Wordplay Games is a suite of Web-based games designed to improve the vocabulary and reading comprehension skills of middle-grade students. To help teachers integrate the games into their curriculum, we also provide associated support materials.

The project seeks to address the critical need for more innovative approaches to teaching and learning by creating games that combine engaging, creative forms of play with instructional impact that teachers recognize and value. Our target audience is struggling readers who possess basic literacy skills, but have difficulty making sense of complex texts they encounter in school. We aim to provide these readers with playful experiences that foster some of the reading comprehension strategies used by successful grade-level readers.

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A 7th grade student put together these images to convey one definition of act to her teammates. They must pick which of several definitions she is trying to communicate

Wordplay Games consists of two games, Code Invaders and Cipher Force. The games were originally developed for the Nintendo DSi platform. They were designed for English language arts classes and primarily used vocabulary from the Academic Word List, a collection of words frequently used in academic texts. To make the games more readily and widely available, we recently created Web-based versions. The basic game design remains the same, but we added several significant features to the Web-based games.

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“This is a great game for my regular and struggling readers!!!! They want to fly through it and are finding they have to read and think. Love it!”
– 7th grade teacher in California

The Common Core Standards emphasize building students’ literacy within the core content areas. But in the middle grades, many students’ reading comprehension skills are not yet adequate for the task of learning from grade-level, content-rich texts. Prior research has documented that word games and other playful experiences with language can help to prepare students for these reading challenges. But struggling readers typically report having far fewer playful experiences with language than do their peers who read at grade level, and wordplay activities do not play a prominent role in most content-area classrooms.

Struggling readers are a varied group, but one thing they have in common is their disengagement with text and their lack of motivation to wrestle with difficult words or narratives. Wordplay Games was designed to provide a safe and motivating environment for all students, including struggling readers, to become actively engaged with word work, increasing their exposure to new and diverse words and deepening their understanding of familiar words.

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Ongoing formative research and pilot testing has shaped the development of Wordplay Games and the extension activities. This work is focused on learning from the experiences of small groups of students and teachers to inform the further refinement of the games themselves.

During fall 2011, we conducted field tests of the games and related extension activities. The field test was our first opportunity to test the feasibility and utility of the games in school settings. We worked with five seventh-grade English language arts teachers in three schools in New York, New Jersey, and California. The research team prepared and supported these teachers, but asked them to take the lead in implementing the games with their students.

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