Phonics skittles – or numbers skittles – made from toilet rolls

Yes, that’s right, toilet roll phonics skittles.

If that sounds a bit yucky, I agree I’d probably never use these in the classroom but for something new to brighten up phonics and numbers sessions at home? Sure.

The fact is, it’s easier to get your little people on board with doing schoolwork at home if it’s at least a bit fun – and that means trying new things and mixing up your activities.

And so, during lockdown when we were at home – and my bank account was getting tired of all the Amazon purchases – we decided to repurpose something everyone has.

The humble toilet roll tube.

Why toilet rolls?

Why not – apart from the yuckiness? (If it smells, bin it.)

Toilet rolls are made of cardboard so you can write on them much more easily than on a plastic bottle cap, for example.

They stand up on their own, and don’t roll away (unlike stupid ping pong balls) so you can do things like knocking over the right one or playing skittles.

You can fill them up with sand or post items into them – more about the activities in a minute…

And, of course, we’re always producing more of them – so if one or two get squashed or chewed by the dog it’s easy to replace them.

How to make phonics skittles

I mean, you’ve probably guessed already but this post wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t explain how I made this extremely complex resource.

  • you get a clean toilet roll tube
  • you get a marker pen
  • you write a letter or number on each one, depending what you want to use them for

For phonics, we started our skittle collection when my son had learned the first 6 or 7 sounds and added more as he learned them.

If they’re learning sounds like ‘sh’ and ‘ee’ you can make skittles for those too.

When you’re done they’ll look a bit like this:

toilet roll skittles

You might notice that I used a different colour for the vowels.

You don’t have to do that – I think it helps the child see that you need one of those sounds in every word. (Except ‘my’ and ‘by’)

What do you do with these home made phonics and numbers skittles?

Like with most things, it’s what you do with them that counts – so let’s take a look at a few activity ideas for your new toilet roll skittles.

We’ll start with reading and go through by skills, so you know what your child’s actually learning by doing these things:

Reading activities – recognising sounds (or numbers)

The first obvious reading skill you child will learn is recognising (and writing) sounds.

To begin with, these sounds are letters of the alphabet (s, a ,t , etc.) but they’ll quickly move on to sounds that need two letters, like ‘ch’ – so we’ll say ‘sounds’ not ‘letters’.

Here are a few ways you could use your skittles to help with sound recognition:

  • Call out a sound and your child knocks over the right skittle.
  • Call out a sound and your child fetches the right skittle.
  • Sort magnetic letters or letter tiles by putting a pile on the table for them to post into the correct tubes.
  • Line up 6 skittles and read the sounds on them – now hide one and ask your child which is missing. (You can take turns so they get to do the hiding, too.)
  • Stand up all the skittles on the floor – now give your child a ball to knock them over. They have to name every sound they knock over.

All of these activities will work just as well with numbers, too.

Phonics – blending or turning ‘c-a-t’ into ‘cat’

As well as learning to read individual sounds, our kids need to be able to blend them – put them together to make words.

This is how you get from c-a-t to cat – and it’s a whole different skill from knowing letters and sounds and can take a bit of work to get right.

Which is why it’s a great idea to practice reading short words with your child daily – and you can use toilet roll skittles for that.

Start by grabbing the sounds they know already (school will probably have provided a list of the order in which they’re learning them, or possibly a tub of sounds cards.)

Make a 3 letter word like ‘pat’ using the skittles.

Ask your little one to read it – and then let them knock it over if you like.

I like to put the word on the far away edge of the table and let him use a foam ball to knock the skittles off into a box I’ve put on the floor to catch them.

Having that fun element means I can get him to read a few more words than he would normally do without getting fed up.

Once your child’s a little more confident at blending (and that can take a while so don’t worry) you can try these ideas, too:

Instead of setting up the word for them, ask you child to make a word (or a few) for you.

Or give them three letters (e.g. a, t, p) and ask if they can make a word with them. (There might be more than one possibility.)

And you can extend that further by playing ‘what’s missing?’.

After you make a word and your child reads it, take one letter away and ask which letter is missing – “We had ‘peg’ – what’s missing?”

Or give them only some of the sounds they need for a word, eg “I’m making ‘hat’ – which sounds do I have? What else do I need?” Make it multiple choice if you like by offering a couple of options to see if they pick the right one.

Sight words

Does you child have to try to remember sight words or tricky words? Those ones they can’t sound out – yet?

Many of the ideas we saw for decodable words above will work here too – and I especially recommend playing ‘what’s missing’ or messing the words up for your child to fix.

It’s often hard for a child to learn these words – they somehow have to memorise the letters in the right order, even though they don’t sound out as they’d expect.

By playing games with them, you can help your child learn to recognise the words and spell them by knowing what looks right.

  • Make a tricky word with your skittles. Now muddle up the order for your child to fix. If that’s hard, change the position of only one letter to begin with.
  • Swap a letter for a different one to see if they notice.
  • Tell them you’re going to write ‘want’ and then deliberately use the wrong letters or wrong order and see if they notice.
  • Take a letter away and ask the which one’s missing.
  • Give them a turn at doing the hiding or messing up – but make sure they spell it correctly in the end. If you need to, pretend you’ve forgotten and ask them to help you get it right.

Right, that’s a lot of literacy ideas so let’s take a look at maths now.

number matching skittles
matching numbers on ping pong balls to tubes

Maths ideas for toilet roll skittles

As we already saw above, the same activities that work for practising recognising sounds will work for numbers too.

So what else can you practise?

Let’s look at counting a group correctly and adding numbers together.

Counting groups of objects correctly

Young children often make mistakes counting – I’ve got a whole post about fixing that here >>

So if your child’s ready to count 2 things or 3 things or 4 or 5 and get it right, you can use your skittles to help.

Line up the skittles – in order if you like but it doesn’t matter because you’ll read the number before doing anything else.

Now ask them to place 2 things in the number 2 skittle, 3 in the number 3 skittle and so on – use small things like pasta shells or counters so they don’t get stuck.

Once they finish they can check their work by lifting the tube and seeing whether the number of things inside matches the number written on it.

We’ve also tried this activity with rainbow rice – scooping the right number of spoonfuls of rice into each tube. You have to watch that more closely though to make sure they stop after the right number of scoops.

numbers skittles
It was a big scoop

Adding two sets of objects together

Lastly, you can use your toilet roll skittles to practise adding two numbers together.

Either take two number skittles and ask your child to add the numbers on them together – and then tell them whether they’re correct or not…

…or make the activity self-correcting.

Use the posting strategy from the last counting groups activities and take two number skittles and have your child place the correct number of pieces of pasta (or whatever you’re using) into each tube.

Now ask them to tell you the total of the two numbers – but instead of telling them whether they’re correct, let them find out for themselves.

Lift the tubes up and count the pieces of pasta inside. Assuming that they put the correct number of pieces in each tube, and they count them correctly as one big group, the total should be the same as their answer when they added the numbers mentally.

And if your child’s not ready to add mentally, they can skip straight to putting the pieces of pasta in the tubes and counting them to find the answer.

Final thoughts on phonics skittles

We’ve gone over a lot of activity ideas here – and you can probably see that you don’t always need phonics skittles or number skittles to use them.

You could count pieces of pasta into toy cups instead.

You could use magnetic letters to practise tricky words (or any words) by spelling them out and then messing up the order for your child to fix.

The reason I love these simple skittles so much is because my kids enjoy them.

They like knocking them over.

An activity that they could do with letter cards is probably more fun if you get to knock something over.

Plus it’s recycling. Kind of.


junk phonics resources
phonics skittles

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