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Table Talk

Table Talk

You've often heard us talk about the importance of the family meal and the wonders it does for a child's development, confidence, conversation skills and more, so we were blown away when we came across a company with a very similar ethos to our own. Mrs. Wordsmith, a new company that makes wittily illustrated activity packs for kids to expand their vocabulary, is doing amazing work, and doing most of it at our favourite place in the home: the dinner table. 

Founder Sofia Fenichell and her team of researchers have found that one of the best times for children to soak up new vocabulary words is at the table. Not only is it a ritual, but it's generally a relaxed, happy time when they get to listen to their parents talk and use 'rare' words in context. Surprisingly, according to Mrs. Wordsmith, they learn more words at the table than they do in the classroom, and even from reading books.  Mrs. Wordsmith animates the conversation by providing humorously illustrated word packs and table mats—by none other than Craig Kellman, the artist behind Madagascar and Hotel Transylvania—that families can play with each day.  Needless to say, we're enchanted, and love to see the dinner table in this new light.

Below, we interview Sofia on the magic of learning new words at the table, and get to test drive a few 'rare' words to spruce up our own family's table talk.

verb. To zigzag or roam; like an armadillo winding his way across the sea.

[Q&A with Sofia Fenichell] 
Co-founder of Mrs. Wordsmith

What was your “lightbulb moment” for starting Mrs. Wordsmith?

We have a close knit team of founders and partners that came together out of the struggle to help our children improve their writing skills. We’ve all been there - sitting at the kitchen table, pulling our hair out and wondering how to get our children to use words like ‘diabolical’ instead of ‘nasty’ or rummage instead of ‘search’. Sometimes, we questioned whether kitchen sinking your sentences - tossing in every adjective and adverb you could think of - was really the way to write? We strive to help children learn how to use the right words and not just more words. 

adj. Appealing and yummy; like a doughnut so huge, round and pink that you drool a river of saliva.

You have a cognitive neuroscientist and a professor of linguistics on your team.  How has their advice influenced your product? 

Dr Lesley Sand, our neuroscientist, has taught us a lot about how children learn. I wish I had known some of this when my children were little! Our program is habit-forming from a cognitive behaviour perspective.  If you use Mrs Wordsmith for 5-10 minutes a day or every other day, instead of cramming, your children will learn what educators call ‘rare words’.

There was so much we didn’t know about how the brain works before we met Lesley. We didn’t fully grasp just how important hilarious images were to speeding up the learning process. We didn’t fully appreciate how fundamental learning ‘rare words’ is to your child’s academic development. Improving your child’s vocabulary of rare words strengthens the pathways in the brain related to reading and comprehension and has lasting and growing benefits.  

Professor Thompson has taught us about the types of words children should learn, the ones they are likely to encounter in the books they read. 

adj. Dry or thirsty; how your throat feels if you run out of water in the desert.

How did you come across Craig Kellman’s work and what about it made you think it was just right for your project. Secondly, how did you woo this Hollywood artist to get involved in your start up?

We called Craig Kellman and told him our mission was to illustrate the English language so children would fall in love with learning words. And he said, “I’m in!”. For months, we kept waiting for him to change his mind. It’s been a year now of working closely with him and the team of young artists we’ve built around him.

We all thought Madagascar was one of the best Hollywood animations ever and we had this cultish obsession with Chantel DuBois, the French policewoman in Madagascar 3. We wanted Mrs Wordsmith to be English version of her [scroll to the bottom to see her]- part middle-aged quirky headmistress and part Vivienne Westwood the creative renegade.

Everyone in Hollywood kept telling us that ‘Craig Kellman is the one of the maddest, most talented and funniest guys in Hollywood. Hope you convince him!’ As a British born company, the words mad, quirky and funny sounded like a fit.

adj. Rude or savage; like a caveman who doesn't know that picking your nose isn't polite.

Your sets, which include placemats with activities on them, work particularly well around the dinner table. What did you find in your research that compelled you to base them around the table?

The research shows that children learn more rare words at home, through dinner table conversation, than they do reading. Talking is key to developing language skills and there is no better place for this than the dinner table.

adj. Luxurious and greedy; like stuffing your mouth full of your favourite food.

In creating this line of products, what have you and your team learned about the way children learn best?

Little and often. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Don’t cram. And above all, be funny and be visual.

adj. A strong stink; as smelly as sweaty trainers after a long day of sports.

What are your tips for enriching children's vocabulary at home?

Keep it simple. Use the mats 5 minutes a day. We've simplified them further in the last month. Tear off a mat and let your child work through the synonyms and antonyms. And then if you have a creative writing assignment, ask your child to pick 10 flashcards to use in their writing. Help them come up with a few ideas such as ‘diabolical temper’ or the ‘diabolical heat’ and then walk away if you can.

The combination of the two - 5 minutes a day, plus using the cards as writing prompts - will turn your children into little Wordsmiths. It’s habit-forming!

adj. Tempting and tormenting; like when doughnuts are behind glass or out of reach.

Any exciting plans for the future of Mrs. Wordsmith?

Many schools have asked us to create products for them. We are also going to launch in the US soon. We have lots of ideas for new products based on using hilarious illustrations to teach
English globally. We will see. For now it’s day by day - word by word…

If you could invite any 5-10 people to your dream dinner at home, who would they be and what would you serve? 

Given what's going on in the world especially with the US election, I think I would like to have the most interesting leaders of all time.  I would like to talk to them about how they think our values as a society have or haven't changed.  My dinner party list would be

Winston Churchill
John F Kennedy
Nelson Mandela
Abraham Lincoln
Martin Luther King 
Queen Elizabeth the 1st
Napoleon Bonaparte
Mao Zadong

To keep it light, my son has suggested we serve them burgers and chips because it's destined to make anyone feel at home and they will devour it. I might even try out a gluten-free bun to see how they react!

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