Designing A Gaming Placemat

Ever since playing Bhonanza in Spanish with some of our Global Studies department students and an adjunct lecturer who volunteers his time for Spanish conversation practice, I have been thinking about the idea of a gaming “placemat.” I think this is where the idea came up, and I think it was mentioned by the Spanish teacher. In a later meeting of Tokoha Gamelab I tried with some students to design a common sheet for vocabulary that emerges in games based on their needs, but we didn’t come up with anything very innovative. This morning, while doing some reading online about multiliteracies, I saw that Cope and Kalantzis actually promote a placemat of their own:  This has me thinking again about going back to the drawing board (literally). Our campus has a design department (造形学部)and I am thinking it might be nice to get some of those students and teachers involved in making our own version of “learning by design” around gaming.

What would be the important vectors of a gaming placemat?  For now I have the following in mind:

  1. A space for explaining the game’s objective in simple language (this could be done in both languages perhaps)
  2. Key words and phrases: a section that has space for new vocabulary related to the game, translation of these words and phrases, and space for example sentences that offer context.
  3. Key concepts / reflective questions: This section would offer some of the key concepts (metalanguage) that emerge in debriefing the game and pose some relevant debriefing discussion questions
  4. Additional resources: this section could direct students to any online or offline resources that help support the game or discussions about the game. These could include things like: the main entry on, youtube play-through videos, reviews, and any online resources we create or collaborate on related to the game (e.g. Quizlets).

These categories relate roughly to the framework for Tokoha Gamelab, and would serve to be the physical embodiment of this as a designed reference for students before, during, and after play. We could have a master placemat for each game that evolved as any given group discovered new vocabulary, questions, resources etc, but after some time the game mats might become somewhat solidified in their content for any given game, allowing scaffolded play and reflection for newcomers.


Kotoba Rollers Post-Play overview

Noticing, grammar, skill disparity, and making connections

I’d like to reflect on the post-play activities that I’ve been doing in class recently. There is a lot to unpack, but I think it is important to get this down in writing. In this post I will be giving an overview of what “post-play” currently looks like with the Kotoba Rollers framework, providing rationales for why I’ve taken this route and informal observations of it in action.

Post-play activities overview

  1. Record the audio of the game session
  2. Each member transcribes a specific section of that audio for homework (decided by themselves)

The following class:

  1. As a group, go through the transcription and correct English mistakes (as best as they can) and translate any Japanese into English (again, as best as they can)
  2. Complete a grammar exercise to target common errors (as chosen by me)
  3. Relate the grammar exercise to the game in order to see how the grammar could be used as part of gameplay (coming up again the following week).

So let’s dig into this in more detail.

Self-transcription as a way of noticing

I’m not the first person to look at this topic, and in fact I was introduced to the concept of self-transcription by blog member Jonathan (see deHaan, Johnson, Yoshimura & Kondo, 2012; Mennim, 2012 for examples). But why self-transcription all of a sudden? Well…

When playing a game, we are often so wrapped up in the experience that we may forget what we said, what was said by others, and if that player opposite us purposely chose a Minion of Mordred to go on Quest 3, failing the quest and ultimately dooming the game for the Loyal Servants of Arthur (see Resistance: Avalon). This is what is known as flow as introduced by Hungarian psychologist Csikszentmihalyi (1990). Or, as Queen sang about ‘having a good time.’

We’ve probably experienced this state even as native speaker, which is why the literature on simulations and gaming has called for a debriefing session after play in order for learning to actually occur. In other words, it’s theorized that reflection on what occurred is where real learning takes place. Which makes sense right? Being caught up in the moment to moment of game play does not allow us much head room (or more scientifically: cognitive capacity) to think about what is occurring on a level such as ‘Did I just use the wrong verb here? Should I have said 取る instead of もらう?’ No, we just want be as fluent as possible, get our message across and communicate effectively. Thus, during play we do not have the ability to truly notice our mistakes (as used in an SLA/TBLT sense of the word).

Anyway, I’m detailing this post a little with the above. Back on track:

In summary, students need a post-play stage to reflect on what occurred during the game to notice where communication broke down, where they spoke Japanese (thus noticing what English skills they are missing). As part of this, and from a TBLT approach, a post-play activity that forces students to focus on accurate language use is considered beneficial. This is why I am currently experimenting with post-play self-transcription and grammar focused activities.

Self-transcription Activity 1

Practically, students are told to complete their transcription on a Google Spreadsheet that I set up for them before class. Here is an example (names obfuscated). Then, during the next class students spend approximately 45 minutes looking at the document, working in pairs or as a group to:

  • correct English mistakes
  • translate Japanese utterances into English

Upon completing this section, their ‘reflection’ still isn’t finished. Not by a long shot. The goal of the class is not only to reflect on their previous play session, but to prepare them to play the game again, hopefully with more tools to get the job done (i.e. an improved interlanguage and more words, phrases, grammatical knowledge, and hopefully more communicative competency).

Self-transcription Activity 2: common errors

As per the title, the next phase is to scrutinize their English errors and Japanese usage to find the most common culprits. For example, they may notice that they never use the word ‘will’ to signpost an action they are going to do (as is very common from my experiences), they will write this down on their post-play worksheet.

GRAMMAR: <person> will <action>

USAGE: I will move here.

The same goes for common Japanese expressions that they used:

JAPANESE: 〜ても良い?


USAGE: Can I take this token?

My thinking behind this activity is: after going through their transcription, correcting errors and translating Japanese utterances, a distillation of common errors should help cut out further occurrences in future playthroughs, and considerably reduce errors. Consider the 80/20 principal.

