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.

Why?

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?”

etc.

Great!

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..!

Amazing!

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.

jidoukanjenga
“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.

Essentially:

  • 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.