Building on Formative Feedback

In the two months that followed our initial testing sessions, we tried a range of materials and activities to help us better grasp how students understood word meanings. We came to label the types of word knowledge we were seeing with the very sophisticated terms “mush ball” and “rough hewn.” In the first case, the student had likely encountered a number of a word’s meanings and was not differentiating among them. A word could have a number of meanings, possibly even contradictory ones, that were all rolled together. This was especially true of words with subtle distinctions, such as set. In contrast, a rough-hewn understanding was similar to the dictionary definition of a word, but still quite vague. This type of understanding is more reflective of the student who explained that the word complex means “hard” or “difficult.” While in many common usages complexity can imply difficulty (“a complex problem”), difficulty is only one part of one definition of complex.

From the beginning of the project, we had intended to address vocabulary concepts more than specific vocabulary words, and our formative work seemed to bear out the utility of this approach. Misconceptions about word definitions appeared to be pervasive among struggling readers, and acted as real barriers to literacy proficiency. The months of testing also helped us resolve a question about which level of word understanding our game should prioritize. We had considered three options: language in any community at any register, e.g., a science classroom, a family dinner, the school playground; multiple communities within one register, e.g., different subjects at school; and, finally, just one community in one register, e.g., an English class.

Reflecting on what I saw during our research, our team decided to stop exploring communities of usage as a form of scaffolding because identifying a speaker and using that understanding to decipher a sentence required background knowledge that we could not rely on all students having. We also decided that different word connotations when words were used by different communities was too sophisticated a concept for struggling comprehenders. We had thought that students were more likely to understand a multiple-meaning word’s different connotations by seeing it used in different situations than by learning its distinct, formal definitions. Instead, we learned that the differences between how different communities used a word are often subtle, and accurately interpreting them requires understanding the formal definition of a word.

Though different communities may use one of a word’s definitions (for example, a band teacher and gym teacher are likely to use different definitions of the word score), the disambiguation technique we were investigating in our research did not seem worth including in our game. This realization freed us to focus on helping students better understand word meanings within one register, such as school. We also decided it was important for the game to encourage students to attend to the specific, distinct definitions of multiple-meaning words. One way to do this, we thought, would be for students to use images to communicate word definitions to each other.

From both the literature and our formative work, we understood that adolescents showed increased interest in peer relationships as they moved through the middle and high school years. We also were aware of adolescents’ ability to understand the world in increasingly complex ways, to discern contradictions and inconsistencies, to consider alternate points of view, and to imagine the perspectives and thinking of other people (Eccles, Wigfield, & Byrne, 2003). It seemed likely that we could leverage these capabilities in our game design, encouraging players to consider word meaning through a social game with mechanics emphasizing clear communication. Using pictures instead of text to communicate would hopefully put struggling and confident readers on more equal footing.

After brainstorming game ideas, we created a paper prototype in which students alternated playing two roles. The “codemaster” was given a word with three definitions and tried to communicate one of the word’s definitions using three images, called an image code. The “guesser” tried to interpret the image code to choose which definition from five possible words was being depicted. We used several early versions of this activity in our test with students.

From testing, we learned three things fairly quickly. First, this activity was kind of fun, and there was real potential to make an engaging game. Using pictures to communicate did help readers with varying proficiencies play together, and they liked trying to figure out each other’s thinking. None of the images available to the codemaster depicted her definitions exactly, and often students initially found this situation frustrating. After a few rounds, however, they came to appreciate the opportunity this ambiguity provided for creative play. We felt encouraged to stick with the game’s core mechanic of making and guessing codes, and to begin refining the game design.

Second, we saw that showing the codemaster all three definitions and having the guesser guess the word undermined the game’s purpose. We wanted the activity to help the codemaster see the distinctions among a word’s different definitions. In practice, however, codemasters would often make an image code referencing all three definitions, either picking one image for each definition instead of using three pictures for one meaning, or combining the definitions in their head and making a code for this new amalgam. When presented with the word feature, a student used one image that related to a distinctive attribute or aspect of something, one image that related to a newspaper or magazine article on a particular topic, and one for a full-length film.

Guessers also weren’t attending to the specific definitions; instead, they were focusing on the words from which they were choosing. We adjusted the game so that the codemaster was shown only one definition, and the guesser had to choose among a minimum of three definitions for one word or a maximum of nine total definitions among three words.

Third, if the players felt that they were competing, they would try to trick each other by creating image codes that associated with the chosen definition only through extremely convoluted or idiosyncratic logic. This situation presented an interesting challenge: how to get students excited about cooperating, while keeping the motivation that they felt from competition. Throughout all our testing, we continued to see indications that our core activity worked pedagogically as we intended, but making it function as a game took a significant amount of research, revision, and work with our production partners.

After two field tests and a number of iterations, we now have a version of the game of which we are very proud. In the current version, play now occurs asynchronously at home instead of together during class. While the current version’s gameplay is quite a bit different from our original game design, the dynamic of students making and guessing codes using images has remained, and has been refined to allow easier integration into traditional classrooms, play between students of different abilities, and player focus on understanding and communicating the distinct definitions of multiple-meaning words.

Now teachers also can customize a game for their class by choosing the vocabulary words students will be playing with how many words and definitions the players will be choosing from when they are guessing a teammate’s code, and how many points the class is collectively trying to achieve. Once assigned a game, students go online and log into their account on the game site. They then enter the game created by their teacher, and choose from a library of photos to create image codes for different word definitions. Each code consists of three pictures, and can include custom images the students make using geometric shapes. Players also can alter the pictures they choose, using arrows and cropping to draw attention to or away from elements of the picture.

The following night, players log in again and try to guess the image codes created by their classmates. Teachers can view all the students’ codes and reference them later while facilitating conversations about a variety of literacy topics.

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