It’s your turn: Board games in the foreign language classroom

This post, from James York, explains the how he uses board games with his students. If you think that playing games is just all about having fun, then you will be interested in his surprisingly sound methodological validation of this approach

“It’s your turn”

This phrase is multifaceted. It suggests that someone is not paying attention and needs to be reminded to take their turn during a game. But what game? Who is this “you?” Could it be the third-person “you” as in “all of you?” In this article, I think it does. I’d like to frame the expression as me speaking to my students, letting them know that the progression of the class and their learning is now up to them. It is their turn to take control. But it also applies to you, the reader. If you are interested in the practical application of games in your (language) teaching context, this article is a good place to start. I’d like to talk about how I have been engaging students with the use of board games as part of a constructivist approach to education. 

Modern Board Games

First, it is worth clarifying the types of game that I am using in class. Monopoly? No. The Game of Life? No. The modern board game movement, which dispenses with randomness and embraces player interaction and strategy, has seen a huge volume of new games, and game genres appear (for an overview see Nicholson, 2008). Modern board games require complex language use (not just “I passed go, $200 please”), provide links into English culture (how can learners play a card with Nyan Cat on it without learning about the reference, or at least inspired to learn more about this bizarre symbol of English culture?). Amongst those genres are two in particular that provide positive benefits for language learning. These are the hidden-role and cooperative game genres. These two genres were chosen based on how they are played. 

What are hidden role games?

Hidden-role games are conversation driven and require students to exchange information with each other much like a typical “jigsaw task” in Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) wherein learners are only given part of the information needed to complete a task and must work together, sharing information for successful completion. 

What are cooperative games?

Cooperative games differ from competitive games in that they do not put players in direct competition with each other, instead, all players work as a team against the game itself, thus promoting conversation regarding how to progress the game state. 

IMG_3196.JPG
Forbidden Desert (a cooperative game)

IMG_1321.JPG
Burgle Bros. (another cooperative game)

On a macro scale student agency is promoted by putting students in charge of choosing the game they play. 

On a micro scale, students are in charge of learning the game rules, considering the language they need to play, progressing the game state, and analysing their performance post-play.

Methodology overview

The methodology I have created was originally conceptualised as a way to improve my students’ communicative competence through the use of board games. The project has since evolved to focus on all four language skills (listening, speaking, reading, writing). In this post I’ll focus on what the methodology is, how it is carried out, and what students think of learning this way (for more detail, see York & deHaan, 2018; York, 2019).

The methodology is comprised of four main phases, each of which is a full 90-minute lesson. They are Learn, Play, Analyse and Report. The Play and Analyze phases are repeated once (or more if the need exists) so the minimum time it takes to go through one full cycle of the method is six weeks. I will explain each of these phases in more detail below.

The methodology may be considered as a game-based approach to conducting Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT). The following list highlights some of the major similarities:

  • both focus on meaning-making rather than discrete linguistic elements, 
  • language use is purposeful and goal-oriented
  • games and task-based curricula have incremental progression models (read: levelling systems), 
  • game restarts can be considered task repetition
  • both provide students with a safe space to experiment with the language without fear of failure or losing face.

Next, the model in action!

The methodology: real-life examples

Upon choosing a game, students are in charge of learning the rules of the game. This is the Learn phase, which is heavily multimodal. They can use multiple resources to learn the rules including the rulebook, youtube videos, their peers, and presentations that I have made. Preparing for play in this way is thus similar to the preliminary “pre-task” phase of TBLT. 

IMG_2649.JPG
Students getting ready to play Dead of Winter

The second class is the Play phase where learners play and record the audio as they play. There is a specific reason for having students record their games. When playing a game, we often get so enthralled in it that we do not have time to reflect on what is happening in real time. Put another way, the cognitive demands of the game do not allow for real-time language focus. This point can be summarised as: activities require careful reflection (debriefing) for learning to occur. In my case, language analysis is done after playing, but what about other contexts? What post-play activities would you do with students?

IMG_3209.JPG
A group of students playing Resistance: Avalon

During the Analyze phase students look for English mistakes and Japanese usage in their previous performance. This is done by first transcribing their recordings and looking for common mistakes or common Japanese phrases that they used. Students are therefore active in filling in their lack of knowledge regarding a topic. Again, in my case: augmenting their interlanguage with grammar exercises found on the internet or their electronic dictionaries (It’s their turn to be in charge, remember!). 

Although students are acting autonomously, the teacher’s role is still crucial. In my situation, I am constantly on the lookout to uncover possible errors, point out grammar that they may want to investigate further, and question their understanding of constructs, but the onus is on them working together as a social group to further their own language development. The final part of the class is for students to present their findings to other groups, as a way to reflect on what they discovered about their language use. This “debriefing of the debriefing” session thus opening group findings up to others.

