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. 

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Forbidden Desert (a cooperative game)

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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. 

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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?

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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

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