Language Arts Warm-Ups: Mystery Box

How could a simple box with a hole for your hand have anything to do with improving vocabulary and communication?                                                                              

The answer to that question is the reason for this post. 🙂

I have had a mystery box in my home/school for over 30 years, no kidding! I can’t take credit for the idea of using a mystery box to aid in language development, and it has been so long since I first heard about it, that I also can’t give credit to whom it is rightly due.

What I can do, is share with you how I have used it over the years.

Benefits of using a Mystery Box:

  • Enhances the sense of touch
  • Helps build precise vocabulary
  • Strengthens thinking skills/use of analogies

Due to its versatility, I have used my mystery box with ages 2 and up.  I hope when you are done reading this post, you will be inspired to find a box in your home that’s just waiting to be upgraded to your home’s mystery box. 🙂


  • For toddlers, place objects in the box that have different tactile properties like soft, rough, smooth, hard, bumpy, squishy,etc. and ask them to reach in and pull out something “hard”, “soft”, and so on. One variation on this would be to have them reach in and touch an item and say a tactile word description, maybe even guess the object and pull it out to see if they were right. Another variation would be to have a duplicate set of the items in front of them, and you point to one of them and ask them to find its twin in the box.
  • For grammar stage students, the process is similar, except you are expecting more words from them as they describe what they can feel with their hands. They can guess what it is, or if they are certain they know what it is they are touching, they can keep giving clues for you or a sibling to guess. The variation on this, is to let the person who listened to the description put their hand in to select the object that was described.
  • For grammar stage and up, put familiar objects in the mystery box and let everyone have a turn selecting an item by touch and then describe it in detail to another person/group, including how it is used. (I have used this many times as a fun way to review sewing tools/items/terms.)
  • For grammar stage students, you can record the word clues/descriptions they give and then use them later for copy work and eventually for dictation.
  • For grammar stage and up, give everyone the same object (though they could be different sizes) in their own “mystery bag” and have them write down all they can about it and what they think it is. Then before looking in the bag, they compare and discuss the descriptions with the other participants.
  • For grammar stage and up, establish together what properties can be discovered just through the sense of touch: Texture, Size, Material, Geometric shape/2-D or 3-D, Weight. Then you could build a vocabulary word bank for each of these properties as you go along. This helps guide their analysis. If they run out of descriptions, you can direct their attention to the chart and point out which properties they have/haven’t mentioned.

I’m sure you will find even more uses for this prosaic learning tool.

Happy Teaching!


( I made mine from a shoe box that I covered with fabric. For the hole, I used the sleeve from an old sweater, but I have used part of a sock before. It’s helpful to have something that keeps one from easily seeing down into the box.)

Classical Writing Instruction: Logic Stage

Writing Coach

(The following is a summary of information I gleaned from Writing With Ease by Susan Wise Bauer.)

Grades 5 – 8: Writing With Style

By middle school, the technical act of writing has been conquered. The student can summarize in his own words, ideas he has read, and get those words on paper without difficulty.

The next challenge is to learn how to order ideas.

This is done at the sentence level and at the composition level.

Sentence-Level Ordering through Diagramming


  • To be able to test the logic of his sentence: “Does it sound right?”
  • To be able to think critically about his sentence structure:”What are the logical relationships between the parts of this sentence?”
  • To be able to fix weak sentences, which result from fuzzy thinking: “How can I improve the structure of this sentence?

Composition-Level Ordering through Outlining


  • To learn correct outline form AND how to rank information by its importance and relationship to other ideas/facts in the composition.
  • To practice outline form by outlining the (non-fiction) writing of others, beginning with isolating the main points of paragraphs, then adding supporting facts and additional information.
  • To continue narrative summaries by reading the passage >>outlining the passage >>rewriting from the outline only >>comparing the rewrite with the original piece.

Summary thoughts:

  • You are NOT asking the student to originate an outline and then write from it. You are letting him see models of how other writers do that by having them read an author’s finished work and letting them work backwards to create what the original  outline might have looked like.  Then they turn that outline into their version of the original, and then let them judge how well they did.
  • Don’t give in to the “my-child’s-writing-more-than-your-child” pressure from others.



