Many schools are luring students away from TV and video games with the chance to out-spell their classmates in after-school Scrabble club competitions. Educators say playing Scrabble improves language and social skills. Included: Ways to use Scrabble as a teaching tool.
There's tension. There's competition. There's teamwork. There's even math, and yes, there's plenty of spelling.
Welcome to Scrabble clubs, an after-school activity growing in popularity with educators and students. Principals and teachers like that playing Scrabble builds spelling, vocabulary, and social skills, and can give students a chance to compete against other schools. And they love that students are learning without realizing it.
"We have a wide variety of kids who come to the club, even those who are not strong spellers," said Alison Charbeneau, an English teacher at Belmont Middle School in Belmont, New Hampshire.
"It's a good way to work on strategy, teamwork, and vocabulary," added Charbeneau, who is the school's Scrabble Club advisor.
About 1 million students in 20,000 U.S. schools are playing in Scrabble clubs as part of the School SCRABBLE program, which began in 1991.
"It covers so many subjects," said Tara Rogers, director of communications and educational programs for the School SCRABBLE program. "Teachers can use it for math, spatial relations, spelling, and vocabulary."
The School SCRABBLE program also sponsors a national tournament for school Scrabble clubs, which is held in Boston in April. The top two teams from each state compete.
Currently, there are between 400 and 500 Scrabble Clubs in the U.S., and many more students playing informally, said John D. Williams Jr., executive director of the National Scrabble Association, which runs the School SCRABBLE program.
"We've found it works best with fifth through eighth graders, and we encourage them to work in teams," Williams told Education World. "We also encourage them to play with timers so the game moves faster and there is more scoring."
The game appeals to youngsters because most students are able to play and it can be very competitive, Williams noted. "You can have a few good moves and do well in the game," he said. "You haven't lived until you've seen two 12-year-old boys fight over a dictionary."
The School SCRABBLE program also provides teachers with lesson plans and curriculum guidelines to help them tie-in Scrabble with national standards, said Williams.
"We hear a lot of anecdotal stuff from teachers who say that they've seen playing Scrabble improve students' spelling, teamwork, and interest in reading," according to Williams.
Several teachers told Education World that their after-school clubs often draw a range of students.
"This club provides a place for students who don't participate on sports teams, or orchestra, or other larger groups," said Ginny Paisie, a language arts teacher at Davis Drive Middle School in Cary, North Carolina. "For the past six years that we've met, we usually have anywhere from eight to 12 kids come for an hour after school. There is a good mixture of grade levels."
Students at Paisie's school enjoy playing in teams. "I find that two heads are definitely better than one for my seventh graders. Some more experienced or advanced players who want to go head-to-head can do so when they like, but many prefer the social interaction in the group of four."
Ironically, students don't always spell the words correctly, but they also get a chance to practice math, teamwork, and problem solving, Paisie said.
At Belmont Middle School, Scrabble Club meetings draw about 35 students in fifth through eighth grades every week, said Charbeneau. A school tournament in March decides which team will play toward the national championship.
"It's been very successful," she said. "It's been fun to watch the club grow, and the kids come in excited to play. This also helps to grow the weaker students' interest in words. It helps them learn to play around with words and letters."
Students also become more confident in their language arts skills the more they play. "At the beginning of the Scrabble season, they use dictionaries and vocabulary sheets, but that drops off as the year goes on," said Charbeneau. The club also has a newsletter that includes some Scrabble strategies.
This year, teachers also are encouraging students to play Scrabble at home with a parent or a family member. Students get a small reward if they bring in the scorecard from the home game, she added.
Some teachers introduced students to Scrabble by playing it in the classroom, and were inspired by students' enthusiasm to start after-school play.
Lyn Robinson, a reading teacher at Belllview Middle School in Pensacola, Florida, said using Scrabble in the classroom has helped some of her lower performing students. "I used Scrabble as a center activity and modified it to meet my needs," Robinson told Education World. "This game really motivated my students to increase their vocabulary! I have both the board games and the computer games. We had a school-wide word of the day and we would use the word of the day as the starting word several days a week when the students would play. My students enjoyed using the game and they were always looking up words in the dictionary."
She plans to play Scrabble as a vocabulary warm-up exercise each day, and would like to start a club this year or next.
Charbeneau brought the idea for a Scrabble club from her previous school, where it was very successful.
"Our Scrabble Club came about seven years ago, when I saw an ad for School Scrabble Kits in a language arts magazine," said Paisie. "I purchased, for only $50, a set that included six boards, sacks of letters, letter racks, a dictionary, a short motivational video, and rules. At first I used the game in class as a reward, then realized how much learning was going on and tried to make more time to play. It was -- and still is -- always a hit and receives a 'Yay!' whenever I announce it's time to play."
The Spanish teacher borrowed the game for Scrabble in Spanish, she added, and a math teacher found a Scrabble game using equations rather than words.
Getting a club started also turned into a learning experience. "When my students were practicing persuasive writing, I had each of my four classes compose a group letter to our principal asking for permission to form an after-school Scrabble Club," Paisie told Education World. "So there was even some writing instruction that year. The kids were thrilled when the 'Yes' came back from our principal, and about 12 to 16 students came routinely for the rest of that year."
While no other costs have been involved with the club, Paisie is considering yearly dues of $5 per player to cover the cost of snacks.
The year after getting approval for a club, Paisie bought a second Scrabble set using money from the PTA. That first year, and in the years after, Paisie said she tried to form a formal "club" and intended for the "members" to make posters encouraging others to join, organize a school tournament, and a teacher-student game, but the activity still remains pretty informal. "We did the last event [teacher-student game], but for the most part, the kids just like to play and have time with their friends."
Most educators would agree that whether it is formal or informal play, an hour or so bent over a Scrabble board is time well spent. "The single phrase we hear most often from teachers is, '"They think they're playing a game, but they're actually learning,'" said Williams.