Source: The International Design Foundation
Source: The International Design Foundation

With this way of thinking we can assume that roughly 80% of errors come from 20% of causes. In other words, there is probably a commonality between a large portion of the errors made, relating to only a few grammar issues (for instance: the lack of articles could up 50% of the errors).

Grammar instruction

Students need explicit grammar instruction (or so I thought, more on this soon). The literature on TBLT and SLA in general posits that implicit (unconscious) an explicit (conscious) grammar learning is essential in developing language skills (see Long, 2014 for a discussion on implicit vs explicit learning).

Here is how I am approaching it with Kotoba Rollers.

I’m a big fan of the book “Essential Grammar in Use.” It has clear explanations and activities to practice using the target grammar. As such, I have created some worksheets which emulate the format. I bring a number of different worksheets to class based on their observed needs and students choose which of them they want to complete. They work in pairs, and groups make sure that collectively they do all of the different worksheets (i.e. Group 1 Pair 1 do Worksheet 1, Group 1 Pair 2 do Worksheet 2, etc.).
Fairly straightforward, right? Choose a relevant grammar activity and complete it in pairs. Fine.

I’m not familiar with the way they are taught grammar in their “reading and writing” class (which is taught by a native Japanese teacher), but I’m fairly certain that they have no choice regarding what grammar they study, deem important for their needs, or its applicability to an upcoming lesson that is scheduled. However, I digress... 

But this is where I want to stop just a moment and talk about my observations.

The worksheet, similar to the Essential Grammar in Use book, has the grammar explanation on one side, and some questions to test their knowledge on the other. I expected students to read through the explanation, acquiring new knowledge about the construct, and then attempt the questions. My assumption here is based on the fact that they are not using such grammar constructs in their utterances during gameplay, and thus the need to provide this new knowledge. However, what actually happened on the whole can described in this conversation between me and a male student (in English and Japanese):

  • Me: OK, so read about the grammar point and answer the questions on the back of the worksheet.
  • Student: Leave it to me! I don’t need to look at the explanation!
  • Me: Are you sure?
  • Student: No problem!

To which he set off doing the exercises with his partner. They probably only made reference to the grammar explanation once during the whole 20 minute period that they worked on the questions. Thus, there is a huge disparity in my students grammatical knowledge, reading and writing skills, and speaking skill. In other words, their knowledge of English far outweighs their functional ability or communicative competence in English. I had assumed that they didn’t know how to form If_, then _ will_ (first conditional) sentences, but they completed the exercise questions without too much of a problem. Observing such helped me realize where the focus of my class should be: on bringing that knowledge to the forefront and turning it into communicative competency.

Of course, this student may be more proficient than some of his peers. Other students may learn a lot from the grammar worksheets. Or, at least, refresh their memories regarding usage. Thus, I still think this stage is beneficial for interlanguage development.

So, let’s bring this full circle:

Connecting grammar exercises to gameplay

Upon finishing the grammar worksheet, I asked students to take 5 or 10 minutes to brainstorm how they could possibly use the grammar point during their upcoming play session. For example, the grammar X should Y or I don’t think X should Y could be used very effectively in The Resistance: Avalon:

I don’t think you should choose X for this quest!

They write their brainstorming ideas down on their post-play worksheet, which can then be referenced during the next play session.

I’m very happy with the way the framework is shaping up now, and I hope to collect some useful data to show the effectiveness of self-transcription.

In summary then, my current methodology is comprised of the following:

  • get students to self-transcribe,
  • notice their English mistakes and Japanese usage,
  • find common errors,
  • complete a worksheet of their choosing to help them understand that grammar point in more detail,
  • apply their acquired knowledge from the grammar worksheet to the following play session.

As always, thanks for reading this far. Comments are welcome. I leave you with a picture of Dead of Winter: The Long Night, which I played last week and highly recommend (in fact, don’t buy the base game, because this is all you really need)!



Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: Harper and Row.

deHaan, J., Johnson, N. H., Yoshimura, N., & Kondo, T. (2012). Wiki and digital video use in strategic interaction-based experiential EFL learning. CALICO Journal, 29(2), 249-268.

Long, M. (2014)Second language acquisition and task-based language teaching. John Wiley & Sons.

Mennim, P. (2012). Learner negotiation of L2 form in transcription exercises. ELT Journal, 66(1), 52–61.

This is a pen

I’ve been meaning to post again here for some time, to gather many of the thoughts about gaming and language learning that have been swirling around my head.

In fact there are two main experiences I’ve been meaning to write about, and so this post and the next one are attempts to synthesize these what I’ve been learning. Both experiences are inspired by my wonderful colleagues on this site, and the Slack research group we’ve created for the games/language learning research community in Japan. In particular, a post by James here, inspired me to experience the student perspective on gaming for myself, and discussions on Slack with Jonathan and others, along with James’ continuing experimentation with games in the classroom inspired me to try out some things in my own classroom contexts for myself.

First, my experience as a student: understanding that my perspective on my own gamelab framework would be limited by my position as the session leader / teacher, I decided to put myself in the shoes of a student as best I could. I have rudimentary Spanish ability resulting from one six-week course (non-intensive, weekly) I took just after college while working in New York almost 20 years ago, and also through my interactions with some Spanish-speaking (Peruvian) friends on a regular basis just after I arrived in Japan about 15 years ago. That’s it, and so my Spanish is rudimentary at best.  Still, I love the language for its rhythm and poetic musicality. And so whenever I have chances to speak, I try to take them. Some of these chances, of late, have come through my interactions with a very nice Spanish teacher at our school, who, whenever we meet in the hallway seems happy to indulge my desire to converse a bit in his language. We usually speak in Spanish for as long as I can last, which is not long at all, and then switch to Japanese, which we are both competent in.

