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Using Virtual Reality to Motivate Writers

By Kristin Webber
 | Aug 10, 2018

Virtual Reality The classroom teacher announces that it is writing time and is immediately met with a chorus of groans and the typical student response: “I have nothing to write about!”  Does this sound familiar?

Classroom teachers daily face the struggle of engaging students in writing. One reason students may struggle with writing is lack of background knowledge. Research has shown that background knowledge is essential for understanding text; if students have not developed sufficient background knowledge on a topic, it will be very difficult for them to write about it. Wide-reading, simulations, experiments, videos, and field trips are all traditional ways teachers can build background knowledge and, with today’s technology, virtual reality can also be a means to build background knowledge and motivate students to write.

Recently my department acquired some virtual reality equipment and students in my literacy foundations undergraduate course were curious to see the impact of virtual reality on the writing of fourth graders at a local elementary school they would be teaching at. Together, we planned a mini-writing experiment that involved a writing lesson with and without the use of virtual reality. With the help of the classroom teacher, we chose two high-interest topics to develop integrated reading and writing response lessons: wild weather and sharks. Both lessons were structured the same and consisted of activating prior knowledge, vocabulary development, reading a text, and a written response to the text, however, during the second lesson (on sharks) we added a virtual reality experience before asking students to write. Using Google Cardboard googles and the Discovery VR app, the fourth-grade students were able to see a 360-degree view of sharks swimming, just as if they were in the water with them. Needless to say, they could not contain their excitement.

Upon debriefing after teaching, we looked at the writing from both lessons and noticed that most of the writing from the shark lesson was longer in length and contained more description than the writing from the first lesson. The teacher candidates also stated that the fourth-grade students were more engaged and motivated to write. One candidate reported that a student whom he had to heavily prompt to write one sentence during the first lesson was able to write several sentences on his own in the second lesson. The virtual reality experience also enabled the students to build cooperation and collaboration skills. Since we only had one virtual reality headset for each small group of students, they had to practice turn taking skills. We worried that this could be an issue, but students readily took turns with the headsets and, when they were not viewing the sharks, they composed their writing and discussed their experiences with one another.

Virtual reality is a great option to help students build background knowledge and assist students in their writing. Teachers can take their students anywhere in the world without having to leave their classroom, thus widening their experiences and building background knowledge. There are several virtual reality apps that are free to download and can be used with or without a headset, such as Discovery VR, Google Expeditions, and Google Street View. Integrating virtual reality into the literacy curriculum allows for deeper understanding and retention of content as well as the enrichment of literacy skills. The immersive nature of virtual reality improves the quality of students’ language and the immediacy of the experience is particularly beneficial for students who struggle to think of what to write.

Kristin Webber is an associate professor at Edinboro University where she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in reading, technology integration, and teaching methods.

This article is part of a series from the International Literacy Association Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).

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