Cover image for Mystery Word, A Simple, But Powerful Following Direction Exercise showing blanks to represent two words to be filled in and four markers.

Mystery Words: A Simple, But Powerful Following Directions Exercise

Looking for a FUN way to highlight important vocabulary in your learning AND improve the important skill of following directions?  This exercise can be used over and over again and is simple to implement.  No planning or prep required.  You just need dry erase markers and small whiteboards.

Learn all the details below and then give it a try!

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Why Following Directions is Important

Following directions is critical to engaging in the learning process as well as to every day functioning in the world.  We need to follow directions to download something from a website, take care of a sick family member, cook a meal, renew our driver’s license, vote, or learn what we need to do at a new job.  And these are just a few examples!

Directions may be written instructions that we need to read or verbal instructions that we need to listen to.  Or even a combination of both of these skills.  There are many skills involved when we follow directions…attention to the directions, understanding vocabulary, connecting the words and concepts together so they make sense, visualizing what needs to happen and then actually completing the direction.

We may have children who began following directions easily and continue to keep up as directions become more complicated.  However, many children benefit from support in developing the many skills involved in following directions.  Some might need to work on focusing on what is being said or read. Some might just need more time to process the spoken or written information.  Other children need to actually learn and practice specific words that are contained in directions such as ‘before’, ‘first’, ‘second’, third’, or ‘last’.

The listening activity below works on all of these skills and more!

Materials Needed

All you need to get started are small whiteboards and dry erase markers for each person.  Simple paper and pen/pencil will work, too, but markers and whiteboards are fun!

When to Use the Exercise

Mystery Word is a great way to begin a lesson.  You could use it to review words from a previous lesson and warm up everyone’s brains for the new information you will be learning.  It can also be done at the end of a lesson to review some of the target vocabulary you learned.

But you don’t always have to attach it to learning!  You could also use it on road trips or waiting at a doctor’s office and just use whatever words you want!  You could even add an “I Spy” component to it and use words that you “spy” around you.

Choose a Vocabulary Word

This exercise is great for targeting a vocabulary word related to what you are learning.  If the topic is photosynthesis, use words like “hydrogen”, “oxygen”, “carbon”, “carbon dioxide”, and “glucose”.  Below is an example using words from a lesson on Ancient Egypt.  You could use math vocabulary such as “parallel” and “perpendicular”.  When you are ready for more advanced directions, you can use short definitions like “A noun is a person, place or thing.”

I would suggest doing about 3-5 words or phrases per session. Doing a few different words/phrases per session allows children to build on their practice.  But don’t go so long that your direction followers become frustrated!  The idea is to have some fun with this activity.

How to Give the Directions

Once you decide on a word or phrase, write it at the top of your board, hidden from whomever will be following the directions.

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

Then have everyone hide their boards from each other and tell your ‘direction followers’ that you have a mystery word for them to figure out. Tell them how many dashes or blanks they will need to write on their board. (They will need one for each letter.)  If you are working with a whole mystery phrase, then tell them how many words and how many dashes in each word to make on their board.

Next, start giving directions for letters to fill in the spaces using the ideas below.  Pick the level that would be most 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.

If you have multiple children participating, then try to aim toward the middle with the first mystery word of the day .  In other words, the directions will be a little easy for some and a little challenging for others.  Then take turns making subsequent mystery words a little harder and a little easier so that by the end of the session, you have accommodated everyone best you can.  You could also have the older kids be the leader and give the directions if they are ready.

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 children need 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.”  If you choose to target two letters at once then I would go back to the Beginning examples above and then once again work up through the Intermediate and Advanced ways of presenting the directions.
  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’ in “the great pyramids” example.  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.  Again if you are going to refer to the letters this way, I would go back to the Beginning directions and work your way back up.

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

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

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