JALT2018 Presentation

Game-based language learning:
It’s not all fun and games

The aim of this presentation was to:

  1. Give an overview of the main research trends of GBLL
  2. Compare GBLL to gamification
  3. Provide details of my own approach to TBLT-informed GBLL
  4. Give advice to those interested in GBLL

This post contains the presentation video, slides, and references used during the presentation.


#JALT2018 presentation video



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  • Miller, M., & Hegelheimer, V. (2006). The SIMs meet ESL Incorporating authentic computer simulation games into the language classroom. Interactive Technology and Smart Education, 3(4), 311–328. http://doi.org/10.1108/17415650680000070
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  • Rama, P. S., Black, R. W., Van Es, E., & Warschauer, M. (2012). Affordances for second language learning in World of Warcraft. ReCALL, 24(3), 322–338. http://doi.org/10.1017/S0958344012000171
  • Scholz, K., & Schulze, M. (2017). Digital-Gaming Trajectories and Second Language Development. Language Learning & Technology, 21(1), 100–120. http://doi.org/10125/44597
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  • Singer, N. (2014). ClassDojo: A Tale of Two Classrooms. Retrieved from https://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/11/17/classdojo-a-tale-of-two-classsrooms/
  • Suits, B. (1967). What is a Game? Philosophy of Science, 34(2), 148–156.
  • Suits, B. (2014). The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia. Broadview Press.
  • Sykes, J. M. (2018). Digital games and language teaching and learning. Foreign Language Annals, 51(1), 219–224. https://doi.org/10.1111/flan.12325
  • Todd, A. (2017). Why Gamification is Malarkey. The Morning Watch: Educational and Social Analysis, 44(1–2), 2009–2015. Retrieved from http://journals.library.mun.ca/ojs/index.php/mwatch/article/view/1741/1350
  • Tobias, S., Fletcher, J. D., Dai, D. Y. and Wind, A. P. (2011) Review of Research on Computer Games. In: Tobias, S. and. Fletcher, J. D. (eds.), Computer Games and Instruction. Charlotte: Information Age Publishing, 127–222
  • Thomas, M. (2012). Contextualizing digital game-based language learning: Transformational paradigm shift or business as usual?. In H. Reinders (Ed). Digital games in language learning and teaching (pp. 11-31). Palgrave Macmillan, London.
  • Toyama, Kentaro. Geek heresy: Rescuing social change from the cult of technology. PublicAffairs, 2015.
  • Van Eck, R. (2015). Digital game-based learning: Still restless, after all these years. Educause Review, 50(6), 12-28.
  • Ward, M. (2013). How to use games to teach physics. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-21898927
  • York, J. (2014). Minecraft and language learning. In C, Gallagher (Ed.), Minecraft in the Classroom: Ideas, inspiration, and student projects for teachers. Peachpit Press, Berkeley, CA, USA.
  • 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 (IJGBL), 8(1), 19-40.
  • Zhang, Y., Song, H., Liu, X., Tang, D., Chen, Y., & Zhang, X. (2017). Language Learning Enhanced by Massive Multiple Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) and the Underlying Behavioral and Neural Mechanisms. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 11(March), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2017.00095
  • Zheng, D., Newgarden, K., & Young, M. F. (2012). Multimodal analysis of language learning in World of Warcraft play: Languaging as Values-realizing. ReCALL, 24(03), 339–360. http://doi.org/10.1017/S0958344012000183

Thanks for reading!


Kotoba Rollers 2018: A reflection of the first term

💣 Two Rooms reflection

Two rooms and a boom is the first game we play. Here are some small tweaks to the general model I’ve made, why I made those changes and reflections on what the changes brought about.

Model updates

Grammar presentations

During the first analysis session, students find errors in their transcriptions, discuss how it could be corrected and make notes on grammar, phrases or vocabulary that they will be able to use in the next play session. The presentations went well but have been lacking a ‘test’ element. The “test” element may be considered a quiz where each group introduces the grammar/phrases/vocabulary that they researched as well as four or five questions to check other groups’ comprehension.

I wanted to do this activity so that there is a need for students to listen to each others’ presentations. Additionally, as they are all playing the same game, the lexical items or grammar that each group researches will have relevance to all other groups. Finally, by grading themselves and giving themselves a score I am able to use it towards their final grade which hopefully inspires them to be responsible for what they do in the classroom.

Here is a sample worksheet for the grammar presentation and quiz

I only did this activity with one class. It went well, but they are still only focusing on super low-level grammar. “Let’s…” “Do you want to…” etc. Where is the deeper dive?

Let’s play video → SUSD video

I didn’t show my Minecraft-based let’s play video, instead opting for SU&SD’s play through. As a part of this, I made students answer six questions based on the video such as:

  • How does Quinns ask the leader what colour he is?
  • What do players say when giving information to their teammates?

As a result of watching the YouTube video, I saw those expressions come out in the subsequent play session, but only in limited, isolated instances. Not all classes or students seemed to internalise the expressions they had been exposed to. In fact, it was the vast majority of students that used what they had seen/heard the previous week. This calls for additional viewings before the following play session to refresh their memories.


I witnessed a fantastic episode of playfulness from one student who was given the demon character card. The card states that the player must lie. As a result, the player didn’t just lie about things related to the game but ‘meta-lied’ about non-game related topics. One example of this is in his utterance: “I have a girlfriend,” poking fun at himself.

Such episodes were again isolated though. I feel that for my context the ‘leader’ character really is a paramount, essential, locus of attention role which prevents or inhibits other players from ‘going about their business’ of gathering information individually. However, whether it’s the games fault that students aren’t more creative is difficult to say.

(Some, no… Most) students are very passive during Two Rooms play

For instance, the Gambler is an easy character to win with. They just need to know who the president and bomber are before the end of the game. If they have this information, they can accurately guess which team has one. However, without making this point explicit, and promoting the gambler mid-game, the person who gets the gambler role just tends to stand around and wait for information to come to them. Why is that? It has to be a mixture of these elements:

  • Lack of understanding
  • Lack of language skills and confidence
  • Lack of interest

Or, as mentioned above, the leader character is such an alpha role, it demands attention from all other players.

