Boys and girl-ish avatars - performing gender in language education

Submitted by: Stina Thunberg
Abstract: Newly arrived often feels frustration in the Swedish school system experiencing a lack of agency in their second language education (Nilsson Folke, 2017). This paper presents findings from an educational design research project combining the reading of a classical text, in the picture book form, with gaming elements stimulate creativity and engagement (Gee 2007; Lazar 2015) in the second language classroom. In focus is students’ creation of an avatar to descend in the classical story of Thumbelina and the research question is: What characterizes the reading activity in the gamified design?

The target group for the design was newly arrived students with little or no formal schooling, preparing for upper secondary school, in the ages of 16-19 years old. The aim was to contribute with new knowledge about using gamification to support the second language learning in reading activities. The story of Thumbelina written by H.C Andersen illustrated by Elsa Beskow was considered to engage and challenge the students with classical themes and richness of nature descriptions in both text and pictures. The gaming elements used are avatars, quests and experience points. The students are instructed to descend in the story and be Thumbelinas friend through an avatar of their creation.

Seventeen students participated in the implementation; several male students choose to descend in the story through a female avatar. This paper analyses the students' artifacts, avatar text, and avatar films using theories of gaming (Gee 2007) and performativity (Butler 2004). Preliminary findings are that the students are highly engaged in the making of their avatar. The students either create an avatar very similar to their own person, or the opposite, quite different from themselves. Several boys create a female avatar. And shy students´ avatar becomes more talkative.

Keywords: gamification, reading, ICT, gender

Butler, J. (2004). Undoing gender. New York: Routledge.
Gee, James Paul. 2007. What Video Games have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. ReRevised and updated edition ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
McKenney, S., & Reeves, C., Thomas. (2018). Conducting educational design research (2nd ed.) Taylor and Francis.
Lazar, Gillian. 2015. "Playing with Words and Pictures: Using Post-Modernist Picture Books as a Resource with Teenage and Adult Language Learners." In Literature and Language Learning in the EFL Classroom, edited by Masayuki Teranishi, Yoshifumi Saito and Katie Wales, 94-111. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK.