When school started this year, Thunder Hill Elementary School PTA President Jennifer Soler was ready for the stack of fliers that would come home with her children — information on after-school activities ranging from recreation sports league to Scouts to Chess Club. But something unusual caught her eye this year: Scrabble Club.
Her two children wanted to sign up right away.
"This is so different and so fun," she said. "The kids just love it. This is exactly what they wanted to do."
This is the second year for the after-school Scrabble Club at the Columbia school, and the program is filled to capacity. Students met for the first time Sept. 25 when, for almost an 90 minutes, they tried their hands at the classic board game. No scores were kept, and students weren't even using a dictionary to double-check their words. But competition was fierce.
"No, it's bad luck when you pick the tiles," Shriya Menon, 9, chided her younger brother, Ronan, 7. The brother and sister were paired up against first-grader Danny Wilson and fifth-grader Jake Denne, and the two got off to a slow start. They had to pass their first two turns to swap tiles — "Too many Ds" on their letter stand — but finally got on the board with "set."
"We've played with our family before," Shriya, a fourth-grader, said. "I like how we can make words, and it's fun because it goes quickly. It's like, you're experiencing all these different words so fast."
Playing Scrabble is fun, Shriya said, because otherwise she might not be very curious about words, or bother to look them up in a dictionary. But this way, she said, learning is fun.
That's exactly the point, said Leah McIlvein, the school's media specialist and the club's adviser.
"I'm a wordie," she said. "This is my passion. I just wanted to give the kids exposure to words and how exciting it is to make new ones. It's all about hooking them into learning with something fun."
Playing Scrabble, McIlvein said, teaches the kids much more than words. They're learning teamwork and sportsmanship, and she splits the 31 students up into various groups so that kids of all ages are at one table together. It's one of the reasons Jake, who was playing against the Menon siblings, likes the game.
"It's not a solitary game," said the fifth-grader. "It's a together game."
Jake and Danny are triumphant when they pick up a coveted blank square — Danny's favorite tile, he said — and play the word "quiet," with it substituting for the "u."
"This is dog-eat-dog stuff," McIlvein said. "They get into it. But it's not about competing among themselves, but competing within themselves. That's what we're trying to get at — competing against yourself to do better. It engages the students and gets them to be active, rather than passive, in their learning."
The Scrabble Club will meet for six weeks this fall, and more sessions are planned for winter and spring, McIlvein said.
There are Scrabble clubs in schools across the nation, McIlvein said, and they're at all levels. Many hold tournaments, and the National School Scrabble Championship held earlier this year in Washington, D.C., carried a $10,000 prize. But the Thunder Hill club isn't at that level yet, McIlvein said. For one thing, she opens the club to all grades — typically it's just for grades 3-5. But in the Thunder Hill media center, a table of kindergartners sit together, trying to put together words from tiles to a game similar to Scrabble, APPLETTERS.
"They're just working on their letters and having fun," said parent volunteer Angela Henderson, whose kindergartner and fourth-grader are both in the club. "With the younger kids, it's just about working with word groups, simple stuff. But with the older kids, hopefully it helps build their vocabulary."
Victoria William, 6, thinks the game is definitely helping with her spelling and vocabulary. She joined the club because, like McIlvein, she just loves words.
"I love to spell and write," said the first-grader. "It's so fun. When I have homework and I have to spell words, that's my favorite."
She even has a favorite word.
"My favorite word," she said, "is 'word.' "