I can’t figure out how to teach these students to work as an individual during the game. Could this also relate to cultural differences? Maybe… A tough question to solve.

Post-play character research observations

After playing Two Rooms in the first play session, all students are given the homework of researching a few of the (oodles of) extra characters in the official Character Guide. The task in the following class is to introduce those characters to other students and choose some of the characters to add to our game. However, some students just copied down the text that was written next to characters without trying to understand the meaning!

Perfect! /s

If they did not go to the effort of understanding the unique features of new characters, they were not able to explain this to other classmates. In other words, they were not interpreting the text in a way that either they could understand or their interlocutor. They were just reading the text verbatim and hoping their interlocutor could understand.

This is one of the best examples of how to structure “homework” in my opinion.

The work that students have to do at home is an essential part of the following class and essential for progressing through the model (i.e. play → analysis, debriefing, and learn some more about the game → replay). If they do not do the homework, they cannot participate in the following class. In contrast, in a previous teaching position homework was generally comprised of completing reading activities. These reading activities typically appear at the end of textbook chapters as a way to “check understanding” of the chapter’s content. But there is no following activity… No necessity to complete it other than “you’ll get an F if you don’t…” No connection to the wider curricular aims. That, to me, is an example of ineffectual, boring, generic homework.

So, to backtrack a little, I have students talking amongst each other about characters they have researched. And, among those students are those that haven’t done the homework and have no idea what the “Angel” does or how the “Hot Potato” works. I need to improve this part of the model to be able to identify and punish those that did not do the homework properly. Yes, they already get a sort of punishment by looking foolish in front of peers, but it should have an effect on their final grade, which, at the moment, it doesn’t. This activity should be assessed more aggressively though. Maybe get each student to explain their character to me, and then I grill them on the meaning of the new rules. However, they respond to my questioning determines their score for that particular class.

Post-play reanalysis and discussion observations

At the end of the play, analyze and replay cycle I have asked students to discuss the results of their second play session. In other words, asking them to consider the following question — “Did you use the grammar points or expressions that you researched between play sessions?”

This is a valuable activity as they will be doing the same cycle three more times this year, and so it can inform them on how to conduct the “analysis” session with more focus, more accurately identify errors, or improve efficiency for in future cycles (i.e. so that they research grammar or expressions that they will actually use in subsequent play sessions, or at least think about how to prepare for subsequent play sessions in future cycles).

However, the overwhelming result is that, no, they didn’t use any of the phrases that they looked up during the first analysis session…

One thing they didn’t pick up on was the lack of deep analysis they did between play sessions. For example, some groups looking at how to translate a single, isolated, very specific sentence or word into English. However, just because it came up in the first session, doesn’t mean that it will appear in the second session.

For example, one group looked up:
言ったらスパイにバレる → translated to → The spy will find out if I say.

Then, in the second play session, we didn’t use the spy character, and so they didn’t use that phrase.

They need to look more broadly at their output and find structures or patterns that can be utilized in the next play session instead. Situations change. They need to do deeper analysis.

Reasons that were found or put forth for the lack of usage of the words they researched during the analysis stage:

  • Game time limit too short
  • Not enough time to think
  • Too many characters causing cognitive overload
  • No practice of language before class
  • The situation changed so didn’t need certain items. (as described above)
  • That they were lazy
  • ⭐ They can make themselves understood without using long sentences. Words are enough.

Another new addition to the post play reanalysis class was for students to use a modification of the “5 whys” method of exploration (I just asked students to ask “Why?” three times instead). In other words, I told students to ask “why” three times for each reason:

“We didn’t say ‘Do you wanna … ‘ very much.
Why? → Because we didn’t remember it.
Why? → Because we didn’t study before class.
Why? → Because we aren’t interested in English.

Yes, this reveals some hard truths..! Be careful.

🕵🏻‍♀️ Spyfall

Much like the 2R1B post-play character research above, when students were asked to look for interesting questions online, they did the activity (searching on Google for “spyfall questions”) but they just wrote down the questions verbatim without considering the meaning. Maybe… One question, in particular, tripped students up:

“What brings you here today?” which they thought meant “what did you bring here?” That was a teachable moment!

Students are not engaging in “reproductive literacy” or #TransformedPractice (a term coined by Freebody and Luke, 1990). They are not remixing the questions or thinking about the underlying structures of the questions that they find in order to generate similar questions or even how to use those questions during gameplay….!

Shadowing (or lack thereof)

I noticed that the vaaaaast majority of groups do no shadowing during gameplay at all.
It is definitely something that needs to be brought up. When a particular student in a particular group was shadowing, it was so very very natural for me to hear, and it really helped show his comprehension of questions. I think I need to push this technique more.

Analysis: YouTube video watching

We took a full hour to do this activity. In groups.
By taking each question individually and really drilling down, they produced some surprisingly good results.
Of course, I went around the room and helped them out, as they are not really proficient enough to pull out example sentences from the YouTube videos on their own (in most cases).

Some things we picked up on:

  • “I guess” as an ambiguous answer
    • One student in the group that found this phrase used it in subsequent sessions also which was amazing for me. Even into the “Spyfall Tournament” phase of the semester.
  • “I don’t buy it”
  • “Would you…” as an introduction to conditionals
  • “Where we are” as a way to talk about the location (instead of just “here”)

An interesting ‘difference’ between students and natives was that the natives spoke very fast and had no empty time. Students in my class didn’t think about the fact that the video might be edited…

The learner is not building towards an ideal version of the language which exists in abstract. Rather, the learner is building on and out of his perception of the usage of the language heard in the mouths of other language users and this construction process in the life of every language user is the only meaningful definition of what the language is. (Sockett, 2014, p. 29).

This line made me think of the work I’m doing in the post-play analysis lessons. We are looking at authentic resources to try and supplement their interlanguage.

