Literacy by stealth: How video games can make a difference

04 May 2021
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Shahneila Saeed, Head of Education at Ukie and Director of the Digital Schoolhouse discusses the role video games can have in the classroom and at home in supporting children’s literacy and creativity, following on from speaking at the National Literacy Trust’s primary conference
Everyone back to school: Literacy by stealth about the power of video games.

When we talk about improving children’s literacy, more than likely playing video games usually doesn’t feature as part of the conversation. But it should. 71% of 5 – 15 year olds play video games online, if we as educators do not use that to our advantage then we are seriously missing a trick.

Games like Animal Crossing, Dreams, Minecraft and others allow children to build their own worlds and tell their own stories. They are doing this already, but here’s the thing…they don’t see this as ‘learning’ or anything remotely to do with developing their literacy and storytelling skills. For them this is a game, it’s fun and they are just playing.

Video games allow them to bring their imaginations to life in a whole new way. Games create immersive and interactive worlds that can help you experience environments that otherwise would not have been possible. Games like Assassins Creed Discovery Tours for example replicate the worlds of Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt. Within these games students can truly see that world come to life, they get to engage with characters and explore objects and tools within the game. They are a wonderful trigger for imaginative exploration and can really help with creative writing.

Sometimes, what children can struggle with the most in creative writing is generating the initial idea in the first place. “What do I write?” is a common question asked by many a student and can become a real obstacle in getting started. Every good game has a great story, but not every game is easily playable in the classroom.

Here is a quick idea of how you might use games in the classroom without having to convince your Headteacher to stretch the school budget to make lots of purchases:

1) All video games come with official trailers. Select a few to show to the class

2) What’s the story?

3) Discuss and explore the trailer with the children. Enable all learners to shape their own thoughts and ideas about this.

4) Either in small groups or individually, children can move onto penning down their ideas and formulating it as a written piece.

5) Collectively refine the idea and enable children to share their stories and retell them with the rest of the class.

6) Speak to the computing teacher in your school, perhaps they can use their computing lessons to digitise their story? More than simply typing it up as a Word document they could use a programming language such as Scratch to create their own interactive story.

The power of esports is not fictional

Esports is the world of competitive organised video gameplay. These are played by professional gamers for live and virtual audiences across the globe. Popular esports titles are Fortnite, Overwatch and League of Legends to name but a few. Professional gamers are nothing short of celebrities and have huge followings on social media, with students typically watching esports matches online via platforms such as Twitch.

So, what does this have to do with literacy?

In 2016 Digital Schoolhouse established the first UK nationwide schools based esports tournament. In 2020 the tournament saw over 10,000 students and 1100+ teams participating from 69 schools across the UK.

Digital Schoolhouse together with Nintendo is a nationwide programme that aims to inspire and engage students with computing and 21st century digital skills. The purpose behind the nationwide tournament is to create immersive careers education opportunities for students. Interwoven through each stage of the tournament, students get the opportunity to put classroom theory into practice; taking on jobs such as Event Manager, Production Crew, Shoutcaster and more.

The esports tournament really is a cross-curricular experience with many schools seizing the opportunity for the school’s Computing and English departments to work together. Shoutcasters are able to use their participation to count towards GCSE English verbal assessments; and the Marketing and Community Management roles have served to be an ideal opportunity for teaching Key Stage 3 non-fiction.

The findings are consistent. Students achieve higher results than they previously would and are overall more engaged in school and their learning. This is particularly true with underachieving students that were previously ‘disconnected’ from education.

The National Literacy Trust’s research found that video games can provide young people with a route into reading and improve confidence in reading skills. 4 in 5 (79.4%) young people who play video games read materials relating to video games once a month, including in-game communications (39.9%), reviews and blogs (30.5%), books (21.8%) and fan fiction (19.4%). They also encouraged young people’s creativity through writing. 3 in 5 (62.5%) young people who play video games write something relating to video games once a month, including video game scripts (27.5%), advice to help other players (22.1%), fan fiction (10.8%) and blogs or reviews (8.0%).

Games are a powerful medium through which we can tell stories and experience new worlds. The ways to use them are as varied as the nature and range of games themselves. Everything from spectating; setting up tournaments; to playing the game or simply taking inspiration from the trailers and surrounding fan fiction. The possibility to use games to improve and develop literacy skills are vast.

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