Education: Improving Student Literacy with Scrabble

Philly ASAP trains all volunteers who want to participate in organizing Scrabble clubs.

The Philadelphia School District budget crisis has meant that after-school programs suffered losses. Nonprofits like After School Activities Partnerships (ASAP Philly) help organize activities for students all over the city.

“ASAP is funded by grants and private donations and the mission is to provide academic enrichment opportunities through Scrabble, chess, debate and drama clubs in sites across the city,” said Earl Joseph (below), ASAP’s Scrabble coordinator.

Earl Joseph, Philly ASAP Scrabble Coordinator.

The nonprofit works with schools, recreation centers, community centers, churches and libraries for the students who attend the program.

“I coordinate those Scrabble clubs, I train adults to run those Scrabble clubs to facilitate the game with students and everything is free, the equipment is free and the training is free,” said Joseph. “We organize events and tournaments throughout the year to engage the groups that are formed.”

Playing Scrabble can provide hours of entertainment, but it can also help promote student literacy skills. Philly Plays Scrabble, organized by ASAP, is a citywide literacy campaign with 99 Scrabble clubs and 1,100 students playing weekly.

Joseph also coordinates events and tournaments throughout the year starting with a fall kick-off event in October, a Scrabble Winter Classic Tournament, a Spring Into Scrabble competition and an end of school year event.

“For the end of the year event, I was able to strike up a partnership with the Philadelphia Museum of Art and we hosted the tournament in the east balcony,” he said. “The goal is to try to accompany our programs with some cultural experience. The youth were able to participate in the tournaments and then tour the museum for free.”

Volunteers training and learning the intricacies of Scrabble.

With funding from the Department of Human Services, ASAP is launching a Scrabble pilot program designed to boost literacy outcomes for English language learners and students not at reading grade level. Joseph, who is pursuing a master’s degree in secondary education at Drexel University, wanted to expand the benefits of improving literacy through Scrabble.

“That’s the key focus of my pilot, masking learning with play,” he said. “So you’ll play Scrabble but you’ll also learn things like phonemes and other things that are critical to your literacy development.”

Students improving their literacy skills is a much needed asset for the rest of their school experience. According to ASAP’s survey, 83 percent of the students reported that participating in the Scrabble clubs had improved their spelling. Joseph explained that “competition drives success in that way.”

“It’s great to see that light in their eyes,” he said. “As a teacher, that’s what drives me to want to teach.”

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– Text, images and video by Lara Witt

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