Grammar instruction

I’ve been experimenting with how I give the grammar instruction between play sessions. Last year, I gave them the worksheet and told them to work through it. Before that, I have asked students to look up particular grammar points on the internet. This time I stood at the front of the room and got them to walk me through the process of making questions in English (in some classes) or got groups to work together on generating a pattern of English sentence formation (in other, more advanced classes). We looked at two particular types of question formation:

  • yes/no questions
  • QUASM questions
    • question word
    • auxiliary verb
    • subject
    • main verb
    • predicate

As an example, writing the first line on the board with separators between the words and getting them to think about the underlying structure of yes/no questions.

Do You Like natto?
Be (are, is) he
your mother

So, instead of me just giving them a “grammar guide” we talk through it or they talk through it in an expert-novice setting, within the ZPD, and from a socially-informed approach to SLA (am I missing any keywords?)

Report phase

I’ve introduced a more formal presentation activity for the final report class. It still needs a rubric created for it though. Some examples:

18RT responses

17RD responses

What is the goal of the class?

This is something that will (probably) need to be fleshed out in a future post. It’s one of the major things on my mind right now and something that I’ve been avoiding. The elephant in the room 🐘 for sure. However, I’ll sketch out the current, basic idea here.

For the most part, the students in my classes have never used English for authentic communicative purposes. By this, I mean that the only oral (and probably written) output they have ever produced has been scripted 📖 . E.g. “Chapter 2: Planning a party” where students see a model conversation, change a few words and practice using that form as part of a “task.” Such language use is incredibly useless. Useless in that it has no effect on developing their interlanguage. Maybe they get some knowledge of English, briefly, but it has no impact on them as a student, or young Japanese person. What are they to do with a canned conversation about ordering a pizza? No, the tasks given to students in textbooks are not helping to develop students’ interlanguage, or in other words: the L2 version of those students.

From my own experiences as an L2 learner, I used to practice developing my L2 and L2 identity before sleeping. I would lie in bed and try to carry out a conversation in Japanese in my head… Now, not all of the students in my class, in fact, probably none of the students in my classes are prepared to go to that level in terms of their language development, but whilst they are taking my class and participating in oral activities in my class, I’d like them to exercise their communicative competence and practice speaking “without training wheels.

So that’s the main part: Learning about themselves as an L2 speaker, and fostering an improvement in their ability based on structured noticing activities, repeated gameplay sessions, and exposure to native speakers.

But is this “authentic” enough? I’ve been in talks with my friend and colleague Jonathan deHaan over the last few weeks and as always he is keeping me on my toes and pointing at the elephant 👨🏻‍🏫 👉🏻 🐘. In Jonathan’s context, he has students work towards contributing something to or participating in wider society. As an explicit example, he is currently teaching a class that is specifically about connected learning. I.e., each student will choose something they are interested in, research it, and participate or engage in conversation with people in the wider community around that topic.

The participatory nature of KR is (mostly) missing. It’s a bubble of English practice that exists within the classroom for 100mins a week. This has somecomplexcomplications in terms of the methodological underpinnings of the class. For example, is it really TBLT if it has no “real world” component?

Anyway, focusing on how I can extend their language use outside of the classroom, I am currently trying to do this with the final project, where learners have to produce something of value to be used by the next generation of students. However, I give them an “out” allowing them to decline from making their materials available (via a consent form in the KR textbook). Things students could do as final projects and to increase participation (after seeking ethical approval from TDU of course):

  • Post groups’ videos as public on YouTube
  • BGG review posts or Amazon reviews instead of word documents handed into me
  • Teach and play games with other TDU students outside of the classroom (in an all-encompassing York Game Lab “end of term” gaming event

Playing devil’s advocate

Let’s put it out there:

The activities that students do as part of my course are equally as unimportant as those that they would do with a random textbook, with a random, uninterested, uninformed language teacher.

I don’t want to agree to this, as I have explored how KR can help motivate, re-engage and create a student-centred, productive class (see York & deHaan, 2018). However, I have not measured any learning goals for the course yet. I have nothing to prove the “effectiveness” of the course in helping learners to develop their interlanguage and proficiency in English. So I can’t cling doggedly to the idea that KR is better in some way to the textbook-based class that I taught in the past.

Quite a depressing thought.

How to evaluate students with the KR model…

There have been some problems this semester, and I’m glad they came up because it has given me a lot to think about regarding the next iteration of the model.

The major problem was that I found a group of students during the Spyfall replay class quite unashamedly playing the game in Japanese. All Japanese. They were quick to tell me that they had finished playing in English and were now “killing time” by playing in Japanese. During class time. When the (my) aim of the class was to get the students to a level of proficiency so that they could play in English. My initial reaction was “OK, whatever. Please do what you want,” but as I was walking to the next group which happened to be in the same room, I heard some of the questions that they were asking each other in Japanese. These questions were very basic. They were almost exactly the same as the ones that we had been studying in the first Spyfall class… It was this point that made me react:

  • Why not just play in English?
  • What a waste of a good opportunity!
  • Why would they throw away all of the hard work that they had been doing?
  • What do they not understand about the aim of the class?

A multitude of thoughts flew through my brain which ended with me in a rage.

The biggest shock of the class was discovering how little my goals are being adhered to by students. Like, completely ignored. Or thought of as frivolous? My aim for the class is to gradually build up their speaking skills so that they can use English authentically, without the training wheels (as mentioned above). Now, in this class, the domain prescribed for “authentic” usage just so happens to be gameplay. Is that the problem? By situating the domain for language use inside and around gaming–something that is often thought of as frivolous–maybe that causes students to not take the class seriously. In sum:

It’s all fun and games when using games.

Ba dum tiss!

I provide tools for learners to do serious analysis of their language ability, learn new grammar, teach others, reflect on their learning, improve as an L2 speaker… but they do the bare minimum. What is the problem? By not putting any whips or hurdles (tests/formative assessments) in front of them, do they have no fear of failure and thus no willingness to even try? This is another serious concern.