I had told this teacher about the Tokoha Gamelab framework and proposed the idea of trying to experience gameplay myself in the role of a student. He said he’d be happy to try this during his weekly conversation circle in the foreign language self-access center, so I told him I’d drop by sometime to arrange this. And so last week I did. I intended to just introduce a game to him, and tell him some more about gamelab, then try my role as a student in a subsequent week, but this is not what happened. Instead, as I began my explanation and started to show the game and direct him to resources for learning it ahead of our meeting (a Spanish-language explanation video on, he, the other students, and I basically got pulled into playing the game right there and then. This is the power of games—they want to be played!

And so we began. The game was Bohnanza, a card game that involves bartering and trading bean cards in order to accumulate coins.  Its a game that I have had great success with playing in Gamelab with students. We had developed a list of words, phrases and questions that frequently come up in the game. But these are in Japanese and English, and here I was suddenly being pulled into a Spanish-language version of the game (with English and Japanese explanations on the side as I tried to teach the game). Fortunately, the game is easy to learn, and before long we were planting, harvesting, bartering, trading, asking, receiving, donating etc etc…all the things that my Gamelab participants had fairly easily learned to do in English when I had led past sessions.

But now it was a whole new game for me. Not only was I playing in the student role, I was in the role of lowest-level student. The Spanish teacher would help us with language orally as we went, recasting and translating, helping us to interact with each other as the game mandates—but all in Spanish. We had a good time and were able to complete a round of the game before I had to go (I had not planned on staying, and I had a writing deadline), but it left me both exhilarated and also a bit rattled.

And so what did I learn from being thrown into this situation of being a student in a gamelab setting?

Well, if I were to write a headline for this it would be I WISH I HAD A PEN. That is, during gameplay as the teacher recast and helped us with language I was really trying to take in a lot and learn the vocabulary and phrases I’d need to use (again and again) in the Game, but since I didn’t happen to have a pen and paper I wasn’t able to record these. I think if I were a higher level learner, some of the recasts would have stuck more quickly but as it was, I found the fact that these essential new words and phrases were said but not recorded to be actually rather stressful.

I think many would agree that games (and communication in general) are best when we experience Flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991), and one could say that writing down words and phrases could interrupt this, but here I would argue the opposite. In my case, as a student-participant, the affordances of some short breaks to confirm the necessary language, and write it down would have really enhanced my gaming experience by enhancing my language learning experience. I think I would have enjoyed the bartering that is part of the game even more if I could have taken back some of the autonomy that comes with speaking from one’s own notes rather than relying on the same (potentially embarrassing) recasts from the teacher each turn.

I used the word affordance above, and this is a central concept for my thinking about games and language learning. Games, like any kind of materials provided in a sociocultural context act as affordances for action and for language use. The great thing about good games is that they create mechanisms that make different types of language use essential. Utterances must be repeated (and thus practiced) for a purpose. So often, in the language classroom the opposite is true—utterances are used or repeated for no apparent purpose (except to learn them). Games make opportunities for purposeful language use, and because of their repetitive nature, they afford opportunities for what Ericcson (1993) calls “deliberate practice” (popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2011 book Outliers) The real golden nugget in good games though is that this deliberate practice is potentially combined with flow to create an experience similar to naturalistic language learning in which we are not really focused on the repetitive nature of the practice. It is the practice without the pain—its play after all. But the simple challenge I encountered was that I did not have the tools necessary for good practice. Pen and paper felt essential, and I imagine they could have really improved my experience, lowered my stress level (and thus my “affective filter”), and made for better “deliberate practice” in the game I was playing.

Play first, learn later?

I also want to write about a recent experience bringing games into my classroom and trying something different. As I’ve explained, the framework I developed is geared towards small groups of learners gathering in my university’s self-access center. This is a voluntary group of students who show up randomly each week. Some students are passionate about games or just interacting in English, and these are the repeaters. But even these students don’t come every week because of schedule conflicts and the like, so Tokoha Gamelab has been evolving into something very different than a course, it is a free association that follows a 90 minute framework, but changes each week. Week to week consistency, or long-range projects (or games) are difficult because of the changing weekly membership. But classrooms are of course different—students must show up each week, and they can do homework to prepare and they can reflect after class and come back and discuss that reflection. These are some of the unique the affordances of the university course. One could also see them as constraints, as they are connected to a course syllabus, assessment criteria, etc., but it is also clear that the structure of a university course offers something unique that can be leveraged in certain ways.

I had not planned to do a unit on gaming in my course syllabus, but after a unit on “leisure” and a midterm test that tired the students out, I decided a week of gaming might be a good break from the regular syllabus. After their midterm test, I thus asked students to research a certain game online as homework (Spyfall), and promised to do some gaming with them the following week. Which is what I did. In addition to Spyfall I decided to bring one additional game—Ticket to Ride. I also brought a simple worksheet for students to make notes about vocabulary and phrases in the game and directions pre and post-play. As I prepared this, I was of course thinking about my own experience playing Bohnanza in Spanish.

But what I discovered was interesting I think, and it is what inspired the title of this post, “Play First, Learn Later.”  Simply put, I discovered what I already knew from the experience of getting pulled into that game of Bohnanza in Spanish: games want to be played as soon as possible. Play has a kind of gravitational force that I don’t know if we, as teachers, need to resist. Our research group has had discussions about the role of rulebooks, and the type of pre-game learning we think students need to do before class, and here I had a chance to experience this for myself. I had asked students to do research on Spyfall, and a few had (others admitted they hadn’t). I put the 2 people who knew about Spyfall into one group with two others, and I set the other four students up with Ticket to Ride and the Japanese directions. I told both groups to figure out their games for 15 minutes or so, using whatever resources they could (including me). I asked them to make notes on their handouts about words and phrases they thought they’d need in the game. But nobody did this. They were much more absorbed in just learning the game—a language mission with a purpose—albeit in their L1. That’s okay, because after 15 minutes or so they were playing the game, in English.  Now the handout became handy. I lurked around both games and helped them identify essential language as it came up, and encouraged them to write it down, which they did to some degree.

