How Tabletop Roleplaying Games Can Improve Literacy

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Lucas Maxwell


Lucas Maxwell has been working with youth in libraries for over fifteen years. Originally from Nova Scotia, Canada, he's been a high school librarian in London, UK for over a decade. In 2017 he won the UK's School Librarian of the Year award and in 2022 he was named the UK Literacy Association's Reading For Pleasure Teacher Champion. He loves Dungeons & Dragons and is the author of Let's Roll: A Guide for Setting up Tabletop Roleplaying Games in Your School or Public Library. You can follow him on Twitter and on his blog.

I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons for about four years. Before that, I hadn’t played since I was around 12 or 13. I never thought about the benefits of playing D&D, especially when it comes to literacy, until running the game more seriously. In the past four years, I’ve really fallen in love with it. It means a lot to me, because it is a respite from my over-active brain, which isn’t always a nice place to be. I’ve written before on the mental health benefits of D&D and I’ve even written a book on the topic of setting up D&D in a school or public library. I also am part of a podcast with some amazing authors: Alex Dunne, Alex Foulkes, and Gráinne O’Brien. Meeting with them on a weekly basis has been hugely beneficial to me, as it’s four hours of laughing and not worrying about anything in the real world.

Aside from being a great escape, there are many other benefits to playing TTRPGs like D&D, especially for younger players. There is concrete evidence to show that playing D&D can improve literacy.

It Encourages Reading

One simple way to look at it is that it will have kids reading more. I have students in the library who for two years told me they hated books, that books were boring, and that they felt like there was nothing out there for them. Cue D&D, and I have three of these kids who have become complete reading fanatics. They are in the library every day, poring over the rulebooks, the monster manuals, the campaign books. They are reading voraciously. This is having a direct impact on their literacy skills because anyone who has read the Player’s Handbook or the Dungeon Master’s Guide can tell instantly that this is a book generally aimed at adults. They are dense, complicated, and — for someone like me — can feel intimidating.

Not to these students, though. They are bookmarking pages and creating their own campaigns and characters. They are engaging in an absolute ton of creative writing. They make back stories for their characters, devise traps, and create home-brew treasures and monsters. They debate what the hardest monsters are to kill and what the best classes to play are. This is a game that requires a ton of commitment before you even get to the table, but it’s all positive.

It Provides Motivation

D&D is a huge motivator, says Texas teacher Kade Wells, who runs D&D in his high school. As educators, we know that students must use the books in order to make their characters the most powerful, the most ready to take on whatever the Dungeon Master is throwing at them. They are also reading about different monsters, spells, weapons, equipment, and treasure. Therefore, they are improving their literacy through motivation to be the best they can be at the game. As a D&D player, you become extremely invested in your characters and the characters around you. There is an end goal to the reading of D&D books: they want to survive, and they want to make their characters memorable.

a table containing various D&D items, a DM screen, dice and books.

In a study done by the University of Iowa in 2017, seven D&D players were interviewed, and all seven said that playing D&D improved at least one literacy skill as well as listening skills.

At its core, I believe that D&D is a storytelling game over everything else. It’s not just the Dungeon Master who develops the story; the characters drive the story and how it develops through their actions. I have players in the library who take copious notes during the campaigns that they play. They turn these notes and sketches into important documents that they carry around with them at school. I hear them at the tables in the library, even on days we aren’t playing D&D, discussing the campaign, going over their notes, and discussing the best plan of action. I gave all our players D&D notebooks to keep track as a way to help them with their creative writing — and to just say “thank you” for playing, because – as I’ve already mentioned – the game really means a lot to me, and I am grateful to have the chance to play as much as I do.

In addition, there are a ton of books out there that you can give to young players to get them reading and improve their literacy if they love playing D&D. These books will hook them in and keep them going for a long time. I make displays in the library, buy D&D-style books, have the D&D “equipment” readily available for students, and talk about D&D with them on a daily basis. This is all in a way to keep them coming back to the library and to keep them engaged in the game, which can carry with it so many useful benefits.

So, if you’re a librarian or teacher and are on the fence about running D&D, my advice would be to simply jump in and give it a try. You’ll see a lot of positive side effects, including some that may surprise you.