I threw the whole group out of the class that day and I ended up in the dumps for the whole week. But, with the help of my Japan Game Lab colleagues and a long chat with a former student at TDU, I feel like I am getting somewhere with the “why” and “how to prevent” such behaviour in the future, and it all leads to assessment. Assessment is not an aspect of SLA or education that has really piqued my interest before, and thus I have very little knowledge of how best to design rubrics or evaluate different skills. This is going to be a new area for me, but something that is important to consider for the future of KR.

The framework has a very rudimentary assessment criterion built in as it stands. I take in all worksheets from students and assess them based on how much work they did. A simple “has done” // “has not done” and then plus or minus a few points based on the level in which I feel the work has been completed. However, this assessment criteria is not told to the students so they have no idea. Additionally, I do not assess students in this way until the end of the semester after collecting their work in so they cannot see a “running total.” I think there are a number of areas where assessment could be built into the course, improving the transparency of grading. For example:

  • Learn
    • Explicitly state how many verbs/nouns/adjectives to find.
    • How many questions did they write?
  • Play
    • Total number of transcribed lines.
  • Analyze
    • How many questions did they get correct on the grammar quiz?
  • Replay
    • Total number of transcribed lines.
  • Reanalyze
  • Report
    • Complete a test which focuses on:
      • Game rules
      • Game vocab
      • Typical phrases used in the game
      • Transferability: such as demonstrating how they can use specific grammar points outside of the game context.
    • Write a written review of the games that they played.

      Going forward into the second semester

In conclusion, then, the biggest thing I would like to change is the final “participatory” goals of KR. It could be a proverbial stick, threatening students into taking responsibility for their learning and progression of the class if they know that they have to produce a public artefact at the end of the course. But we’ll see… I have touched on some ideas for wider participatory projects, and will continue to work at this over the next few months. Whether I will have time to implement them this semester, I’m not sure, but I will try!

If you read this far and have any comments, please let me know. I’m very eager to hear opinions on what I am (trying) to do in my teaching context. Also, if you have tried to implement anything that you have read here on the JGL blog, please let us know. Yes, we are named the Japan Game Lab, but we are interested in English teaching as a global phenomenon and practice.

Thanks as always,



  • Freebody, P., & Luke, A. (1990). Literacies programs: Debates and demands in cultural context. Prospect: An Australian Journal of TESOL, 5(3), 7-16.
  • Sockett, G. (2014). The online informal learning of English. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • 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

Video/Slides: Possible Pitfalls in Video Game-based Language Teaching and Learning (And Possible Solutions)

I gave a talk at the Immersive Environments colloquium at Vanderbilt University in December, 2016.

The organizers have put my talk on YouTube, and I can share my google slides as well.

I was incredibly jetlagged and used a script during the talk (the text is in the google slides). I’m not proud of my delivery and the audio quality is not the best at times, but I think it’s a decent snapshot of some of the work and ideas that I and my colleagues here at Japan Game Lab have been working on.

Let me know if you have any questions or comments!

Playing With Pragmatics

This is a video of a recent talk I gave at the Center for Education of Global Communicatiion (CEGLOC) Conference, University of Tsukuba on December, 9th, 2017. The talk was entitled “Playing with Pragmatics: awareness-raising and deliberate practice through a simple table-top game.” It focuses on the use of a simple table-top game for the development of pragmatic competence and 21st century skills.



Text Analysis Worksheet (Japanese version)

In the Game Terakoya project, I used a worksheet to help raise students’ awareness of different aspects of texts in and around games. Students had to think about aspects such as:

  • patterns
  • organization
  • style
  • context
  • purpose
  • viewpoints
  • audience

It is challenging but necessary, I think, to help students look at texts as more than just information or some new vocabulary words.

To help students of lower proficiencies tackle this work, the worksheet has just been translated into Japanese by a graduate student at the University of Shizuoka, Ms. Yuiko Ito    (thank you, again!).

Here is the google doc:

I hope this helps others try some analysis work in their language classrooms. Let me know how it goes, please!

If you can suggest some changes to the Japanese translation, please let me know or just leave comments on the document.

JALT 2017 “Re-rolling SLA Methodology with Tabletop Games”

Thanks to all of those who attended our forum at JALT 2017. Some of the attendees asked for copies of the slides we used, so we are uploading them here.

There was a lot of content (even though it was a 90 minute workshop), so we hope people can look through at a slower pace here. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below in the discussion section.

Reflection on the post-play “Analysis” lesson

First up, this is the order of activities that students complete as part of this lesson:

  1. Check English errors
  2. Translate JP to EN
  3. Presentations
  4. YouTube viewing

Set up

Before this class, students played a game and recorded the audio during the play session. For homework (or for the time remaining in the previous class) they collectively transcribed the audio and wrote down how many times each member spoke English in a tally.

Checking errors

The first activity of the class is for students to collectively look at their transcriptions for any mistakes they made in English. Of course, it is not obvious to them when they are making mistakes and I often hear the lamentation 「間違えているか分からないよー」as I walk around. However, they can easily pick up on the fact that they are mostly interacting by using single words (Open. Who? Werewolf. This. You? Next.).

I walk around the class looking at students transcriptions, marking areas that I think they should explore further.

Today I pointed out the following expressions as areas to look into:

  • I want you to…
  • Because / because of / so
  • Should / shall
  • He said / who said…?
  • There is / there is no…
  • There’s a good chance…
  • “a” and “the”

The students also realised that they used a lot of Japanese unnecessarily. Things like ‘そうだね’ or ‘これとこれ’ really shouldn’t be being said in Japanese. It’s not like they don’t know how to say such simple things in English, they just didn’t realise that they were using Japanese until they listened back to the audio and made the transcriptions.

Taking the game ‘Insider’ in particular, the group noticed that the main part of the game occurs after thekeyword has been guessed correctly. They also realised that this was the stage where they pretty much only used Japanese. However, I told them that it was not a problem. Certainly not a negative. The fact that they transcribed all of their Japanese discussion for use in today’s class is great. Why? Because it gives them the opportunity to think about how they could do the same discussion in English. I also told them that some students don’t transcribe the Japanese parts they spoke because they think it’s ‘against the rules’ to speak Japanese or that it is not important for the post-play analysis. Realising that the L1 can be a launchpad to thinking about the L2 is a great step here. That is the purpose of this lesson: to critically evaluate their previous performance and to collectively try and improve their knowledge for the next play session.


