TDU Adventure 2019: Social participation through pervasive game design

This is not directly related to #kotobarollers or even language learning, but another class I teach at Tokyo Denki University. I am posting here mainly as a way of preserving in text my reflections on this class and to hopefully inspire others to consider getting their learners to engage in projects that extended out of the classroom. Please forgive me for this off-topic post. 🙇🏼‍♂️

The event we completed today (Jan 26th, 2019) was called “TDU Adventure” and was created as part of a game design class I teach. I will focus on this activity in particular later in the post. First, however, I will provide some background regarding the class and how this activity came about. 

The class is a 15-week elective course available to all students at the university, any department, any grade, and runs twice a year. In the first semester, the focus is on the development of board/card game prototypes. The second semester (which we just finished) focuses on the development of pervasive games (ARGs, BIG games and the likes).

The overarching aims of the course are:

  • To introduce the students to formal definitions of games and game design (get them to think about what is and isn’t a game),
  • Expose them to “new” forms of games (i.e. game types that they perhaps hadn’t played before),
  • Get learners to display their creativity as part of multidisciplinary and multi-age groups,
  • Create and assess a “product” of their creation.

This particular class is one of the more popular “seminars” (there are about 20 different seminars and many of them have fewer than 10 students attend, therefore at risk of being discontinued due to a university-wide policy on registration). I usually have 20 ~ 25 students sign up. There is a real dearth of classes at my university that cater towards formal game design, and so I’m glad I have the opportunity to engage with students on this subject matter.

Course overview

The pervasive game course is roughly designed to go from learning about pervasive games, designing some simple ones an then a group project involvong the creation of a larger game that they have real people play and give feedback on. The course was inspired by  UCI’s Transformative Play Lab.

1. Introduction to “game” defintions

This class also introduces historical, philosophical definitions of game, as well as the concept of the “magic circle” (important for talking about pervasive games!)

2. Introduction to “pervasive” games

In this class, I introduce a multitude of pervasive games and look at the various archetypes. Those being:

  • Treasure hunts
  • Assassination-type games
  • Escape rooms
  • LARPs
  • Alternate Reality Games (and Augmented Reality Games)

We also create our own version of the classic alternate reality game “Killer” by Steve Jackson (1998).

Killer: The Game of Assassination: Steve Jackson ...
Killer: The Game of Assassination

This year’s version of Killer had students killing each other outside of class with the phrase “Have a nice day,” in English. Ha! Other “legal” weapons were banana gun, laser beam (mobile phone light) and placing a sticker on the target. We kept track of kills via a shared LINE group.

3. Design a simple pervasive game

The main activity of these classes is to create a very simple “game” and then report on how well the game achieved their intended goal. The games should manipulate or subvert the behaviour of other students as they go about their day at TDU. How are my students supposed to do this? With a set of 8 coloured chalks and the campus as their playground. This activity is based on the “walk and chalk” concept (Tanenbaum et al., 2017). Additionally, I was heavily inspired by what I read in Bogost’s Play Anything (2016) about play as finding the “figure” from the “ground” as in the classic Rubin jars:

In the case of this particular activity: How can students in my class make other students notice the campus that they are walking around? How can they make elements of the campus pop out of the “background” and into the “foreground” of other students attention armed only with chalk! Quite a challenge, and this year there were some great entries. Two worthy of mentions are 1) a game designed to get students to follow a path of footprints to a kebab van, thus working as an advertisement for the van, and 2) a step with the words “踏んだら留年する” (If you step here, you’ll fail the year) to try and get students to walk around a specific step.

A selection of tweets about the walk and chalk activity
Chalk footsteps

Each group gave a presentation on their project. The second project in particular I thought was an excellent example of manipulation and the creator of the project revealed that he had actually collected some data on it in his report. He sat near the step during the lunchtime break and kept a count of people who either stepped on it or avoided it. He also kept count based on their direction of walking (up or down) and whether they were alone or with a group of friends. I don’t remember the numbers now, but I recall that if a student was with a group of friends, they were more likely to step on the offending step, which we hypothesized was because it was considered more playful and funny to be the person that stepped on it when amongst peers.

A student tweets about the step saying “Even if I don’t step on it I’ll still be a repeater.”

There was also a bit of commotion caused by this event. I didn’t seek approval from the Student Affairs office before doing the class and we left the chalk on the ground after we finished (of course, to keep the behaviour manipulation up for as long as possible!). The office considered our work an act of graffiti and sent out a university-wide message admonishing such behaviour! Thus, in terms of the goals of the project… we were able to manipulate the behaviour of not just other students but the admin as well. Success in my books!

My tweet about the “graffiti” incident

Create a pervasive game as a group

The main, and culminating project of the course is for students to make a pervasive game as a group, get others to play it and report on the play session. First, everybody pitches an idea individually and then groups are formed around the most popular concepts. There is a slight negative element to this in that groups often form based on friendships but it is not always the case. This year, the two groups that I will be focusing on consisted of students from different departments and grade level. Once groups are formed, they have around six or seven weeks to create it, test it, get others to play it, receive feedback and write a report on it.

