The Great Scrabble Battle

Cinder reads now. Everything. My late bloomer in everything (except for science and engineering-type of endeavours), letters and words didn’t come together for him until this last year, as he was careening towards 11. And while people around us worried and fretted… I never did. And I’ve told you before why in pictures… but here’s a story of why in… actions:

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I asked for it.

Cinder, you see, likes to win. Even when he’s playing a game for the first time―or against a clearly superior player. So as we were pulling out the Scrabble board, I very firmly and seriously told him―twice―that this was a game I was going to win. I was absolutely going to help him―I wasn’t going to be ruthless―but this was a game I was extremely good at, and he was just learning to read and spell. I was going to win, and he couldn’t be upset when I won.

Sean chimed in, “You can play Carcassone later and whoop Mom at that.”

Cinder shrugged. “I’ve watched Mom and Richard play lots. I know the strategy.”

And we played.

Cinder’s path to literacy has been slow. If forced to label him, I’d call him an emergent reader or a developing reader. (Labels suck.) He can work his way, when he pays attention, through phonetic three letter words and the handfuls of sight words he’s memorized (one of them is Cthulu). Four letter words, even perfectly phonetic ones, require a lot of concentration, some prodding. Over the last few months, we’ve been intermittently working on finding tools and strategies to help him. He’s come a long way, but it’s hard work for him―pieces are still missing―that “aha!” moment that came for Flora when she was four or five still hasn’t come for him. He plugs away at it… then takes a long break.

We’ve been on a long break most of the summer from the spelling program that gave him his last big leap forward and confidence boost―then slammed him into a wall he couldn’t get past. But after a summer of watching me, our neighbour Richard, and other Co-op firepitters play Scrabble on most fine Saturdays, he wanted to play the game.

He rattled off a dozen words he knew how to spell. “It’s a good start,” he said. I was very proud of him for wanting to play. So long as he was able to cope with losing.

We played. I played to open up the board―to create opportunities for building more words. I played long words, so there would be plenty of E’s and S’s and T’s and the like for him to use. He’d get stuck, and he’d ask me or Sean for help. A few times, we traded letters―he’d offer me an E for a U, a P for a G. It was a great game. He spelled Dog and If and Am and Bum. Also Hire and Fire, and, with help, Tear. And attempted to spell Dense―and came damn close. Figured out adding “s” “ed” or “er” to a word often got you more points than the original word was worth. Spelled Zoos with a triple letter word score for the Z. Quit―with help from me and a trade for a T―for a double word score. I accepted Ed was a word so that he could spell DOG somewhere in the vicinity of Yeti. Yeah, I gave him some slack―but he did great.

Flora kept score for us, writing down each score individually, so we didn’t have a final tally. He went out first, sticking me with -11 points. And we sat down to add up the numbers.

He did the math in his head and I checked it on paper. 276 for Cinder. “That’s a great score,” he announced. It was. In our Co-op games, we hardly ever break 300. We started adding up my score. Half-way through, I realized I was beaten. And not just by a little bit.

He beat me 276 to 171.

Now, yes, I helped him―and I wasn’t playing to score big. But how on earth, with all those three and two letter words, did he whoop me so badly? Well, before we even started, he studied the letter distribution chart on the board. He knew how many Os, Es, Ts, Hs etc. there were in play. He paid hyper-attention to the position of all the triple-letter, double-letter, double-word and triple-word scores. When he had gotten all the letters for Zoos, for example, he trolled the board carefully to see where he could stake out the position that would give him a triple hit for the Z. (He changed Nude to Nudes to make that play, getting points for that word as well.)

He was only mildly boastful, running up with the score sheet to his Dadda. “I might not beat you by quite so much next time,” he told me graciously afterwards. But he was very proud. And mentioned he was almost ready to start the “spelling programme that I hate” again. I nodded, didn’t push. Let him savour the victory.

He’s nine and a quarter―a third almost. My emergent reader. Who can look at a page in a book and tell you, with incredible accuracy, which letters and letter combinations occur on it with the most and the least frequency (also whether there are more curvy or “sticky” letters there. And who can whoop me at Scrabble with spelling mastery over a few dozen―a hundred if we stretch it―words, because he’s got the strategic aspect of the game down pat.

This is why I never worry that he will blossom into a competent reader, when he’s ready, in his own way. Why I don’t push. Why I don’t torment him with drills that, right now, won’t help and will only serve to discourage and frustrate. Why I can have the patience, and suffer from very little doubt, that his unique path to literacy will bear the required fruit, in time. Things like this Scrabble game―they happen all the time.

 First published on Nothing By The Book, September 22, 2011

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