Each class does the same third stage, which is to present any interesting things they found during the first and second stages. Using the whiteboards that they have available to them, they write out a few English grammar points and Japanese to English translations.

But why present their findings?

I think there are two positive outcomes of presenting.

  1. They reinforce their knowledge of items,
  2. They provide other groups with useful expressions that may not have come up in their own discussions.

I want to write a few thoughts regarding 2) above by referencing what happened in today’s class.

One group (the Resistance: Avalon group) introduced the expression ‘I want you to ….’ I then asked other groups in the class how they could use the same structure in their own games. The Captain Sonar group realised very quickly that the engineer could use this structure. Another group introduced ‘Shall we….’ and ‘You should’ which was picked up by the Avalon group as something they could use when deciding who should be picked to go on a quest. This continued until all groups had introduced some useful expression, phrase, or word that could be used in their games.

The point here is that although the games are different, there is great learning potential in getting students to share their findings because other groups may benefit from incorporating the expressions into their own context. It’s impossible for me to give precise grammar instruction to all groups (or at least, it would take [number of groups] x 90 minutes), so for them to instruct each other is a great compromise, and the laidback, community-based environment is one that I think the students enjoy. It is a real pleasure to see.


A criticism of this activity is that students are generally only looking up one-to-one translations for expressions meaning that instead of introducing structures (as shown above) they will introduce extremely specific sentences translated from Japanese, or just one to one lexical items such as ‘当たった is Hit! in English.’ My next goal is to get them looking more deeply at the grammar behind what they want to say.

YouTube viewing session

This is possibly the most difficult part of the class for the students and as a result, very difficult for me to provide guidance. Here’s why:


  • YouTube auto-translations are incredibly unreliable.
  • Videos sometimes don’t exist (like for Insider)
  • Videos with subtitles are rare.
  • Native speakers talk too fast and interrupt each other a lot which means that the listening activity is too advanced for the students
  • Students don’t take time to pause and reflect on what they are hearing.

However, it is not all doom and gloom(haven).

Although there are not many games that feature subtitles on YouTube, some generous, kind and wonderful people do include subtitles. Subtitles can be accessed by pressing “filter” on search results:

I also had a really interesting experience last week doing this class. One group played Mafia de Cuba, and so watched a YouTube video of native speakers playing the game.

This video:

What was so amazing was that having played the game themselves the previous week, watching the video was a real pleasure for the students. They got to see other people’s tactics, see how the game unfolded, and were enthralled in watching. We spoke about it afterwards and came to the conclusion that because they were deeply interested in the content, and wanted to know how the game would conclude, it didn’t feel like traditional “English class video-watching.” The group were instructed to rewatch the video more critically after the first viewing to understand what was being said, and look for expressions that they could use in their own gameplay.

Therefore, students do pick up expressions from the videos, write them down, and finally share what they found with their group, further increasing their potential repertoire for the next class. However, this whole section needs more work.

Final ideas

Possible ways to improve the class:

  • Provide common grammar error handouts to complete for homework

Such handouts could be created by myself, or the students could be pointed to specific websites to study grammar. The only issue I see here is that, unless they are really motivated to learn the grammar, I can’t see a lot of students being excited to do this activity.

  • Dedicate time to explain how to look for grammar guides online.

As mentioned, Students just look at Google Translate for one-to-one translations, not websites that explain the details behind the how and why of English grammar. I think it would be beneficial for students to learn how to use digital tools to help them acquire correct grammar rules during class time. I also think they should be expected to explain grammar rules to other groups as part of the their presentations.

Possible extensions to the class:

  • Quiz each other at the start of the following class before replaying the game.
  • I could make a short test based on their findings and make a more structured quiz also.

As always, thanks for reading. Comments welcome.

[Presentation] “Re-rolling SLA methodology” at JALT 2017

A small update to the blog today with the announcement of our upcoming, joint presentation at JALT2017. The official title is Re-Rolling SLA Methodology With Tabletop Games, and if the title alone doesn’t tantalise you enough, the abstract is below followed by details of the venue, date and time of presentation.

Our presentation is on Sunday, but we will also be at the conference all day Saturday, with plans on hosting an informal “introduction to tabletop games” session. Whether the session runs all day or just in the evening is still undecided, but if you are interested in learning about modern board games, please hunt us down or contact us via James.


This forum explores the use of tabletop games as an innovative means for language development that engages the imaginations and critical thinking faculties of EFL learners. We begin by explicating what we see as the significant limitations of popular forms of communicative language teaching (CLT) and digital game-based language learning. Next, we make a broad case for the use of tabletop games alongside approaches such as Task-Based Language Teaching (Willis, 1996) and multiliteracies pedagogy (New London Group, 1996, 2009) as a means of addressing some of these limitations.

We present three ethnographic case studies from our university contexts, exploring the use of games in compulsory classes, a self-access learning center, and an extracurricular project. We focus on the differing contextual constraints and affordances for game-based learning and critically evaluate the efficacy of various pedagogical models. In addition, we highlight overlaps between EFL methodologies and digital game-based language learning in terms of “learning to play” and engagement with the multimodal texts of games and discourse surrounding games (Sykes and Reinhardt, 2012). We argue that games have strong potential for leading students to increased autonomy, engagement with the L2, and heightened awareness of local and global cultural discourses, genres and the diverse multimodal ensembles of meaning (Kress, 2012, 2016) that characterise 21st century communication.  

We conclude the forum by reflecting upon common challenges and opportunities around tabletop gaming and suggest some broadly applicable pedagogical implications from our research and experience with tabletop gaming in EFL contexts.

Date: Sunday, November 19th from

Time: 5:40 PM – 7:10 PM.

