Review by Jenny Bristol, Common Sense Education | Updated August 2018

Vital Signs

ELA game set in a medical clinic shows the value of literacy skills

Subjects & skills
Subjects
  • English Language Arts

Skills
  • Character & SEL
  • Critical Thinking
Grades This grade range is based on learning appropriateness and doesn't take into account privacy. It's determined by Common Sense Education, not the product's publisher.
6–8
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Pros: Extensive teaching materials, and a real-life scenario.

Cons: Needs better onboarding for students; so many extra resources that it takes time just to plan how to use the game.

Bottom Line: Great ELA lessons that realistically integrate literacy skills into the simulated day-to-day of a medical clinic.

Teachers can use Vital Signs for ELA classes, especially if they're interested in developing students' scientific and informational literacy. Teachers can set up their classes in the teacher dashboard, either manually or as a "quick class," which generates 30 anonymous student accounts. These can all be set individually for text-to-speech options, difficulty, and replay/retake modes. Episodes can also be turned off or on. The dashboard includes student performance reports and student progress. Once everything is set up, there's tons to help out with implementation, including lesson plans and projects, primary sources, assessments, pacing guides, and worksheets. Depending on the class's goals, teachers can assign materials to individual students, groups, or the entire classroom. Students can design their own magazine, head up a public service project, or develop their own digital portfolio. Teachers also receive 24/7 support over email, if needed.

One possible sequence for Vital Signs is to introduce some key concepts via the pregame lessons -- these give a nice overview of the game's workplace. Then, before each episode, use the mini-lessons as a warm-up to get students thinking. Next, have them play through a game episode. Then, hold a postgame discussion that solidifies their knowledge and allows them to review what happened in the game. If time allows, teachers can lead the close reading lessons or class projects.

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Vital Signs is a point-and-click, story-based literacy game that has students take on the role of a medical director at a family clinic. It's part of the Read to Lead series along with After the Storm and Community in Crisis. Students contend with the daily challenges of a doctor: seeing patients, staying on top of community issues, and running an office. Along the way, students need to consult their to-do list with tasks to complete, including talking with staff to gather information, researching medical conditions, interacting with the public, and making tough decisions. There are 12 episodes, which each take about 20-30 minutes to play through. Each episode empowers students to take on a realistic job role and act on their decisions, while also dealing with the consequences.

Since it's a point-and-click game, students navigate various scenes in and out of the clinic, clicking on hot spots to advance the story. They begin by talking to their staff, carefully choosing their responses to keep progressing. They can then explore clinic buildings and the town to gather more information, visit with more people, and address issues as they come up. They'll also need to gather enough information to diagnose patients. The first episode deals with environmental factors that could be causing breathing difficulties for people in the town. To help them along, students can check their cell phone, which has a to-do list, patient files, a medical handbook, and a glossary.

While students build literacy skills all along, there's an assessment at the end that puts these skills to the test. Students must use their text analysis and research skills as well as deductive reasoning to solve problems, make decisions, and even write; they draft correspondence such as letters, emails, handouts, memos, reports, summaries, and explanations of their medical decisions. Some assessments are instantly scored while others are open-ended. Those responses are sent to the teacher dashboard for review.

Since the research, analysis, and assessments are all integrated naturally into the gameplay, students stay immersed and invested instead of taking breaks from play to do learning activities. The assessments themselves are particularly elegant, modeling real-life thinking and activities including actual writing. Some assessments provide convenient, immediate feedback while others get sent to teachers for more in-depth response. The whole experience builds a variety of next-level literacy skills not often tackled in games: close reading with primary sources, evidence-based writing, and evaluation of arguments. Students will need to weigh facts and opinions to make tough decisions, and often then justify those decisions. As they run the clinic, they'll also learn leadership skills. 

Each episode can be played as a stand-alone lesson, and just from these 30-minute experiences students should improve their skills. But when used with the comprehensive lesson plans, enrichment activities, and additional resources, Vital Signs could be a big part of a teacher's curriculum and a student's development. This all hinges on students getting into the game, though, which could be, for some students, a bit slow.

Overall Rating

Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return?

Students make decisions from the start, and the decisions have a clear impact on the storyline. It's a bit slow and sparse, however.

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer?

Students take on real-life work situations as the head of a medical clinic, and practice their reading, analyzing, and writing skills in realistic contexts. Resource activities extend the learning far beyond the classroom.

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students?

Slightly confusing start. There are differentiated lessons and help where students need it most (including full text-to-speech and a glossary). Teachers have extensive resources, lessons, and activities.


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