By Ivan Kaltman

Ivan Kaltman is a school-based occupational therapist and Positive Behavior Support in Schools coach at Stony Brook School in Rockaway Township. He formerly taught fourth grade in Labadieville, Louisiana through Teach for America. He’s a contributing author for Gamify Literacy, and Learning, Education, & Games: 100 Games to Use in the Classroom. He is the developer of the digital game Sydney’s World. Kaltman is an active member in the game-based learning community including #games4ed and #XPLAP on Twitter and The Tribe and Learning, Education & Games on Facebook. He tweets from @WiseDad_Games.

A good digital narrative game is like a good movie. From an educational perspective, it creates vivid memories of a similar experience for all students that they can later visualize and recall during instruction. For students who are proficient readers, the same is true for a good book. Yet just over one-third of students nationwide performed at a proficient reading level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 2018. New Jersey students perform better than students nationally on NAEP, second in the nation behind Massachusetts, but there is plenty of room for improvement.

While there’s no shortage of people assigning blame for students’ poor reading performance, perhaps traditional instructional materials are part of the problem. Digital game-based learning may be a part of the solution.

New learning environments

The authors of From Print to Pixel: The Role of Videos, Games, Animations and Simulations Within K-12 Education contend that we cannot go back to a time when digital technology was not part of our everyday lives. The 2015 report was an annual survey of students, parents and educators about the role of technology in and out of school.

“Rather than wishing that the proverbial ship had not sailed, it is now time to understand that this move from a predominantly print-based delivery system in education to new learning environments, such as those where videos and games are increasingly the norm, is both evolutionary and advantageous,” the report contends.

Most schools are now stocked with computers, laptops and tablets, but where are the educational results? The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) 2015 global study, Students, Computers, and Learning: Making the Connection, found that “The results show no appreciable improvement in student achievement in reading in the countries that had invested heavily in technology for education. We have not yet become good enough at the kind of pedagogies that makes the most of technology.”

Pedagogies that make the most of technology for literacy have been researched most notably by James Gee, the Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University.

In What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, Gee proclaims, “Educators often bemoan the fact that video games are compelling, and school is not. They say that children must learn to practice skills (‘skill and drill’) outside of meaningful contexts and outside their own goals. But since human learning works best in a certain way given the sorts of biological creatures we are, then it is not going to work well in another way just because educators, policymakers, and politicians want it to.

“Good video games involve the player in a compelling world of action and interaction, a world to which the learner has made an identity commitment,” Gee continues “Thanks to this fact the player practices myriad skills over and over again relevant to playing the game, often without realizing that he or she is engaging in such extended practice sessions.”

The largest research endeavor conducted in this area, Digital Games for Learning: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis found that digital games were associated with significantly better cognitive competency outcomes, including literacy at 12 percent, among students relative to the other instruction comparison conditions. Commercial games, referred to as “true games” showed significantly higher outcomes—over 30 percent.

Digital games are best used as preparation for future learning.

Benefits of digital game-based learning

Digital game-based learning is an instructional method that incorporates educational content into video games with the goal of engaging learners. Engagement is necessary for deep learning to occur, but standard instructional materials—textbooks, worksheets, and even novels—often fail to engage students, especially those who are disadvantaged and/or have learning disabilities.

Visual presentation of text is often overlooked as a method of reading instruction. Reluctant readers, such as dyslexic students, often have inefficient visual tracking and difficulties in serial scanning of print. These students often struggle with fluency by third grade, when they are expected to transition to novels.

In digital games, text is much easier to visually perceive and track. Instead of having multiple paragraphs on a page without the benefit of illustration, there is only a sentence or two on screen at a time, superimposed on interesting graphics.

Typical scenarios that bring anxiety to struggling readers in traditional read-aloud sessions—being called on to read at random intervals, fearing the text will be too difficult, fearing they may lose their place—are mitigated because of how the text is presented in good digital games.

Digital games are interactive. There are roles beyond “reader” that allow students to be valued for intellectual abilities other than reading. Additional roles, such as explorer, battler, navigator and problem-solver foster inclusion. All students in a class—including special education and ELL students—can play together, regardless of reading ability.

Digital games provide rich interactive multimedia that engage students more than traditional text. These multiple modalities of information increase understanding of text, a term James Gee defines as “situated language.”

“In video games, meaning, thinking, and learning are linked to multiple modalities (images, actions, sounds, etc.) not just to words,” according to Gee.

Vocabulary is significantly more likely to be learned naturally through digital gameplay, peer collaboration and teacher guidance. Compare that to traditional worksheets or textbooks, where words are memorized to match with other words for tests and then forgotten by a sizable percentage of students.

In quest-based digital games, such as role-playing games, students must read, understand and recall information to know what to do and where to go next. This consistently results in close reading. Students may not care what comes on the next page of a textbook, but they always want to know what happens next in video games because they have a much bigger stake—they control the characters!

Digital games are best used as preparation for future learning. All students get a solid grasp of the literature essentials, such as characters, setting, plot and themes, as opposed to traditional text formats that not all students comprehend. This levels the playing field, enabling students of all abilities to engage in curriculum-based instruction. Research and pedagogy strongly support digital game-based learning as an instructional method that can improve literacy skills. 

Learn more about game-based learning

There are many professional development opportunities in New Jersey for educators to learn more about game-based learning.

NJEA Convention

Along Digital Boulevard on the Exhibit Hall floor at the NJEA Convention, many educators demonstrate their implementation of game-based learning in the classroom. You’ll also find workshops on the third and fourth floors of the Atlantic City Convention Center with in-depth professional learning presentations. The 2019 NJEA Convention is Nov. 7-8.

NJEA Techstock

Co-sponsored by NJEA, Stockton University, the Southern Regional Institute and Educational Technology Training Center (SRI&ETTC), and Stockton University Master of Arts in Instructional Technology Program, this annual event brings to one place the best thinking and the best practices in technology and learning in the classroom. Save July 31, 2019, on your calendar to attend the next Techstock.


If you’re an educator searching for voice and choice in your professional learning, attend an Edcamp. Unlike the typical “sit and get” model of professional development, Edcamp’s strength comes from its participant-driven model. Visit

Tomorrow’s Classroom Today

For its organizers, Tomorrow’s Classrooms Today means that school stakeholders exhaust all options to provide and support an innovative learning environment that fosters collaboration, creation, and curation with educational technology. It means identifying the best ways of implementing educational technology to improve learning and instruction. Click here to learn more about when and where the 2020 conference will take place.

Social media

Consider joining a Professional Learning Network (PLN). On Twitter, look for #games4ed to connect with veteran game-based learning teachers.

New Jersey educators Steven Isaacs (@mr_isaacs), Mark Grundel (@MGrundel), a former New Jersey educator—now professor of game-based learning in Colorado—Matthew Farber (@MatthewFarber) and I (@WiseDad_Games) frequently share professional development opportunities on our Twitter feeds.

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