Room: 402

Venue: Tsukuba International Congress Center (Epochal Tsukuba), Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan

Multiliteracies pedagogy and the Kotoba Rollers framework

I’m a neophyte when it comes to this pedagogy, so please bear with my ignorance in this post. As a language teacher, and more importantly, researcher, I am a little embarrassed that it has taken me this long to really dig into the literature on this topic, and hope that this post can act as a springboard for others, too.

My colleagues Peter and Jonathan are more of the experts in this field and I have been putting it off mainly because I wanted to keep my focus on TBLT as I was developing Kotoba Rollers. TBLT is the teaching methodology that I am most familiar with (learning about it since my MA days) and it is well documented and referenced in the literature on games and language learning meaning that I have a large volume of work to call on. However, we recently got into a discussion regarding CLT and its shortcomings, to which they both pointed towards multiliteracies as an alternative. Being uninformed regarding the literature on multiliteracies, I had no real argument against it, and felt left of the conversation somewhat. This ignorance has lead me to pick up some books and research papers on the subject and dive in.

In this post, I will outline the extent of my knowledge regarding multiliteracies including the areas that have surprised me, delighted me and made me think. Then, I introduce a lesson I carried out with classes this week explaining how I made pedagogical considerations from a multiliteracies approach.

Initial findings and reactions

A multiliteracies approach primarily focuses on social learning, and thus shares a perspective with other socially-informed approaches to SLA. Knowledge is created through meaningful discourse with others. In López-Sánchez (2009) we find a focus on the use of authentic texts as a source of learning. Texts need not be literary pieces of work per say, but instead a poster, road sign, painting, Internet forum post, song, etc. This is due to the multimodal nature of the world that we now find ourselves in. Everything we are in contact with is designed (or at least contains) cultural, historical and social meaning. Unpacking these meanings and critically evaluating them is seen as a goal of a multiliteracies approach.

The motto put forward by López-Sánchez is “control tasks not texts” (p.32). I’m honestly not sure how to interpret this, though. In my mind: The tasks used to analyse and reflect on texts are fluid, somewhat undecided, and negotiable based on student and teacher needs; but the texts that make up the course need to be carefully chosen, and fixed before starting the course. This seems opposite to the motto, so maybe someone can shed some light on this for me.

Let’s compare the stance of “control tasks not texts” with a cognitive, TBLT approach to SLA. Doughty and Long (2003) proposed 10 Methodological Principles (commandments?) for TBLT. The first of these being: MP1 Use task, not text, as the unit of analysis. Regarding the rationale for this focus the authors write:

  • The focus in TBLT lessons is on task completion, not study of a decontextualized linguistic structure or list of vocabulary items — and not the same phenomena at the supra-sentential level, text. Spoken or written texts are static records of someone else’s(previous)task accomplishment, i.e., a by-product of tasks. Building lessons around texts(as in much content-based language teaching)means studying language as object, not learning language as a living entity through using it and experiencing its use during task completion. (p.42)

The notion here is that studying texts has no language learning value at all. Indeed, they continue the rationale by comparing learners role-playing a social telephone conversation to a “text-based program of some kind, listening to or reading a ‘dead’ script of someone else’s effort” (p.42). Their stance is thus extremely negative on the activity of spending any time evaluating genuine “texts.” Texts are relegated to only providing comprehensible input to be internalized and regurgitated during task performance. Or, as Byrnes et al. (2010) point out, as something to be decoded.

So we have two very different (in fact, opposing) considerations of the importance of text, reading, and writing. That has been the biggest eye-opener for me. In TBLT, (and CLT more broadly) spoken communication is generally considered to be the key to language acquisition, and text analysis is relegated to second place. This is especially true for “language” focused or beginner courses, which are seen as foundational courses which lead onto “content” or “literacy” focused courses for intermediate and advanced level learners. Bridging the gap between this dichotomy of courses is another goal of teaching from a multiliteracies perspective (Kumagai, López-Sánchez, & Wu, 2015), which is achieved by bringing a literacies focus into the beginner-level classroom.

Multiliteracies pedagogy

There are different interpretations of how to pedagogically sequence a curriculum from a multiliteracies approach, but there are a number of common themes, originating with the New London Group (NLG, 1996). I will outline what I have understood of these practices briefly here before writing about how I think I am already conducting some of them with the KR model, and then move onto how I explicitly designed a post-play activity to adhere more fully to the pedagogical considerations.

The major pedagogical concept is known as “Designing” which I will now provide an overview of.

Designing (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000)

Students have Available Designs, which they remix and alter as part of Designing, the results of which are considered the Redesigned. These Redesigned products then become integrated with the Available Designs that they can call upon in future Designing sessions.

Available Designs → Designing → Redesigned (→ Available Designs)

  • Available Designs includes:
    • The grammar of the language
    • The genre
    • Students pre-existing knowledge of the language
  • Designing is the act of [insert words from below] Available Designs
    • Re-presenting
    • Re-contextualizing
    • Remixing
    • Playing with
    • Transforming
  • The Redesigned are the products of the Designing phase, which actually become new Available Designs.

In order to achieve this process, learners are involved in the following activities:

Experiencing, Conceptualizing, Analyzing and Applying. (Kalantzis & Cope, 2005)

These were originally known as Situated practice, Overt Instruction, Critical Framing, and Transformed Practice, and confused me for a while (Kalantzis & Cope, 2000).

  • Experiencing / Situated practice
    • Immersion in the FL, utilizing Available Designs
    • Experiencing the known and the unknown (new genres/cultures/texts)
    • For me, this reads as a “fluency-focused” activity.
    • Learners are told to practice using the language without too much reflection, but may be asked questions such as “what do you think will happen next?”
  • Conceptualizing / Overt instruction
    • Simply put — grammar-focus
    • Introduction to metalanguage
    • Make generalizations of the texts
  • Analyzing / Critical Framing
    • Stand back from the texts that they are studying and think more critically about them
    • Why did the author frame the text in a particular way?
    • What are the social / economical / cultural underpinnings of the text?
    • Are there any patterns in the text?
  • Applying / Transformed Practice
    • Can the learners create something similar?
    • Can the learners remix what they have learned into their own context?

