Even though it’s fundamental to almost all the other academic skills, literacy is one of the first weak links to become apparent in our education outcomes in the Unites States. The US ranked 7th in the world in literacy as of March 2016. Unpacking that number, we find that there is a strong correlation between lack of literacy (functional or actual) and poverty. In addition, according to the Literacy Project Foundation, “To determine how many prison beds will be needed in future years, some states actually base part of their projection on how well current elementary students are performing on reading tests.”
Reading is truly the key to any kind of success in the modern world. But often, kids are not interested in sitting down for long periods of time reading books. They would rather be playing games. So I say, let them play! It’s no substitute for systematically learning spelling, phonics and grammar. But games, especially a mobile games, often incorporate substantial reading components either to further the story or to give instructional information to the player. Pick a game and go through it together – just like you would go through a book! Some games are even based off of existing literature and can be used to entice young readers to check out the source material. Here are my top suggestions for mobile games to help teach reading:
Alpha Bear is a Scrabble-like game great for readers of all levels. The objective is to clear space for bears to grow by making words out of the letter tiles. The bigger the space you create, the bigger the bear gets and the more points you get. But be careful, because you can only use letters for a certain number of turns, or they turn into rocks and block your bear’s growth. The charming animation by Spry Fox provides a fun twist as you unlock new bears with new “powers” every time you beat a level.
Unlike Scrabble or a traditional crossword puzzle, the player is not limited to letters that are side by side. You can select letters from anywhere in the playing field, which means that simple, three-letter words can be easily played right alongside bigger, more advanced ones. It also encourages kids to try new letter combinations and gives you the opportunity to help them hunt for clever ways to make bigger words. Some great, easy suggestions are:
- Can they add a suffix?
- Can they add a silent e?
- Can they make a word that rhymes with the previous one?
Kids can either hunt for words they know, or can try random letter combinations to see which letters work as a word. Either way, they are playing with spelling in a three dimensional manner, putting new sounds together, and potentially applying new spelling rules.
At the end of each round, a bear gives you a silly saying using the top scoring words from your round. This is a great opportunity to talk about meanings of new words discovered by trying letter combinations.
There is also a competitive “Versus” mode where you can challenge and compete for the top score against friends.
- Toddlers: For your youngest gamers, you will want to work on letter hunting. Send them on a scavenger hunt to find the letters you call out and then show them how those letters built a word in the bottom of the screen.
- Preschool and Kindergarten: Once they have their alphabet down, you can graduate to having kids find phonetic combinations, such as SH, TH, CH, vowel dipthongs like AI and OI, or double letters (OO, EE). Talk about the difference between vowels and consonants. One of the early bears gives you special bonuses for using the letters E-A-S-Y in any word. Use this bonus to talk about vowel sounds.
- Elementary School: Try out the Versus mode, where kids can battle each other for top scores and bonuses. Racing each other and the clock is always fun at this age. You can even add extra praise if they can incorporate words from their spelling tests.
- Secondary School and On: Help kids learn to look up words they don’t know. It’s hard in the game, but at the end the bears pick a couple words that scored well. If your student doesn’t know the meaning, whip out Siri or Google and have them ask what the word means. Or, even better, help them learn to use a dictionary app to find new words and definitions. At this age, players can easily graduate to games like Scrabble or Fictionary.
All in all, it’s a charming game with a million permutations and a relatively easy learning curve that can appeal to young and old alike.
The other two games are a little different, and touch on other skill groups in addition to reading. They are better suited to older children, or played in a group where older students can help younger ones participate.
80 Days by Inkle Studios is a steampunk choose your own adventure based on Jules Verne’s classic novel, Around the World in 80 Days. Set in a fictionalized version of the Victorian era, the fantastical elements make it hard to recommend for teaching history. However, the story is as compelling as the classic from which it takes its name, and the setting is a beautiful ode to the early science fiction authors of the 19th Century.
The player is hired as the valet to the eccentric Phileas Fogg, who has recently taken a bet that he can circumnavigate the globe. Your task is to help him do this on time and on budget. Throughout the story you will meet strange and mysterious characters, chart your course around the world, dodge revolutions, and see many exotic locations – and you have to do it all in 80 days or you lose the bet. Text-based narration is complemented by beautiful, retro, art nouveau-inspired illustrations. Try switching this game out for story time before bed, taking turns making the travel plans. After you’re done reading, you can always follow up the story conversations with trips to the library or through google to find out more about the real places and people referenced in the narrative. All of a sudden, it’s not just a simple reading game – its a gateway to loving literature and independent research!
Fallout Shelter is the most involved of the reading games we’re highlighting today, and this one would be great for elementary aged kids with a good sense of humor. Based out of the expansive Fallout universe of post-apocalyptic survival, Fallout Shelter puts you in charge of an underground vault for survivors of a nuclear war. You must keep your dwellers happy, healthy, and alive.
One of the key elements is exploring the radiated wasteland outside the vault in order to find resources. Each dweller that you send out into the wild will have a log of their adventures generated randomly, with each outing being different from the last. They are rich with quippy understatements about how hard life in a nuclear fallout zone can be. Try reading the logs out loud together. Try out different voices. Then involve some critical thinking by asking about what the kids think they would need to survive in this situation. The snarky reading exercise can easily lead to discussions about sustainability, recycling, survival skills, and other, real world topics that branch into science and social studies.
Just as reading is not a one-dimensional skill, these games that incorporate reading to various levels are not one-dimensional learning tools. Experiment. Encourage. Try new things. You might just be surprised where your reading takes you.
If you come up with other ideas for educational play with these or other games, I’d love to hear them! Message me on Twitter at @chloeliz05 and we might highlight some of the best ideas in a future article.
‘Til then, keep on playing! …I mean… learning.