Mystery Words: A Simple, But Powerful Following Direction Exercise

Learn a simple, but powerful activity for improving children's ability to follow directions.

Do you have children (or work with children) who need to work on their listening skills?  This is a critical skill to functioning in a classroom and in every day life, yet, it can be challenging for many children.  Some children just need to work on focusing on what is being said and processing longer directions and some children need to actually learn and practice specific words that are contained in directions such as ‘before’, ‘first’, ‘second’, third’, or ‘last’.  As they get older, though, it can be hard to find a quick and easy activity that challenges them enough.  I happened upon one of those activities a couple weeks ago and the more I use it with my own children, the more I realize how many skills and words you can target with it.

All you need are whiteboards and dry erase markers for each person.  Simple paper and pen/pencil will work, too, but markers and whiteboards are fun!  And then you pick a word to target and write it at the top of your board, hidden from the ‘direction followers’.  I like to pick words that are related to something going on in our lives or what we are studying for school: Halloween vocabulary at the end of October, chemistry vocabulary on our our science days, or ancient Egyptian vocabulary on history days.  We do this activity as part of our morning meeting at the beginning of the day to ‘warm-up’ our brains.  We do 1-3 words before moving on to another activity.  I can also envision doing this activity when waiting at a restaurant or on long car trips.

Learn a simple, but powerful activity for improving children's ability to follow directions.

Once everyone has their boards ready and hidden from each other, you tell your ‘direction followers’ that you have a mystery word for them to figure out and the number of dashes or blanks they will need to write on their board, one for each letter.  If your children are more advanced, you could do a mystery phrase and then tell them how many words and how many dashes in each word.  Then you start giving directions for letters to fill in the spaces.  Read the ideas below and pick some that would be appropriate for your child.  Some children will need lots of practice with just a few basic concepts such as ‘before’ and ‘after’ and some children will be able to handle directions that combine a lot of the different target words.  Just stick with what your child needs until they have mastered it.  You can provide novelty by using mystery words related to a variety of topics so they do not get bored.

Learn a simple, but powerful activity for improving children's ability to follow directions.

Beginning Directions

  1. First, second, third, etc….last:  If we are to use the example ‘pumpkin’, I might say “put a P on the 4th dash”, “put an N in the last dash”, “put a P in the first dash”, “put an M in the 3rd dash”, “put an I in the 6th dash”, “put a U in the 2nd dash”, “put a K in the 5th dash”, “what do you think the missing letter is?”, and “what is our mystery word?”
  2. Before and after: Start similar to the above example, but then add in some directions like “put an I before the N”, “put an M after the U”, etc.

Intermediate Directions

  1. Combine the words above: When your children are ready to move on, make the directions more challenging by saying “put the I on the 2nd last dash”, “put the U before the 3rd letter”, “put the K after the 4th letter”, etc.

Advanced Directions

  1. Phrases: By targeting a mystery phrase instead of just a word, you add another piece of information to process and act on.  If you have the phrase “the great pyramids”, then your directions become “put a G on the first dash of the second word”, “put an A on the 4th dash of the third word”, and ‘put an E on the last dash of the first word’.  Instead of two pieces of information, they are now given three each time.  If you then combined the following direction words to say “put an E before the A in the 2nd word”, they would actually have four pieces of information to handle; ‘put an E’, ‘before’, ‘the A’, ‘2nd word’.
  2. Give two letters at once:  This is pretty self-explanatory and will double the amount of information your child needs to process and follow.  An example, “put a G in the first blank of the second word and a D in the second last blank of the last word.”
  3. Use ordinal numbers instead of letters: Let’s say we have a word or phrase with some letters at the beginning of the alphabet, like the word ‘great’ above, you could say “put the 4th letter of the alphabet on the 3rd dash of the 2nd word”.  This is going to require children to utilize more of their working memory because they will have to access the alphabet in their memory and determine the order of the letters while holding the specific direction as to where to write the letter in their memory at the same time.

Learn a simple, but powerful activity for improving children's ability to follow directions.

Hope you find this activity as useful as we do!  Did you find even more ways to expand on this activity? Comment below and let us know!!

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