Some groups designed games for their peers to play which means that they get feedback from non-class members (usually friends). This year there were three groups that did this. Their games were:

  • A treasure hunt around the university using Google Maps, quiz questions and hidden coordinates. This game started off as a LARP version of the popular game Monster Hunter, but they considered it too difficult to create and (in my opinion) copped out and did a treasure hunt instead. Still, they documented it well came up with an interesting concept simialr to geocaching themselves.
  • A QR code treasure hunt around campus.
  • A piece of interactive fiction which utilized bots on the popular messaging app LINE. You can play here (Japanese only):
Interactive fiction game created by students on the course

However, some of the groups were persuaded by me (ever so gently of course) to think wider than just creating something for their friends to play.

A bit of history: Last year was the first year I ran this project and working with me and General Affairs office one group managed to invite elementary school students from the local area to come and do a scavenger hunt around campus. The event was a great success and we got featured in the university press for our efforts. On top of that, one of the students that created the game confided in me that he used the experience during his interviews as something not only that he was proud of, but that showed how he was able to connect classroom learning with social participation. Excellent! And something that I am eager to get more studenst to do in this class. Hence the gentle push based on the experience of previous students work. 

So, this year, two groups took up the challenge of creating a pervasive game aimed at elementary school students and they really raised the bar in terms of quality. The games are described below, and both were held on the same day (January 26th) as “TDU Adventure 2019.” 

  1. A spot-the-difference game using smartphone VR
  2. An escape the room game featuring a custom electronic circuit built by the students themselves.
TDU Adventure 2019 poster

Logistics of setting up the project

TDU Adventure required students to work with the General Affairs office. Initially, the students (with me in tow) pitched the idea to the appropriate person in the office. She gave us the OK, but suggested that some of us go with her to the local board of education to pitch the idea to the council. In other words — she thought instead of only her pitching the idea to the board of education, if the students did it themselves it would:

  1. Give more weight to the project because it would show that the students were invested in it.
  2. Give the students a useful experience of talking (presenting?) their ideas to a non-university “real” person.

I agreed and was lucky enough to find two willing participants that volunteered to go to the board of education.

Following that, the board of education accepted the proposal and commented that the students who went to the council offices were very professional and confident when presenting their ideas (good job!). The students handed over 300+ flyers (see above) to the board of education, which were then distributed to three local elementary schools. 

How did parents apply to participate?

On the flyer was an email address to which the parents were instructed to write their child’s name, school, and age. One of the group members watched for incoming emails and replied when necessary.

All in all, a pretty smooth process, and one that was made possible by working with the university general affairs department. 

Onto the games:

Spot the difference VR 👓

The spot the difference VR game, as the name suggests, utilised smartphone VR and Google Street View as a way to create immersive 3D photos (see below for an example). The concept was that invading aliens had messed with reality and that if players used special devices (VR smartphones), they could see exactly what had been altered. Gathering clues in this way would lead to the aliens’ hideout where they could be defeated for good!

Above is an example photo. It is of a particular room in the university featuring a number of different animals on the computer screens. The goal of this room is to find which of the animals is different when looking through VR goggles and when looking at the screens in real life. 

Student participants scanning the room for alien lifeforms

Escape room game 🚪🔓

The escape room game was also spread over five different rooms, so it was more of an “escape TDU” game. Their concept was that players would answer three riddles or questions in each room, giving them a number between 1 and 10 for each answer. These numbers were then used as the code for a combination lock on a box in the room. In the box was an electrical circuit (one for each participant). After clearing all five rooms, the electrical circuit parts could be put together to create a device that would let them escape!

Participants attempting to open the combination lock on the box in the first room

The meta aim of the game was to get the elementary school student participants interested in studying electronics at university. The devices that participants created as part of this game were, therefore, custom made from individual components, and a circuit diagram was also supplied to show how it could be made, introducing the participants to the world of electrical engineering. The device was actually a multicoloured LED which could be triggered via three buttons. A really wonderful concept, and the execution was fantastic. 

The final device featuring the circuit diagram

More great points about this project:

  • The questions in each room based on a specific school subject. There were rooms dedicated to geography, maths, English and so on. The questions in each room were also graded to be the right difficulty for the students based on national standards.
  • The creators of the game found some riddles online and created their own.


In conclusion, the pervasive game class this year was a definite step up from that of the previous year. The games created as part of the walk and chalk class causing a bit of commotion was a highlight for me, I just hope the students felt a positive sense of anarchy as well! I was immensely satisfied with TDU Adventure, too. Comments from the participants’ parents were very positive. One mother said:

“Thanks for such a fun and free experience”

indicating a feeling close to guilt that she and her son could participate in an event of this scale and receive gifts all for free.

A father also said:

“When I was at university we didn’t have the opportunity to do such hands on, practical lessons, this is a really great opportunity for students.”