I’m not sure what will happen next week, but my sense is that the games have done a good job at creating affordances for interaction. The challenge of teaching their games and playing with a new pair of students seems like a good way to explore the language that was essential in understanding the game (which they did initially in Japanese), and enforce the language that became essential in play. We will see what happens. . . .

The hype is real

Today was a very interesting day, and I’ll get to the reason for that later. For a start though, let me say that I am exhausted.


Two reasons:

  1. I had to carry a bunch of games to class today:
    • Scythe (Collector’s Edition no less..!)
    • Sheriff of Nottingham
    • 2 x Pandemic
    • Forbidden Island
    • Dead of Winter
  2. I had to walk around all of the groups and help them learn the rules to their games, answer questions, and generally make sure all students were on task.

The KR framework puts students in control. They are in charge of choosing a game, learning the rules, and progressing the play session. But… I’m still the expert regarding game rules and English, so I’m still very much needed to oversee the proceedings during class. Still, its a good kind of busy. I’m not policing kids into using English or staying on task, I’m helping them understand difficult concepts and getting them ready for game play, so I’m happy in my current role.

The “New Student”

(For me at least)

As you probably know by now, my context can be difficult sometimes. I work in a science and tech university with students that are generally not interested in learning English, so sometimes it is hard to get them motivated.

However, today I walked into class to be greeted by a new face. I thought he might be re-sitting the class (as in, he failed the class last year, and was thus retaking my class this time).

Anyway, I left him alone and started the class as normal.

He joined the Dead of Winter group and proceeded in taking control of the rulebook, reading very proficiently, and generally taking control of the group’s progression.

This is not a student that needs to retake an English class… is what I started to think.

When his group had a question regarding the rules, he would ask in English:

“What does this mean?”

“What do I do when a character is bitten?”



Come the end of the class:

York: Are you retaking this class?

Student: No.

[This is a first year “RT” class]

York: Are you a first year RT student?

Student: Yes.

[OK, I’m finally figuring this out: This implies that he is registered with another teacher and sneakily coming to my class, possibly because he has heard that we will be playing games and wants to have fun… Not cool]

York: OK, so which teacher are you registered with?

Student: I’m not… I have EIKEN level 2.

York: So you don’t need to take English.

Student: I know, but I want to join this class..!


Let me explain:

English classes are compulsory at my university for all students, unless they have a high TOEIC score or EIKEN level 2 and above. So essentially, this student doesn’t need to take English. He has a bye. Yet here he is, going out of his way to attend my class, a class that he won’t even get credit for.

This is fine by me. He was a great influence on his group, tried hard to keep the discussions in English, completed the assigned worksheet tasks, and was obviously keen (almost hungry) to learn the game rules with his peers.

A good day indeed.

Originally posted on the Kotoba Miners blog.

Teaching English through remixing games and game rules (“Jidoukan Jenga”)

My students and I run a Game Club one Saturday afternoon a month at our local community center (“Jidoukan”). The elementary school kids learn games and make friends, and we get to experiment with different teaching activities with games.

Today I had a small group (a 6th grade boy and two 3rd grade boys). The three boys chose to play with me after I and my other students had introduced what we wanted to do with the 15-20 kids that came. The older one had studied some English, and one of the 3rd graders goes to a cram school for English. I tried a new activity with them using Jenga. I spoke in Japanese to them for the instructions and main interactions.

“Jidoukan Jenga” – the modified rules and the game in play

What we did:
1. They had all played the game, and they explained the rules to me in Japanese.
2. We played the game twice.
3. I asked them what they think of Jenga, and they shared their views in Japanese. We then used my dictionary to look up the main English words of their views and I helped them make complete sentences, which they repeated back to me.

“It’s good.”
“The tower might fall down.”
“My heart is beating.”
“I have to concentrate.”

4. I then showed them the rules to Jenga in English and explained some of the key terms to them (“tower, 3 blocks across, with only one hand, a loose one, take one block, put it on top”). I then asked them to change the game anyway they wanted. They suggested pulling two blocks, and not putting them on the top but on the table in front of us as points. I showed them in the rules where the related sentences were, and worked with them to change the rules (“a block” became “2 blocks,” scratching out “put it on the top of the tower.”).
5. We played our version twice. I then asked them what they thought of the new game and helped them look up translations for the main words.

“It’s more difficult than normal Jenga.”

6. Since we had made a new game, I asked them to make a new name for their game. They suggested “Jidoukan Jenga” which I wrote on the top of the paper.
7. We chatted about the “lesson.” They said that they thought they made fun rules, that they were happy to be able to make their own game, and that they encountered some difficult words that they didn’t know.


The lesson was hard for them (one boy left halfway through to join a different table and a card game) but the general flow seemed to work. I’ve done Snakes and Ladders written rule remixing with university students and it always seems to work well and can be done in 90 minutes. I’d like to give this Jenga-based game and game language remix activity a try with some junior high school students who have had a little more grammar and vocabulary training already. It seems to be a somewhat smooth way to analyze and create games and language.

