Microgames and Language Learning: Performance Before Competence?


  • Suzanne de Castell Professor Emerita, Education, Simon Fraser University
  • Nora Perry University of British Columbia
  • Lorea Bailey Public School Teacher, Surrey School District
  • Jen Jenson Professor, Education, University of British Columbia




microgames, language learning, primary learners, learning ecologies, english language learners


This paper reports on a study in which pairs of first-graders played microgames on small-screen handheld devices every day for 9 weeks. Its purpose was to find out whether, and if so how, adding digital games into classroom communications could ‘fast-track’ learning, accelerate language and literacy development, and whether it could also help bridge communication barriers for ELL learners, who may be shy, intimidated, or simply linguistically unable to interact as equals with their classmates. The “microgames” students played together were fast-paced, high engagement games that feature almost entirely one-word, verb-based instructions: “Rock”, “Hide”, “Pick”, “Protect”, and so on. Videos, fieldnotes and teacher reports note that social and linguistic interaction between children as and after they played demonstrably increased. Students’ language learning appeared to be accelerated by the game’s imperative to quickly decode and follow written instructions, even though many of these 6- and 7-year-olds did not yet read well enough to do that. The vocabulary which they were, in a matter of days, effectively recognizing and acting on was often far advanced from their usual first grade language arts lexicon, with words like “disguise”, “hypnotize”, “escape” and so on, presumed and treated, from a curricular standpoint, as exceeding their linguistic competence. Equally noteworthy was the technical competence the children displayed in mastering game controls, along with an array of different game mechanics. Using video documentation throughout the study provided both empirical evidence and persuasive examples of how playful interaction with more capable peers can support linguistic development as well as, or even more effectively than, conventional language curriculum and instruction, suggesting that when learning is scaffolded by play, our reach can so often exceed our grasp.