Games in Education

FWD News: Language and Literacy are Missions of the Game

Image from Operation LAPISUsing video games in education is an increasingly popular means of engaging students. While science and math lend themselves particularly well to this medium, literacy and language education is also benefiting games and related research.

Whether through the games themselves or by using video games as a segue to improving literacy skills, educators are finding ways to make language acquisition an integral mission of gaming. Read More...

One such example comes from the Norwich Free Academy in Norwich, CT, where teacher Kevin Ballestrini is using a game-based course developed in collaboration with University of Connecticut associate professor Roger Travis, to teach students about Latin and the Roman culture as part of a recent introductory program.

Presented in an online-forum format, the missions or episodes of Operation LAPIS are structured to use some of the game-based mechanics found in role-playing games, such as “grinding” to level-up your character. This revolves around expanding the number of Latin words collected through missions or in texts read, allowing players to increase their vocabulary to better solve further missions.

Students work in teams to respond to daily posts, where a new chapter in a narrative and accompanying prompts appear. After reading the narrative, written in both Latin and English, students must do some background research within a codex—the texto-spatio-temporal-transmitter or TSTT, which essentially outlines all the information needed for a given mission—and decide what actions their game character should take.

A similar game-based course is also being offered for a program on Greek philosophical writings at the University of Connecticut, under the name Operation ARETE. This course also includes Twitter assignments.

Grouped under the “Project ARKHAIA” banner, this game-based course series also includes Operation MENIS (an introductory Greek course), Operation KTEMA (Greek historiography), Operation KLEOS (homeric epic and video games), and Operation FABULA AMORIS (Horace and Ovid on love in Augustan Rome). The Pericles Group, which brings together Ballestrini and Travis, as well as other literacy experts, will soon be developing Operation MYTHOS (a classical mythology survey course), while two other banner projects, “Project SCIENTIA” and “Project TECHNOLOGIA,” are being developed to address STEM education and educational technology.

In another school, one teacher has been using Mario Kart on the Nintendo Wii to stimulate the interest of students in literacy and math. Julie Johnson, special education resource teacher at Goodfellow Public School in Innesfil, Ontario, has recently released the results of a two-month study launched last March, which incorporated the popular game into the curriculum of students grades 2 to 5.

While the game itself does not contain much in terms of educational material, the teacher has developed stations where students apply their writing and math skills doing exercises inspired by the game. “I work with a lot of struggling students who don't like reading and writing, many of them are boys,” said Johnson in an interview. “I was asking myself how I could engage these kids. The idea is to take commercially available video games and retrofit them, (and) apply that to the classroom environment. I'm going to be integrating the Wii into literacy centre and math based activities.”

The literacy centres include exercises like answering questions about the game, putting together Mario Kart word lists, reading a made-up script based on the game, creating metaphors and similes inspired by characters or settings in the game, listing homonyms of words related to the game, using the game guide to find non-fiction content, and creating interview questions for one of the game’s characters.

In her observations, Johnson found that the literacy centers generated a lot of excitement and that some students kept on doing the activities during their free time. She also reports that some students who were never very fond of writing showed a lot of interest in the writing centres and were eager to continue to write. Based on a survey which all 118 student participants filled out, 46 percent reported an increase in engagement with the Mario Kart literacy activities, while 39 percent noted an increase in work outcomes. Boys who typically performed below expectations were 34 percent more engaged with the game and 51 percent had increases in work outcomes.

Teachers who also filled out a similar survey found that 60 percent of boys who typically perform below expected levels increased their engagement with Mario Kart literacy centres, and that 40 percent had increased work outcomes.

“The benefit is engagement and cultural relevance,” said Johnson. “Here's something from a kid's real life enjoyment. You're bringing it into the classroom to bring that excitement. You've drawn them in to a learning experience. Part of my purpose is to show how adaptable it is.”

Last but not least, a team of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, MA, and Stockholm University, has designed a video game which sheds some light on the concept of speech acquisition. The game is unique in that its soundtrack is presented in what appears to be an alien language, due to distorted audio. However, within a few hours of game play, the 77 adult participants managed to extract word-length sound categories from the speech in order to use this only source of instruction to advance the game.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to approximate the task facing infants by creating a setting where adults are forced to infer what the meaning of different sound elements might be, and to do it in a functional way,” said language acquisition specialist Dr. Francisco Lacerda of Stockholm University. “This video game models for adults the challenge language learning poses to infants,” added auditory cognitive neuroscience specialist Dr. Lori Holt, Director of Carnegie Mellon’s Speech Perception and Learning Laboratory.

The research team believes that this discovery could have clinical applications in identifying functional sound units, which is a problem in dyslexia. “Native speakers of Japanese can use this type of training to learn English consonants they have difficulty distinguishing,” suggests Mellon graduate student, Sung-Joo Lim, who has also used the game to teach English as a second language to adults.

Holt and her team plan to investigate these finding further, to understand how games and foreign speech affect different areas of the brain. The next step is to observe players though functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to view their real-time brain reactions to the video game.