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Rattlesnake – fun with long phonics chains


We know that repetition is a powerful tool for attaining fluency. That includes the phonics decoding fluency our students need to develop in order to become strong readers of English. But we also know that repetition can be deadly dreary drudgery. (Known by language teaching professionals as DDD. 😁) 

If only … If only there were some way to give our young students repetitive phonics decoding practice that would be fun. Something that would be game-like; something that would be high-engagement and low stress. If only there were something 

Hey, wait a minute!—I know! Let’s make a game of it! And let’s call this game … 




This simple group activity will get your phonics learners reading long, long strings of graphemes with no other motivation than the fun of decoding for decoding’s sake. 

If you think that’s a good thing. 

I say, “If you think that’s a good thing,” because some teachers don’t see the value of having learners decode nonsense ‘words.’ I do think there is value in it, but I understand the reasoning of those who don’t. 

If you are one of those who don’t want to give your students practice decoding phonics chains that are devoid of semantic value, if you think you should only give your students real words to decode, that’s OK—you and I can still be friends. But then you probably won’t be interested in trying this activity. (And that would be a shame!)  😉 






Here’s the basic idea: Make letter tiles, each tile with one grapheme—a single letter, or a digraph or trigraph such as ee, sh, igh, etc. The students will be stringing these tiles together, to make a long chain—a snake! 

To play, turn all the tiles face down on the table. Players take turns picking up and playing one tile per turn. 

Let’s say the first player picks up a p tile. They put it down and say the sound: /p/. The next player picks up a tile—let’s say an e—and puts their tile down abutting the first tile, and reads the two together: ‘ep’ or ‘pe’. 

Note that the chain needs to alternate consonants and vowels, so the next tile could be a vowel to connect with the P, or a consonant to connect with the E. 

With each player’s turn, the chain of graphemes—and therefore the chain of sounds—gets longer and longer, creating the ‘snake.’ Pretty soon the kids are reading pekutisanolegizem, or elibosuvacaxihof, or … Well, you get the idea. 

TIP: It is easier for the children to stay focused on the game if you have everyone read together, rather than just the player who put down the tile. 





I find that the children enjoy decoding for the sake of decoding. Don’t ask me why. But I also try to make the activity as game-like as possible. Here are a couple of ways you can do this. 

• One is to have a rattlesnake head tile and a rattlesnake rattle tile. (These are included in the printable PDF for which I will give a link later.) 

You can use whatever rules you want to govern how these two special tiles are played. For example, you could make a rule that the tail cannot be played until the very last. Or the rule could be that when the head and tail are found, they must be played, and once both have been played, the activity is over. 

• You can, optionally, use a playing board designed specifically for this activity. 

A board dictates the shape of the snake, but it also opens up the option for students to play whatever tile they pick up on any open space of the same color. The player can choose to connect to as long or short a chain of already-played tiles as they wish, or start a completely new chain on any blank spaces along the length of the snake board. 

Nowadays I don’t use a board, but this is the one I used to use when doing this activity in my classroom: 







distinguishing between vowel and consonant tiles: If a player is going to add to a chain that has a consonant at each end, they need to use a vowel—and vice-versa. Since the tiles to be chosen from are lying face-down, it helps to have the backs marked somehow to distinguish between the vowel and consonant tiles. This can be as simple as color-coding the backs of the tiles—for example, a blue dot on the back of each consonant tile, and a pink dot on the back of each vowel tile. 

ending the game: You may want to let the children play until all the tiles are used, or you may want to put a time limit on the activity. Putting a time limit on it helps to give a gentle ‘positive pressure’ to keep the game moving quickly. 

Or, as mentioned earlier, if you are using a snakehead and a rattle, and you instate the rule that the game is over when both have been found and played, the time limit for the game will be decided by random chance. 

tile design: If you want to design your own tiles for this activity, I recommend triangles. They are easy to make the template for, and easy to cut out. I used triangles for a long time (which is why my playing board is for triangles), but I eventually decided that I prefer hexagons—with flat tops and bottoms, and points on the sides. This gives the players two choices at either end for where to place the subsequent tiles—up a little or down a little. This doesn’t give the children too many choices (which can lead to indecision and thereby bog down the action), but it forces a curving pattern to the snake, preventing the dreaded, boring, straight-across line of tiles: 



What fun is that? Come on, kids—be adventurous! Go wild! 



That’s more like it! 




As promised, here is a link to a printable PDF of my own newer version of Rattlesnake (with hexagonal game pieces):

PDF of Rattlesnake tiles 

You are welcome to respond to this blog entry with any questions or comments you may have about the PDF or the activity. 

And here is a link to a YouTube video showing the activity in action. Feel free to leave questions and comments there too!  

One more! Click here for a YouTube video showing how I make game tiles.

Alan Miesch

Alan Miesch

After years as a ‘professional dabbler’, Alan Miesch found himself drawn into teaching English to non-native English learners. He has experience in a wide range of milieus, both in the United States and Japan, teaching young children, teens, and adults. He is now the proprietor and sole teacher at a private English classroom in Numazu, Japan.
Alan Miesch

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