Researcher as participant

My normal teaching context is classes of 20 to 25 students, so they are split up into different groups based on the game they chose to play the week before. However, today I had the opportunity to use the KR framework in a class of only five students. It was a big change, and in today’s post, I’d like to talk about some of the things that I noticed that are different between this one-off class and my normal teaching context, as well as my reflections as a participant. I’ll be touching on the following topics:

  • Researcher as participant
  • Students staying on task
  • Individualized instruction
  • The ZPD and NS-NNS interactions

The actual lesson that we did was the pre-play, rule-learning class. Students didn’t choose the game that we played, I selected it before the class. The game is called “Dead Last” and you can find reviews of it here. I’ll quote the SUSD site for their description of how it plays so you can get the gist of the type of interaction that is involved.

Dead Last […] begins with 6-12 players sat around a table, each with a coloured standee, a private deck of cards and an unusually shifty look. As soon as the game begins people will start murdering each other by consensus and/or killing themselves by accident, and your objective is to be one of the last 2 people left standing.


  • You vote for someone to be murdered and all play a card facedown
  • The person (or 2 people in a tie) with the most votes is eliminated
  • If you didn’t vote for the person that was murdered, you are also eliminated
  • If you suspect you’ll be the target, you may play an AMBUSH card and if it turns out that you ARE the target, you can eliminate one of those that voted for you.

The game rules are not the main focus of this post, so if you are curious as to the rest of the rules, please check the above links.

So what did I learn today? Read on:

I personally need to experience the framework

I have to admit it. As a researcher, I read papers, have a firm grasp on mainstream SLA theory (mostly), think deeply about how to engage students in their learning, and make appropriate worksheets. But, I don’t actually trial these worksheets on myself.

Today I had the opportunity to participate as a student and experience the pre-play worksheet firsthand. It was a very valuable experience. There are three sections on the worksheet.

  1. The first section ask students to scan the rulebook and look for interesting and useful words that they think they will need during gameplay.
  2. The second section asks students to write down one important rule for the game they’re about to play.
  3. The third section is about tactics and it requires the students to write what they think they will do during the game.

Regarding the first section, the problem is that there is a difference between the vocabulary in the rulebook and the phrases and vocabulary that they will use during the game. So I saw students writing down new words that they did not know, but the majority of these words were only useful in explaining and understanding the rules and theme of the game. So after the students completed the first section, we actually had a brainstorming session to think about the types of words we will use during the game. My original plan was that this would be done by scanning the rulebook. Instead it actually took a second, slightly more focused activity. I know Jonathan has done work with one of his undergraduates which examines the difference in rulebook and gameplay discourses, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the two do not match up.

The second section regarding important rules for the game I thought was a sound section that did not require too much editing. It was interesting for me to see that the students had different ideas for what they thought was an important rule. So getting students to share these ideas is possibly beneficial in making all students aware of the important rules of the game.

The third section was also quite interesting in that it requires students to write about their tactics. But Dead Last is a competitive game, so in actual fact we decided that it was best to keep the tactics talk until after the game had finished.

In summary then, I found the experience of actually taking part in the class really helped me refine the worksheet.

Students staying on task

The biggest difference that I noticed between this small class and the larger class is just how on-task they were. In the larger classes there are usually four to five different groups, and so it is impossible for me to sit down with them all and guide them through the worksheet. They have to figure out exactly what I want them to do, and they are also in charge of completing it. However in today’s class with only five students, because of my presence maybe, students took time to do the activities on the worksheet one by one. What I noticed in larger classes was that students were not reading and analysing the words in the rulebook, but merely translating it into Japanese (so that they could understand it, of course).

Individualized instruction

During our brainstorming session for words and phrases that we thought would be useful for gameplay, we had the opportunity to talk about the word “betray.” One student asked me how to say 裏切り者 in English, which led to me talking about “betray,” “to be betrayed,” and the word “traitor.” This “just in time” feedback and discussion is something that I cannot achieve in larger classes. Although I’m not 100% sure of Jonathan’s and Peter’s teaching situation, I felt like having a small group of students like this was perhaps similar to some of their own projects (and made me a little jealous, haha).

It felt great to be able to help students on such a personal, almost one-to-one level as they needed it.

Social interactions in the ZPD

It goes without saying really, but today was a fantastic chance to experience learners working in the ZPD. Having me, an expert speaker of the TL, as part of the group helped them hear how natives would approach certain constructs during the game, and they were able to modify their own output based on what they heard. Additionally, from a psycholinguistic perspective, I saw the value of recasts as a way for learners to notice any issues with their output. Recasts however, do not require a native speaker or expert as such, their peers should be able to provide such feedback, too.

For an example of our interactions, I showed a certain card to one of the students and said:

York: I will definitely vote for this player.

Student: Definitely? (repeating the word to show that he did not understand the meaning)

York: Yes, definitely. (reformulating the sentence:) I will 100% vote for this player.

Student: Oh, I see.

York: Will you vote for this player?

Student: Yes.

York: Definitely?

Student: Definitely!

This leads me to the more essential point that this game provided the opportunity for such rich interaction, and a stronger sense of the value of my research in this field.

I only made informal observations today, but they helped me think more critically about the worksheets I am developing. Additionally, participating in gameplay confirmed what I have been reading in the literature on game-based language learning, and my own assumptions regarding the power of the Kotoda Rollers methodology. That is: with the right amount of support (activities and teacher instruction), games can be used effectively as part of a TBLT approach to language learning, and I’m positive about my work and research direction.

In the next class, we will go over the recording of today’s gameplay session and focus on their English mistakes and unnecessary Japanese usage. Thus, hopefully raising their understanding of the gaps in their interlanguage, and preparing them to replay the game at a future date.

As always, thanks for reading.

Originally posted on the Kotoba Miners blog.

Learning rules & takoyaki parties

Learning rules & Takoyaki parties

I was trying hard to come up with a metaphor as to why it is important to learn game rules in English before playing a board game. On other words, not taking the easy route and learning the rules in Japanese first, but actually taking the time to sit down with the English rulebook and go through it with their groupmates.

