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Spinning Blocks for the ESL Classroom: Blending, Segmenting, and the Sound of Thought

I consider myself a smart phone user, in the sense that I don’t use a smartphone. What with all the babble on addiction, sleep deprivation, and brain changes, I am afraid to. And the phone I do have I don’t use much. In fact the main reason I keep it around is the pleasing sound of finality it makes upon closing. When I hear that plastic on plastic snap it immediately brings me back to where I actually am, as opposed to my friends who are constantly tethered to a place where they actually aren’t.

I have something you don’t have.

Of my 3 favorite non-vocalized sounds each is at a different level of technology. The first, as described above, I’ll call a high-tech sound (but isn’t really high-tech). The second, described next, is a no-tech sound (but isn’t really a sound); and the last is decidedly low-tech.

I can hear my students think. No, I don’t have ESP (although I knew you were thinking that). If we think of sound as vibrations propagating through a medium impacting a sensory organ (a reasonable definition) and slip in “or lack thereof” after vibrations (dubious), then we get close to my meaning. Semanticians will say, “No, no, you’re watching them think.” but they’d be wrong. I feel it in my ears, not my eyes, just as you can hear the following (silent) clip in your ears.

click me

This lack of sound sound that I hear (?) when children’s brains are churning brings me great joy when I see (?) it in my classroom. Qualitatively different from the deafening silence of disengagement, the sound of thoughtful effort is even more satisfying than a quick correct answer which, while useful as a diagnostic, may simply reflect guessing, or that the question was too easy. It certainly doesn’t indicate any hard thinking was involved. And if you believe, as I do, that learning requires hard thinking, then you’ll understand why I ask young children difficult questions and give them lots of time to chew, and watch their faces scowl with effort. As I watch I imagine the gears turning inside their little heads and can almost see wisps of smoke escaping their little ears. And when the answer is wrong I often gain a valuable insight into how they are thinking; and when the answer is right their little scowls transform into beacons of joy; because they know it was a hard question and that they figured it out all by themselves. Of course, they don’t know it but that sustained effort is making them smarter; and when I see it I praise it and allow myself the indulgent fantasy that I am helping to create little Curies and Einsteins.

From banality to profundity we’ve finally reached low-tech practicality. I’ve recently discovered that I like the sound of wood on wood. While I’ve heard such sounds since birth I had never really noticed until I created a little device to facilitate the rapid acquisition of blending and segmenting skills.

Here it is.

I call it “Center-holed Lettered Blocks Threaded on a Dowel for Rapid Phonemic Awareness Acquisition”.

My wife calls it “AlphaSpinners”.

We’re going to take poll to finalize the name (as a courtesy to my wife) but I think we all know who is going to win this argument.

(Editor’s update: After the laughter died down the focus group went with AlphaSpinners.)


Here’s what we do at my school.

From the very first lesson we focus on the sounds of English until the basic alphabetic code (the most common spelling of each of 40 phonemes) is mastered. They (aurally) learn vocabulary and sentence patterns and good pronunciation, and develop solid listening skills, but almost every word they come across in text form they will have already learned to decode. (Spelling comes before reading. McGuinness)

We start by learning the short vowel sounds, followed by the consonants in groups of 4. Once 4 sound-letter correspondences have been taught, a single block can be used for fast-paced practice. Once 8 are known, 2 and 3 blocks (VC, CVC blends) are used. Only phonetically legal combinations are allowed (tirb is OK but btir is not). When 3 blocks are used, 64 combinations can be quickly drilled, the majority of which are nonsense syllables. This allows the students to focus purely on sound-to-letter correspondences without thinking about the meaning of words. Sounds simple enough, but when combined with (nonsense syllable) dictation, 5-10 minutes of using this device every lesson is a remarkably efficient way to develop blending and segmenting skills.

Take a look at the following (4 minute) video to get a sense of the activities we do.


