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.

This project took on the specific challenge of using digital gaming to help middle-grade students accomplish two things:

  1. build their knowledge of specific, multiple-meaning, high-frequency academic vocabulary words, and
  2. increase their ability to discern the correct intended meaning of multiple-meaning words from context clues.

By focusing on these issues, we accepted the challenge of not limiting “vocabulary” to the memorization of specific definitions of words; instead, we took on the broader task of helping students build “word consciousness.” As defined by Nagy (1992) and other literacy researchers, “word consciousness” refers to students’ “awareness of and interest in word meanings.” In this context, we can weigh the value of Wordplay Games by considering whether and how the games may influence students’ conscious consideration of word meanings while reading, or their persistence in teasing out distinctions among possible meanings of a given multiple-meaning word.

In addition to this instructional goal, we also set ourselves two related goals regarding the design of the games themselves. First, we sought to create games that all students with at least basic decoding skills could play successfully, with no advantage going to the most fluent readers in a group. Second, we wanted to create a mechanic for the game that would require students to practice the process of articulating or discerning differences among word definitions, rather than displaying their pre-existing knowledge about the words.

The games also were designed to accommodate the needs and priorities of middle-grade teachers. As the Common Core State Standards are being implemented across the country, many teachers are looking for activities that can enhance the literacy component of content-area courses that have not traditionally addressed students’ literacy needs directly.

Many features of Wordplay Games can be traced back to these primary commitments. For example, to accommodate the needs of struggling readers, we eliminated speed as a factor in gameplay. Since accomplishing tasks quickly within the games provides no advantage, this frees struggling readers to take their time reading the limited amount of text involved in the games and to think through their options for action. To support the rehearsal, rather than the display, of fundamental comprehension strategies, Cipher Force requires students to produce a representation of a definition of a word, using pictures—a task that will require careful thought and consideration of the word’s multiple meanings, even if a student is already familiar with a particular word and definition. Cipher Force also privileges creativity over prior knowledge, as there is no one right answer for any particular word or definition within the game.

The games respond to teacher needs because they are designed primarily to be assigned as homework and then discussed in class, minimizing their impact on instructional time. Science and social studies teachers also can choose the specific words included in the game, so students can, for example, play using only words related to a unit on the U.S. Constitution (such as “constitution,” “authority,” “executive,” and “social”).

Through carefully scaffolded experiences in the games, even the most struggling readers can experience success and mastery as they decipher clues and communicate about important academic words. We expect that, with adequate exposure to the games, students can increase their ability to determine word meaning, understand word relationships, and use appropriately the words they encountered in the games—academic words necessary for college and career success.

By using familiar forms of electronic gameplay, we seek to build students’ self-efficacy as engaged and motivated readers. These games increase students’ access to literacy activities that are relevant and familiar to their everyday lives, and give them opportunities to make connections between the social and gaming skills they value and the skills valued in academic settings.