The fourth class is a replay session, which is again recorded for subsequent transcription and analysis. 

The fifth class is another Analyze session which has the goal of getting students to compare their performance between the two play sessions. 

Finally, students complete a survey as part of the Report phase which is designed to debrief the gameplay experience from a number of perspectives. The survey is completed as a group, which evokes deeper reflection and more detailed answers than completing the survey individually. As with the “Analysis” phase, students also present their group reflections to the rest of the class. This has benefits to me, gaining insights on how to improve the framework and the students compare their experiences with others.

I provide a number of responses from the survey here as an example (all verbatim). They are made after playing the deduction game “Two Rooms and a Boom” (Gerding & McCoy, 2013).

Why did you like this game?

“I make new friends and enjoy speaking English”

“I’m happy when win using English. But one part of classmates don’t have morale, I feel so bad.”

“The game use brain! So, very hard, but very interesting!!”

“I enjoyed because I communication in English and I’m special roles which is President and Romeo.”

I think these responses are a good representation of the general attitude towards playing games in English in my classroom. Gameplay is seen as a positive learning experience in terms of English language development, as well as the social aspect of being able to talk to other classmates, the cognitive challenge, and by providing the opportunity to role-play. The comment regarding morale is rather profound, and I endeavour to inquire further with this group!

Discussion

I have found the decision to abandon generic textbooks a liberating experience for both me and my students, and a positive step towards my research goal of designing a pedagogy for language learning around games. Although I am only providing informal observations here, I can attest to the power of letting students be in charge of their own learning. There is not a mobile phone in sight during class, and if there is, it is being used to either record gameplay audio or to search the internet for resources. Students are engaged and active, working in groups with other students in a social, safe, and fun environment. The response to the class from students has been very positive. In a qualitative study I undertook last year, students seemed to think this was an authentic way to use English in class. Gaming thus provided them with their first experience of using English practically. 

Promoting students to “take their turn” as language learners instead of passive consumers of grammar rules has changed the dynamic of my classroom. Instead of systematically spoon feeding knowledge, by providing them with the support materials to learn what they are ready for, deem appropriate, and use as part of the class is healthy for both students and teachers.

In conclusion, I have shown how I created a framework around games to promote student engagement. Giving students a choice in what they do within the framework promotes learning that is not just a one-way transmission of information, but an exploratory, student-led endeavour. The teacher’s role in the classroom does require further consideration though. Putting students in charge of their learning does not mean that we can be totally removed from what they do. In fact, it calls for more expertise and reflection. In my case, giving rule explanations, promoting noticing of grammar issues as they occur, and leading discussions on game strategy and feedback are just some of the activities that I deal with daily.  

So, why not reroll your own context to put students in charge? Now it’s your turn.

References

Gerding, A. & McCoy, S. (2013) Two Rooms and a Boom. Tuesday Knight Games.

Nicholson, S. (2008). Modern board games: It’s not a Monopoly any more. Library Technology Reports, 44(3), 8-10. 

York, J. (2019) Kotoba Rollers Walkthrough: Board games, TBLT and player progression in an EFL university classroom. Ludic Language Pedagogy 1 (58-115).

York, J., & DeHaan, J. (2018). A constructivist approach to game-based language learning: Student perceptions in a beginner-level EFL context. International Journal of Game-Based Learning, 8(1), 19–40. http://doi.org/10.4018/IJGBL.2018010102

The art of seduction: Why connection should come before everything else

Some more wise words from André Hedlund (Edcrocks) this week. I am becoming more and more fascinated by the science of learning and how this should influence our approach to teaching (and life in general). If you too are interested in learning more – from the horse’s mouth, no less, André will be offering a webinar next month entitled – The Brain & How to Help our Learners Learn (Metacognitive Strategies according to the Science of Learning) (Link here for more info and to sign up)

What really drives people to do anything? On a molecular level, we could say it’s a very important neuromodulator, which has become quite popular not only in the scientific literature but also on TV, blogs and in magazine pieces: our beloved dopamine. The effects it has on the brain are nothing short of extraordinary. Dopamine is released when we have a sense of anticipation of something rewarding, not so much when we experience the reward itself. How does this knowledge change what I must prioritize as a teacher in the classroom? That’s exactly what I intend to discuss in my second blog post for ELT.Training.

Imagine you see an attractive person at a pub in London. You’re single and the person has made eye contact. You look back at the person and realize you’re incredibly attracted to them. What is happening in your brain is quite amazing. An incredible cocktail of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine is being released from your neurons into the synapses and being captured by other neurons. The entire process just makes you feel wonderfully well. Those who have engaged in the art of seduction know exactly what I’m talking about. But what does that have to do with your students in the classroom?

