The Gamification of Reading

John Hersey, author of Hiroshima, once worked on a committee for his children’s school to determine why children were struggling at reading. The group’s discovery was that the reason the children were struggling was because they thought the primers they were reading looked boring. They didn’t want to read stories featuring illustrations of perfectly mannered children that just looked dull, insipid, and boring. This idea of using interesting illustrations was taken up by William Ellsworth Spaulding, an editor at Houghton Mifflin’s textbook division. He borrowed an illustrator named Ted Geisel from Random House to create a textbook that contained words that experts had decided were important for first graders to know. Nine months later a book featuring 236 of those words from the list was created. Geisel had noticed that many of the words on the list rhymed; the first two words happened to be cat and hat. Cat in the Hat was followed by a second book that used only fifty words from the list, Green Eggs and Ham.

So what does this have to do with gamification?

Author Dan Roam mentions in his book Blah, Blah, Blah: what to do when words don’t work that school started to get boring for him around the same time that it became more about reading and less about creativity. What Hersey, Spaulding, and Geisel did was take that perceived boring reading and make it more interesting.

Gamification means applying game theory and mechanics to a none-game contexts to engage users. Game mechanics are a set or rules that must be accomplished before moving to the next level. Typically, there is also an incentive for completing those tasks. Gamification has most recently been applied to how we interact with media like watching television shows. We download an app, check-in when watching live, earn badges for completing tasks, and interact with other users. It is also being used to increase customer engagement for website usage through interacting with the site and other users with participation tasks. Here we have two words: engagement and interaction.

Our world is changing at a fast pace through our increasing usage of mobile devices, media applications, and new technology. The way we learn and think is also changing to accommodate our new environments. There has been a lot of talk recently about screen time and children. Some see it as beneficial and some see it as harmful. Hopefully, more research will be coming forward on the issue, but from what I have read it is the engagement and interaction keywords that keep standing out in every argument on both sides of the issue. Applying gamification to reading seems to be an opportunity for us to make things interesting for a new generation of readers. Some of us are already doing this in our summer reading programs by using game boards instead of reading logs.

This is how I see gamification…

This time last year, my son was a struggling reader. I knew I could catch his interest if the book was about a dog, but other than that he really did not want to read. Now my son is the type of kid who does math problems for fun. He liked being read to, but did not want to be the one reading. Around this same time, he was starting to become interested in video games. He wanted a particular game that involved a lot of reading for the instructions to move through the game. It was one of those RPG games where you have to read the character dialog bubbles to know what tasks to complete to move to the next level. My husband and I both agreed that he could have the game as long as he was willing to do the reading on his own. He had to put in the effort before he asked for help. This was his incentive to practice his reading. If he didn’t read the dialogs then he couldn’t move to the next level. Now he is reading everything in sight. Recently, he has moved on to chapter books.

Gaming was the hook to spark my son’s reading interest. Transmedia Storytelling also provides many outlets back to reading; there are books based on video game characters, cartoons, movies, etc. Things are kept interesting because they are extensions of the originals, not just retellings in a different format. My son’s current video game interest is Skylanders…which also has a book series.

We can’t keep doing things the same way we always have been. Children are changing just as much today as they did back when Hersey was trying to discover why school children were struggling to read about syrupy sweet school girls and boys endlessly playing. We need to adapt our approach to reading to incorporate new technology and provide incentives so that we can hook those reluctant readers. If an app can inspire a child to read and become a lifelong reader then shouldn’t we find ways to embrace this technology rather than condemn it?


Our guest blogger today is Jennifer Hopwood, Training Coordinator for the Southern Maryland Regional Library Association and a member of the ALSC Children and Technology committee.
If you’d like to write a guest post for the ALSC Blog, please contact Mary Voors, ALSC Blog manager, at


  1. Roxie Munro

    Excellent piece. The Jane Ganz Cooney folks also had some great research on the increasing respect and effectiveness for learning that the gamification of children’s educational materials is creating. Makes sense – engage children, be creative in making nonfiction or informational materials, for example, interesting and compelling…

  2. Ray Menton

    Thank you so much for posting this interesting article.. I now know the term for what I am doing with my interactive adventure game books… Gamification of interactive stories.. Great:)

    I decided (some 18 months ago now) that I wanted to introduce game like challenges and adventures as reward mechanisms to continue the reading of the interactive stories.

    I wanted to make sure that younger (and older) readers were engaged with the content beyond the simple ‘touch this object for a response” metaphor that so many interactive stories seem to remain stuck at.

    From the comments I have got and engagement observed, younger readers are most definitely more interested in engaging with the story at much greater depth than simple “touch and go” rewards.

    In addition, with effective gamification you also achieve an additional marketing spinoff in that the end product can appeal to a much wider audience than the simple interactive version would have. In my terms of product that means the glue to make the product appeal as a “family experience” rather than a solo interaction… I really like the idea of a tech product bringing the family together as by-product of it’s appeal.

