Oops, I Gamified Literacy – And It Worked

My life’s focus has been to improve student literacy outcomes, and I take that mission very seriously. After years devoted to literacy work in schools, I helped design LightSail based on extensive research, sound pedagogical practice, and deep experience.

I know that building successful readers starts with motivation, so I helped to create LightSail with student engagement at its heart: allowing students to choose from the VERY best books, for example.

Yet many core features were also built for instructional needs: for example, in-text assessments were added to every title in order to provide critical insight to teachers, while encouraging close reading practices by students. When LightSail’s team designed charts that allow students to see their own Lexile measure gains after every reading session, we were trying to encourage a growth mindset for readers by showing them their own progress. [1]

You know, serious pedagogical stuff.

Then LightSail launched in schools, and we started noticing the student celebrations: a reader might say, “Yes!” to himself under his breath and even pump his fist after getting an assessment question correct. Students started talking about how many “points” they earned each day as their Lexile measures increased. The effect was especially pronounced for boys. We heard so many schools describing these celebrations that we gave it a name: “the fist-pump effect.”

Obviously, we were thrilled by these signs of student motivation! Yet the first time I heard someone describe LightSail as a product that had “gamified literacy,” I bristled. Gamification and LightSail? No, no, no… we had designed a pedagogically sound, nutritious literacy tool, steeped in traditional principles, and I didn’t want anyone to think otherwise.

Yet gaming is starting to show serious potential in K-12 classrooms. USA Today reporter Greg Toppo wrote The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter after powerful learning outcomes from educational games diminished his skepticism about gamification. I’m also excited about the recent Stanford study on math gains from gaming.

I’ve come to see LightSail’s experience as the ultimate gamification proof point: we built a literacy tool around traditional reading practices that happen every day in all classrooms – reading great books, taking assessments, annotating in texts – and we definitely did not set out to “gamify literacy.” Yet students are clearly very motivated by the most game-like aspects of our tool. I’m persuaded by these student responses that gamification is a big motivator.

At the recent Games for Learning Summit organized by the United States Department of Education, Kara Chesal, the Director of Innovate NYC Schools, tweeted, “Games adapt + provide choice & autonomy,” and “Games hold students like a surfer on a wave, in their zone of proximal learning.” I would proudly say both things about LightSail.

If great games adapt, foster choice, and personalize, in ways that increase engagement and authentic learning, then I say: GAME ON.

On May 18th, USA Today’s Greg Toppo and distinguished educators presented Game On, a webinar featuring gamification and game-based learning exemplars, efficacy studies, and stories from the classroom.You can watch the video here.


[1] Dweck, Carol (2015) Carol Dweck Revisits the ‘Growth Mindset.’ Education Week. Retrieved from:
http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/09/23/carol-dweck-revisits-the-growth-mindset.html

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