Elaborating Gamification on a Reading Educational App

Designing an educational application’s gamification to teach kids how to read is challenging! As a designer, there are specific constraints that I have to honor. Children should have fun, but there’s also the fact that they should learn how to read, and this should be my primary goal! So how do I deal with all of this?

Gamification designer behind a reading program

Children are not motivated to learn how to read. Gamification is quite hard to define because it has been so disrupted. But now, in 2018, research on game studies concur that gamification is a way to implement fun in things and places where typically “fun” does not exist. For instance, eating vegetables is not fun for some children, but with the reward to watch a cartoon at the end of the lunch — well then — that suddenly sweetens the deal!

Why Should We Use Gamification?

Gamification exists as a solution to overcome mental hurdles, or where we lack motivation. For instance, your child doesn’t eat vegetables, or your team is not efficient, or you don’t want to go for a run… in all of these scenarios, you have a problem that prevents you from achieving a goal.

We want to implement “success” features that are educational-based in nature so that the value of learning is not lost in the “gaming”.

Children learning how to read on Lalilo.

So What’s the Challenge in Regards to Reading?

Most of us learn how to read around 5 to 6 years old because that is when our brain is most receptive to knowledge. Children don’t have the same awareness of time, so learning to read can feel very time-consuming to a kid.
A child doesn’t see the result of what he or she has learned immediately; therefore, although kids are learning to read around the age of six, they actually become true readers around nine or ten years old. Additionally, many have yet to grasp the understanding of the purpose of reading, which might create a lack of drive for them.

As we grow, we often forget what learning something from scratch was really like to build it into a skill. Reading is no different. Practice makes perfect.

The Need for an Educational App

It’s important to note that an educational application won’t be the central learning support. For the sake of their health, it’s not advisable to keep children on digital tools for too long.

Therefore, there are two goals here:

  1. Keep the children engaged on the platform over a long-term period (for example, 20 minutes per week for 1–2 years). Because if they remain interested, then they use the program more. And if they use the program, they continue developing their fluid intelligence, making them better at learning things faster, and as a result, become better readers. (I encourage you to see Ananth Pai’s work in his classroom to understand how video games are making a significant impact on children’s intelligence).
  2. The educational app should be a tool that helps parents and teachers motivate children to learn.
An educational app should be an help for teachers in their learning process.

So how do I solve my problem of making reading enjoyable for kids?

With game design! Because that’s a way we can make challenges fun! It’s why video games are so popular. But we can use this same concept for non-digital problems by incorporating rewards, gauge, points, avatars, etc. in new and creative formats.

Game design is helping us keep children engaged on the platform and learning how to read. Before being involved, children need to be motivated. Motivation (according to psychology) means: “to be autonomous, to have skills and to have a belonging in things.” For most children, they start from no motivation to motivation (see Deci & Ryan’s work). And when they are motivated they start to be engaged.

Which Game Design methods address which problems?

  • Motivation of children : they have to see their progress and they have to understand why they are learning how to read. We use game design that reinforces progress like gauges, maps, etc. We are also working on stories for rewards, for example, so that children can understand what the bigger goals in learning how to read.
  • Engagement on the platform : Once you catch a child’s attention, you can start thinking about engaging them. Engagement is how many times children are on the app, how much they are using it (frequency), and how much they are going to enjoy it over time. Gamification should really surprise a child every time! The hardest part is that a child doesn’t decide when they go on the app, but instead it’s the parents or the teacher - so it’s important to remember they may love the app but just not be motivated at that moment as much as they usually are. The app is really engaging, but kids will be kids! Don’t give up on them!
  • Pedagogy: Here It Is!
    As we said, a child should see their progress, but we should see progress in pedagogy! Every serious game should fit pedagogical progression. So when you do a game, it should be made with the progression of learning. This also gives you the content on what your gamification is going to be based on!
Lalilo is following pedagogical progression through reading exercises.

The pedagogy in learning to read takes 2 to 3 years. So you should find a way to fit something that is going to keep everyone engaged for 2 or 3 years. You should also find a way to keep every students engaged! Because at 6 and at the age of 8, a child doesn’t think the same way and doesn’t like the same things! (I encourage you to see Gareth Griffths’ work for further explanation).

Things to Consider:

  • It can be difficult to find resources. It’s difficult to look at other applications — for different countries, not designed for the classroom — you can’t always use other applications for a reference. What may make a good reward in Asia, may not be as super cool for European children.
  • There are many things to take into account when designing a game — pedagogy, student engagement and a motivational tool for learning how to read
  • What works for an 8 year old may not work for a 6 year old
  • It could end up being something not totally what you expected to do

I hope this helped you understand and evaluate the considerations made when designing gamification in an educational app! :)

Thanks to Tiffany Croom that helped me write this article ;)


Schoolteacher Ananth Pai Brings Video Game to the classroom : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e6KCgZY-7HU
How games makes kids smarter, Gabe Zicherman, 2011 : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O2N-5maKZ9Q&t=454s
Skylander and playtesting with children, Gareth Griffths, CDC 2014 : https://youtu.be/PDhmOunXk4U?t=402