Teaching Language Skills

Out-of-school programs have a unique opportunity to help children master basic language skills because they can apply more flexible approaches to reinforce what kids are learning in their K-12 classrooms. Learning centers can provide unique activities, help with homework, and give personal attention to children who may be struggling with reading or writing.

The literacy activity ideas available on YouthLearn include those that focus on reading skills, such as Creating a Chapter Book; those that build writing skills such as Pattern Writing from Books and Poems; and those that focus on storytelling skills such as Developing Stories With Maps. See the sidebar on the right for a list of all the language arts lessons.

Note that the activities are organized around particular skills and techniques, rather than age, for the important reason that kids in your programs have various skills levels, regardless of their age. Your activities must always be age appropriate, of course, a requirement that presents certain challenges when working with kids whose skill levels lag behind their age group. The lesson ideas we suggest here will work with any age, but you'll need to be sensitive to the kids' interests and prior knowledge in using them.

Reading, Writing and Repetition

The key to most education, especially to teaching reading and writing, is repetition, reinforcement and practice. Although that idea is nothing new, repetition sometimes gets a bad rap. When it's done poorly, it's called "drill and kill"—mechanical reiteration until all interest and excitement has been drained away. Yet, it doesn't have to be that way. The challenge lies in finding ways to turn repetition and practice into engaging activities that kids actually want to do.

Like poets, athletes, dancers or anyone else, kids learn through emulation and practice, yet it's easy to poke fun at the "drill and kill" exercises and worksheets kids are often assigned as homework. Has anyone ever learned to play the piano without practicing scales? Repetition and reinforcement must occur, or children will not learn—but children will not learn if the style of reinforcement is dull and draining.

Pointers for Building Language Skills

This section offers some pointers and ideas for working on language arts that turn practice into play and slip learning past kids' defenses. First, here are some general guidelines to keep in mind:

    • Regardless of the children's ages, you must take a holistic approach to all of your classes, programs and projects by integrating language components into every activity, every day. Especially with early learners, you should have some activities that focus primarily on language arts, but you should incorporate the subject into every project you undertake with all students. Never do a technology project, for example, that doesn't include an aspect of writing or reporting as a key element. Have clear objectives in mind for each activity, and build toward larger objectives across sessions.

    • Don't try to do too much in a single session. Try to make the activities described in this section a small piece of every session. Reinforce one concept, such as adjectives or adverbs, then come back to the same technique or activity the next day to work on another aspect of language. This approach provides both consistency and focus without becoming boring. The more small things you do in each class, the less the chance that the kids' attention will waver.

    • Encourage the use of journals, and include them in your daily activities to get kids in the habit of writing, planning and chronicling.

    • Read aloud every day, and do it with an enthusiasm that shows kids how much you love to read.

    • Try to make sure that your kids are familiar with the 100 most used English words. This familiarity will go a long way to helping them become better readers.

    • Incorporate graphic organizers and drawing into all of your activities. We are all visual learners as well as language users, and each form helps reinforce the other. It's all about communication. With young children, for example, you can start with pictures before associating them with written words.

    • Develop consistent modeling habits using pair-share practices so kids become comfortable with your style and know both what to expect and what is expected of them. When it comes to teaching language arts, always show kids patterns that they can anticipate and build on. You'll see more about what we mean as you read through this material.

    • Many of the techniques you'll find here are variations on a simple but profound tenet of inquiry-based learning: Kids become more involved when they have a say in the decision-making. As you'll see, something as simple as letting them choose the words in a pattern writing activity can make all the difference in turning learning from a chore into a game.

    • Parents and educators often ask learning centers to spend time in after-school programs working on and reinforcing homework. Many of the activities here can add creativity and flexibility to homework assignments. They can, for example, take assigned worksheets to a new and more energetic level. They'll help you help kids become more successful with homework without putting you in the position of simply supplying the answers.