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?

GRAMMAR: Can I…

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.

[Aside]
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)!

img_3168

References

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.

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.

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.

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?

No.

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

JALT CALL Report

JALTCALL2016
A slide from the workshop announcing the start of the “experience” phase.

Last weekend Jonathan and I presented at JALTCALL, a conference held at Tamagawa University in Tokyo (well, closer to Yokohama, but still within the Tokyo prefecture). Here is the abstract to our presentation:


The popularity of board games has risen steadily over the last decade reaching annual sales in excess of $800 million in 2014 (ICV2, 2015). Board game funding figures have also overtaken those of video games on the popular crowdsourcing website: Kickstarter. Yet, despite their increasing popularity, there is little research on the use of board games as a teaching tool in educational, let alone language-learning contexts. There is a greater tendency for researchers to be concerned with the use of digital games such as MMOs and other online virtual spaces. MMOs offer a great opportunity for intermediate or advanced learners to communicate with native speakers of the target language, but for low-level learners (such as those found in Japanese high-schools or non-major university courses) such domains may be too cognitively complex, filled with specialised discourse features, and ultimately demotivating due to the level of technical expertise needed to participate in gameplay. From such criticisms aimed at digital games, we argue that board games offer superior opportunities for authentic communication, and both affective and cognitive benefits when used as part of a rigorous teaching methodology.

In today’s workshop our goals are:

  1. to educate practitioners on the range of available board games and their specific affordances for language learning from a sociocultural perspective.
  2. to reveal our framework for using board games as a core component in EFL contexts with a specific consideration on fostering verbal interaction. This includes an extensive pre-play stage utilising YouTube “gameplay” videos and other online resources.

The workshop was divided into three sections which allowed us to first of all let people experience the Kotoba Rollers framework for themselves, then we went over the theoretical underpinnings that helped shape the development of the framework. Finally, we held a Q&A session to get feedback and to help clarify parts of the framework that might not have been so salient/required further explanation.

Experience

The first part of the workshop was for the attendees to experience the framework. We gave them five minutes to read through the rules to 2 Rooms and a Boom and create questions based on those rules in order to check understanding with the other participants. In other words, they quizzed each other on the rules that they had just read to make sure that the game rules were known to all participants.

Upon completing this stage, they played through the basic version of the game themselves. We weren’t graced with the luxury of being able to send players between rooms, so we used the room for the presentation and the corridor (I apologise to the other presenters for the ruckus we caused..!)

JALTCALL2016
A very hands-on workshop with attendees standing up, playing and being active participants.
JALTCALL2016
A group of attendees discuss who to send to the other “room” (actually the corridor) in a game of Two Rooms and a Boom.
JALTCALL2016
The other group of attendees discuss who to send to the other room in a game of Two Rooms and a Boom.

Upon completing the play phase, we went through all three post-task report sheets (verbally) to debrief (or reflect) on the activity we had just done by asking questions such as: What words had come up again and again? Who won? What were the best tactics?

Framework explanation

After the experiencing the framework for themselves, it became much easier to show them the theoretical considerations that underpin the development. The main theories being Task Based Language Teaching and Sociocultural Theory. You can see an outline of the model in this post. The only new item regarding the framework is the addition of a reference to Long’s (2014) Methodological Principals and the extent that we are adhering to them.

  • MP1 – Use task not text YES
  • MP2 – Promote learning by doing YES
  • MP3 – Elaborate Input NO
  • MP4 – Provide rich input YES
  • MP5 – Encourage chunk learning NO
  • MP6 – Focus on form SOMEWHAT
  • MP7 – Provide negative feedback SOMEWHAT
  • MP8 – Respect learner syllabi and development process SOMEWHAT
  • MP9 – Promote cooperative learning YES
  • MP10 – Individualise instruction NO

These points require more explanation, and will become the topic of a future blog post.

Q&A Session

The final Q&A session allowed the participants to ask questions about the framework, and posit any concerns they might have. Generally, we felt that questions were not so much criticisms, but requests for additional information on how the framework works in practice and suggestions for implementation in their own contexts. One questions was regarding which games we recommend, so I see a “Kotoba Rollers recommends…” post coming.

One participant mentioned fairly obviously that

This framework would work with people that like games.

which is totally fine. Much in the same way that an English designed to be taught through the reading and discussion of classic literature would work with students that are interested in that subject.

However, I would argue that the number of students that are interested in games versus those that are interested in classic literature, or even more “popular” topics such as movies, music, sports, etc. would be less than those that play games. Gaming is the real unifying factor amongst students (especially at my science and tech university…), which provides support for the use of games as a teaching tool. Why? Because students are familiar with and motivated to learn with this media. But that’s for another blog post, too.

Conclusion

Our workshop at JALT CALL went as well as we hoped and we able to both inform others of the power of games in the classroom, but also generate a discussion on what the implications of doing so are.

I do not plan on doing any more presentations regarding Kotoba Rollers this year, but am deep in the process of writing a paper on students perceptions of this framework, and also planning a revised version ’Framework 2.0’ based on student feedback for use in the autumn semester later this year. I have a lot to talk about regarding the revised framework, and will be updating this blog with details also.

As always, thanks for reading and I appreciate any questions you may have.

James / ちーぷ

Originally posted on the Kotoba Miners blog