Today we all seemed to be cranky; poor sleeping, new teeth coming in, bellyaches, too little snow, wanting more Hershey’s Kisses–whatever it was, a gray cloud hung over our house for most of the morning. After a nice, big lunch and a few extra hugs, I brought out our huge box of magnetic letters and numbers. I thought that maybe the letters’ bright colors and our focus on a specific task might bring some sunshine into our day. It helped.
- Letter & Number Sorting: I’ve worked with Maddy and Owen on letters, and I’ve worked with them on numbers, but today I thought I’d mix it up a bit. Through birthdays, yard sales, and hand-me-downs, we have slowly acquired a very large box of magnetic letters and numbers of all shapes and sizes. I dumped everything on the floor today in one big, beautiful rainbow mess, and I said, Let’s do some sorting! Right away, they grabbed the letters of their names and built some words they knew, so I let them play around for a while. After a few minutes, though, I repeated their challenge: Okay, friends, let’s see if we can sort this out. Let’s make three piles–one here for letters, one over here for numbers, and one special pile under this question mark for crazy ones that we don’t know.
I modeled my thinking process for the first few. I held up a 3 and said, A 3!! I know this is a 3 because this is Owen’s special number! He’s 3!! I picked up the capital L and said, L–I know for sure that this is an L–look here at the straight lines–but I’m not sure of this one (a lowercase b). Is it a 6? Is it a d? I’m not sure. I’m going to put it under this question mark so we can look at it more closely later.
What I noticed was that both Maddy and Owen had to stop and think more often than I anticipated. They helped each other along the way, and they laughed hard at the division sign and the fancier g and q that ended up in our box. By the end, we had a bunch of things to discuss from the ? pile. I put three ‘unfamiliars’ together and asked, Maddy, can you point to an ‘m’ or a ‘q’? Right! That one is a letter ‘m’ Good eye! I’d add another one to the mix and ask again: Okay, Owen, your turn. Can you point to a ___ or ____?
Limiting the number of questionable numbers/ letters to three, then asking if they could identify one or two, set them up for success and got us through the pile. This technique can be used in other situations as well, like when practicing reading sight words.
When they finished, because they were engaged, I took it a step further. We first put the numbers in order from 1-10. After that, we put the letters in alphabetical order, with the capital letters above the row of lowercase letters.
It took a lot longer than I thought–maybe because we have so many letters and numbers to plow through, maybe because we have never mixed letters–uppercase and lowercase–and numbers in this way, or maybe just because it was that kind of day. In the end, though, when we looked at what we had accomplished together and talked about how hard we worked to sort out our mess of letters and numbers, I think we all felt better. That little bit of learning and time together felt good.
**Here’s why this activity is important:
1. Children need to learn to recognize numerals before they begin working with number operations, and most commonly this is done by repetition–repetition in seeing the numbers as they count, recognizing the numbers in signs and on paper, and in identifying and discussing differences in letters and numbers;
2. Numeral writing is indeed necessary, but a bridge to that writing can be physical play with letters and numbers so that commonalities–and differences–are seen between the two;
3. Understanding that the lowercase ‘l’ can be confused with the 1, or that ‘o‘ looks like a zero and talking about the similarities will help students begin to recognize recurring patterns and shapes in numbers and letters.
4. Learning is enhanced when children are encouraged to compare and contrast, ask questions, and reflect on learning.
Adapted from: John A. Van de Walle. Elementary and Middle School Mathematics–Teaching Developmentally (2001). New York, NY: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.