Reading as an adventure

Digital gaming techniques are helping to improve literacy skills

Research shows that when students are engaged in a lesson, they learn and retain more. Ivan Kaltman, a school-based occupational therapist and former fourth-grade teacher, worked with many disadvantaged students who were far behind in reading. Since traditional methods didn’t work for them, Kaltman developed a digital adventure game to help with reading, cognitive skills and decision-making.
Named for his daughter, “Sydney’s World” is an interactive computer game that helps children improve language and literacy skills. Available free to schools from, the game supports ELA Common Core Standards.
“One of my greatest frustrations as a teacher was that I couldn’t move the needle on their reading scores, which haven’t budged nationally in almost three decades,” Kaltman says. “I realized that the instructional materials just aren’t there. Even if you’re a really good teacher, there’s not much you can do.”

Kaltman was a speaker at the 2019 Future of Education Technology Conference®

Why did you create “Sydney’s World”?

When my daughter was in third grade, she had a speech articulation disorder, and we had to practice oral reading. I’d always used good digital learning games for her for phonics and for all sorts of things. But once she was past first grade, there was really nothing around in terms of good digital games for reading.

I found a software engine called RPG Maker, which allowed people without much programming experience to design their own role-playing games. I wanted something that would be interesting for my daughter to use to practice her reading, so I made her the main character.

As I started working on it, I realized that this would be a good learning tool for other kids.

That’s when I started putting a lot of effort into developing a commercial-grade quality game. Coming from a gamer’s perspective, if “Sydney’s World” didn’t make it in the gaming community as a true game, I wasn’t interested in bringing it into the education world, because we already have a lot of boring educational games that aren’t very good.

That’s how you differentiate a true game from an educational game?

Correct. And that’s what the research points to as well. Some 30 years of research shows that textbooks and worksheets are the least effective ways to teach. When you take that same methodology, but you just throw some graphics on it, it’s still the same thing. It’s not engaging, and it’s engagement that leads to meaning.

In education, it’s called “chocolate-covered broccoli”—a digital worksheet trying to pass as a real game when it isn’t. Kids catch on early because it’s boring. All the areas of the brain that are active during a true game are shut down, and basically they’re just doing a worksheet.

How does the game help with reading?

We have an education framework that puts pedagogy first. We’re moving from a teacher-centered to a learner-centered model, because the more that’s going on, the more active the brain is.

In grades 3, 4 and 5, when you read together as a class, sometimes 20 percent to 30 percent of the students are unable to read at grade level, and they feel insecure doing it. So you lose students’ immersion in the story when the person reading is struggling over the words. The teacher often has to read aloud to get a grade-level book done.

The students become immersed because they’re not just reading a story about somebody else; they experience the story as participants.

But with a digital game model, you can have different characters at different Lexile levels. Each student can read fluently and comfortably at their own Lexile level. We break students into groups of four, each comprising a top reader, a lower-level reader and a couple of mid-range readers. Then, they’re assigned characters to read by Lexile level.

Now, everyone is able to read fluently, and the students are actively involved in the reading.

The students assume character roles?

Yes. “Sydney’s World” is a role-playing game, so all the text is in graphic model format. Whenever you see text on the screen, you see the character who’s saying the text. The students will automatically know whose turn it is to read based on the character they see.

The students also control the characters. They move their characters around, and they have quests and objectives to achieve. They make decisions together about where to go and what to do.

There are “dialog branches” in which students get to choose what the characters will say, and each choice affects the next move. There are puzzles to solve. They have battles to do. The students become immersed because they’re not just reading a story about somebody else; they experience the story as participants.

We find that the students use their own pronouns when they talk about the characters. They don’t say: “He did this” or “She did this.” They say: “I did this” or “We did this.”

Most kids are familiar with video games. Does this feel more comfortable than a book or worksheet?

They’re digital natives from their earliest years, and this is something that’s very natural for them. A worksheet is not natural for anybody. All you see is a piece of paper with text on it. If you’re reading fluently and you’re comprehending on grade level, then the worksheet makes sense to you. But if you’re having difficulty reading or you have some sort of language delay, then the worksheet is totally alien to you, and you can’t get the information from it that the top third or half of the class is able to get.

When you have a good digital game, however, it is something that you’re experiencing. There’s more meaning to it; there’s more emotional connection to it. There are so many sensors and areas of the brain that are activated with a good digital game, but are not activated with, say, a worksheet. In gaming, students have experiences, so they remember. You can use that for instruction.

Read: How to gamify K12 professional development

Was your administration supportive when you introduced the game?

I have a really good principal who’s innovative, and he gets it. He was right on board. And teachers are starting to get more open-minded about the prospect of using game-based elements for learning.

But at the time, with central administration, it fell on deaf ears. I think once you mention a game, in any format, they kind of tune you out. That was one of the biggest hurdles to overcome. Many educators don’t view games as learning. To them, games don’t make sense.

I get that. They have to deal with their boards, and they probably feel they don’t have a lot to stand on there. If it doesn’t work out, they’re going to be held responsible.

They need to show results. How do you determine that kids are learning?

We’ve been giving students reading response questions to “Sydney’s World” units. But one thing we plan to do is have the class put together a Google site. They have to prove that they really understand how a story works, including all the story components such as seeing conflict—all the things they should be learning from traditional novels. I think we’re going to find better cohesion and comprehension than whatever we would have gotten from a traditional novel.

Tim Goral is senior editor.

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