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How Did You Learn to Read?

April 4, 2014

photoBy Sarah Vander Schaaff

Erika Bird was standing in front of a table ready to demonstrate The Reading Game at the Toy Fair in New York when I first met her.

Could The Reading Game be about reading, I wondered.

Yes, Bird said, when I asked.

I have a five-year-old, I explained. And an eight year old. I know BOB books like they’re going out of style.

Her system was an alternative to BOB, she said, when I told her of my children’s devotion to the early reader books created by a teacher named Bobby Lynn Maslen.

And The Reading Game was invented by Bird’s father, Kenneth Hodkinson, known for his Wordly Wise vocabulary series.

Never heard of him.

And so I proved to be a three-syllable word not often found in any type of early-reader book: a troglodyte.

Hodkinson is a household name among those raised on his Wordly Wise series. When Bird was growing up in Wellesley, having the last name Hodkinson brought such recognition that they asked her dad come to school to autograph the vocab books.

But my myopic vision had me rather hooked on phonics when it came to working with my five-year-old on reading, and The Reading Game is, at its heart, about rote memorization, not decoding.

readinggame1The game begins as a matching/memory game, where kids try to find pairs of words. A child plays with a “tutor”, a person who is already familiar with words such as me and mouse, and the one for the rather cute quadrupedal marsupial, wombat.

After a few rounds, a child gets a flashcard with a photo and sentences using words the child has mastered. Eventually, the player is ready for a book with words that have been re-enforced by the previous parts of the game.

“Frequent exposure through play hardwires these words into long-term memory.  Rote learning is transformed into a fast-paced game with a winner every few seconds,” the game’s website says.

After several weeks with the game, a child may learn 180 commonly used words. And a majority are Dolch, ones that cannot be easily learned by being sounded out or with a picture.

“My second great idea in forty years,” Hodkinson says on his website, in reference to the game.

Considering his first great idea sells more than 700,000 copies a year, it’s not a bad track record. But of course, the 81 year old Hodkinson has had a few other good ideas as a playwright and as former puzzle master for the Boston Globe’s Kids’ page.

The impetus to create The Reading Game came after Hodkinson watched his four-year-old granddaughter pretend to read. The game was later field-tested and has recently been updated. It’s now considered a viral hit with home schoolers. Testimonials on the webpage say it has helped struggling readers as well as those with sensory processing disorders. It’s even been adapted to a Braille version.

As a parent, I never had much confidence in my own ability to teach my children to read because I remember being slow to catch on to it myself when I was little. And phonics confused me even in graduate school when we learned the International Phonetic Alphabet.

But The Reading Game puts memorization in the spotlight.

It’s helpful to realize that many methods, even those related to what become automatic processes such as reading, grow out of trial and error and often a lot of creativity.

“Dad is the super creative thinker,” Bird, who moved home from London a few years ago to help with the game’s launch, told me.  “He is always coming up with new ideas and ways to make learning fun. It’s hard to keep up with him.”

I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to challenge him. But I know a few five-year-olds who’d love to try to beat him at his own game.

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Note: Whenever I write about a specific product, I state how I got it. In this case, Erika gave me the latest edition of The Reading Game when I met her in NYC.




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