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. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.system.2014.06.004

Nicholson, S. (2015). A recipe for meaningful gamification. In Gamification in Education and Business (pp. 1–20). http://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-10208-51

(Originally posted on the Kotoba Miners blog)