Ask Reading Kingdom: What’s My Word?

Years ago, there was a popular TV game show called What’s My Line. In it, a panel of celebrities had to figure out a contestant’s line of work while being restricted to a narrow range of questions. Though it may seem far afield, reading comprehension has some of the same qualities. Basically, the reader while knowing precious little about the writer has to figure out what that person is trying to say.

Reading comprehension is one of the most important skills a child can master. Fortunately some game-like activities are available to foster this realm. Happily, they do not involve the usual questioning that children often find unappealing (such as being asked questions about books that they have read). Instead, in an activity that might be termed “What’s My Word,” you modify segments of conversation so that your child has to complete ideas you have raised. You do this by pausing a word or two before the end of a sentence and then waiting for your child to fill in the missing word(s).

For example, at mealtime, you might say, “Since it’s 6 o’clock, we will be having ….” Your child does not have to come up with the identical term you had in mind. As long as the fill-in fits, it’s fine (e.g., though you may have been thinking of the word “dinner,” answers such as “a meal” or “food” fit as well). If your child encounters difficulty, simply start again and provide another chance.

The topic can be about anything and everything. Depending on your child’s interests and knowledge, you can cover subjects ranging from space travel to computers to athletes—to whatever. Further, depending on your child’s age and skill, the sentences can be quite complex. For example, in contrast to the relatively simple mealtime example above, you could offer a far more intricate formulation such as “Given that the driving conditions were very bad, the man decided to ….” A key factor is to provide enough information so that it’s easy to come up with a fill in. Vague statements that provide few, if any, cues should be avoided (e.g., “The man was …”)

After an appropriate fill in has been provided, you say, “Now tell me the whole thing.” This request fosters a number of skills. For a start, it demands attention and memory since it can only be accomplished by “thinking back” and then mentally combining the contributions of each person. In addition, both at home and at school, children face relatively few demands to produce full, complete, sophisticated sentences. In “What’s My Word” however, you set out the sentences and so they can be quite complex. By having to repeat them, your child gets to express high level formulations that he or she might have found difficult to produce independently..

In setting out on this path, the following guidelines can be helpful.

1. Discuss the plan with your child and together, figure out when it would be best to do the activity. You might decide to set aside about 10 minutes twice a week so that you can do this over the course of a full conversation. Or you might decide to do this as an activity to help pass time in the car. Select what is best for your family patterns.

2. Cover a range of topics—from simple routines of daily life such as shopping and cleaning up to sophisticated topics such major news events.

3. Switch roles so that, at times, your child is the one offering the incomplete sentence and you are the one having to complete and reproduce it. Children love to turn the tables and assume the adult role.

4. Be willing to “reward” cooperation. Though language has enormous payoff, children often do not see things this way. While they may accept the idea that they have to do their homework, activities such as “What’s My Word” are seen as “extra”—as over and above the call of duty Given their druthers, they would rather spend their free time on activities such as video games where they are in charge of the selection and control. So it may proving “motivating” to set out a plan where a set number of weeks of good cooperation results in objects or activities that hold special appeal.

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