Well, let’s start with what makes people engage in the first place. When you sense a dangerous or unwanted situation, something that might make you uncomfortable, your body releases something that causes the bad type of stress. It’s called cortisol. Cortisol plays a role in memory formation, especially remembering things to avoid, but long-term cortisol release has a bunch of effects that actually impact learning negatively. You feel tense and you can’t use your prefrontal cortex, the hub in your brain where sophisticated thinking and reasoning take place. What does that all mean? It basically means that we want more dopamine and just the right amount of cortisol to get people engaged.

The oversimplification above is just to give you some grounds for what I propose next. Very much like the seduction that went on at the pub I mentioned before, we need to seduce our students. Now, please don’t get me wrong here. What I mean is that we need to seduce their brains and make them want to engage with us in class. This is so important that I believe it should be the top priority of every lesson. If you think about it, not seducing your students’ brains will likely generate disinterested students who’ll have a hard time paying attention. Reduced attention leads to reduced memory consolidation. Or even worse. Students who feel intimidated, uncomfortable or something else because they have no emotional connection with the teacher will have a hard time accessing their sophisticated thinking, reasoning and, consequently, learning skills.

What’s something that you can do then? I’d like to list a couple of very simple, yet quite effective, suggestions that you can work on to seduce your students’ brains:

1-    Show them who you are

I always take time, particularly in the very first lesson, to connect with my students. They are curious about what makes their teacher cool and interesting. A very easy way to do that is to start the lesson with a True or False about yourself. Make sure you mention the silly and amazing things you’ve done in your life

2-    Find out who your students are

This takes time but you need to establish this connection with them. I have specific activities for them to tell the class a little bit about themselves and I always take the opportunity to talk to them individually and ask questions about things they like or do. I also encourage them to share their passions and have them prepare presentations on their hobbies.

3-    Show enthusiasm

How many times have I been to a conference or classroom observation where the teacher was extremely knowledgeable and the topic was interesting but they looked like they didn’t want to be there or spoke in such a monotonous way? I lost the count. One of the things that gets us engaged straight away is passion. And passion creates enthusiasm. If you look excited to be there, you’ll be activating their mirror neuron system and that helps students get and keep engaged. Read a little more about it here.

4-    Have a classroom mascot, like my Mr. Trunk

I decided to buy a stuffed elephant to connect with my students and instill a sense of responsibility in them. It may sound silly, but it has worked wonders! Mr. Trunk, the name we gave him, has traveled with my students in Brazil and the world. The best part is that my students took him on vacation or for the weekend and integrated him into their routine. They had to bring back photos and tell us what they had done with Mr. Trunk. I found out so many interesting things I wouldn’t have because of this silly activity. You can read about his story here

5-    Be kind and understanding

Someone once told me that what we can see from someone’s life is just the tip of the iceberg. We don’t know what is going on in their homes, their other classes, with their parents, siblings, friends etc. Assuming that students might be behaving badly because that’s who they are may be incorrect. Being kind conveys an important message: “I’m here if you need to share something and I might be able to help”. With their defense system down, it’s easier to connect.

6-    Be firm and keep your promises

One of the things adults keep doing to kids is break their promises. This creates unstable relationships and mistrust. Students need to learn how to regulate their behavior and that required support. They want a role model, someone they look up to and you can be that person. If you promise a reward, do it. If you promise a punishment, do it too.

7-    Take their needs and interests into consideration

Students are humans and they get tired. Give them a break, show you care about them. They love technology and would love to use their mobiles to show you something. Set moments to do it in class. Some of them might have a particular taste in music, let them show it to the rest of the class.

8-    Keep them curious

Our brain is programmed to be drawn to novelty. It’s so strong that it’s basically inevitable. I realize that we’re busy planning lessons and that we can run out of ideas many times, but the key to long-term engagement is to constantly bring something interesting, new, different to class. Have a puzzle or a mystery that will be revealed at the end of the lesson. Answer questions that are unrelated to the content of the lesson just to kill their curiosity.I could go on and on with more tips, but I think you get the point. But if the point isn’t clear enough, here’s what you need to do from now on: In the wise words of Immordino-Yang and António Damásio, “we feel, therefore we learn”. Live by that motto and remember that your students need that dopamine rush to want to do things, to be engaged. If you become irresistible in the classroom, chances are you’ll seduce their brains and make your lessons much more memorable. That comes before any memorization technique, study strategy or student-centered activity you can think of, trust me. Give it a try and let me know. You can also read something on my blog about that might help here.