Of course there are a bunch of good reasons why they should do this. It’s L2 input for a start..! It’s a reading task which is activating their passive skills, allowing them to recognise and perhaps recall vocabulary without time constraints. From a sociocultural perspective, it allows them to discuss the meaning of phrases and words as a group, and perhaps notice the meaning of certain words just from context. But I wanted to give them something easy to understand without going all meta-linguistic, so here is what I came up with:

The ever-so-not-quite Takoyaki party

(A takoyaki is a fried dough ball with octopus (tako) and pickled ginger in. It is often garnished with mayonnaise and sauce as well as many other things. See the picture above)

[I said:]

Imagine that you and your friends are having a takoyaki party. Now what do you need to have a takoyaki party? Flower, eggs, water, tako, pickled ginger, seaweed… etc. etc.

So, what if you all arrive at the party and Friend 1 has brought sliced bread, Friend 2 has brought a lettuce, Friend 3 has brought some cheese, and you’ve brought some tomatoes… Is this going to be a takoyaki party?


It is going to be a party, but not a takoyaki party. Maybe a sandwich party. Or at a push, a pizza party..? But definitely not a takoyaki party.

[I digressed:]

So where does this fit into what we are doing in this class? Well, to play these games in English, you need the tako, flour, water, and egg, too. These are the nouns, verbs, adjectives, grammar, etc. that you will find in the rulebook.

Now, imagine if you just learnt the rules to the game at home in Japanese… You could come to class and play the game, but it definitely won’t be a game in English. It will be a game in Japanese. Which is like the difference between a sandwich party and a takoyaki party.

[I ended, rather triumphantly]

That is why you need to learn the rules in English: So you can play the game in English. The goal of this class.

So, what do you think? Was this just bonkers, or did I make a strong(?) and valid point here?

Thanks for reading as always.

Originally posted on the Kotoba Miners blog

Kotoba Rollers: Rule Setting

This blog post is a reflection on the feedback I received from the initial implementation of the #kotobarollers framework (1.0 we are calling it) back in the second term of 2015. As part of that implementation, I collected quantitative and qualitative data from students in the form of a course-end questionnaire. The questionnaire was designed to see which activities students completed, which the did not, the elements of the framework they liked and those that they thought could use improvement. It is these last two questions, that were given as open-ended questions where I feel the most interesting and useful data was collected.

Firstly, let’s look at some of the comments I received.

Good points of the framework

Practical English usage

A lot of the comments I received regarding the positive aspects of the framework relate to how playing games was students’ first real experience of using English as a means of communication, and not just as a subject. The term practical came up a lot:


I got a real sense of “practical English communication” in this class.

This is a fantastic result of the framework for me. I want students to use English, not just study it.

From a TBLT perspective, the non-linguistic goals of gameplay were the catalyst to get students talking, and using vocabulary and grammar to solve a real life activity: winning (or at least participating) the game. Compare that to a class that is fronted by the teacher saying, “Today we are going to do the activities on page 34.” Or, “Today we will talk about how to give directions in English.” Students’ expectation would vary greatly I think.

Moving on:

Willingness to communicate

The fun, and laid-back nature (for some) of the games (of course, there are high-stakes games like Werewolf or Spyfall where tensions are high) really helped learners become more willing to communicate with their peers.


I get nervous when doing a speech or presentation in English, but with games, I could speak more freely

Again, an excellent point, but I don’t want to dwell too much on these positive points. I hoped that I would see these kinds of results before starting.

Negative points of the framework

Excessive Japanese usage

Yes, I’m sure you could see this one coming. By far and away, the biggest criticism of both the framework and the students’ own performances was that they talked a lot of Japanese during play. And this is what I want to address with the rule-setting lesson. Comments:

Blaming others:


Some students didn’t make effort to speak English during gameplay

Blaming themselves:


It’s only natural that we’d use Japanese occasionally during gameplay, but once we did, then we’d end up using more and more Japanese, which I don’t think is good.

So what do they think would be a good way to reduce Japanese usage?


When playing, if we speak Japanese, I think there should be some kind of penalty given to that student.

OK. Great. We are on the right track here. Students realise that they are not meeting me halfway by speaking Japanese, so let’s put it to them to fix it.

Rule setting lesson

So that’s where this blog post comes in. I want to put down on paper my thoughts regarding class rule-setting, what I’ve done to towards achieving this, and a reflection on my first class of doing this.

I’ve had some negative experiences with gamification, and both Jonathan and I are ardent fans of the work of Kohn: Punished by Rewards. So I really didn’t want to go full metal jacket on setting rules. That’s partly why I didn’t set any explicit rules regarding the use of the L2 in the first place: I left it for students to figure out. But the result of that has been that students just talk Japanese the whole class. Granted, some of them feel guilty about it, leading to them writing on the final report that they feel something should be done about it.

Rules setting is a tricky beast though. If punishments and rewards are too heavily utilised, we run the risk of “gamifying” the classroom and creating a negative environment. The addition of points and badges, or more generally “rewards” are sources of extrinsic motivation (from Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory), which can sometimes become the only reason students attempt to do an activity.

The often quoted example is a student that might go to the library every day in the summer to read out of sheer pleasure, then one day, he receives a point or sticker for visiting the library. After the summer is over the stickers stop coming, and so does he. He got so used to getting the stickers that receiving them became the sole reason for reading.

In other words, I don’t want to reward or punish students too severely in fear that it just makes them resent the class or lose focus on the goal of the class.

On another note about the idea of play, Nicholson (2015) writes:

A key concept from play that is important when thinking about gamification is that play must be optional (Callois, 2001). If something is not optional, then it is not, by definition, play. If a worker is forced to engage with a game, it is no longer a play experience.

