Towards the end of last year, I was privileged to be invited to Jakarta to run some tech-related training sessions. One of the sessions was on reading skills, in which we looked at the influence of screens and e-books on reading skills. In the break at the end of it, we were discussing the session when one of the teachers said: “This is all well and good but how do we actually engage students and make them want to read?”.
His argument was that he couldn’t get them reading e-books and while they might read something online, many only had mobile phones. Since most students simply play games on these, how might we try and engage them in reading?
A Phone Solution
Luckily on my phone I had the game ‘Lifeline’, which I had been using since being shown it by Paul Driver at a conference earlier that year. In the game, a trapped astronaut, Taylor, contacts you and you must help him try and survive. He communicates with you in text-message-like chunks, pausing at key moments to give you an either-or decision. Your decision affects the storyline and if you get it wrong you will lead Taylor to his doom. Displaying my phone through a projector I was able to get the teacher and his group to discuss and make collective decisions each time Taylor asked for advise. After playing for a while we discussed how engaged they had become and how this ‘non-traditional’ reading text might be the kind of thing the teacher was looking for.
As an avid mobile game player, since then, I can’t help but look at the games I am playing to see if they might easily be used as a way to somewhat surreptitiously get students reading in English. Here are a couple more that do.
Life on the Throne
Another ‘discuss the decision’ type game is ‘Reigns’. In this one you take the role of a king and have to see how long you can survive on the throne. As with Lifeline, your decisions will influence the outcome of the game. However, this time it is not done with text messages but with a series of cards. You are presented with a card which gives you an option and you have to swipe right to accept or left to reject. Each decision you make will either take you one step closer to the end of your reign or keep you safe for another year. In class, students should read then discuss if they accept or not. The aim is to survive for as many years as possible so those who like a competitive edge can use this to further motivate the students. Personally, I can’t get beyond 45 years so there’s your first goal.
Getting Kids Hooked on Reading
The idea of trying to engage children or teens through these text-like stories has not escaped the likes of Amazon who, at the end of last year, launched Amazon Rapids. This, according to their own website, ‘offers a playful approach to children’s reading for kids aged 6-12, with illustrated, original short stories written in a unique and engaging chat format.’ To enjoy them you have to pay a monthly subscription fee and live in the United States, which is somewhat limiting.
However, the concept does appear in other apps, though they are not always kid-friendly. Take for example, ‘Hooked’ or ‘Storyline’, both of which present short stories through the medium of a text message. You receive the story text by text (or with the one I am currently reading, through a text message conversation between the two protagonists). They allow you to read the story at your own pace receiving the next message(s) at a time you want. It does mean students can dip in and out when they have a few spare minutes or, as with Lifeline, you can project one story and get students to discuss what might happen as it unfolds. Both apps use a subscription model but they provide a number of free stories for you and your students to try before considering subscribing.
I should stress that despite really enjoying these apps, I am not suggesting you get your students to rush out and buy them. Part of their success with me might simply be I am enthusiastic about them so my students and teachers go with me when I use them. Like reading itself, everyone has their own preferences and the answer to engaging students is not the app itself but finding what interests them. Some might like saving Taylor, while others might prefer a more traditional e-book, or even a paper one. However, I hope this column makes you think about different ways of presenting students with reading texts and if nothing more gets you wondering if you should send Taylor back to the ship or towards the mountain in the distance.