Digital ‘breakout’ rooms are fun ways to engage students in explorations of vocabulary and concepts related to class books.
At some point in their careers, nearly all teachers ask themselves: “How do I get my students to read? All they want to do is play computer games.” In the last two years, a decline in reading scores has raised concerns that students are behind compared to the historical average. According to the Nation’s Report Card, students’ 2022 reading scores are lower than in 2019.
Not only are students’ reading abilities a concern, but the lack of attention during reading instruction concerns researchers. The student’s inability to focus, lack of interest, decrease in language skills, and, more important, the overstimulation of technology have led to the loss of instructional time in the classroom.
This overstimulation prevents students from developing reading stamina and critical thinking skills. The thought of students not becoming competent readers is worrisome and should not be ignored or overlooked. However, technology can be used innovatively to motivate students as they learn to read. One creative idea is using digital escape rooms to engage K–5 students in reading. Since stories, missions, and riddles are all teacher-created, these can take about two hours to create, but once they are completed, it takes only minutes to make changes when needed.
Benefits of ‘escape books’
An escape book, or a breakout book, is based on the same principle as escape rooms, where players are locked in a room and can only break out by solving various puzzles in a set amount of time. Using the platform Genially, breakout books challenge students to solve various puzzles and complete missions.
Genially offers a variety of easy escape templates you can use to design a breakout book game that resembles scenes from a book. I built an escape room based on the book The Day You Begin, by Jacqueline Woodson. After students read or listened to the book being read, they participated in a digital escape room to help them process the vocabulary and concepts from the book. Like escape rooms, the breakout book game must begin with a story. The story is the hook that will engage students in the breakout book. I used an example of the first day of school, encouraging students to get to know one another.
The story will then lead to the first mission. Each mission will have a story, a riddle, and an interactive element that will lead to a related activity, a hint, and choices to which students can select or input answers. Mission stories are teacher created based on the events from the book and then connected to a literacy skill or strategy that is being reinforced—for example, vocabulary.
Riddles are also teacher created and structured so that students can understand. The breakout book game can include interactive websites that can enhance students’ level of engagement, all the while targeting different parts of the story to create missions. For this game, I used jigsawplanet.com to create a puzzle about a place someone visits in the book and Wordwall to create a vocabulary-matching game.
An escape book can have two to four missions, which can range from easy to complicated. These missions will eventually lead to the “breakout” of the book. A congratulations slide will show the students that they have won the game. Students can play with a partner or in a team of four. The fun will make 20 minutes go by quickly.
Planning a Breakout Book Game
These puzzles reinforce key skills such as comprehension strategies and text-based evidence. The games can also promote learning skills such as communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity. Not only can breakout books be used to reinforce essential literacy skills, but teachers can tailor the difficulty level to meet the needs of all learners so that all students can be engaged and focused with books.
The first step is to base the game on the book your K–5 students are reading. It’s extremely important that students read the book prior to completing the breakout book. Children’s books can be hard copies or links to online versions that can be attached to the breakout book game. As you go through the book, decide which literacy strategy or skill students will use in the breakout book game. Select tier 2 or tier 3 vocabulary words and text-based evidence details that can be used to answer riddles.
You can adjust the difficulty level to ensure that students receive the right amount of challenge and stay engaged. For young students, text-dependent questions can be asked where students can easily find the answer in the book, such as what letter makes the /f/ sound in the word friend. For older students, ask inference questions where students would have to use context clues from the book to answer.
The next step is thinking about the hints students can use. For every mission created, hints are embedded to support students who might find a mission too difficult. Hints are used to guide students with either information or a visual. Hints are easily spotted and are linked to animated elements.
Pilot the Game and Ask for Feedback
When the planning process is over, test the game to ensure that all of the links work and the missions open as you progress. Make sure that the riddles make sense and are appropriate for your grade level. When your students complete the first game, ask for feedback that can help make the breakout book better. Some example questions for them could be: Were the hints obvious, or were they difficult to recognize? Did you need the read-aloud book to complete the missions? Did you find yourself rereading the story?
Creating a breakout book game can promote reading and engagement with books. Students will enjoy working with books as they analyze parts of the story to figure out the riddles. Expect students to ask you for breakout book games for other stories.