Building Reading Skills with Boardgames

Books and an early reader printout
Books and an early reader printout

Reading skills are built in many ways.

When reviewing a game, I often note whether it’s suitable for young children – are the pieces too small? Rules too complex? Does it take too long to play? But one of the biggest factors is reading.

It’s no secret that some children seem to pick up reading easily, while others struggle for years. Some even try to avoid reading whenever possible.

If you have a child that struggles with reading, boardgames can help.

No Reading Required To Build Reading Skills

To start, think of all the games that don’t require reading; games like these keep struggling readers from having a disadvantage when playing with a mixed group. A game with no text at all will level the playing field between readers and non-readers.

Boardgames without reading: Onitama, Kingdomino, Mountains, Gobblet Gobblers, Block Ness, Gnomes at Night
None of these games require reading – not even numerals. Only Onitama has text, and it is not necessary to the game.

But you can also use boardgames to practice and improve important reading skills. As we all know, practice is easier when it’s fun!

There are six skills that are crucial for learning to read. How can boardgames help with each of these?

1. Decoding

Decoding is the fancy name for matching letters with the sounds they make (phonemes). With very young children, this starts with rhyming and alliteration; even if they aren’t looking at written words, they will start to recognize that there’s something special about certain sound combinations.

I like Bananagrams as a teaching tool – make a word ending and let your child try different letters for the beginning sound.

Bananagrams: T/R/F-an, TR/S/B-ee

Letter-recognition or sound-recognition games can also help here. Some of our favorites are Flip-Pix! and Anomia Kids. Sequence Letters also has players match letters with sounds that begin words.

2. Fluency and Word Recognition, with 3. Vocabulary

An average child (or adult) needs to see a word up to 14 times before it becomes a “sight word” that doesn’t need to be sounded out. A child with dyslexia may need to see a word 40 times to get the same benefit.

Card games are especially good for seeing the same set of words over and over again!

Pick some games with a small vocabulary. This could be a simple *memory matching game* with labeled cards. It could also be games with just a few words, like Point Salad.

To keep building vocabulary, try a game with more text – preferably where an adult can do most of the reading, like Silly Street, Sleeping Queens, Go Nuts for Donuts, Dragonwood, or Happy City. Keep reading out the words on the cards until your kid takes over and reads (or “reads”) them for you!

4. Cohesion

Cohesion is the foundation for understanding sentences. How does one set of words connect to the next?

There are several different cohesive devices that most of us don’t even think about, but may cause early readers to struggle. Instead of specific games, my recommendation here is a technique. Talk through games with your kids and aim to use these more often in the way you describe game play:

  • Ordinal words, like “first – next – last” or “if – then” (perfect for describing how events relate!)
  • Transition words, like “because”, “since”, or “so”.
  • Substitution words, like pronouns and synonyms.

5. Background Knowledge

Reading flows more easily when you understand what you’re reading! But where does that understanding come from? Some of it comes from what you already know, giving you a framework to fit the rest in place.

Board games can introduce new concepts and knowledge that will help kids as they learn to read. For younger children, games with “kid” themes may help them gain familiarity with the same topics they’ll encounter in reading, such as firefighters, farm animals, or emotions.

But adding more background knowledge is helpful even once reading comes easily! This is one of the things that our family has continually turned to in gameschooling with older children, using games like Unmatched to introduce literary figures, Pan Am for airplane vocabulary and world geography, and Periodic for elements and their atomic relationships.

No matter what the topic, talk with your kids about what is present in the game. Name the different components and talk about what is happening as you play.

6. Executive Function – Attention and Working Memory

The last reading skill is a group of skills that get used all the time in board games – focusing attention and exercising working memory.

If this is an area where your child seems to have a hard time, try some games that reward these skills specifically.

Simple dexterity and stacking games are a great way to focus attention on the current task. Our favorites are Jenga, Suspend Jr., Don’t Break the Ice, and Go Cuckoo.

You can improve working memory by trying to hold on to more than one piece of information at a time. Obviously memory matching games are great for this, but simple deduction games (keeping track of what information is known, like in Outfoxed) and drafting games (keeping track of what you’ve already seen, as in Sushi Go, Draftosaurus, Kingdomino, or Dragomino) will also encourage this skill.

Reading is FUNdamental

Armed with this arsenal of boardgame tools, I hope reading can be more fun and less of a chore. If one game isn’t working, try a different one, or try building a different skill for a while.

And don’t forget to model reading for enjoyment – if kids see the grownups in their lives doing it, they’re more likely to push through until they can do it, too.

As these skills get more practice, they’ll become easier and easier until your kids hardly have to think about them anymore. Then everyone can read together – and play even more games!

What do you think?

Have games helped children in your life hone their skills for reading? Let us know in the comments below or in our Facebook community.