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 boardgamegeeek.com), 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. . . .