It’s virtually child’s play to improve literacy, says study

16th January 2015 at 00:00
‘Sophisticated language’ and scientific references in game play are helpful, according to Scottish research

Research at a school in Argyll and Bute into the effect of gaming on learning shows that it has a significant impact on literacy and science skills, it has been claimed.

The project – undertaken by Hugh O’Donnell, who teaches English at Dunoon Grammar – tracked 28 S2s as they played Mars Colony: Challenger. The results revealed a “statistically significant difference in literacy ability” between those who used the game and others who did not.

The findings are relevant in Scotland, where Curriculum for Excellence requires teachers of all subjects to drive up literacy and to give more of a focus to interdisciplinary projects that straddle the more traditional subject boundaries.

The game, which is based on an imaginary colonisation mission, was played by a class over a term while they learned about the three states of matter. Science is a key part of the game, as players take into account various factors, such as air and water supplies.

Pupils, whose progress was measured against 102 peers who did not play the game, wrote “personal-imaginative narratives” at the end of the project. They had to reflect on how it would feel to be far from home, how badly they would miss family and pets and potential frustrations caused by other crew members.

Research skills

This final task revealed progression in writing among all 28 pupils, says Mr O’Donnell, writing for the University of Glasgow’s peer-reviewed journal Press Start (

Quoting other research, published last year, he notes that this method of storytelling enables students “to develop research skills, critical and creative thinking...related to managing and utilising scientific knowledge in everyday life”.

That research – “Science Fiction in Education: case studies from classroom implementations”, published in Educational Media International – backs up Mr O’Donnell’s view that “sophisticated ranges of language” take place in conversations between computer game players, which becomes evident in students’ application of knowledge of forming arguments and reasoning.

“Having pupils participate in the creation of such stories using games like Mars Colony: Challenger, when supplemented by other methods of instruction, and that afford pupils to work in groups, can be more effective with regards to learning and content retention,” writes Mr O’Donnell.

Mr O’Donnell stresses that his findings require further exploration and says that a computer game on its own cannot eradicate problems with writing. But, he adds, “game-based learning, such as the activities undertaken with Mars Colony: Challenger, can support writing across many disciplines”.

Derek Robertson, a University of Dundee expert on the use of computer games in learning, said that Mr O’Donnell had done “fantastic” work that typified “innovation [in games-based learning] from really imaginative teachers” taking place around Scotland.

But he was worried that not enough was being done to highlight excellence in games-based learning, and to provide some momentum for such projects. Mr Robertson was the driving force behind the Consolarium, a national initiative that provided a Scotland-wide focus for games-based learning until it was officially closed in 2011. The initiative came to a complete end in 2013.

Mr Robertson, who is also behind a scheme that helped to introduce the hugely popular construction game Minecraft into classrooms, countered any suggestion that computer games were an easy option. They created immersive worlds that were “challenging, interesting and aesthetically beautiful” and set highly difficult challenges, he said.

Computer games could shift the balance of expertise in classrooms and profoundly change how disaffected learners regarded school, he added, as they provided places where children were “culturally comfortable” and have “mastery and experience”.

In schools, teachers were usually the experts, but in the world of computer games, it was more likely to be the pupil showing the teacher how to do something. The thought of these two forms of expertise “intersecting” held exciting potential, said Mr Robertson.


Strategy for digital learning

A consultation on a “digital learning and teaching strategy for Scotland” closed on 17 December. Part of its aim is to summarise research evidence on the use of technology in classrooms.

“Digital technology has rich potential to support education in Scotland’s schools… and it is vital to ensure that our children and young people are equipped with the essential digital skills they will need to flourish in the 21st century,” reads a statement on the Scottish government’s website.

The strategy’s “key themes” include improving access to digital technology for all learners, improving teachers’ skills and confidence, as well as “ensuring curriculum and assessment relevance in a digital context”.

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