The literature on teaching from a multiliteracies perspective generally posits that these four phases of the pedagogy are not to be done in any particular, rigid order, but weaved together (Luke, Cadzen, Lin & Freebody, 2004). I understand the reason for making this point explicit. It reminds me of how in some institutions (such as my own) language courses are divided into “skills” such that there may be a “reading” class and complementary “speaking” class. However, clearly, these activities, although separate in terms of skills, are not mutually exclusive and it is possible (and sometimes advisable) to dip in and out of each. Thus, sometimes learners may be Experiencing, then Conceptualizing and Analyzing during the same activity or class. However, it seems to me that there is a natural progression through these activities, where the boundaries may blur between them, but in general should follow the Experience → Conceptualize → Analyze → Apply order.

There is another approach which has been used by the Georgetown University German Department, which implements the following four pedagogical phases:

Negotiation, Deconstruction, Joint-Construction, Individual-Construction

However, I will not go into these, and any differences to those proposed by the New London Group above. For those interested, there is a detailed description in Kumagai, López-Sánchez and Wu (2015).

Putting this knowledge into practice

I have now briefly introduced what I have learned of a multiliteracies approach and the pedagogical considerations. Now I will talk about how I have tried to apply these ideas in my own class.

This week is a post-play ‘Analysis’ class (of the Kotoba Rollers framework). We had been playing Spyfall the week before, and there are a number of points below that are specific to the game, so if you do not know how to play this game, please check the link here. The main focus of the class was for students to watch a YouTube video and answer questions that I had written in order to guide their reflections. I feel like this class touches on Experiencing (the new), Conceptualizing, and Analysing parts of the above pedagogical considerations.

The YouTube video is the authentic text, and whereas up until now I would have treated the video just as a source of input, I wanted students to engage with it more. The questions I proposed are provided below including the rationale (from the multiliteracies perspective) and expected answers.

  • Who are the players? (age, jobs, relationship, social status, etc.)
    • To understand the background of the participants. Humanizing the language use, that it does not just exist on its own, but that it originates with a particular person of a particular social status, etc.
  • Where are they?
    • Again, to promote students to pay attention to the cultural and social context.
  • What are some interesting questions they used?
    • Simply as a way to pay attention to the style of questioning employed by the group.
    • In the classroom context here, questions have been very dry and straightforward. I wanted students to notice the creativity available to them when forming their own questions.
  • How did they accuse another player of being the spy?
    • Paying attention to the fact that it is OK to question other people during the game and verbalize (or at least make public) your suspicions.
    • Promoting students to pay attention to nonverbal communication like gestures or facial expressions.
  • How did they check (confirm) what a player said?
    • Simply as a way for students to consider what is natural when asking someone to repeat what they said. In my context, clarification requests are rarely initiated, but left as unknowns, or grunts at best.
  • What words or phrases appear frequently? Why? What do they mean?
    • To look for repetition and patterns in the discourse. Each group of players will have their own play style and vernacular. I wanted students to pick up on this.
    • People copy each other in their social group.
  • What is different between how you played and how the native speakers play?
    • Asking students to critically evaluate their play session against native speakers.

The activity was therefore designed as a way to get students critically evaluating what they see and hear. Additionally, as I read in the literature, for situated practice activities, it can be useful to pause and ask students what they think will happen next. In this instance then, I asked students how they would respond to certain questions, and what they thought the players responses would be. For overt instruction, I asked students to translate certain expressions that appeared in the gameplay such as “That’s something the spy would say,” a phrase that was not something they had seen before, and thus a real challenge to translate. Google Translate did not help much there..! Finally, as critical reflection I asked them to compare their performance to that of natives.

Feedback and discussion

Having asked students what they thought of the activity responses were mixed.

The good

Some said that it helped them to understand how to play by seeing native speakers, because natives used different expressions than they would in Japanese. In other words, and my own interpretation of this is: Instead of thinking of how they would play in Japanese and then translating that into English, by seeing how it is naturally played in English, their schema for playing changed to reflect authentic English language use.

A simple example of this is the use of the Japanese word 怪しい (ayashii). This word means “suspicious” in English, and it is used on its own in Japanese to indicate… suspicion…! But we don’t just say “suspicious” in English. If someone pointed at another player and said “suspicious,” we would understand what they meant, but we have other ways of accusing someone of being suspicious. From watching the YouTube videos, we saw that players would generally make comments on others questions or answers as a way to show their suspicions, such as saying, “That was a weird question.” Alternatively, they would just straight out accuse someone of being the spy, “James is the spy..!”

Exposing students to natural, authentic English seemed to promote the noticing of these differences (for some students at least).

There were also a number of students that were extremely engaged in this activity. They were actively listening to the audio, trying their best to parse the difficult and fast speech of the natives. Additionally, they would answer my questions regarding what they thought was going to happen or how they would answer certain questions.

The bad

One problem was that students couldn’t do this activity on their own. The most obvious reason for this was that the native speaker discourse was too advanced. Specifically:

  • High level of English
  • Talking very fast
  • Cultural points not clear
  • Overlap between players talking (arguing)

This meant that I had to do the class as a teacher-fronted activity. Gameplay videos were shown on the projector and I was in control of stopping and rewinding the video. This resulted in numerous problems. Students input was limited to what I focused on which lead to a lack of agency and engagement. I have to admit, it was a rare class where I had students nodding off at their desks… I have two opinions on this. 1) It was essentially my fault for not engaging those students, or 2) students lack of engagement with this university level activity is a real disappointment. I’m not sure exactly which side of the coin I want to go for here. Maybe a bit of both…

So in sum, there is a gap between their ability and the materials provided. Questions arising from this are:

  • How can I bridge this gap?
  • Is it even bridgeable?
  • What other options do I have?

