One idea we initially considered was a game design involving communities of usage. We knew that in different fields, such as architecture or computer programming, the same words can have different meanings. New words are often brought into usage and used in unique ways to solve shortcomings of existing vocabulary.

When encountering an unknown word, considering the community of usage is one strategy for narrowing down a word’s possible meanings. We thought that communities of usage could be a way to make the sometimes subtle differences between word meanings more concrete for students. Perhaps readers could better decipher the meaning of a word in context if we paired statements with images of the people who spoke those statements and who were obviously from different fields. Different looking speakers could create a salient cue signaling that students should consider alternate interpretations of a word in a sentence. To understand whether this was a reasonable approach, we first wanted to hear how students thought about what they knew about words, and how they discerned and interpreted word connotations.

Our initial formative testing activity involved pictures of different speakers, ambiguous phrases such as “I live on a higher plane . . . ” and a number of potential phrases to finish the statement. Students were asked to match a photo of a speaker with the ending phrase that the student thought made the most sense for that speaker. For example, students were shown the phrase “I live on a higher plane . . . ” with a picture of a meditating guru. They were asked to choose an appropriate ending to the sentence from phrases including “now that I have risen above concerns of the flesh,” “up on that plateau in the mountains,” and “enjoying luxuries I never knew existed.” I designed the materials such that the six speakers and their quotes corresponded to six different usage categories of the phrase “higher plane,” including status, spiritual, and literal. The different speakers in the exercise corresponded with different communities of usage that would use the phrase in different ways.

While we intended the sentences and images to fit together in a logical way, our interest was not whether the students would match the ending phrases with the speakers as we had. Instead, what was most interesting was their process: how they thought through the different possible meanings of higher and plane, and what their reasoning was for pairing the meaning of the sentences, as they understood them, with the photos of the speakers, as they understood them.

To conduct the research, I went to an unstructured afterschool program where students have free time to play on computers. I met individually with four students between the ages of 10 and 12, explaining to each that there were no right or wrong answers; I was simply interested in how they thought through the activity. I made efforts to ensure that the students felt that we were considering the activity together from a simple, inconsequential, and unhurried curiosity.

While working on this activity with students, I saw them interpret the content in a wide range of ways, but the processes by which they interpreted the activity shared many commonalities. Part of what I saw was that students were frequently unfamiliar with the speakers used in the exercise, and interpreted them very differently from how we, as developers, had imagined them. For example, one student thought a picture of a pilot was a picture of a bus driver. Thus, this speaker had no clear connection to any of the sentences. The speaker-as-scaffolding approach seemed to be of no help because we found that students interpreted the images of the speakers differently depending on their background knowledge.

Even when students did pair speakers and ending phrases as we had intended, I was not sure their interpretations of “higher plane” were the same as mine. It was entirely possible that a student had completed the activity as I had intended purely by chance, or by using a set of assumptions and decisions that were not the assumptions and decisions I had imagined when designing the activity. In these situations, asking nonjudgmental or nonevaluative questions like, “How do you know that?” or “How did you decide that?” were useful for uncovering how a student was approaching the problem.

Having seen students’ efforts to interpret the speakers and sentences, I was interested to see how they would explain alternate pairings. I matched speakers and ending phrases as I understood them, and asked students what they thought “higher plane” might mean as I had arranged the materials. By doing so, they produced very creative, if convoluted, explanations of the sentence meanings. Rather than consider alternate connotations of “higher plane” to fit the speaker identity and ending phrase, they held onto their initial understanding of “higher plane” and bent the sentences to fit it.

For example, another sentence set I used involved the phrase “the draft was chilling.” One student was familiar with the definition of draft referring to a breeze through a room, but not with the definition referring to an early piece of writing. I presented him with photos of a scared-looking man and an essay with copywriting marks, along with the sentences “The draft was chilling. I had nightmares from the scary details I read.” When asked what the first sentence meant, he explained to me that someone became cold while reading a book in the winter. This situation underscored the need to listen to the students’ explanations carefully and to ask thoughtful follow-up questions to best determine how they were understanding the task posed and how best to elicit information pertaining to how they were solving the task.

After asking students to explain their thinking during the exercise, I also asked more general questions about their knowledge of word meanings and what they did when encountering unknown words and phrases while reading. Most of the students I worked with said that they used context clues to determine meaning when they didn’t know a word. This commonality seemed to warrant further exploration. I was not sure if students had simply been told so often by their teachers to “use context clues” that they thought that this was the answer I wanted to hear, or whether they did use the strategy, but their poor understanding of word meanings led them to misinterpret the surrounding phrases that could create context. During the “higher plane” activity, struggling readers did not seem to consider that words could have alternate meanings they did not know, and I thought this situation could impair their ability to effectively use context to understand unknown words.

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