Minecraft and literacies: do videogames support children’s reading and writing?

I recently came across an online article suggesting that Minecraft and other videogames may support children’s literacy – see here: http://www.wired.com/2014/10/video-game-literacy/.

As a mother of an 8 year old who regularly spends time reading Minecraft handbooks, I am tempted to believe that the author of this article (I don’t know who s/he is) has a point. The books on Minecraft are always displayed in a prominent spot in my local bookstore. They must sell, I suppose. I have seen children bring them to school, to share with their friends

Looking inside the Minecraft books, I can see that they offer detailed instructions, are written in a sophisticated language and use many specialised terms. No doubt, my son and his friends are stretched when they read these instructions. May that be the reason why I also see them frequently turning to YouTube where they watch videos of more experienced and skilled adult players of the game?

And what about other games? Is Minecraft one of the reasonably ‘good’ games, demanding and difficult, with plenty of stuff to learn and thus of some interest to parents and educators? I am reminded of Gee’s ideas about videogames and what we can learn from them. In a recent discussion with my current Masters students we compared different games they know and what literacies they might involve. No doubt, some require more, others less. I wonder how interested teachers are in games such as Minecraft. Do they/can they support literacy?


Hans Nielsen Hauge: A catalyst of literacy in Norway

I’m fascinated by this article by Linda Haukland just published in the Scandinavian Journal of History.  Hans Nielsen Hauge was responsible for a movement spreading literacy (which entailed reading and writing in Danish at the time) in rural areas throughout Norway in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  Despite persecution, Hauge succeeded in catalysing many activities involving literacies among working people, often without any formal education, including in isolated areas.  The homes of his followers became places where people could learn about the topics Hauge wrote about, springing from religion to embracing all sorts of everyday concerns.  Haukland shows how these new textually mediated opportunities to interact led to greater physical and social mobilities among the peasant communities.  Hauge himself travelled around from place to place, with books, texts and letters, and his followers, including women, wrote texts of their own and helped others to learn to read and write.

Anthropology of Writing book cover

Part of Haukland’s framing is the book The Anthropology of Writing edited by David Barton and Uta Papen.  You can download the first chapter of that book here.

Early childhood literacy – a view from the American Academy of Pediatrics

Earlier this week the American Academy of Pediatrics launched a new toolkit to encourage early childhood literacy.  There’s a lot to be said for it:

It seems really desirable that medical practitioners are being encouraged to work with all the families they meet to encourage children’s literacy development.

It’s great that reading together is being encouraged, and that talking about texts is seen as part of reading, as is singing.  Perhaps best of all, the lively illustrations with the campaign show that reading can be a social activity.  Children are shown clearly enjoying themselves, with others.  There are many links made between cognitive development, positive affect and reading.

The initiative is being supported by high profile contributors including Hillary Clinton.

I think if you’ve read this far, you might be expecting a “but” or two.

OK.  I’m not enthusiastic about the emphasis on “toolkits” and programs, although to be fair, what this toolkit mostly consists of are lists of tips, rather than the promotion of commercial programs that bedevils so much of early literacy policy.  This side of the pond, I think many of us still agree you don’t have to equate encouraging reading with the purchase of programs.  You can mention libraries, (independent) bookshops, and, dare I say it, suggest that people, including young children, might choose their own reading materials.  There are plenty of inspirational ideas out there, such as the Guardian’s diversity in children’s books week being celebrated at the moment. This  initiative is associated with the charity Seven Stories.

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ toolkit is accessibly written and contains some sensible advice.  However, my biggest “but” is the idea that only printed books, bound between covers, count as suitable reading material.  I do appreciate the suggestion that it’s fruitful to set aside some time to focus on doing things with your child.  But it’s not the same thing to insist that this is necessarily without “TV, texting and other distractions” as is repeated many times or to suggest that you should “turn off the television and other electronic devices.”  This ignores the point that popular culture, in the form of TV shows, screen-based books and games might actually provide opportunities to engage in mutually delightful reading opportunities with a child.  To switch everything else  off and treat the printed book as necessarily more worthy than other media might at best lose opportunities for engaging early literacy and at worst, create a divide between “serious” and “fun” literacy activities that could turn out to be counter-productive.

It’s ten years since Jackie Marsh was making this point through, for example, her book Popular Culture, New Media and Digital Literacy in Early Childhood and there were predecessors.  And indeed I see that Seven Stories, with the fabulous National Media Museum in Bradford, has put on an exhibition Moving Stories – Children’s Books from Page to Screen.

Literacy for homeless learners: Relevance and motivation are key

Last month the Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) Select Committee published a report on its inquiry into adult literacy and numeracy. One of the report’s key findings was that “the motivation of adults is crucial” if they are to take up and benefit from opportunities to develop their literacy skills.

So what motivates adults to improve their literacy? In our recent research into the maths and English skills of clients of the homeless charity St Mungo’s Broadway, we found that clients were motivated to improve their literacy skills when they could see that doing so was relevant to their everyday lives and personal goals.

Interviews with homeless learners showed that individual goals and motivations vary. For some, accessing work was the main motivation for improving their skills. For others, being able to read a tenancy agreement would help them to sustain a tenancy and recover from homelessness. For one interviewee, improving their literacy skills was important for their self-esteem, “I was 32 and felt like I write like a six year old… I wasn’t happy with my handwriting and wanted to improve.” These motivations evolve in response to changing circumstances and life aims, and participating in learning was also found to spark motivation for further learning.

In contrast, our interviewees also provided examples of attending lessons or courses when they had not been motivated to learn, for example when at school, in prison, or through the job centre. On these occasions most felt that they had learned very little. In addition, feelings of boredom, frustration or shame generated by these experiences made some reluctant to participate in learning in future.

These are important lessons for policymakers who are considering greater skills conditionality, i.e. making benefit claimants attend skills courses in order to maintain their benefit claims. Forcing people to attend courses that they feel are irrelevant to their personal goals, or that are pitched at the wrong level, not only risks wasting learners’ and tutors’ time, it can also put people off leaning for life.

Our research and the BIS select committee report make clear that there are major challenges to offering the specialist, client-centred approach needed for literacy support to be relevant to the lives of homeless learners. The majority of skills funding continues to be predicated on learners achieving qualifications and completing courses. But these formal, linear courses simply don’t fit with the motivations or everyday lives of many people who are homeless. Proposals to broaden Further Education measures of success to include destinations, earnings and progression are likely to mean that skills providers will still struggle to fund learning for the most disadvantaged, including many people who have experienced homelessness.

More positively, the Government has started to fund STRIVE, a small St Mungo’s Broadway and Crisis pilot project, which offers the opportunity to develop a new model of support that works for people who have experienced homelessness who want to develop English, maths and other skills. STRIVE tutors work to identify learners’ personal goals and then support them to reach these.

Let’s hope that the emerging results and evaluation of STRIVE motivate the Government to do much more to support people who are homeless to improve their literacy skills.

By Daniel Dumoulin Senior Policy and Research Officer at St Mungo’s Broadway and Katy Jones, Researcher at The Work Foundation and PhD candidate in Educational Research at Lancaster University