I would like to think so, too!

Bonus presentation (JP only)


  • Bogost, I. (2016). Play anything: The pleasure of limits, the uses of boredom, and the secret of games. Basic Books.
  • Jackson, S. (1998). Killer, The Game of Assassination. Steve Jackson Games.
  • Tanenbaum, J., Gardner, D., & Cowling, M. (2017). Chalk, Props, and Costumes: Two Exercises for Teaching Pervasive Game Design. Analog Game Studies,4(4). Retrieved January 26, 2019, from

Kotoba Rollers 2018: A reflection of the second term

More details of the framework (including worksheets) can be found here, but as an overview, the semester follows this structure:

Research games and choose one to playGo through the KR lesson cycle with Game 1Research games once more and choose one to playGo through the KR lesson cycle with Game 2Complete one of the 5 Final Projects

To save you scrolling (just control+F the following weeks) key parts of this post are:

  • [Week 1 and 2] Promoting collaborative learning as students work in pairs to research games.
  • [Week 5] An update to self-transcription analysis with more structured error-mining.
  • [Week 6] The introduction of a rudimentary speaking assessment.
  • [Week 8 and 9] More explicit instruction and goal-setting.
  • [Week 12 – 14] Final Projects: Relationship between students’ level of consent and the quality of their work.

Week 1: Game Research

The first week back, I introduced the syllabus to students and we got straight into researching games to play.

Teaching POINT: Why make videos at the end of the semester?

I introduced classes to the work of previous student groups, such as the One Night Werewolf Gameplay video or the Secret Hitler “How to Play” video. After that I asked the class what the importance or benefits of making videos like this might be.

Whiteboard featuring reasons for doing the Final Projects

We came up with the following list:

  • To help the next generation of students understand how to play the game.
  • So that students can see how much or what they learned this semester.
  • They can learn digital literacy skills by making the video.
  • The teacher can see what they learned and use that to grade them.

The main point being the first: helping the next generation of students learn how to play. This is perhaps the biggest benefit of their creations. The ‘how to play’ videos on YouTube are generally created by native English speakers and are therefore difficult to understand. Student created videos on the other hand will be much easier to understand because the creators’ English ability and pronunciation will be much similar to the viewers.

I also linked the whole cycle to the concept of mastery in gaming and how players start out as learners of the game, then progress to a state where they are competent players, then master players and finally, how some gamers come together to become creators of content for other players (phrased as “designers” in Squire, 2011, p.43). I am trying to create the same culture in my teaching context, where students progress in a similar fashion to a point where they give back to the community, helping future students. This may be considered a kind of semi-closed affinity space, where learners have a genuine (albeit limited) audience for their re-designed products (New London Group, 2000).

Game Research: From individuals to pairs

The original plan for this part of the lesson is for students to research four games by themselves and then present their findings to other group members in the following class. However, this is proving to be much more demanding than I imagined. So, I am adding in more scaffolding materials, and, as is a recurring theme in my iterative design of KR, reducing the workload to something manageable.

Students were told to research games in pairs instead of individually so that they can discuss what they found, and immediately check their understanding with a peer, thus providing them with a socially-informed way of creating knowledge through dialogue, and as learners work together in the zone of proximal development. Additional benefits of working in pairs or “small groups” instead of individually:

  1. Feedback regarding their comprehension of game rules
  2. Language support of a peer to start considering how to present their findings in English.
  3. Increased responsibility based on the creation of individual roles (see Murphy & Dornyei, 2003, particularly in Chapter 7).
  4. An interlocutor to practice their presentations with and further understand where their interlanguage/proficiency fails them.

Watching other groups’ videos

As part of this class, students get the opportunity to view the videos that former students created as part of their final projects. This is the first time the videos have been seen in a truly authentic way by their peers. What I mean by this is that when I view the videos and grade them, I already know the content and so I’m not watching videos as a way to learn the game that they are introducing. In the Game Research (Week 1) class, students use the videos for the authentic purpose of learning how to play the game. This point hadn’t occurred to me until today.

I asked one student what he thought of a video he was watching and his response was that it was easy to understand the rules, but not the gameplay (I assume he was probably watching a gameplay video rather than a rules explanation video for this point). My own reflection here is that it may be worth getting my classes to review each others’ creations with a peer assessment rubric. This is certainly on my mind, but I have no concrete ideas for implementation yet. I will add this to my KR to-do list.

Practice presenting

Students were also asked to present what they had found so far to the rest of the class as a way to start noticing the gaps in their interlanguage. In other words, by trying to present (articulating verbally) the content that they have written down, they may find that a difference in what they can comprehend and what they can articulate. As a concrete example, one student started to read out details of his game and was unable to verbalise the hyphen in ‘3 – 5 players.’ I was nearby and this able to instruct him in how to do this. Without engaging in English through such experiences, they will not notice any problems, and certainly not improve their competence in speaking. This is therefore an example of forced output as a way of noticing the gap between their proficiency of various English skills (see Swain & Lapkin, 1995).

