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Dyslexia activities: Card games

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By Bob Hextfounder of Crossbow Education

Discover how traditional card games are the perfect teaching tool for dyslexic children – as well as stacks of fun for the whole class

Pack of cards

A simple pack of cards can be an invaluable teaching tool in your classroom — and children will be having so much fun, they’ll hardly realise they’re learning important skills

In the years I spent as a teacher of children with learning difficulties, I have noticed that a dyslexic ten-year old will spend ages concentrating on the visual symbols and number patterns in a game of Rummy, yet put them in front of a standard reading or maths task and they will quickly lose concentration. I am sure that I am not alone in this observation. I am equally sure that the majority of people reading this article who have played Monopoly® could name most, if not all, of the streets on the board, probably in the right sequence and with the right colour as well, without once ever having sat down with the specific purpose of memorising them.

We know that young mammals (including humans) learn through play. We also know that learning can be a stressful experience for children with learning difficulties – they often expect to fail, whereas most of us, when confronted by a task that is appropriate for our ability, expect to succeed. So why not remove some stress, free up some cognition, tap into the natural mammalian learning mode, and use some card games as a SEN teaching tool?

A hand in social skills

In addition to the points above, playing cards is a social activity with a long tradition. In many homes today, the presence of televisions, computers and electronic entertainment, and in many cases, the absence of both space and opportunity to sit together as a family, is causing this tradition to die out. Playing cards can help develop concentration, memory, and a whole range of communication, visual and auditory skills specifically for dyslexic children. In addition, card games can help to develop valuable social skills and values such as turn taking, patience, tolerance, self control and correct attitudes to winning and losing. The classroom can provide a controlled environment where this learning can happen.

Cards in the curriculum

Important pre-requisites for every curriculum area can be found in simple card games for example counting, sequencing and recognising clusters of ‘pips’ as different numbers, to name a few. A simple game of Pairs is good for visual memory; Snap develops concentration and Happy Families strengthens auditory memory.

A further valuable aspect of card games is their contribution to multisensory input. Cards are, by nature, visual and tactile. In any game where the content involves language, there will also be words to read out. Through speaking, listening, seeing and handling the cards, all the main sensory channels are used. Add to this the increase in fine motor skills and manual dexterity that can be gained through regularly handling playing cards, and a strong case can be made for the inclusion of regular card games in children’s learning, without even considering the content of the games, whether children have a special educational need or not.

The following ideas provide some fun examples of how to adapt traditional card games in the classroom, whether children have a special educational need or not.

2. Go Fish

Basically, Go Fish is Happy Families with street cred. The game is best played with up to five or six children, and the aim of the game is to be the player with the most sets of cards at the end. Go Fish requires lots of concentration and memory skills, and is really great fun. It also involves strategy and risk – whatever you ask for, you also expose.

How to play

Go Fish can be played by up to six players. Deal seven cards to each player. The rest of the cards are placed face down in a pile in the centre. The object is to be the player with the most sets at the end. A set is all four cards of the same value; the end is when all the spare cards have been picked up.

To collect a set, ask another player if they have a card you want. That player has to give you all the cards of that value that they possess. You can only ask for a card if you have at least one of the value you are asking for in your own hand. For example: John, Jane, Anne and George are playing. John starts with two 3s, one 9, one Queen, one 10, and two 2s in his hand. He decides to try and collect 2s on this go. He asks Anne if she has any 2s: she doesn’t, so she says ‘Go Fish’. John has to take the top card off the pile in the centre. George, however, has a 2 in his hand, so remembering John asked for a 2 and therefore has at least one 2, he asks John for a 2. John has to give him both of his 2s. George then gets another go and asks Jane for the last 2. She has it and gives it to him. He puts his set of 2s down on the table.

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Adapting the game

As with Rummy, this can be adapted by children creating their own sets of four cards (and since a lot of learning involves grouping and classification that means a lot of Rummy and Go Fish potential). Sets of three cards also work: in Crossbow Education’s Vowel Digraph Triplets game, Go Fish can be used for collecting the three digraph words in each family (Do you have a ‘rain’ word? Go Fish!). Whatever you play, make the game a focal point in the lesson, not just a ‘carrot’ for the end: the children will be relaxed, engaged, and learning – so make the most of it.

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1. Rummy

Rummy is a game that combines chance with memory and reasoning (I’ve just picked up a six. I remember she discarded a six a few turns back. Therefore she might discard another six and that will give me a set.). At the same time, it is simple to play and teach, and so is suitable both for younger children and for those with learning difficulties. For example, I have used an adaptation of Rummy successfully with children with moderate learning difficulties in a Special School. A great way to adapt Rummy for teaching is to first encourage children to create their own playing cards, using a set of four cards divided into four suits. These can be words (linked to your current teaching topic or spellings), shapes, numbers or even science classifications. In addition, each suit is colour coded. Children should then add their set of cards to a partner’s to form a total pack of 32 cards.

How to play

Seven cards each are dealt to each player. The remainder are placed face down in the centre and the top one turned up and left next to the pack, thus starting the ‘discard pile’. Players must collect two sets of cards that can either be 3-4 cards OF THE SAME SUIT in sequence, or 3-4 cards OF THE SAME VALUE in different suits. This is done by taking turns to pick up one card at a time, either from the top of the unseen pack, or from the top of the discard pile, and then discarding one card. The discarded card may be the card that has just been picked up, or it may be another card. Through this selection process, players alter their hands until the winner lays down all their cards, discarding the last one.

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Adapting the game

To play, each player starts with four cards instead of the traditional seven, with the remainder of the pack laid face down and the first card turned over. Children must then try and gather a full suit – for example, the four triangles or the four red cards, with a complete set of four cards constituting a winning hand.

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Further information

Bob lectures and runs workshops in the UK and overseas on using games as teaching tools. For INSET and other training information, visit

Further resources

The card game Whist is good for memory and attention. Strike, which is similar to Uno®, can be downloaded for £1.99 from See how it can be adapted for a synthetic phonics game with a dyslexic twist. The games Fraction Rummy, Maths Language Rummy, and the spelling game Rummyword can also be bought and downloaded from the site.

More information on card games and their adaptations, including some ready-made examples, can be found in the book and CD set Learning, Games and Puzzles by Bob Hext (Crossbow Education, £14.95 PB).


  1. hia
    on 7 February 2010

    i no

    fro all the kidz that have Dyslexia i have ti ot do not be afertd


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