caught switching between operations!”  Through my audience commentary, I can coach, question, and prompt as necessary.

    Between each problem, we take a 5 second commercial break in which the student acts out a favorite commercial.  Rinse and repeat.

  2. Interview.  I’m going to admit that my parents introduced this game to me.

    As a little girl, I gleefully pedaled my tricycle around Stow Lake in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.  At the Chinese Pagoda my father would pull out his ballpoint pen and interview me.  Kneeling down beside me, he spoke into his pen like a microphone and asked me questions about my day. Had I spotted any turtles sunning themselves in the lagoon?  How was I feeling about going to the ice cream shop?  He then pointed the pen at me as I bashfully answered, and my mother looked on from the audience.  I was delighted that my parents sought out and valued my little-girl thoughts.

    A couple decades later, my students love this game.  This is a great way to preview activities.  For example, if we’re working on a writing strategy, we might review the mnemonic and steps of the strategy.

    I also like to play interviewer after reading a passage.  If we’ve just read about world cultures, I invite my “expert on cultures” to speak before our “live, studio audience.”  I can then ask a variety of factual and higher order thinking (HOTS) questions.

    One of my students takes her expert character very seriously; she routinely adopts the persona of the know-it-all, “Professor Rufflebutt” (her name, not mine).  She relishes the role of pedant; in part, I think, because she spends her school day being helped, coached, and corrected.

    (!) Warning: One of my third-grade students fell strangely quiet when we played this game.  Gently, I asked if he was feeling all right, and he whispered back, “I have stage fright!

  3. Teacher vs. Student.  I didn’t invent this game; my talented friend and colleague, Diana Kennedy, shared it with me.

    Write down your name and the student’s name above two columns on a piece of paper.  If we were working on morphology, I might write down a word like “unmovable.”  Then the student and I alternate asking each other questions. I might ask:

    • “Can you tell me what the prefix is in this word?”
    • “Can you tell me what that prefix means?”
    • “What might unmovable mean?”

    Every time the student answers correctly, they get a point. Every time I answer correctly, I get a point. Winner takes all!

    Full disclosure: I’m a softy.  When students make a mistake, I always let them try again.  Strangely, I never win this game!  Ever. 

  4. The Gold Game. Dr. Virginia Berninger’s “Photographic Leprechauns” inspired this game.  This comes from her Process Assessment of the Learner Intervention Guide (a fantastic resource!).  I use this game as a phonological and orthographic awareness activity.

    Students read from a single set of words that follow a targeted orthographic pattern or syllable type; I typically use the lists included in the Lindamood-Bell Seeing Stars Workbooks.

    The student begins by decoding a word like “clashed.”  The student receives a coin for decoding the word correctly.

    Then I cover up the word and ask a phonemic awareness question like, “Say ‘clashed’ without /k/.”  If the student answers “lashed,” he receives another coin.

    Finally, I might ask an orthographic awareness question like “What were the last two letters you pictured?”  Again, if the student answers correctly, he gets a coin.

    Then we move on to the next word.

    When the student receives 25 coins, he “unlocks” a new game.

  5. Ball Toss.  Almost every day I toss a soft ball back and forth with my students.  I throw the ball, and a question, to the student.  They throw the ball back with the answer.  For example:

    TEACHER: “What letter makes the sound /e/?” <Teacher throws ball to student.>
    STUDENT: “The letter ‘e.’” <Student throws ball to teacher.>

    If the student doesn’t know the answer, you can rephrase the question by giving two possible answers.  For example:

    TEACHER: “Does the letter ‘e’ or ‘a’ make the sound /e/?”
    STUDENT: “The letter ‘e’ makes the sound /e/.”

    A word of advice:  Coincidentally, it’s important to remember that the kids who benefit most from movement often need to be primed to think about how they will throw a ball indoors.

I hope you find some new games in this list or are reminded of some of your own favorites.   Most of us love to play, so it’s no wonder that these simple games are so effective. No matter what game you play, you’re almost guaranteed to up your students’ academic learning times.

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How about you?  What games do you play with your students to supercharge their learning?


2 Replies to “Five Games You Can Use Today To Skyrocket Student Success”

  1. How would you change this for occupational based goals such as handwriting or fine motor control?


    1. Great question, Holly! I have a couple of ideas:
      TV Show — You could use this format to work on handwriting or other fine motor control activities. The student might enjoy serving as the “expert” on an instructional TV show. With cooking shows being so popular right now, they might really enjoy this.

      Gold Game — You could also have students earn coins for completing certain fine motor tasks. Right now, my students can “unlock” a new game when they earn 25 gold coins. I’ve pre-selected the game before the session.

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