Week 2: Game Research Presentations

The second week of the semester is where students present the details of their game to others. This is an output focused class, where the communicative goal is to transmit their knowledge of a game to another person orally. The non-linguistic goal is to learn as much as possible about the different games that I have on my game list in order to make an informed decision regarding which game they will choose to play.

I made the following analogy regarding communicating in the L2:

Language is a tool for transferring information from your brain to somebody else’s brain. We can consider language a LAN cable, transferring this information. Now, you have a very high-speed LAN cable that you use daily: Japanese. However, as this class can be considered a game, like golf, (and making reference yet again to Suit’s (2014) definition of a game) we have to use inefficient means in order to get the goal of “receiving credit at the end of the course.” In this class, the inefficient means of getting that goal in the low-speed LAN cable of… yes… English.

Unfortunately, the analogy mentions nothing of WHY students should do anything in English other than to not fail the class, which is the elephant in the room regarding KR right now. That being: What are the wider social, real-world goals of participating in my class other than just “practice using English in a safe environment for 100-minutes a week.” But alas… the abyss is deep.

Some further observations:

Better in pairs

As mentioned previously: Students work much better in pairs as opposed to doing this activity individually. It’s pretty obvious why if we consider the social nature of learning and language use. Having a partner to research with has the following benefits:

Reduce slacking

The social pressure of having to pull one’s own weight during the research phases is helpful in keeping each other responsible for producing quality output.

Check comprehension

Students are able to check their understanding of the subject matter (in this case, mostly: rules) with their partner. Thus, they can fill the gap in each others comprehension or test hypotheses with each other about a certain point. This leads to promoting confidence in the subject. Although I have no empirical data, I found that students working together seemed much more confident that they understood how a particular game works in comparison to students that researched individually (last year).

Provide moral support

Being able to check comprehension with their partner boosted confidence, but just having another person “on one’s side” or able to “back them up” as moral support seemed to boost confidence also.

Students have very little confidence in their English

They can write down a bunch of sentences and practice talking but actually, the presentation is just reading English sentences verbatim and then talking at long length in JP after. It’s like they have to get through the English as quick as possible, not check any meanings with their interlocutor so that they can get to the JP explanation instead.

I had to explicitly state that they were to do the activity in English, to use English as the form of communication, not just something to be rushed through.

Lack of research skills

I noticed that the general trend in students research habits was:

  • Learn rules in JP → try and translate JP into English → write that on the worksheet

When instead, a much more logical process (for me at least??) would be to do the following:

  • Learn rules in JP → find an EN version of the rulebook to see how to phrase things in English → Paraphrase what you read in EN → write that on the worksheet

Do they just have an aversion to even looking at EN text?!

I updated the KR textbook to present this way of researching more explicitly.

Japan’s excruciating lack of EN ability

I have a Chinese foreign exchange student in my class using EN as his third language. He absolutely nailed the presentation phase doing it all in very fluent English. He was also working individually..! The JP students in the same class, that have had formal EN lessons for the last 6 years, stutter and fail for the most part. Yes, I may be over exaggerating, but it prompts the thoughts:

  • Why is he the exception?
  • Why is speaking English not “normal” in Japan?

I hear students laugh about their terrible English ability and just end there. There’s no shame in it at all. It’s like this country isn’t supposed to be able to speak English. The notion that “That’s the norm, so why change it?” Infuriating.

Their written work does not match up with their oral output

For instance, the game research guide worksheet: They have some great work on their worksheets, they’ve thought about how to express themselves, but when they go around to speak to people they just rush through just or do it in JP instead.

Explicit instruction

In one of my slightly higher level classes, we slowed things down a lot. I made it explicit that pairs were to present details of one game ONLY in English, and we took time to think about how to present:

  • What key elements of the game are unique and worth talking about?
    • Make a list of three things that are core/unique/interesting to this game.
  • Who will say what?
  • How can do can we check comprehension?
    • Shadowing..!
    • Asking questions as a listener.

I also demoed the sequence with a student that is not higher in proficiency, but may be higher in confidence. He actually shadows naturally instead of just nodding or staring blankly. The demo helped others see what it means to be a good listener.

It went OK. I could see that some pairs didn’t really get across exactly what they wanted, and some groups didn’t understand fully, but so what…! I just wanted them to get across a general feel for what the game is and what it’s about. That’s a good start! ??

Week 5: Analysis — Serious error mining!

With some classes, I’m using the experimental analysis doc. This is a much more rigorous self- and other-analysis doc which was designed after rereading the literature on self-transcription. I’m not using it with all classes yet to see how it goes with the more advanced (in terms of study habits) classes first. Essentially, I realised that I hadn’t been very thorough with the transcription and self error correction with the original ‘Analyse’ class and am working on correcting that, as well as to see what the potential is for more rigorous academic work.