The blocks I use are:

a e i u
a e i o
b c d t
m n p s
qu j k g
v f h b
l r y w
le nk ng ck
ch sh c s
ar or ir ou
ea ai oy ow
ee oo oa ay

By using these blocks, it is easy to isolate particularly troublesome phoneme pairs: r/l, o/u, m/n, b/v, sh/s, f/h, for concerted practice. In addition to what’s shown in the video, we also do speed spinning races (fastest reading of 10 CVC spins) and extensive CVC dictation (with the blocks out of sight but using the same combinations).

The kids enjoy the activity, partly (I think) because it isolates and focuses on very specific skills, but also because they see how rapidly they improve week to week. The plan now is to somehow incorporate the activity as homework. I’m thinking of making sets for students to take home and putting some materials up on the website and getting the parents involved.

While watching the above video you may have noticed that Misa (age 7) was about 95% accurate reading the nonsense syllables and the book (Jelly and Bean series, 6b) and that her fluency and pronunciation were good. The r/l contrast is still giving her a little trouble so we’ll do some more work with blocks 7+1+3. When she was asked to segment she was 100% correct but occasionally hesitated on the vowels. It’s the sound of that hesitation that I love. In that brief moment of indecision I can hear her sounding out the letters in her head; I can hear her learning valuable skills; I can hear her embarking on a literary journey that will open up whole new worlds to her.

And I can hear those wooden blocks smack against the table. Man I love that sound.

Dec 17, 2017







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Developing Number Fluency Using Geography

If there’s one thing that baffles me, (and I’ve been told one is a low estimate), it is the difficulty that my EFL students here in Japan have when dealing with large numbers. Even among my advanced classes I rarely come across someone who can easily read numbers greater than 10,000. Simply reading and writing numbers in English should not be difficult. After all, if you can count to 100 you only need to learn 4 more words to get into the trillions, which is as high as most of us really need to go. I assume that a lack of practice is holding people back. So, how to get people to say lots of big numbers in a meaningful way without getting bored…hmm…

Admittedly, I’m a bit of a geography geek. At the age of 8, for no apparent reason, I began drawing fully labeled maps of Australia from memory; borders, states, capitals, seas, bights, Mt Kosciusko, everything. I’m Canadian. Never been Down Under. Not big on kangaroos. My grade 2 teacher was amused (or possibly concerned). Of course I realize that perhaps not everyone shares this passion, but I have always been surprised by the lack (at least among my friends) of even a rudimentary feel for where things are on the map. Is it even useful to develop such spatial skills? Everyone I know seems to get by just fine not knowing that the highest point in Maldives is 2.4 meters, or that Russia borders North Korea, or that Nambia is not even a word, let alone a country. I would suggest that, yes it is indeed useful, at least for those of us who want to understand and have a positive impact on the world.

After years of growing concern at this state of affairs, I decided that something had to be done. I decided that, for my school at least, everyone would learn a little about every country on the planet. Remembering that I was still looking for ways to encourage large number practice, I developed a series of compelling card games that develop both of these skills.

Here’s what we do at my school from about age 9. First, to learn the English names of countries and to practice good pronunciation we play The Holiday Game. Next, for extensive question practice and number reading we play War. Finally, after students have developed familiarity with the various geographical data presented, we play the strategy game Link. I’ll briefly describe the games below.


Materials: large blank map, map key, cards for each country, 1 counter per player
2-5 players
5-10 minutes

Get yourself an unlabeled map of about 50×50 cm of your target region. I like to start with Europe. Have a small labeled map available for an answer key. Make yourself country cards (name and map location for each country).

Game Play
Using Europe for our example, everyone places their counter on Turkey on the unlabeled map. By turns players draw a country destination card, roll a die, and move that many spaces (countries) on the map board, naming each country passed through. When the destination is reached, the player heads back to Turkey and upon arrival, draws a new card. At the beginning, the teacher will need to prompt the country names, but due to the massive amount of repetition a lot of information is quickly internalized, and soon the students are able to play without prompts. At this point players must correctly name every country they pass through. Their turn ends at the last correctly named country. Precise pronunciation should be stressed at all times. The game is short, simple, promotes good pronunciation, and is surprisingly effective at quickly developing map skills even in pre- or semi-literate students.