    So thank you for giving me the confidence knowing that “gamification” is something that has been identified as a key improver to the education and reading experience.

  3. Janet Ruth Heller

    Dear Jennifer,

    Your essay is insightful and well researched. I think that interesting children in reading is more complex than “gamification.” For example, the Dick and Jane books that I learned to read with in the 1950s have only white children, a stay-at-home mother, and a father who has a white-collar job. The life of this family does not match the lives of many families in the United States. In 2013, we have more books that portray families of color, different ethnic groups, single-parent families, blue-collar workers, etc.

    I also think that worrying too much about the reading level of a book leads to boring stories. We need to give writers the freedom to create interesting characters and original plots in books that may have a few polysyllabic words, a few complex sentences, and/or words from Spanish or other languages spoken in the U.S.

    We now have many talented writers and artists for children in our country and abroad. I hope that we will encourage different kinds of creativity, not only “gamification.”

    Best wishes for the spring!

    Janet Heller
    Author of the award-winning book for kids about bullying, How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Sylvan Dell, hardback—2006, paperback—2007, e-book, audio, and Spanish edition—2008, 3rd paperback edition and iPad app—2012)
    Website is

  4. KathyK

    This is a very interesting post. Thanks. I think it is true that what Geisel did was add a great deal of imagination and creativity to children’s reading material. I can also see too that reading occurs or is connected across platforms (print, video, app, movies).

    However, I think that the level of engagement and interactivity we witness with children’s use of technology should not be confused with learning. There are a lot of questions involved here and we are far from having the answers. How does the speed of screen use and the instant gratification experience involved with screen-based content effect learning? Are technology based tools the best solution available to children in any particular instance or the most convenient or the easiest? How does technology based tools support executive functioning, learning complex knowledge and depth of learning? How does what may be learned in a game transfer to other subject areas? If a child enjoys reading in a game, is he any more or less able to read about history? School-age children need the ability to sustain reading. Does it help children to push building this capacity further down the road? Is that a successful strategy for them? There is research that shows kids need to be bored and deal with what is boring as a part of life-long learning success.

    I have read How Children Succeed by Paul Tough. He talks about kids who struggle and hate school. His research shows that children succeed not because they are given more ways to have fun but when they are able to learn and practice personal and social attributes that make real-world achievements, at every age level, possible.

  5. KathyK

    Also, it is so important how we frame the questions facing professional librianship. To me, the question is not, “Why can’t we keep doing what we have always done?” The better question is, “What is new that is better for children than what we have been doing?”

  6. Helen Ross

    Great information Jennifer.

  7. Diana Dull Akers

    Thank you so much for this provocative article on a topic that strikes many chords in me (as do the thoughtful comments by posters here). I come to this piece looking through several lenses:

    1) As a sociologist, I’m always interested in applications of game theory to varied arenas (recently, I’ve been following the literature on the gamification of health and wellness programs for behavior change goals).
    2) As a mother to a five-year old who adores books but struggles mightily with reading, I am reflecting on how gamification principles applied to reading can potentially help or hinder with reading and ADHD challenges (i.e., will game-based rewards/incentives help her focus on the task at hand, or prove to be even more distracting?).
    3) I also reflect on your comments as a parent blogger at, a subscription-based children’s ebook firm offering a curated library (by a terrific children’s librarian) to young readers. My daughter and I came to Bookboard as a beta testing family and, in spite of my stodgy resistance to e-books, I became a fan. Why? Perhaps most significantly, my daughter had her first success reading an entire page out loud using Bookboard on our iPad. (I wrote about that here:

    But I was also taken with the founders’ deep convictions about offering e-books (digital facsimiles of print books) over more interactive style, bells and whistles books. Notably, their limited interactivity approach does reflect gamification principles, such as completing steps to achieve rewards. Kids read books and earn keys that unlock the prize of: more books! (I love that.) They also strive for the cool visual reward of seeing their “books read” pile reach awesome new heights (as high as a t-rex, as high as a rocket ship, etc.)

    Reading your conclusion, I sense there is a “let’s use what works to motivate kids to read” sensibility here, and I now concur. It’s been a sobering year of discouraging reading skills tests at school. But in saying “whatever works,” I’m not grabbing at strategies willy-nilly. I select books in all forms carefully. I still put limits on my kid’s screen time with television, DVDs, and tablet games. But not all screen time is equal, so e-books are fair game whenever she is inspired, because, thank heavens, it is working. If gamification logic is part of Bookboard’s secret sauce here — “can you read 3 more books to earn another key? Can you read as high as a t-rex?” — then I say ‘game on.’

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  9. Paul Aertker

    I am an English and Writing teacher at a local school where I have work-shopped a soon to be published story called Crime Travelers. It’s like Jason Bourne for kids. I think we have to help kids, especially boys or reluctant readers engage in the fun of reading before they delve into more serious reading. I, for one, still feel the need to jump-start my reading from time to time. 🙂

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