This is also very pertinent to my own situation where my whole class is built around getting students to play games. I am kind of forcing students to play games right? Well, not really. Reading a few paragraph7s below on Nicholson’s paper we get:

One way to soften a required engagement with a gamification system is to ensure that the system allows for exploration. This falls in line with the concept of Choice.

Yes. My students have a LOT of choice in class.

  1. What game to play
  2. Who with
  3. The post-play activities they complete.

Anyway, moving on:

I attended a conference in Okinawa in February where I was introduced to the work of Tim Murphey et al. (2014) who talked about the concept of getting students motivated by thinking about ideal classmates. Their work is laid out in more academic terms in this paper.

Essentially: First, get students to think about what they would look for in an ideal classmate. Then, the following week, compile all the students answers and give them back. Students are then in a position to see what others are expecting of them. Finally, a few weeks after this, move the shift of questioning onto the students themselves, giving them chance to reflect on if they have been behaving as an ideal student based on the feedback they got from the first week.

I was impressed.

So I started thinking about how I can use this in my own classes.

What is the goal?

I think the first step that wasn’t mentioned in the Murphey paper is getting the students to consider what the actual goal of the class is. This can be from their perspective, my perspective or the university’s perspective.

I want them to become more fluent in English, and particularly their speaking skills. The university wants them to gain discreet English skills week after week as they are presented………. yeah…. I can see that working…. Their goals (as they wrote on the board today) ranged from: “enjoy English,” and “become an active communicator in English,” but I think a good proportion of them would probably have written “get a passing credit” as the main goal.

The idea is that based on these goals that we have identified, we need to figure out how we can best help each other achieve them. Here is a copy pasta of the worksheet I concocted:

  1. What is the goal of this class?
  2. What problems prevent us from achieving that goal?
  3. What kind of behaviour will help us achieve the goal? Think of some examples:
    • Good
    • Bad
  4. Can you think of a good rule for Japanese use (for students, and me, Mr. York)?
  5. How can Mr. York help you speak English?
  6. How can you help other students speak English?

Fairly to the point questions in my opinion. The only question that directly asks about rule setting is the one about Japanese usage, because I want to hear what they think, their opinions and possible solutions to the problem of excessive Japanese usage in class.

What rules can help them stay on task?

Upon completing the survey, they had 10 minutes to discuss with their group what they had written. I expected a lively conversation, but to be honest, a lot of them looked bored. There are pockets of active, interested students, but unfortunately as this is a non-English major class, there are a lot of uninterested students, too. I’m not sure I can do much about that (or haven’t found a way so far).

Unfortunately, their ideas regarding what can be done were quite uninspired. The main idea was to ban Japanese usage, which to me just seems impractical. They need Japanese for some parts of the class and its not to be demonized. That’s not the idea I want to have proliferate in my classes.

I think the idea that some students came up with a few months ago is the best way to go: by having them check themselves during gameplay with the addition of a new rule:

If I speak Japanese [something bad happens].

Well, I’m not done with this yet. I think this kind of consciousness raising is important, and I want students to work with me to decide what is good or bad behaviour, and get them to help each other stay on task.

Next week I will be handing back a list of good and bad behaviours that they wrote, and ideas for how other students can help them achieve the class goal. let’s see if it inspires them to become more aware of themselves as active learners with responsibility towards learning English themselves, rather than being taught by me at the front of the class. Because we all know how the assimilation of knowledge is as simple as me passing it from my head and into yours….
As always, thanks for reading my rambles.


Callois, R. (2001). Man, Play and Games. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Murphey, T., Falout, J., Fukuda, T., & Fukada, Y. (2014). Socio-dynamic motivating through idealizing classmates. System, 45(1), 242–253.

Nicholson, S. (2015). A recipe for meaningful gamification. In Gamification in Education and Business (pp. 1–20).

(Originally posted on the Kotoba Miners blog)

Game Terakoya: Examining “Railways of the World’s” Rules and Attendant Discourse some more, Summer “Homework” (8/5)

Our last session of the semester.

We talked about another aspect that was missing from the game: environmental impact. Players are laying track through mountains and forest and locomotives are spewing smoke, but this is not modeled in the game. If we wanted to include this in a train game, M suggested having players take an action to cut down forest / destroy some aspect of nature and then build track. This explicit action might make players think more about the effect their money-making actions took on the game world. I mentioned the history of Chinese workers in the North American railroad creation, suggesting that game rules could be written to focus on tragedies related to this work.

(image from wikipedia: creative commons license)

We then looked at the notes I had given them the week before on my examinations of the game rules and some attendant discourse around the game (a youtuber’s teaching and actual play of the game).

They were able to look at my notes and find additional language that they hadn’t noticed before.

They noticed various unknown academic and specialist (off-list) vocabulary which I used an English online dictionary and examples from the game to help them understand. Examples: flat broke, money pie, restrict, caveat, thematic, rename, tangent, signify, declare, dead broke, debt, beneficial, financial empire, cut throat, hammer, conservative, stagnation, jerk (there was a lot of crossover in their lists of unknown words).

N and M both noticed patterns.

  • N said that the youtuber “said they for every players… I sometimes get confused” “maybe it doesn’t matter he or she” and we discussed the recent change to “they usage” in American English:
  • N also noticed the usage of “Remember to…” meaning “it is important to.”
  • M noticed that “the speaker often uses the comparative” to “give advice to be a better player.”
  • M noticed the youtuber said “You can never deliver” (he doesn’t say: “you cannot deliver”) “to stress the rule”
  • M noticed that “some words are capitalized. In the case of Japanese, you can’t” and we discussed textual tools for emphasizing language (capitals, bold, exclamation marks) and how these can also be read as “yelling” in English depending on the context.