Materials: country cards, map board, country key, small flag cards, question cards
2 players
5 minutes

Make some country cards with various geographical data utilizing numbers of varying orders of magnitude. My cards use ordinals (land size, world ranks, 1st to 257th), highest point above sea level (2.5 to 8850 meters), population (1000 to 1,367,485,388), GDP per capita (233 to 103,199 dollars). Non-numerical data you may want to include: capitals, national animals, agricultural products, nationalities, languages.

Here’s the design I use:

Game Play
Both players draw a card and declare their country. Player 1 asks a question from the question cards. If player 2 answers correctly, or has the better rank or larger number, player 2 wins and keeps both cards. Play alternates until a fixed number of rounds is completed. Questions can be chosen by the players based on their existing geographical knowledge, or in a fixed order, or randomly. A subset of the questions to be used is decided before play begins.

Player 1: I’m in Sweden. Where are you?
P2: I’m in Lithuania.
P1: (Doesn’t remember exactly where Lithuania is but thinks it’s one of the small Baltic nations)
How big is it?
P2: Lithuania is the 123rd biggest country in the world.
P1: Sweden is the 56th biggest country. Sweden is bigger.

Player 1 wins the round and keeps both cards. New cards are drawn. The next round player 2 asks a question. For beginners I focus on only 1 question per game. This gives the students a chance to familiarize themselves with the data, proper pronunciation, and conversation structure. The conversation template above focuses on comparatives. When 2 or more questions are used the game becomes strategic and recall and inference skills are developed. The questions I use are grouped into 3 levels.

How big is it? (World rank)
What is the population?
What is the highest point? (meters above sea level)
What is the GDP per person? (International dollars)

What is the capital?
What language is spoken?
Point to (my country) on the map.
What is the national animal?

Name one major product.
Name two neighboring countries.
Point to the flag.
What are citizens called?


Materials: country cards, flag cards, map board, map key, small pieces (20 per player)
2-5 players
15-20 minutes

Game play: Same as WAR but the winner can either keep the card they are holding or change cards with the losing player. Then both players place a piece on the map board. Play now continues with player 2 and player 3. The game ends when all the country cards have been used. Points are scored for linked countries (1 point for each contiguous country, minimum 3).

This game develops strategic thinking in addition to consolidating geographical knowledge and providing number reading and conversation practice. It can chew up a lot of time though, so we use it outside of scheduled class time.

There are plenty of sites where you can get decent maps and data for free. I use Wikipedia, CIA Factbook and I get high quality plastic cards made at

Or you can save yourself some time by visiting the RESOURCES page of this site ( and downloading (for free) detailed rules and options; map boards for Europe, Asia, Africa, Japan, USA; flag cards; question cards; and map keys. You can also get all 54 of the Africa country cards as a free download.

For those of you who have read this far, I have some extra decks of high quality plastic cards from last year. The design and data are slightly different but the game play is the same. I would be happy to ship them to you at my expense in the hope that you would provide some kind of feedback (good or bad) to help me make the games even more useful. If interested, please contact me through the website contact form. I only have about 10 decks left so let me know as soon as possible.

Plato said “Do not then, my friend, keep children to their studies by compulsion but by play.” (Republic). High levels of student engagement through, for example, games is not on its own sufficient for learning to take place. However, well designed activities can facilitate incorporation of large amounts of information in a fun and compelling way. I think the games described above are just such activities.








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Welcome to Compelling Games

Do not keep children to their studies by compulsion but by play. ( Plato)

Compelling Games is a collection of downloadable and shipped resources developed to provide intensive learning experiences in a fast-paced, enjoyable environment.

Downloadable items can be accessed from the ORDER RECEIVED page after checkout or from the MY ACCOUNT page. Also, the download link will be sent by email. To receive your order we only ask you to leave a first name and email address, but please include what country you are in.

The States of the World series of board and/or card games are excellent at getting students to rapidly incorporate large amounts of useful geographical data while honing strategic skills. The games are also a valuable resource for the ESL/EFL classroom as academic  vocabulary, ordinals, large numbers, and questions are extensively practiced.

The games and activities on this site were developed with the kind support of Mike’s House of English in Kitakyushu Japan.