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Teacher’s Guide: Five ways Minecraft (and other video games) can boost student writing skills

With the recent surge of interest in using video games in schools, I’ve been asked a lot about what gaming looks like in my class. I thought I’d share five ways I’ve used video games, like Minecraft, to help boost student success with their writing skills.

Before we get started, I want to make clear that there is much learning happening while people play video games. I posted about that back in 2007, when I started teaching and was thinking about the literacy value in real time strategy building video games. Tons of learning happens while students are playing games: strategic thinking, trial and error experimentation, scientific reasoning, and more. But that’s not going to help you come report card time. Where I teach there isn’t a box on the report card for “Critical Thinking” – yet. I usually tell teachers that the other learning, the stuff that goes on the report cards, happens outside the game, when the student has logged out but still very much existing in the game world.

So, how can educators use video games in an inquiry-based, student-led way that will help support their literacy skills? Here are five ways I’ve used Minecraft (and other video games) to improve a student’s writing:

Graphic organizers, like webs, are great to kickstart post-game writing activities.

1. Post-Game Play Reflection – I give each of my students a simple journal or page on our collective wiki and have them write about their experiences in game. In the past I’ve framed the books as their “Explorer’s Journal” but other times it’s just been their journal – no metaphor needed. I usually give them prompts with a question: What did they do during today’s session? How do they feel about it? What did they discover? Many of the students I work with are under-performing mostly due to a lack of engagement with school. Getting them to put pencil to paper or peck out a sentence on a keyboard can be a struggle. Fresh from a gaming session, they are usually bursting with ideas about what to write about. Getting them to put their ideas down  on paper or screen is rarely an issue. Post-Game Writing is a great way to end a fun gaming session.

2. Pre-Game Play Writing – Using that journal or wiki, challenge the students to write about what they’re going to do in game today before they log in. What are their plans or goals? Are they going to help a classmate? Explore uncharted territory? Finally defeat that boss? By having the student think about their limited game time, they are often more organized in their game play. Or they simply write down their plans and forget them at the first sign of an unexplored cave. Either way, you’ve had them contemplate their game play in a mindful way that has hopefully produced some writing for you to assess.

Students create diagrams of their planned shelter in Minecraft

3. Maps & Diagrams - For many students, drawing out their ideas is a great first step to writing success. The journals are excellent for having students map out the zones in their game or draw a diagram of their latest (or future) build. When you encourage them to add labels, titles, legends and more, they are building their multi-modal literacy skills. Diagrams and other graphic organizers are also a great way for a student to start a longer writing piece in their journals.

4. Walkthroughs & GuidesStudents quickly become experts in video games and giving them an opportunity to share their knowledge is a great way to boost their literacy skills. Have them share it with others by creating guides and walkthroughs. Walkthroughs are a video game tradition (I’ve used my share) that shows a player, step by step, how to do something, from defeating a boss to the best method to farm herbs for your potions. This has tie ins to non-fiction and procedural writing units. Here is where you can have your student focus on headings, numbers steps and all that fun stuff. Minecraft in particular is a treasure trove of knowledge sharing. Students can explain how to build a structure or how to craft an item. While much of this is available online, having them write it out in their own words will prove to be both a challenging and rewarding activity. Having them critique existing videos and guides opens up discussions around critical literacies and asking questions of the author. (ie what key information did the author miss? Why? How could you make it better?) Written walkthroughs lead naturally to video walkthroughs, something I will write about in the coming weeks.

5. Character Biographies – One of the biggest attractions for many students to video games are the avatars. Having your student create a back story for their Minecraft avatar is always a fun activity. How did they get to the land? What do they want to achieve (ie build the tallest tower?) Who are their allies in game? By scaffolding this writing with graphic organizers like webs or t-charts, students can really build up deep stories about the character they play in game. This also opens up huge areas for Dramatic Arts, which I will write about in another post.