Some observations:

Students quickly grasped the differences between the error types in my introduction (morphological/lexical/syntactic). They did this easier than I expected.

Thanks to some suggestions from Peter, I added a page on the worksheet for students to practice coding errors before they looked at their own. The errors are all based on things that I have observed in class such as missing articles, verbs conjugated incorrectly, and words in the wrong order. These initial errors are helping students to find the same mistakes in their own output. They worked hard on the worksheet to find errors in their own transcription but, of course, they were not able to find all of the errors they made which is common for self-transcription activities (Stillwell, et al., 2010). We used the following additional process to allow for peer-review. This, again, sets up the potential for socially-informed, collaborative learning:

  • Find, underline and code your own errors.
  • Pass to the left and check over a partner’s errors (Rechecking)
  • Pass back.
  • Discuss errors as a group.
  • Tally up all errors in the group
  • Write out common errors for each category (Morphological/Lexical/Syntactic).
  • I go around the class and point out errors as best I can also.

The lesson has a lot of content, from learning about errors, coding practice, finding their own errors, translating JP → English, and mining YouTube videos for new phrases and expressions, however, the students don’t seem to tire. I, therefore, think this class was the right level of “difficulty,” appropriate to university-level students’ intellect.

Some photos of a student’s worksheet:

Week 6: Replay — Speaking assessment introduced

I realised that I haven’t been assessing students on the main skill this class is supposed to develop: speaking. They have a written test at the end of the year (which I decide zero of the content for) which accounts for 50% of their grade. The other 50% I’m directly responsible for giving and up until now I have been basing this grade on the quality of written work they give to me. So, I am going to grade/evaluate the students speaking skill as they perform during gameplay in the Replay class. The (simple) rubric is below:

poorbelow averagesatisfactory excellent

For these topics:

  • Fluency (how much they spoke)
  • Accuracy (how accurately they spoke)
  • Volume (how confidently they spoke)
  • Use of game-specific terms
    • Did they refer to items by the correct keyword or just generically?
    • How well do they know the game in terms of:
      • The language required to play well
      • How to play in general
  • Cooperation (Did they only consider themselves or did they speak about/with others?)

I used the rubric above to grade students during gameplay. I was surprised by how much students could use English in the second gameplay. Essentially, it proved to me that the work we did up to this point has helped them realise their potential. It also means that unfortunately:

Unless I assign X, they won’t do X

Simply: I feel that because this class was “graded” students tried harder than they would if it was not. From a gaming perspective, they will “game the system” and find the shortest way to get their course credit. In my class, this means that unless they are specifically told to use English, some of them won’t. It also shows how “gamified” education is in general, or at least, how extrinsic motivation is the only way I can get some students to engage with the course content.

Another way of framing it is that they have no purpose for using English other than for a grade. There is no authentic audience or interlocutor they are communicating with, only classmates.

Week 7: Reanalysis

Impossible to compare the two transcriptions

I had hoped that it would be possible to compare their performance during the two gameplay sessions by tallying their errors in the first session and the second session and seeing if there was a decrease between the two sessions. However, I didn’t (foolishly) consider the fact that the two play sessions would be different in length. So, by merely comparing the total number of errors between the two sessions, although some figures went down, others went up. What really needed to be done was for students to consider how many errors were made as a percentage of the total number of utterances. For example:

Play SessionNumber of
errors as % of
errors as % of
Morphological errors as % of
110010 (10%)2 (2%)5 (5%)
250030 (6%)1 (0.2%)5 (1%)
Difference+ 400%4% decrease1.8% decrease4% decrease

The above makes sense to me. If I’m being over simple here or there is a better way of showing improvement over the two sessions, please let me know.

Week 8: Game research — Explicit instruction again

In a word: The power of expectations.

Students completed the following steps in today’s class:

  1. Research a game.
  2. Tell your partner about the game you researched and work as a pair to prepare for a class-wide speaking activity where you introduce your games to others.
  3. Tell other pairs about the games you researched.

I proposed for them to search in Japanese first, then look for an English version of the rule book for them to see how the same is said in English, then for them to write on their worksheet some keywords, verbs of the game, and 3 interesting points as a way to quickly introduce the game

The first class:

Parts 1, 2 and 3 were done all in Japanese despite me telling them that the aim of the class was to use their English to explain something to others.

When I got close to a pair, the speaker would stop and try to say something in English then revert to Japanese straight away. Some didn’t even bother doing that.

I had to tell them at the end of the class that I was a bit disappointed in their effort and asked, “What exactly did you do in English today? Nothing, right? And what class is this? Your Japanese class? I don’t think so….”

Why though? Some ideas:

  1. This is a monolingual class. I get it. For them, speaking English to each other is just totally unnatural. But that is the goal of the class. It’s also totally unnatural for them to be programming ifs fors and other such loops into a computer, but they learn that language…!

