Building Fluency With Interactive Fiction: How Computer-Based Literature Makes Repeated Reading a Natural Literary Event
As we’ve seen, interactive fiction is a form of text literature in which the reader plays the part of an important character, deciding, within limits, what action that character will take. By typing ordinary English sentences at the keyboard, the reader or, frequently, a group of readers, decides where the main characters will go, what objects they will pick up and use, how they will solve problems, and how they will interact with other characters. Many students find interactive fiction, also known as IF or adventure gaming, an enjoyable way to gain experience with all of the major elements of literature (although point of view takes an unusual twist or two), and teachers who are comfortable with it soon find that it works well for oral reading in a one-computer classroom, largely because it encourages students to work collaboratively in solving the problems that the protagonist encounters.
Interactive fiction offers lots of instructional advantages, including its motivational effects; its usefulness in teaching conventional literary elements such as plot and theme; its unique qualities as a problem-solving tool; and its natural inclusion of helpful stopping places for instruction. But interactive fiction has a less obvious advantage, too. It’s a uniquely powerful tool for helping students to read more fluently.
Fluency, the ability to read to read aloud quickly, accurately, and expressively, is a quality that all teachers would like their students to have. Fluent readers enjoy reading more than other students, and they have fewer comprehension problems. Fluency helps children to move into the world of literate adults.
Fortunately, we know a good deal about how to teach fluency. The National Reading Panel, in Teaching Children to Read (2000), concludes, from an analysis of seventy-seven research studies, that “guided repeated oral reading procedures” have a positive impact on fluency. These procedures take a variety of forms, but all of them require students to read the same passage a number of times as a way of increasing fluency, and most culminate in opportunities to show off newly-developed fluency by reading for classmates. Some educators place special stress on the opportunities for relatively public performance, as a way to motivate students to engage in repeated reading.
Guided, repeated oral reading, then, works as a teaching tool. However, it’s not the way literate adults and kids usually read. The literature that we find in books and magazines, with the possible exception of a poem here and there, does not ask the reader to peruse the same text over and over again. But what if there were a narrative form of literature that was especially well suited to classroom performance in the form of guided oral reading? And what if the same form required repeated reading as an integral part of its storytelling? And what if it were available free (or almost free)? Computer-based interactive fiction offers all of these qualities.
IF and Reading Aloud
In my twenty years of work as a middle school teacher, I found that students generally enjoy interactive fiction a great deal. In fact, about thirty percent of my students choose IF, over all other options, for individual silent reading. However, they like IF much more when they can read it together, with the level of preference rising to about eighty-five percent. Why does this form of literature motivate oral reading more than silent reading? Three factors conspire to produce this result: collaborative problem solving, reading text in appropriately-sized chunks, and a unique sense of creating a story while reading it.
In order to foster reading fluency effectively, it’s not enough to offer motivational oral reading–we have to offer guidance as well. Sometimes teachers offer coaching in oral reading “on the fly,” reminding students of the need to pay attention to pitch, stress, and juncture as they read; but, on other occasions, more formal approaches, such as phrased-text lessons, with groups of related words marked off for the reader, yield dramatic results. In any case, explicit guidance requires pausing in the reading process.
An important advantage of IF in the classroom is its way of providing–and, indeed, forcing–aesthetically valid pauses in reading. Every work of interactive fiction, regardless of its level of sophistication, must wait for the reader’s input; and every author of an interactive story has to make aesthetic judgments about the placement of the waiting. Typically, even when a reader is making rapid progress through a story, these periods of waiting chunk the text into pieces that are seldom more than a hundred and fifty words long. In other words, interactive fiction stories naturally fall into brief episodes that are ideal for guiding a novice reader.
IF and Repeated Reading
How does interactive fiction incorporate repeated reading? We can best answer this question by considering a typical example of middle-school-appropriate interactive fiction, Wishbringer, by Brian Moriarty. In this tale of fantasy and adventure, the main character, a young postal clerk, must save his or her town from the effects of some rather elaborate, transformative, evil magic. Like most works of interactive fiction, Wishbringer requires the main character to visit a variety of locations. When the character visits a location, the reader sees a description like this one:
You’re on the eastern side of the Festeron Rotary. A street branches off to the east, towards the bay.
On the corner nearby stands a charming little movie theater. Showtimes and admission prices are listed on a schedule near the closed entrance, and a marquee announces the current feature.
If the protagonist goes east from Rotary East, he or she comes to another location, the Pleasure Wharf, described like this:
You’re standing near the entrance to the Pleasure Wharf, the town’s most popular tourist attraction. The Wharf extends eastward into Festeron Bay, and a tidal beach curves north along the shore.
To the south stands a ramshackle old building. Colorful lights, curious electronic sounds and a neon sign beckon you through the open entrance.
A big mailbox is nearby.
If the player/character enters the ramshackle old building, he or she reads the description of a video arcade:
This old building is the home of a sleazy arcade, lined with coin-op video games. The machines are all deserted and quiet, except for one in the corner that emits a feeble “wokka-wokka” sound.
A sign on the wall says, “All Games One Token.”
It should be clear, then, that, in Wishbringer, the player/character spends a lot of time moving through various locations. He or she does lots of other things, too, some of them much more interesting than mere movement, such as talking to other characters and solving problems. However, in order to make progress, the protagonist must move around the tale’s map, reading and understanding the descriptions as he or she goes. Most works of IF make similar use of various locations. In fact, a typical interactive story is often described as a “romp around a map.”
