Friday, April 11, 2008

Board games and early literacy

I have written previously on this blog about the importance of play for children (here and here) but I was reminded recently of the impact that structured games can have on learning. The journal "Child Development" recently reported on research conducted by Robert S. Siegler, a professor of cognitive psychology and Geetha B. Ramani, assistant professor of human development at the University of Maryland. They found that games can help preschool children learn mathematics, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The article reminded me of the many benefits of games for learning as well as for literacy and language.

The general usefulness of games

There are literally hundreds of games that have been designed for children and adults today. When I was a child the choice was much more limited (e.g. snakes and ladders, ludo, scrabble, monopoly, draughts) but the enjoyment and benefits were fairly similar. Some of the general benefits include learning:
  • That you can't always win
  • How to take turns
  • Team work
  • To be more patient
  • Risk taking
  • The importance of persistence
  • Anticipation skills
  • Memory
  • Colour and shape recognition
  • Pattern recognition
  • Vocabulary

But as well as these general benefits, there can be more specific benefits for learning that are related to other forms of learning, including:
  • Basic counting and mathematics
  • Word recognition
  • Problem solving
  • General knowledge
  • Writing (numbers and words)
Board games as learning aids

Schools have long used games in recognition that they can be a beneficial way to learn many things, especially for young children and those with learning difficulties.

The use of board games as part of school literacy and mathematics is motivated by the perceived benefits of:
  • repetition and over-learning (i.e. the repetition of something until it becomes second nature and increases the speed of recall);
  • incorporating some forms of repetitive learning into game situations to increase enjoyment and help concentration and time on task;
  • providing foundational knowledge for other more complex learning.
Some simple board game applications for literacy

The application of games to literacy has taken many forms. Here is just one example. It relies on board games that traditionally use a dice to determine the pace of the game. You can take existing games and simply replace the dice with a set of cards that require some simple reading task; each with the number 1 to 6 in small print that dictates the number of spaces moved. There are endless variations. For example:

a) You can choose basic sight words (i.e. words like 'were', 'said', 'there' - that is, words that can't easily be sounded out and are more easily recognised as whole words based on their shape and some partial letter clues. There are a number of these lists available such as the Dolch List that has been in use since 1948. Write the words in print at least 2 cm high and then write a number between 1 and 6 on the top right-hand corner (in much smaller print). You can use existing games like snakes and ladders, but instead of using the dice you have a pile of cards face down that players turn over one at a time and read. If successful, they move a counter the appropriate number of squares to progress the game.

b) Do the same as the above but use sound cards as appropriate for the child's age.

c) Use phrase cards instead of single word cards.

d) Use colour or number words.

As a teacher I often used games with children who were struggling with reading. In fact one of the things we did for struggling readers was to create our own simple board games that had a theme that matched the interests of the child (e.g. car racing, football, space, dinosaurs, cartoon characters, super heroes etc).

While there are some electronic games that attempt to use repetition and over-learning in similar ways, many of the other general benefits of games seem to be achieved more readily with board games.

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