What I _could_ do in this instance is to actually ALLOW the speaking to be in Japanese but make the first part explicitly searching for English sources only. So in a way, this would be hitting all the right buttons in terms of Lambert’s (2011) needs analysis which showed that one of the main skills for university graduates is to be able to translate and describe L2 sources into Japanese.

  1. They want to explain the WHOLE game to their partner. Not just the interesting parts. Sometimes those interesting parts don’t make sense until you know the whole rules.
  2. They just can’t be bothered to try.
  3. I have allowed the class to fail at this task by not promoting “English only” activities. About that….

The following class:

I made it VERY VERY explicit that I wanted the third part of the class done in English. I told them that the first two activities were designed specifically to aid them in that third activity, and that they definitely could do it if they only tried. I also made a point of telling them that it didn’t matter that they don’t tell their partners ALL of the rules, as long as they get a gist of the game.

And it worked.

The third stage of this class was done all in English with students REALLY trying to explain things like how the assassin works in Resistance: Avalon.

The power of explicit instruction (and threats?) ladies and gentlemen!

WEEK 9: Learn — MORE explicit instruction

Reading the rule book in order to learn the game. So, an input activity, mostly reading, but some groups did make reference to the previous students’ videos and YouTube.

The main problem with the class is that there is a massive difference in effort between groups. It’s not consistent at all. Some groups doing almost every single part of the class in Japanese, others using a mix of English and Japanese and others still that predominantly use English.

Why is there such variety?

  • Am I not strict enough?
  • Is there not enough departmentalisation of time? In other words time-boxing, or pomodoros or something else to explicitly allot time to DOING THINGS IN ENGLISH?
  • Have I allowed for a class that doesn’t feel like they need to speak English?
  • Are they just lazy?
  • Is it because I’m not grading them or testing them on their work in looking through rulebooks and watching YouTube?

Other groups COULDN’T do the learning activities in Japanese because their game doesn’t have a Japanese rule book or sites which explain how to play the game in Japanese. They were, by default, forced to do the activity in English. Also, because they had played the game before in English they also carried out the test play in English. Why are they the exception though? What motivated them to do that?

Again, for the majority of groups today the old adage reared its head again:

If it is not graded or required, they will not do it.



I gave an extremely explicit talk about the learning goals of the class during my classes today (Thursday, first classes after the disappointing Tuesday class).

I took 10 – 15 minutes to outline what the goal of the class was and decided that actually the goal could be separated into two subcategories, which we then brainstormed. Learners lists were very very poor. Most of the students wrote “speak English” as the English skill for the day which absolutely blows my mind. In this class, they have to read the rulebook, watch rules explanation videos, and discuss the game rules with their group members… The goal of THIS CLASS is definitely NOT speaking. I can’t quite understand why they wrote that.

I created the following list:

Goals related to the game

  • Learn the rules
  • How to play
  • Individual character abilities
  • Keywords

English/academic goals

  • Collaboration
  • Cooperation / effective communication
  • Smartphone usage (searching for word meanings)
  • Reading an English text
  • Listening/watching an English video
  • Interpreting the text
  • Translating the text
  • Learn new
    • Vocab
    • Grammar

Regarding these skills, I mentioned that some (like collaboration and cooperation) are clearly not limited to English language ability but are considered 21st-century skills, or more concretely: the skills that anybody entering the workplace should possess. The English-related skills I tried to show examples of how they may transfer into work requirements placed on them in later life, such as translating an English document for other colleagues at work.

Upon making the goals of the class explicit like this, I asked them what they need (as a prerequisite) in order to complete the activities in italics above. I think my question was too obvious for them. They genuinely didn’t know how to answer. Like I’d asked them a trick question. I asked them in Japanese too. Multiple times. Some answers I got:

  • やる気 (willingness to try)
  • A dictionary
  • A mobile phone

No one mentioned the obvious:

  • English input/text

You need something written in English to be able to practice reading in English, right?

They laughed. But there was a reason I did the whole speech at the start of the class: because some students, groups and even classes do not even bother to use an English text as their input for rule learning. We know this. I’ve talked about the above. And I let these students know it, too.

You may laugh, but I’ve been in classes where people go from Japanese rulebook to speaking about it in Japanese to then test playing in Japanese. So they don’t actually learn any English at all.

The spiel worked for my lowest level class this afternoon. They all spent over 45 mins each reading through their chosen game’s rule book in English, making notes in Japanese on how to play (interpreting) and jotting down the meaning of words they did not understand.

Following that, I instructed them to watch a YouTube video which explained how to play their game before they finally compared notes with their other group members. A summary of activities then being:

  1. My speech (15 mins)
  2. Reading and note-taking individually (45 mins)
  3. Video watching individually (10 mins)
  4. Group conversation, rule checking, and set up (20 mins)

What did I learn?

That I need to communicate why we are doing class activities. What the goals are and how they link to possible further life skills.

