By taking a cue from local culture and traditions, researchers have developed mobile phone games that help children in India and China learn to read and write. With this success, similar games may soon move into the hands of U.S. children.
Carnegie-Mellon University’s Mobile & Immersive Learning for Literacy in Emerging Economies Project, or MILLEE, is presently on the path to making these games widespread for use by English language learners in the United States.
The mobile games will tackle many specific needs of children learning a non-native language. Anuj Kumar, a graduate student with Carnegie-Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute and a researcher with the MILLEE project, expounded upon the need for out-of-school immersion and training for these children.
“One such need for [English language learners] who are learning new vocabulary words is multiple exposure of [the new] words in different contexts, which is not necessarily possible during regular school hours due to limited time,” says Kumar. Teachers simply don’t have the resources to focus specifically on these children.
The mobile games will address not only how out-of-school learning can be best integrated with classroom learning but also how teachers can benefit. “[Teachers] can make use of the this out-of-school learning to both adapt what’s taught in the school and also control the content that students are exposed to in out-of-school settings,” explains Kumar. The games could also help out with in-school learning as well.
Making a game appealing to children—making it so they actually want to play it—is no easy feat for the game designers. In past projects, the MILLEE team has employed a number of methods to make games as attractive to children as possible.
“The idea is to look at the traditional games that [children] enjoy playing most (both indoor and outdoor games), and then examine the game elements that make those games fun,” explains Kumar. “Those game elements are then translated into a digital game setting and integrated with the best educational practices to make them both a learning and a fun experience.”
The MILLEE project’s previous research endeavors have taken place in developing countries—such as India and, most recently, China—where literacy rates are low or inconsistent. For instance, in China, literacy rates run at about 91 percent (compared with the U.S. rate: 99 percent) according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. However, within rural Chinese areas, literacy is five times lower than in urban areas.
In the rural settings, the team has attained some significant success. Two of the games MILLEE developed in China, Multimedia Word and Drumming Stroke, showed promise during the preliminary tests with children in Xin’an, an underdeveloped region in Henan Province, according to MILLEE director Matthew Kam. Both games aim to help children learn Chinese characters, of which there are over 6,000 commonly used.
Multimedia Word, like Drumming Stroke, requires kids to team up. For this game, one team will give the other team hints about a particular Chinese character by sketching a photo of what it means or taking a photo of a hint (both made possible through the mobile device). The first team then passes the device to the second team, which tries to draw the character in question.
Drumming Stroke is a bit like musical chairs; children sit in a circle and pass around the mobile device to the sound of a drumbeat, each taking a turn at writing a single stroke of one Chinese character. If one makes a mistake, the drumming stops and he or she must correct the mistake. Once corrected, the drum and game start back up.
According to Kam, such games would “make inexpensive mobile phones important learning tools, particularly for children in underdeveloped rural areas.”
Mobile phones are common in China, even in the rural areas, according to Anuj Kumar. Most households in rural China have at least one cell phone, usually owned by the father or an older brother in the family. Children in the United States have similar access to mobile phones, if not better.
While the U.S. mobile phone games will vary from those used in developing countries (the two non-cultural differences will be speech recognition—so as to allow for speaking exercises—and classroom use), the success in China and India are hopefully indicative of similar U.S. success.
If this pattern of success continues, these games may prove a powerful force in combating global illiteracy.