Minecraft as Springboard

These are just a few ways that I’ve used video games like Minecraft as a springboard to get students writing. Each student will find their own way into writing around video games, for me it’s important that they lead the process. Those who don’t have the patience to write walkthroughs often create rich backgrounds for their avatars. Others place more value on sharing their knowledge through a crafting guide. For video games to remain an engaging, powerful part of any educator’s practice, students must drive the learning. Given the role of deciding what to write will help even the most reluctant writer, write!

In the coming weeks, I’ll share some of the ways I’ve used Minecraft (and other video games) to explore topics in science, geography, drama and more.

If you have any other ways to use Minecraft and other video games to boost writing skills, I’d love to hear them! Just leave a comment below.

As a gamer-geek and  elementary school teacher, I often have Tech Teaching ideas to share with fellow educators, librarians, homeschoolers and parents/guardians. I deliver these resources and ideas to your inbox in my monthly e-newsletter Reading Change.

If this sounds like something you’d like to receive, then subscribe to Reading Change. You can unsubscribe anytime and I won’t share or sell your data. Honest.

Thanks!

Liam

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8 Comments

  1. Thanks for the creative ideas on writing! I am forwarding these to our English/Literature teachers. I am hoping to inspire them to use Minecraft in their classroom.

    Reply
  2. Thanks Linda! I hope your colleagues give Minecraft (or any other video game) a try in their class. And if they’re looking for a place to learn the ropes, fail and basically n00b it up, there’s always room in the GamingEdus server: http://gamingeducators.pbworks.com

    Reply
  3. Great article Liam, I would love to run a survey on the number of Australian primary and secondary students who are playing Mindcraft.. i ask many kids, friends of my own children – they are all playing.. the interesting thing about mindcraft is the potential for 3D spatial learning and trans-disciplinary engagement.. let along the collaborative server install for peer engagement. X-Box have apparently purchased buy in to minecraft..

    Reply
  4. I totally agree Brendon – this needs research. From Gr 1 up, I’ve talked to kids who play or have played Minecraft. One hasn’t played but has memorized recipes from youtube. Doesn’t play, but can tell you how to craft a compass. Amazes me every time.

    Thanks for dropping by!

    Reply
  5. Liam, I’m elated with your article! Your ideas are a boon to a struggle I’m having teaching the writing process to a student with mild autism. Ten years old, he adores Minecraft, so I hopped online today to research for better understanding in hopes of hatching an idea to aid in his writing. Now you can see why I love your article! THANK YOU!

    Reply
    • I’m very happy my post was helpful and inspiring for you Diedra! I’ve used these techniques for a couple of years now with Minecraft and the results from the students are always impressive.

      It’s interesting you mention your student with mild Autism. We have several adults and kids with autism playing on our GamingEdus server (http://gamingedus.org) and it’s definitely helped make the server an amazingly unique place for all to play. We were recently interviewed about Autistic/Aspie friendly approach on our Minecraft by the ASD community at Squag.com. You can read the interview here.. If you are curious about learning more about Minecraft, you’re welcome to visit the server anytime. Visit gamingedus.org for more information. We’re happy to help.

      Thanks for dropping by and saying hi!

      Reply
  6. Hello. Thank you so much for this post. One of the students that i tutor has become so hesitant towards writing and your ideas might really help! My student has autism and he is absolutely obsessed with minecraft. I feel like I know too much about this game haha :) he lights up just talking about it. Im excited to begin a minecraft journal with him. Once again, thank you!

    Reply
  7. Hey Anna,

    Great to hear you’re going to try out the Explorer’s Journal with your students. I’ve found it a really helpful way for the kids to document their experiences and their plans for their time in game. And as a teacher, it gives me a rich and authentic set of writing samples for me to work with when helping students write.

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

    Reply

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  1. Teachers Guide: Five ways Minecraft (and other video games) can boost student writing skills | New Learning - Ny læring | Scoop.it - [...] liamodonnell.com - Today, 2:22 AM [...]
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  3. Take a tour of the GamingEdus Minecraft server for educators - [...] addition to writing books and teaching kids with Minecraft, I also run a Minecraft server for educators called GamingEdus. …
  4. Five ways Minecraft (and other video games) can boost student writing skills | GamingEdus - […] (This post originally appeared on Feeding Change in 2012.) […]

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