Update 2: New critical analysis question added

I’m finding it hard to push students to even get proficient enough to do things like play codenames in English. It’s a struggle because there are multiple different student “types” if you will. Borrowing from Bartle’s player types, just thinking up some typical students for my classroom:

  • Killers
    • Grade Hunters — are willing to do what is necessary to get a grade, but nothing more.
    • Game Hunters — just want to win the game (and not even think about using English, but at least they are engaging…).
  • Socializers
    • Jesters — want to play and have fun. Generally well-liked students but joke around at the expense of English language development.
    • Anti-socializers (those students who really struggle to interact with their classmates in Japanese, let alone English)
  • Explorers
    • Starry-eyed Steves — Those that will go the extra mile to learn all the ins and outs of a game and help others play it well. This usually inspires them to work hard on their English, too.
    • Serious Sallys — Students that are too serious for gaming and wish we were doing TOEIC test practice instead
  • Achievers
    • The leechers — who are happy to let other people learn the rules, analyze worksheets and do homework, as long as they also get an achievement

In terms of group dynamics:

Some groups recognize that the game they are playing is incredibly fun, and if they use as much English as possible, can really push themselves to learn new expressions and make themselves understood in the L2. Other groups are much much less engaged. They are happy to just come to class and not have to look at a textbook. A real range of abilities and level of engagement.

To try and raise that bar regarding what I expect, I have been experimenting (again) with some more “academic-style” questioning during this phase which they are to answer in writing (i.e. not speaking, their weakest skill). The question was simply for students to reflect on their learning of game rules and give preference for learning via the rulebook or via instructional video and to give a reason why. I expected most students to glance over the question and not really pay it much attention, but I saw some great answers (of course I saw poor ones too…).

Really contemplating changing some things up with KR for next year… Maybe just play one game and do a range of different analysis projects.

Week 10: Play

The second playthrough. This class was also another instance of the speaking test which I outlined above.

I am still curious as to why students don’t refer to their worksheets from previous classes during play. We have done three weeks’ worth of classes up to this point to help them to prepare for this “test” play… Some possible reasons:

  1. They don’t have the time to check their worksheets because the pace of the game is too fast.
  2. It doesn’t occur to them that they are allowed to check their worksheets (based on the knowledge that other classes forbid the use of calculators during tests, they may think the use of worksheets during their play sessions is not allowed)
  3. They don’t really care how well they speak English during play as long as they are having fun.
  4. They are not concerned with how well they speak English because they are pretty sure they can pass the class without working hard.

Honestly, there could be students in the class that have one or more of those opinions plus others I haven’t thought of. However, unless I do some formal surveying, I can’t claim to have a concrete answer.

Week 11: Analyze

Focusing explicitly on errors during play is possibly too myopic in terms of the kinds of analysis they could do.

Concrete example:

The Sheriff of Nottingham group had no idea about the mythos behind the game. They played it well, they used lots of English, they learnt some new expressions, they had fun, but they didn’t dig into the background or theme of the game. This was a perfect opportunity to get them to do some research about the game in more depth. They had heard of Robin Hood but had no idea that he was being alluded to in the game they were playing. They also didn’t know that Nottingham was a real place…!

Now, not every game lends itself to such follow-up discussion work. Or, maybe they do… Interesting food for thought and a direction that KR could go in the future.

Week 12 – 14: Final Projects — Consent and engagement issues

As always, no group decided to do a presentation about how to play their game to other students. The ‘live’ nature of the project terrifies students.

The Sheriff of Nottingham team were interested in remixing the game into a Japanese context. They started playing with the idea of re-theming it so that mead was saké and bread was rice. That could be a project for them next year if I have them in my class again.

Use of Google Docs for written reports

Game Reviews were created with Google Docs this year which was a much better system. Some key takeaways:

  • I set up a specific time mid-way into their doc creations to leave comments and feedback which I could not do without using this technology
  • Transcription groups could work together at the same time in class on different parts of the doc: a few students writing the spoken part, a few others writing grammar guides.

Video editing software:

I recommended Videoleap as a good, more robust alternative to iMovie for some groups, and they made great use of the additional features. I also saw groups talking amongst each other regarding editing techniques and software. “Tips” were also given by one group that had finished to a group that was still in the process of editing. This reminded me of apprenticing and LPP to a certain extent.

One group, in particular, surprised me with the way that they created a super short, comprehensive guide to playing One Night Ultimate Werewolf:

How to play One Night Ultimate Werewolf

As part of creating their video, they are instructed to watch and analyse a “professional” video on YouTube, which just so happens to be the same game (link). This analysis stage is designed to get learners thinking about their own video project, specifically regarding the sequence that they should introduce elements of their game. I tell groups to not get concerned about the quality of the “professional” video, and that I don’t expect their work to be of the same standard, but the group above created something that is incredibly simple to understand (for future students) and is on par with the video they analysed in my opinion.

Storyboarding and transfer of skills from other classes

One group started but did not finish using storyboards for their project — showing that they drew upon the skills they had acquired in another context. In sum, they were transferring those skills to the English classroom.

