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Virtual worlds in primary classrooms

Virtual Game


Professor Cathy Burnett, Professor Guy Merchant, Karen Daniels, Roberta Taylor, Chris Bailey, Jemma Monkhouse

Project date


How do children make meaning across on/offline environments when in a virtual world in a primary classroom?

This project investigated the use of a virtual world in a primary classroom, examining relationships between what happened on-screen in the virtual world, Barnsborough, and what happened off screen in class. Barnsborough, was built by in the Active Worlds Educational Universe (, designed to provide meaningful, motivating opportunities for children to read and write in a range of contexts (Merchant, 2009; 2010). It is a 3D simulation of a deserted town which children can explore as avatars, visiting various locations including a park, sewers, an internet café, the town hall and an old castle. As they explore they encounter clues (a dropped note, a poster, and so on) through which they piece together clues about what has happened in the town.

The project highlighted the many and complex ways in which spaces, places, people and things intersected as children traversed virtual places whilst also in the very physical world of the classroom. In doing so, it highlighted the importance of recognising and interrogating multiplicity in examining interactions through and around texts. The implications of this work go beyond research into literacies in digital environments to raise questions about how we theorise and research literacies more generally. It suggests the need to recognise and articulate complexity when interrogating literacies in classrooms and, in doing so, unsettles the idea that literacy education can be taught in a highly scripted and linear manner.


United Kingdom Literacy Association (UKLA)


  • Burnett, C. & Merchant, G. (2017). Using Stacking Stories to investigate Children’s Virtual World Play in a Primary Classroom. SAGE Research Methods Cases Education. Available at
  • Burnett, C. & Merchant, G. (2016). Boxes of Poison: Baroque Technique as Antidote to Simple Views of Literacy. Journal of Literacy Research, 48(3): 258-279. (Themed issue: Entanglements, Intensities, and Becoming: Non-Representational Perspectives on Literacy Research)
  • Burnett, C. & Merchant, G. (2014). Points of View: reconceptualising literacies through an exploration of adult and child interactions in a virtual world. Journal of Research in Reading, 37, 1, 36-50. 
  • Burnett, C., Merchant, G., Pahl, K. & Rowsell, J. (2014). The (im)materiality of literacy: the significance of subjectivity to new literacies research. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 35, 1, 90-103.
  • Burnett, C. (2014). Investigating pupils’ interactions around digital texts: a spatial perspective on the ‘classroom-ness’ of digital literacy practices in schools. Educational Review, 66, 2, 192-209.
  • Bailey, C., Burnett, C. & Merchant, G. (2017) Assembling Literacies in Virtual Play. In K. Mills, A. Stornaiuolo, A. Smith, & J. Pandya.  (Eds.) (2017). Routledge Handbook of Digital Writing and Literacies in Education. New York: Routledge. Pp.187-197.
  • Burnett, C. & Merchant, G. (2017). Assembling the virtual. In Parry, R., Burnett, C. & Merchant, G. (Eds.). Literacy, Media and Technology: Past, Present and Future. London: Bloomsbury.  Pp. 219-231.
  • Bailey, C., Burnett, C. Monkhouse, J., Daniels, K., Merchant, G., Gill, E., Rayner, J. & Taylor, R. (2013). Zombie Apocalypse: problem-solving in a virtual world. English 4-11. Summer 2013, 48, 7-10.
  • Burnett, C. (2011). The (im)materiality of educational space: interactions between material, connected and textual dimensions of networked technology use in schools.  E-Learning and Digital Media (Special Issue: Digital Epistemologies.), 8, 3, 214-227.
  • Merchant, G. (2009) Literacy in Virtual Worlds. Journal of Research in Reading. 32:1 (pp. 38-56)
  • Merchant, G. (2010) 3D Virtual worlds as environments for literacy teaching. Educational Research. 52:2 (pp.135-150)
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