Possible solution – Support material creation

Looking at the GUGD course materials, it appears that they select authentic texts, and create a large volume of support materials to help students understand the contents of texts. For the activity described above, I feel like the following may be useful support materials:

  • Transcripts of a particular YouTube gameplay video (instead of choosing randomly at the start of the class)
  • Get students into smaller groups to work on the questions together. (With the transcripts available, this should be more manageable)
  • A question and answer sheet asking them to engage with the discourse more intimately. A possible example of this could be the following table:
Player Accused who? How?
David Brandon Made eye contact with another player and pointed his finger at Brandon


John David Said “David is the spy!”




Final words

I feel that this brief foray into the world of multiliteracies has been very insightful regarding the role of teachers and authentic texts in the classroom. The shortcomings of just assigning learners to engage with an authentic text with little support materials shines out as the biggest thing I learned here, and reconfirms my thoughts regarding how critical pedagogy is.

Thanks for reading.


  • Byrnes, H., Maxim, H. H., & Norris, J. M. (2010). Realizing advanced foreign language writing development in collegiate education: Curricular design, pedagogy, assessment. The Modern Language Journal, i-235.
  • Cope, B., & Kalantzis, M. (2000). Multiliteracies: Literacy learning and the design of social futures. Psychology Press.
  • Doughty, C. J., & Long, M. H. (2003). Optimal psycholinguistic environments for distance foreign language learning. Language Learning & Technology, 7, 50-80.
  • Kalantzis, M., & Cope, B. (2005). Learning by design. Common Ground.
  • Kumagai, Y., López-Sánchez, A., & Wu, S. (Eds.). (2015). Multiliteracies in world language education. Routledge.
  • López-Sánchez, A. (2009) Re-Writing the Goals of Foreign Language Teaching: The Achievement of Multiple Literacies and Symbolic Competence. International Journal of Learning 16(10) 29-38.
  • Luke, A., Cazden, C. B., Lin, A., & Freebody, P. (2003). The Singapore Classroom Coding Scheme: technical report. National Institute of Education, Center for Research on Pedagogy and Practice, Singapore.
  • The New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard educational review, 66(1), 60-93.
  • Willis Allen, H., & Paesani, K. (2010). Exploring the Feasibility of a Pedagogy of Multiliteracies in Introductory Foreign Language Courses. L2 Journal, 2, 119–142. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2010.01.002

Featured image from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N3hz195_FQU

The role of the L1 in the classroom

This post, as always, is used as a scratchpad for my opinions and ideas regarding a specific topic. This time, the role of the L1 in my classroom. I provide a number of anecdotes which outline my stance, and invite comments regarding similar experiences, or even opposing views as to those expressed here.

Until recently I’ve always felt guilty about speaking Japanese in the classroom. I’ve also felt guilty (or at least disappointed) about allowing students to speak Japanese in the classroom. I felt like if they are resorting to Japanese it’s because of a particular issue such as:

  • A pedagogical failure. In other words, there may not be enough supportive material, the level of the materials may be too high, the progression of the class may be to fast, etc.
  • Students are not interested enough in the class to attempt to try speaking in English.
  • We are all just being “lazy.”

Instead of focusing on the legitimacy or causes of these issues and concerns, I want to look at the positive uses of the L1. After all, the students in my context all share the same mother tongue. Therefore, it would (in my opinion) be ill-advised to disregard their shared ability to communicate using their mother tongue. Below are my thoughts on L1 use. I present a number of scenarios where the L1 use was deemed a useful tool for mediating students’ language learning.

Just as a reminder, and not to use my context as an excuse, I teach compulsory English communication classes for students at a science and technology university in Japan. I am also in charge of one of the lower level classes.

“In Japanese, OK?”

The first anecdote is more of a reflection on English education in general. How does one deal with the question “In Japanese, OK?” when asked by a student (As in – Is it OK to speak Japanese?). Possible responses:

A) “No…! In English, please.”

B) “Sure.”

There are probably times when either answer is “correct” and I’d like to go into these ideas here.

At first I suggest that students adopt the mindset of “English first.” In other words, it is a general rule in my classroom that students should attempt to express themselves in English first. If they are not able to make themselves clear, then switching to the L1 is an appropriate follow up. Using an “English first” approach promotes students to recognise the shortcomings in their interlanguage and thus the idea of noticing the gap in SLA. If they do not even attempt to speak English, there is little chance of any development occurring.

Thus, promoting a safe, secure and forgiving classroom ethos towards mistakes is of utmost importance. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly is that English should be used during activities that are designed to promote communication. Surely it goes without saying right? Well, not all students are 100% committed to speaking English during such activities, so, whereas I am rather lenient on students speaking Japanese during pre- and post-play activities, I am a ruthless enforcer of the “English first” rule during gameplay. Indeed, the KR framework has students add a rule during their second play through to punish L1 use, and reward L2 use.


Languaging is the action of communicating with others (or yourself) in order to make meaning. It therefore differs from “output” in that students are essentially talking about what they want to say, or about the meaning of a particular input (see Swain, 2010).

In more simpler terms, and how I first learnt about it, is to consider languaging as “talking about the L2.” So how does this manifest itself in my classes? Mainly during group work, and more specifically during debriefing sessions. Some examples include:

  1. Confirming their comprehension of rules with others.
  2. Talking about English mistakes and possible corrections.
  3. Discussing why they did or did not use a predicted grammar point.
  4. Discussing what they did and didn’t enjoy about game sessions.
  5. When presenting ideas to the class which they do not have the ability to formulate in the English.

I think the above list represents the majority cases when I think it is appropriate to use the L1. My goal is to get them engaged in and around English, so discussions and talk on the _subject _ of English, even if in the L1, is a productive and valuable use of time in my opinion.

Where do others stand on the topic of L1 usage in the classroom? I’m very eager to hear opinions.

  • What to do with low level learners?
  • What to do with monolingual classes?
  • What to do with large 20+ classes?
  • Should skills to communicate outside of activities be focused on instead?


Swain, M. (2010). Talking-it through: Languaging as a source of learning. In R. Batstone (Ed.), Sociocognitive perspectives on language use/learning (pp. 112–130). Oxford: Oxford University Press.