In any given story, some of the locations will require only one or two visits, but others will require many more, commonly at least a dozen, by the time a typical story, which is around the length of a short novel, reaches its conclusion. The location called “Rotary East,” as described above, for instance, will almost surely be visited by the player/character early in the story, as he or she heads off to deliver a letter to the tale’s northernmost locale. Later, the character will pass the location again, as he or she tries to reach a mysterious tower at the southern end of the story’s map. Later still, the player/character will visit Rotary East on his or her way to the Video Arcade, after obtaining a token to play one of the games. At another time, the protagonist will return to enter the theater. On another occasion, the player/character will pass Rotary East on route to a lighthouse that is located in the northeast corner of the story’s territory. And all of these particularly purposeful visits do not include many incidental passings, as the protagonist is chased by the antagonist’s police patrol or as the player/character simply looks around without any particular object in mind.
Near the end of Wishbringer, the player/character makes a climactic visit to a location called Rotary South, a visit that underscores the importance of reading the description of a location carefully and repeatedly. Here’s the description of Rotary South:
This is the south side of the Festeron Rotary. A road branches south, towards Post Office Hill.
The Festeron Public Library, famous for its museum of local historic artifacts, stands proudly on the nearby corner.
On this occasion, the library, which has seemed like a bit of permanently-locked scenery throughout the story, has suddenly become accessible because the protagonist has obtained a key from the librarian’s cottage. If the readers miss the importance of the library, simply because they’ve read its description a dozen times or more, they will not be able to solve the story’s climactic problem.
Approaches in the Classroom
One of the principal advantages of interactive fiction as a tool for building fluency is its flexibility. For some students and classes, the repetition experienced in a straightforward, guided, oral reading of a story will suffice. Other learners require procedures that are a bit more scripted and formal, though still unobtrusive. Still others may need more rigorous and immediate repetition.
As one might imagine, students, who are presumably reading each work of IF for the first time, will have little idea, at first, which map locations require frequent visits. But any teacher who has read an IF story even once will have a very strong feel for which locations require frequent visits. Using this information, the teacher can develop a plan to help students with moderate problems in fluency. For these learners, a teacher can model good oral reading of each description that will be repeated, by reading aloud the initial instance or two of such descriptions. Then, the teacher can assign the oral reading of each particular, frequently-visited location, and perhaps its adjacent venue, to a student who needs some fluency development. From then on, the assigned student will have an opportunity for repeated reading of the description, with any guidance the teacher chooses to give, whenever the main character enters the assigned location. Eventually, the student will, very likely, be able to read the description with some smoothness and expression.
In some classes, a teacher may choose to keep the assignment of students to particular descriptions rather discreet, revealing the assignments to each student in private. In other cases, as with most of my sixth graders, students may be quite happy to “own” Rotary South or the Video Arcade. In extremely sensitive situations, such as those that I’ve occasionally encountered with low-achieving eighth graders, the teacher need not reveal the assignment at all. He or she can simply remember to call on the particular student whenever the appropriate destination is reached.
Of course, interactive fiction is not a one-size-fits-all solution for students who need work in fluency. Some students with more severe fluency problems, for instance, will need several repeated readings of a passage that occur in rapid succession, in order to improve fluency. For this sort of rapid repetition, IF is not dramatically better than other forms of literature, but it’s no worse, either. If a student needs immediate repetitions, and the teacher can provide opportunities for this sort of work, the well-rehearsed reader will find no more striking opportunity to show off his or her practiced fluency than an interactive story.
Issues and Problems
Most middle school teachers do not have daily access to the latest computer technology. Fortunately, though, all-text interactive fiction makes only the lightest demands on computer hardware. A Pentium II-based computer can run all of the stories listed in this article with no delays at all. When they originally appeared, most of the commercial stories ran perfectly well on Apple II machines or the earliest PC’s.
Large-screen displays that a whole class can see at once are a bit more of a problem; but, since IF stories can be run with large font sizes, they can be displayed without any sort of expensive projection equipment. A large television/monitor, attached to the computer with a VGA cable, with a Chromecast device or with similar interface, does the job perfectly well.
The real challenge of using interactive fiction in the classroom is not technological at all—it’s literary. Most adults have not learned a truly new form of literature since they were introduced to novels and plays as children; and IF is designed to be a challenging genre. Learning the kinds of sentences that interactive stories can “understand” is tricky in itself; and most IF deliberately confronts the reader with problems that are somewhat difficult, even though walkthroughs and hints are readily available. Because teachers are usually accomplished readers, we may come to assume that, for the most part, the reading of good literature is easy. Interactive fiction challenges that assumption.
Still, help is available. The welcome page for the newsgroup rec.games.int-fiction (http://www.faqs.org/faqs/games/interactive-fiction/part1/) is very useful, as is the group itself. The Interactive Fiction Forum (http://www.intfiction.org/forum/) is even more active. “A Beginner’s Guide to Interactive Fiction” (http://www.brasslantern.org/beginners/beginnersguide.html) by two outstanding IF authors, Stephen Granade and Emily Short, offers succinct and clear suggestions. For a young person’s perspective, try “Fun and Learning With Interactive Fiction,” a section of this website designed for kids. Fredrik Ramsberg’s “Beginner’s Guide to Playing Interactive Fiction (http://www.microheaven.com/IFGuide/) takes a systematic, step-by-step approach that appeals to many IF neophytes. It is distinctly helpful with the process of downloading and using the software that’s needed to run interactive fiction.
The difficulties in learning IF, then, are certainly real, but so are the resources; and the people of the international interactive fiction community, a very active and smart group of real enthusiasts, are always ready to help “newbies.” For teachers who go to the considerable trouble of learning this new form of literature, IF will serve as a unique, perhaps even indispensable, tool for building reading fluency.