Building with words

posted in: Ann Whitford Paul, Kurt Cyrus | 7

Word play is something we all enjoy in our home – whether it is J making up rhyming nonsense words or me making a terrible joke based around the multiple meanings of a given word (what my husband calls “a Zoe joke”). Unsurprisingly, books that play on words are also favourites, and a recent discovery for us that we’ve really enjoyed is Word Builder by Ann Whitford Paul, illustrated by Kurt Cyrus.

Photo: extranoise

With just a single sentence or phrase per page, accompanied by outsized illustrations on a grand scale Word Builder instructs its reader on the steps needed to construct first words and sentences before moving on to paragraphs and chapters, ultimately leading to the creation of a whole book.

Begin your new construction
with twenty-six letters.

Hammer a through z into words.

Pile your words like blocks
into sentence towers –

measure some tall,
saw others short.

This is no dry reference book, but instead something like a poem. The use of the imperative gives the text and immediacy; the reader/listener is directly addressed, making it seem like the story has been written for them alone – a great device for engaging little people in the perhaps otherwise somewhat (potentially) dull subject of composition.

The large scale illustrations showing the construction process, with giant letters mortared and buttressed together, all overseen by a young yellow-helmeted boy are exciting; the sometimes unexpected perspectives on the building process are thrilling. All in all, an interesting example of a picture book great for those already at school rather than pre-schoolers, a super book for those interested in words, for children beginning to write and for anyone who loves a good digger, crane or bulldozer!

Having read Word Builder we set straight to constructing some sentences, paragraphs and word cities of our own. Inspired by this post from Letter Soup, and this post from Filth Wizardry I picked up a bag of construction blocks from a charity shop. M and I prepared stickers with various words on them: M chose many of the words herself and then I wrote them on the stickers before both girls stuck them on the blocks ready to start building with.

As the building blocks we had came in a lot of different colours I chose to use one colour for each word class (more or less). The word classes I chose to use were:

  • nouns
  • verbs
  • personal pronouns
  • adjectives
  • demonstratives and articles
  • adverbs
  • prepositions
  • conjunctions
  • and a mixed group containing punctuation, negation (n’t and not) and interjections

  • If you do this project at home you might ask your kid’s teacher (if you‘re not their teacher!) what word classes they are taught at school and the phrases used to describe them – I didn’t have this opportunity but would have like to asked so that I could be sure I was reinforcing or at least supporting the school’s approach rather than confusing M with different terms.

    When we were preparing the words together M and I discussed what a “noun”, “verb” etc was. Having all words of one class assigned to a given colour helped her to work this out if she wasn’t sure. If you want to refresh your own knowledge about word classes these pages from University College London provide a simple and clear introduction (aimed at adults, not primary school children).

    In addition to colour coding our word classes we also added in a little bit of morphology – we had separate blocks with “s” on them in the noun group so that M could make plurals. We also included “er” and “est” in the adjective set, so that M could create comparitives and superlatives. In the verb class we had separate blocks with “ing”, “s” and “ed”.

    To be honest the separate blocks with little pieces of morphology on them didn’t really work well with M – she didn’t like a single word being spread over 2 bricks, but perhaps this idea would work well with older children, or if you were teaching a language other than English where words change their endings much more frequently than English.

    I also realised that those word classes with the fewest types (eg articles, pronouns) are actually used a great deal – so if I had more blocks I would create multiple ones for words like “the”, “a”, “he” and “it”.

    M and J have played with this set of bricks rather more than I could have anticipated – M builds sentences both down ie towers of blocks, and also across, creating walls. J randomly puts blocks together and then M finds it very funny to read the nonsense strings of words J has created.

    Word Builder: ** (2 stars)

    Music to build words, sentences and stories by could include:

  • Qwertyuiop by Professor Banjo
  • Use Your Words by Jeremy Plays Guitar
  • Down At the Construction Site by Gary the Happy Pirate

  • Other activities which would work well alongside this book could include:

  • Playing in sand with construction toys and making letters out of the sand – perhaps using moulds like these
  • Dreaming of building an alphabet playground with inspiration from the wonderful Playscapes bloghere and here, and also from this lovely post at The Art Cart and this one at Brigargrove Elementary Art page where young kids have designed playground equipment based around letters from the alphabet.
  • Making your own construction site, like this great one from Nurturing the tender years.

  • What word and/or construction games do you and your kids like to play?

    7 Responses

    1. Choxbox

      What a brilliant idea!

      My 5 year old has been introduced to the first four parts of speech at school and homework regularly involves making and writing down sentences using a particular part of speech, identifying the parts of speech in a sentence and so on. She loves it possibly because it makes her feel all grown-up! Also she listens to her older sister doing the same stuff in Hindi, though it is far more complex as they go into further sub-divisions of each type.

      This activity would therefore do well. Will try it and let you know. Thanks Zoe!

    2. Zoe @ Playing by the book

      Hi Choxbox,
      yes, the idea is a great one – and when I first saw it at Filth Wizardry I knew I would want to try it, I just had to find a good book to go along with the activity and Word Builder couldn’t be a better match. Do let me know how you get on with it if you try it yourself!

    3. sandhya

      A great activity. I think this should work well for both of us-A and I -who are struggling with her third language at school. English and Hindi(both of which I’m fluent at) as 1st and 2nd languages do not pose a problem. But Kannada, which is the state language, and 3rd language for her, is new to both of us.

      I think I should adopt this method to work with it.

    4. sandhya

      And as far as wordplay is concerned, we love books by writers like Dr. Seuss, Peggy Parish, and are great fans of Edward Lear, Lewis Caroll. And the daily crossword in the newspaper is a must-do for both of us!

    5. Zoe

      Hi Sandhya,
      I’d be really interested to know how it works if you do try it out with Kannada – isn’t there a lot more morphology to get to grips with? And your list of wordplay authors is great – all lovely!


      Word Builders looks like a book I will be checking out. Hope our local library has it. We are sorting with different items this week. Stop by, leave a comment and you are entered to win some sorting materials. Enjoyed the visit. 🙂

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