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Game-based learning boosts local test scores

Belle Sherman students engage in Imagine Learning computer games.

By learning language and literacy skills through computer games, Belle Sherman Elementary’s fifth graders achieved the best English Language Arts standardized test scores in the Ithaca City School District in 2012.

Belle Sherman Elementary has been using software from Imagine Learning, an educational program designed for students learning English as a second language and special needs students; however, the software can also be used for those who are at or above grade level.

While this is the first full school year Belle Sherman is working with the Imagine Learning program, the school had some preliminary success with the software when it was introduced to students and teachers last March.

Daniel Breiman, principal of Belle Sherman Elementary, reported in an entry to the National Association of Elementary School Principals that as a result of the success game-based learning, Belle Sherman fifth graders boasted the best scores for their grade level on the English Language Arts exam in the entire school district.

The program uses a variety of methods to teach children language arts, including adventure games as well as verbal instruction simulations.

Breiman said he heard of the program from the district superintendent as well as from colleagues in Houston, and said he was impressed by what the program could offer to a broad spectrum of students.

“It shows students vocabulary words not only in 14 different languages if they do speak different languages, but also seeing it visually, hearing it, and there’ll also be a video of actions about the work,” Breiman said. “It even has a part of the program where it shows a mouth and it shows letter formation while looking at a picture of a mouth forming the letters.”

The program is designed to teach young students English regardless of their background, said Marlon Lindsay, area partnership manager of Imagine Learning. It is also able to provide a customized curriculum based on an initial view of a student’s current English skills.

“The first thing that happens to the students in their experiences is that there’s a pre-assessment,” Lindsay said. “And based on where they are, it automatically creates a curriculum just for that particular student, which means that if you have 25 students in the class, on Imagine Learning, all 25 of them will be in 25 different places.”

The program then sets up a series of games and interactions with the computer screen in order to teach English in ways a traditional book-and-notepad approach would not be able to. Students play a variety of games designed to teach English lessons and follow along with a mouth simulation in order to show them how to construct newly learned words.

“When you’re born here, you’re socialized and you have mouth models,” Lindsay said. “You watch mommy and daddy talk, cousin aunt uncle. And so the research said that a mouth model is very, very important for students who have English as a second language to visualize when they’re saying certain words.”

Breiman said the program’s ability to teach in a variety of languages was a huge benefit to his student body, many of whom speak English as a second language.

“I believe we have between seven and 10 different languages at Belle Sherman right now, and this can offer direct language support. It offers direct instruction in a student’s home language. And not only that, but it also provides activities that can be brought home in the native language,” he said.

Further data from ClearVue Research shows that Imagine Learning can close the gap between students at grade level and those struggling to learn English. Students who used the program were also found to have boosted their test scores higher than those that did not use it, according to JointStrategy Consulting.

Ashley Paolangeli, a second-grade teacher at Belle Sherman, said about 7 or 8 students use the program for 20 minutes every day, and said the best part about learning via computer games is that the children do not realize they are learning.

“Their favorite game that I’ve noticed is called Go For the Gold, and they run around a screen trying to collect bags of gold,” Paolangeli said. “And in between, there’s various vocabulary word questions, and comprehension questions. They don’t really realize they’re learning, they’re just playing.”

Paolangeli said some of the lessons remind her of the games such as Legend of Zelda, which she played as a child.

“What’s great about it is the kids truly enjoy it,” she said. “And they’re learning, but they’re having fun. And that’s, to me, what learning is all about.”



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