M and N discussed the purposes of the rulebook and the youtube instructional and actual play videos: to teach and also to help players check if their playing is correct or not. N said that the “The video is easier to understand than the rulebook. You can look the rules” and that it would be “difficult” (and costly) to put so many images in a rulebook.

About the video, M said that “combining with vocal and actual play this is more easier for me to understand. When I first read the rulebook it was difficult to imagine the actual play, so I think the video is better.” She reported liking to listen to English rather than reading English. Both of them read the rulebook for more than 45 minutes (the length of the videos) in order to check the vocabulary.

M said “Only rulebook or only video doesn’t work well. The combination is important” and N said “to know the rules well, it is good to use the rulebook. To make imagination, it is better to watch video. How to move the pieces, how to exchange money.”

This has important implications for using board games in language classrooms. Rulebooks can help the students notice new vocabulary in context, and they can be an excellent reference for particular rules and how to play the game correctly, but it they take time to read and students do not always understand how to play based on lengthy rulebooks. “Learn to play” and “actual play” videos can show students how to actually make moves in the game and have the language from the rulebook put into use.

This may lead to yet another reworking of the teaching framework, as James is also doing with his Kotoba Rollers Framework, in order to keep knowledge of the game improving in step with developing language to be implemented in the students’ play:

Students could:

  1. Read the rulebook and watch some videos
  2. Brainstorm some language for play (recognizing that they may not have a complete understanding of the game and language to be used)
  3. Attempt the game
  4. Re-read the rulebook and re-watch some videos (re-examining the language with the guidance of the teacher)
  5. Re-brainstorm and hypothesize about language to use.
  6. Re-attempt the game
  7. Repeat until the game and language use are at a satisfactory level for both students and teacher.

I am sure James can say more about this cycle as it seems it is related to task-based language teaching.

As an incredible side note, both M and N had a mandatory TOEIC test a few days before our meeting. M said “At the TOEIC test there was a word ‘locomotive’ in it. I thought everyone doesn’t this word. I know it! (she said in a singsong tone of voice). It appeared in an advertisement.”

She hadn’t known the word before playing the game but learned and was able to find success using it in a testing context!

(image from wikipedia: creative commons license)

Both students offered their personal reaction to the language. N said “It was really easy to understand the rules from the video. The rulebook is a little difficult to read for me because there are many new vocabularies. But it is detailed very much.”

M mentioned that she couldn’t catch some language in one of the youtube videos because it was too fast; it was “like another language.” She had written down the timestamp, so we all listened and I transcribed it for them and discussed the vocabulary, pronunciation/intonation and contextual knowledge that was giving her trouble:

“Now once you’ve got all these cities seeded with the kinds of goods that they are going to be producing, now the rules do tell you that you are supposed to remove some cities from all the cities based on the number of players. Well, that’s actually wrong because that rulebook is an offshoot from the original Railroad Tycoon game, and this actually is the original Railroad Tycoon game just renamed after Eagle Games lost the rights to use the name from Microsoft.”


I then brought their attention to things related to language in my notes that they hadn’t mentioned:

  • The speaker’s manner of stressing rules: “If you happen to,” “every single turn,” “you can never,” “extra special bonus”
  • Him saying “thanks for watching” at the end of his videos and the personal connection youtubers seem to have with their audience (unlike TV and movies)
  • Go ahead and VERB:” I had asked this in the brainstorming session because the youtube speaker used it. N hadn’t noticed it during the video, even though she knew the form
  • Expandable” game (written on the cover of the box and rulebook). M thought it referred to expanding territory, not game expansions, so I showed them some board game expansions (e.g., Sid Meier’s Civilization) and expansions being additional nations or maps that companies can sell.
  • the introductory passage in the rules and its “! marks,” story, personal, exciting, active verbs
  • The frequent usage of “him” in the core rules and some instances of “she” in the USA rulebook. M said that is is “not so big a problem. I don’t care. But, when the rule is written in Japanese, and I read “kare” I feel strange. Perhaps this is some difference between perception of gender markers in the native and second language? N said “I think it’s ok if I can understand which player is “he” (Bill, Mark in rules). If there is too many he, I don’t know if he is first player or second player” and that she would prefer Player 1, Player 2….
  • They didn’t read the information about trains in the rulebook. M said “she didn’t have enough time” and N “thought it was not necessary.” I mentioned that we make a game about Shizuoka and include some information in the rules, people might not read that information.

I then gave them some “homework” for the summer related to the research project and to the further analysis and participation:

  • a questionnaire about their experiences in the project so far
  • gameplay transcription (which I would correct)
  • gameplay analysis related to the descriptive/announcing language that they used (having them tally and give rationales for common forms)
  • reading and analyzing 2 forum posts on boardgamegeek
  • writing a short essay about a concept that we encountered this semester
  • brainstorming additional discussion or roleplay topics to reuse/apply the language we learned in the game
  • reading some media education questions and picking some to explore in the fall
  • drafting some questions to ask to boardgamegeek Railways of the World players
  • making notes and sketches for ideas for a Japan and Shizuoka game map/rulebook

I offered to do these assignments with them over the summer, if they liked.

I collected all their materials to scan and then analyze for the paper and thanked them for their great work this semester. It has been an incredibly meaningful project for me!

We ended by playing 2 quick games of Hey That’s My Fish (a cutthroat abstract strategy game).


M took a cute photo of her “team” and their stack of fish


and I showed them a “big game” version of the game that my students created 2 years ago for a game charity event (as an additional example of a remixing / participation activity around games).

I’m looking forward to continuing the Game Terakoya in the fall semester!