Language Arts Warm-Up: Parts of Speech, Syntax, Vocabulary

Language Rocks!

Did you read the first line as a simple, exclamatory sentence or as an adjective modifying a noun?

In this case, both readings are intended.

I had been looking for a non-consumable way for my students in Language Arts Lab to play/practice with sentence structure, parts of speech, and punctuation.  Using little pieces of note cards for each new “sentence puzzle” seemed so wasteful.  Taking inspiration from a mom who stored small word blocks in a clear canister for similar purposes, I got the idea to use the skipping rocks I had collected in a similar way. I love the look and feel of the rocks, and though I ran out of the free rocks and had to supplement with purchased rocks (only $1 at Dollar Tree!), overall, I am pleased with their functionality. The upside of the black rocks is we can write on them with chalkboard markers, so anytime we want to change up our word selection, we can.

As you can see in the pictures, I am currently sorting them in “parts of speech” sections.  This leads to good conversation about where words should be sorted when they are out of the context of a sentence. For instance, in which section would you put “down”? Is it an adverb or a preposition? How about “work”? Noun or verb? You get the idea. : )

How to use “Language Rocks”:

  • Let them create sentences of their own from the words available.
  • Let them create “Mad Lib” style sentences.
  • Reinforce memory work (poetry, Scripture, speeches, etc.), by solving sentence “puzzles”.
  • Integrate new vocabulary (from various subjects) into the word mix.
  • Let them add in words from their “working vocabulary”/ areas of interest.  (Minecraft, sports, princesses, sharks, ballet, etc.)
  • Practice correct punctuation placement.

Make a set for your family and enjoy exploring language together with “Language Rocks”!


Classical Writing Instruction: The Grammar Stage

(The following is a summary of information I gleaned from Writing With Ease by Susan Wise Bauer.)

Grades 1-4: Writing With Ease      p1040167

Narration – Putting Thoughts into Words

  • Skill: holding words he has heard in his mind long enough to say them back/restate them.
  • Not asking for original ideas.
  • Not asking him to put his ideas on paper.

Copywork – Putting Words onto Paper

  • Skill: visualizing the sentence.
  • Requires labor, fine motor skills, and an understanding of the mechanics of writing.
  • Allows him to focus on the process itself, separate from figuring out what to say.
  • Allows the beginner to build the needed visual memory of what written language looks like.

Dictation – Putting the Visualized Sentence on Paper

  • Skill: holding the visualized sentence in his mind long enough to write it down.
  • Able to accomplish this because his mind is stocked with images of properly written language.
  • Not asking them to come up with ideas and also put them on paper.

Summary Thoughts:

You are concentrating on the mastery of the process of putting ideas into words and words onto paper.

You are not requiring original writing which requires “ideas into words; words onto paper” AND coming up with an original idea.  (Don’t discourage original writing; just don’t require it or “grade” it.)

Group description from one of our picture studies.

Group description from one of our picture studies.

I had the privilege of implementing these practices with several students during Writing Camp this summer. It was delightful to see them work diligently with each of these elements. We also had some fun with visualizing vocabulary from the day’s writing.









More Than Just Playing Outside…

“The more I wonder…the more I love.” – Alice Walker

“Intelligence is not so much the capacity to learn as the capacity to wonder.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

“The world is full of magic things waiting patiently for our senses to grow sharper.” -John Keats

collage pictures for website 007

Too often when I am outside I am unaware, unappreciative of my surroundings.When children are around, I am ‘quick to slow down’.  I take the time with them to notice and appreciate the detail surrounding us.

It’s not that I don’t wonder ‘why this/why that’. It’s just that I am more motivated to allow myself the time to pursue the answers when I am helping a child learn and grow in wonder. I am thankful for how God uses children to keep me ‘childlike’.

Make time to enjoy God’s creation with the children in your life; recapture the wonder/amazement factor that comes when we “are still” and look with fresh eyes at what surrounds us daily.