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Using Gaming Principles to Support Student Learning

By Julie D. Ramsay
 | Jan 27, 2016

ThinkstockPhotos-84516475_x300Like many of you, I am always looking for a new tool to place in my teacher toolbox, something that will help me reach each of my students more effectively. However, we see trends come and go as educators, and often we see strategies repackaged and given a new name. So when I began hearing things like “gamification” and “gaming in the classroom,” I was skeptical at first. My mind was filled with images of students spending hours in front of screens with little reaction to those living in our three-dimensional world.

I would not call myself a gamer. Sure, I enjoy playing games—digital and otherwise—but I have learned how easily one can get sucked into them. I asked myself, does this “new” idea have merit? Will it support my students’ learning goals, give them a voice, and help them make the world a better place?

With that skepticism in mind, I began attending gaming sessions at conferences, reading articles and blogs, and engaging with other educators through social media to learn more. I heard about complex systems of badges and rewards in addition to detailed directions for student-designed video games. Although hearing about how this was working for other teachers was impressive, I, like many of my colleagues, was failing to see the connection between these ideas and the practicality of my middle school classroom. I wondered how bringing gaming into my classroom would support student learning.

Then, in an Edcamp session facilitated by Laren Hammonds, I learned that by taking the principles that make a game exciting for players and translating them into classroom practice, a teacher can foster an environment where students are engaged. Does this include a teacher or student using games to support learning? Yes, sometimes. Does this include students creating games to prove mastery of standards? It absolutely can.

Here are a few practices that game makers use that translate well into classroom practices. My bet is that you are already using most of these with your students.


Many of our students thrive on competition. In our sixth-grade classroom, my male students tend to work much harder when there is a competition in place, even for something as small as bragging rights. For some of our students, competition is the way to reach them and get them to connect with our content. It can help to build relationships among team members, and it teaches them a valuable life lesson: how to win or lose gracefully.


Like with any task, if you make it too easy, the audience will lose interest. We want our students, the next generation, to have the opportunity to fail, learn from their failures, make new plans, grow, and work toward success. Yes, our students need our support and their peers’ support along the way. This not only engages them in a growth mind-set, but also helps to build a strong work ethic. They become stronger, self-motivated, and more independent.


Our students are no longer dying of dysentery on the Oregon Trail. Today’s games include connecting with others in real time. Our learners need that opportunity. Today’s learners expect to be able to get timely feedback. They crave the opportunity to have real-time sessions to discuss, analyze, plan, and strategize their next move. They write, speak, listen, and learn about putting all of their literacy lessons into practice in a meaningful manner with an authentic audience.


Our students want to belong. In today’s games, they have the opportunity to build teams, chat with others, and learn from one another. In our classrooms, we have the opportunity to provide our learners with opportunities to collaborate, both face-to-face and through digital tools. Our students want to feel that they belong to something bigger than themselves. And isn’t that what we want our classrooms to be—a safe environment that includes and supports everyone?

Do all of these strategies work with all students? Not more than any other strategy. However, games have been around for centuries. To dismiss them would be to deprive our students of rich learning opportunities.

With this in mind, I may be a gamer after all. How about you?

Julie D. Ramsay is a National Board Certified Teacher and the author of “Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing?”: Collaborating in Class and Online, Grades 3–8.She teaches ELA to sixth graders at Rock Quarry Middle School in Tuscaloosa, AL. She also travels the country to speak, present, and facilitate workshops in applying technology to support authentic learning. Read her blog, eduflections.



Leave a comment
  1. Melissa | Jul 20, 2019
    Using gaming in my first grade classroom would be very interesting.  I know it would be engaging for my students, but I would definitely have to learn a lot more about gaming to be able to use it.  I am not a gamer, so this would be a challenge for me.  It may be a challenge worth exploring to have yet another strategy to reach my students.  
  2. Dorothy | Jul 10, 2019
    Reading is a "game" in itself.  With the fast pace world of technology, I can totally see how incorporating video games in the classroom would be beneficial.  I teach 1st grade, so even using a tool like "Hot Dots," not necessarily a video game, brings so much excitement into the reading block.  Students enjoy anything new and different to help them become better readers. 
  3. Lisa Coder | Jun 13, 2019
    I think gaming principles are universally motivating for the majority of people, adults included.  In staff meetings and end of the year celebrations, as well as beginning of the year PD MANY of our activities involve little games or competitions. It's a fun way to stretch yourself and see if you "can do better" either by comparing your progress on one day to your progress on the next, or by comparing your progress to someone else individually or on a team.  The wise teacher will use competition as a part of his/her strategy to engage students and make learning fun as well as provide challenge.  The learning platform cannot (and should not) always include competition because we would be robbing students of the very necessary and joyful experience of learning for mastery, and feeling pride of accomplishment. (In my opinion).
  4. Kimberly DelRosario | Jun 28, 2018
    It never occurred to me to have gaming in the classroom, but hey, it sounds great.  The article made a believer out of me.  :)  Game on!
  5. L. Catalani | Jun 15, 2018
    Wow!!!  This could be a game changer!!!  I love how the challenge will drive them to push themselves in the classroom.  The camaraderie is so vital.
  6. Jennifer | Jul 19, 2017
    Children today love to "game", there are very few children who do not have their own device that they carry around with them daily. Using "gaming" in the classroom is a great way to keep children interested and active in their learning. Like the article said, if it is to easy then the student will lose interest, yet if it is to hard then the student will also lose interest because it is impossible to them, so finding just the right balance is key. 
  7. Jenifer | May 30, 2017
    This is an excellent idea but the need for electronic devices to be made available to students through the school is a challenge . Other than that the  instructors become responsible for students using their electronics for instrcion with permission
  8. Jenifer | May 30, 2017
    ELectronics must be supplied by the school or the responsibility for any damage in electronics must be on the teacher
  9. Kelly Jacobs | Apr 16, 2017

    I couldn't agree with this writer more  When I announce an academic game day my students are thrilled.  I rarely have absences on those days and student engagement and enthusiasm is high.  On, a personal note my son was not an avid reader until he had a teacher who used games and friendly competition to encourage her class to read.  He had and has never read more than when he was in that class that used games as a motivational tool for academic progress.


  10. Muriel Mis | Feb 18, 2017
    I particularly enjoyed this article because I teach middle/high school special education and they love to be on the computer.  So since they have a real interest in the animation found on websites, they are willing to do academic programs.  So I can give them a list of possible academic programs that they are allowed to go to and I never get any complaints from them.  This is during their free time.  I find that overall it improves their vocabulary, depth of their understanding, level of curiosity and comprehension and recall of important information which carries over to when we are reading and discussing books.
  11. HP | Apr 23, 2016
    You are so right!  In a world where students have access to nearly all information at their fingertips, it only makes sense to provide them with the timely feedback they are getting everywhere else!
  12. Lori Jamison | Jan 27, 2016

    Interesting to read this, Julie, as I have just this week made a blog posting about Ten Things We Can Learn from Video Games about Teaching Boys.

    (Great they say:)

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