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

The Age-old Question: Why Are Games Important In The ESL Classroom?

This week’s guest post comes from the delightful Hal, from Hal and Steve English talking about the importance of games in the classroom.

There is a learning window, that is, a limit to how long students can maintain the focus required for language learning to occur. Games, aka activities, act as a way to expand that window of time in which language learning can occur. That being said, it may be true that teachers with little or no experience may use games in the classroom as a crutch for their inability to maintain that initial learning window as long as is necessary or desirable. However, what is entirely untrue, is that experienced and veteran teachers do not use games in the classroom. To the contrary, the only difference lies in maximizing the efficiency in how and to what degree they will employ those very same games and their understanding of why games are important. As they are especially useful in foreign language learning, let’s examine why games are important in the classroom within the context of ESL students and ESL teachers. As an ESL teacher you’ll know that there are aspects that are particularly important for you when you are at work in the classroom: effective or emotional aspects, creating an effective learning environment, cognitive aspects, and adaptability.

1. Affective Or Emotional Aspects

We’ve all dealt with this central issue. The student’s moods dictate their willingness to learn as well as how engaged they are in the learning process. ESL games in the classroom will help you trek through the emotional swamp of a classroom of youngsters by providing motivation, creating fun in the classroom, promoting spontaneous communication between the ESL students, and creating an environment in which the ESL students can speak and think in a free and creative manner.

Motivation

Your ESL students require structure in the classroom, but at the same time, they can feel desperate to break away from the routine of language learning. Simply put, their motivation may not be aligned with yours, but rather in escaping it. That’s where ESL games in the classrooms come in. As an ESL teacher, one of your main roles is to align your student’s motivations with your task of language acquisition. ESL games motivate students to participate in the language learning task which you are trying to accomplish. Which brings me to my next point, one of the main reasons ESL games are so motivating in the classroom, besides being a break from their dreaded language learning routine, are the elements of fun they create.

Fun

Simply put, when students are having fun, you typically find that they are the most amenable to language learning. Let’s be frank – language learning is an exceedingly difficult task which can frustrate you as well as the students. The constant effort required to understand, produce and manipulate the target language can be completely overwhelming and hard to maintain. When you employ ESL games in the classroom which contain elements of fun it allows your students to feel that they are ‘taking a break’ from the difficult task of language learning to have some fun. As they are having fun, they are practicing their language skills and furthering your goal of language acquisition.

Communication & Creating An Effective Learning Environment

ESL games in the classroom also create an environment which fosters opportunities for the free-willing style of communication which ESL students require to communicate their emotions and connect emotionally to their peers. This is also why student-focused learning is so important. ESL students may feel limited in how and when they can communicate with you – their teacher. However, when you employ ESL games in the classroom ESL students are better able to practice what they have learned with their peers around them who are operating within the same framework as them. The learning environment which is created when students are autonomously and spontaneously producing and communicating the target language beyond your direction is one of the most recognizable instances of effective language learning. If you’ve ever witnessed it occur, you know it’s a sight to behold! Sit back, watch the language learning proliferate, give guidance, and take notice of what specific issues might be popping up for each of your students

2. Cognitive

Most ESL teachers know that ESL games in the classroom are an effective tool for reviewing the target language being learned, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Let’s dive a little deeper.

Reinforce

Esl games in the classroom not only review what you’ve been teaching your ESL students but also reinforce it (which can be all the difference when it comes to long-term retention). ESL games provide a task-oriented vehicle through which your students can use the language you have taught them to achieve their own communicative goals. In short, they end up reinforcing what you have taught them by internalizing it. You’ll be delighted to see your students not only regurgitating what you have taught them in a literal sense but also negotiating their way into communicating their own desired needs and results in the target language.

Review

So let’s get back to the aforementioned notion of using ESL games for review. Using ESL games in the classroom as a tool for review is a given for most ESL teachers. However, what is more important to examine, is that there is a limit to how much new information learners can retain within a given time. ESL games are a key element which allows you to not only simply review, but to freely navigate around those limits of language learning, and review what your ESL students have already learned for the varying and sometimes dynamic amounts of time required as well as extend that learning into something new.

Grammar

I have taught countless ESL students with a commanding understanding and repertoire of English grammar rules. However, I guess a fair amount of you who may be reading along here maybe be able to guess what I am going to say next. They can’t speak. At all. Grammar must be understood more intimately than as a set of rules or principles and must be familiar in a communicative sense. By using ESL games to learn the ESL teachers allows for one of the most important things to take place in language learning – for their students to bridge that which can be perceived as a daunting chasm between innumerable grammar rules and exceptions to those grammar rules and the simple task of communicating precisely and freely. In short, ESL games to learn are excellent tools for focusing on grammar communicatively.

3. Adaptability

Let’s not only be frank here but practical as well. Adaptability is a key aspect in the classroom, and your classes can fly or fall depending on how well you can adapt the ESL learning task or target language to your ESL students and how well you can adapt to the myriad of other factors you are facing in that particular day or class. ESL games to learn are adaptable in most every way including age, level, and interest. They also require little effort or prep time once have you developed them so that you can focus on adapting them in the ways that are needed for each class or student you encounter over time.

Easily Adjustable

Any ESL teacher out their knows that the ESL job market differences from teaching in your native country and framework in several ways. One of those differences is that you may be teaching ESL adults one year and ESL kindy students the next. As an ESL teacher, you have to be ready to adapt to the current market and status of language learning occurring wherever in the wide wide world you may be teaching. Nearly all ESL games can be adapted in some way or manner to fit the level, age, or interests you may be teaching at the time. For instance, flashcards, which are the cornerstone of a large percentage of ESL games to learn are completely adaptable regardless of age. The same ESL flashcards which you may be using for teaching ESL kindy can be quite useful for ESL adult beginner students you might also be teaching.

Little Or No Prep

Once you have invested the time of creating an ESL game to learn resource you’ll find that you’ve freed up some time for yourself in future classes as well which will require the same target language as you cycle through the school years or alternate classes. As ESL teachers start to gain full command of our their time they are better able to employ ESL games to learn to maximize language acquisition. Furthermore, this frees up the ESL teacher to adapt their ESL game to learn resource to whichever of the four aspects of language they wish to focus or expand on whether it be speaking, reading, writing, or listening.

Hal of Halandsteve english here 🙂  I moved from the southern U.S to Korea 8 years ago to teach english.  Making changes within the classroom didn’t seem to be significant enough, so I branched out of the classroom into materials and methodology along the way. These days I feel much more in my element! Feel free to contact me at

https://www.facebook.com/halandsteveenglish.

A free sample of our work 🙂

https://halandsteveenglish.com/blogs/english-conversation-lesson-esl-efl/esl-uno-master-pack