On consent and willingness to engage

I experimented with a new consent form asking for permission to post their work on youtube publicly. A few groups have been kind enough to allow me to post their work publicly, and as you might imagine, those that did are the groups that put a lot of effort into their projects and are proud of their work. These groups are aware of the genuine, authenticity of their audience and planned to create something of value from the beginning of their project such as the group that created storyboards.

My thoughts going forward regarding consent and student work is to continue to provide the option to opt out of public sharing but remove the option to opt out of sharing with other students. It clear to me that there is a direct relationship between the quality of a group’s production and their willingness for it to be shared with others. Simply: the more effort students have put into a project, the more willing they are to share it with future students and the public. The opposite is also true: students that put in no effort don’t want others to see their shoddy work. Therefore, it seems that by allowing students to remove the genuine audience (by opting out) allows them to slack on the work. Removing the option to opt out could inspire learners to work harder.

It’s an interesting side thought that failing the class doesn’t seem to be an indicator of improved motivation to create a high-quality product. It’s as if they are already sure they will pass the class regardless of the quality of the work they do.

Issues with worksheets

Some students (50%??) ignored the worksheet for the most part and just went ahead and made their video, making up the content on the fly. Upon completing the video they then tried to fill in the worksheet. In effect then, attempting to do all the planning work after recording. A useless task, which is clearly not the way I intended the worksheet to be used.

They seem to look at the worksheet to get a feel for what I’m asking for, in broad strokes, and then go about making the video themselves. It’s not entirely bad, but I feel like they are wasting the opportunity to plan their project beforehand.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading. I really appreciate it.
Comments are very much welcome.


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As a teacher at TDU, the class I am in charge of is an “English communication” class with a focus on speaking and listening skills. All I’m really told to do is improve their speaking ability. It’s an incredibly vague, CLT-inspired goal such that ‘student talk time is paramount.’ My teacher training and general reading of SLA literature brainwashed or at least influenced me to have those very same thoughts: “I should have the students speaking as much as possible,” or I’m happy if students interacted in English during class. My introduction to colleagues such as Jonathan deHaan and Peter Hourdequin and subsequently the work of New London Group, Multiliteracies, Connected Learning and other progressive approaches to education really blew my mind and popped my CLT-bubble. It made me realise that I’ve been focusing too much on my own goals as a teacher-researcher interested in the potential of a pedagogical sound game-based language learning environment. And, as a part of this, I have been ignoring or not thinking about the goal of the class outside of “getting students to speak English.” Of course, KR has come a long way since its initial iteration, but learner goals are largely ignored still.

As my current framework is not designed in advance to teach any specific skill, that would suggest that I could improve it by either:

  1. providing students with English education that is more appropriate for when they graduate (i.e.focused more on their major field of study)
  2. teach English with a focus on academic/thinking/global participation skills.

I can’t see the students at my university having any need for English in their lives post-graduation, and so it may be time to consider teaching other, more useful skills through the medium of English…

JALT2018 Presentation

Game-based language learning:
It’s not all fun and games

The aim of this presentation was to:

  1. Give an overview of the main research trends of GBLL
  2. Compare GBLL to gamification
  3. Provide details of my own approach to TBLT-informed GBLL
  4. Give advice to those interested in GBLL

This post contains the presentation video, slides, and references used during the presentation.


#JALT2018 presentation video



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Thanks for reading!


Kotoba Rollers 2018: A reflection of the first term

? Two Rooms reflection

Two rooms and a boom is the first game we play. Here are some small tweaks to the general model I’ve made, why I made those changes and reflections on what the changes brought about.

Model updates

Grammar presentations

During the first analysis session, students find errors in their transcriptions, discuss how it could be corrected and make notes on grammar, phrases or vocabulary that they will be able to use in the next play session. The presentations went well but have been lacking a ‘test’ element. The “test” element may be considered a quiz where each group introduces the grammar/phrases/vocabulary that they researched as well as four or five questions to check other groups’ comprehension.

I wanted to do this activity so that there is a need for students to listen to each others’ presentations. Additionally, as they are all playing the same game, the lexical items or grammar that each group researches will have relevance to all other groups. Finally, by grading themselves and giving themselves a score I am able to use it towards their final grade which hopefully inspires them to be responsible for what they do in the classroom.

Here is a sample worksheet for the grammar presentation and quiz

I only did this activity with one class. It went well, but they are still only focusing on super low-level grammar. “Let’s…” “Do you want to…” etc. Where is the deeper dive?

Let’s play video → SUSD video

I didn’t show my Minecraft-based let’s play video, instead opting for SU&SD’s play through. As a part of this, I made students answer six questions based on the video such as:

  • How does Quinns ask the leader what colour he is?
  • What do players say when giving information to their teammates?

As a result of watching the YouTube video, I saw those expressions come out in the subsequent play session, but only in limited, isolated instances. Not all classes or students seemed to internalise the expressions they had been exposed to. In fact, it was the vast majority of students that used what they had seen/heard the previous week. This calls for additional viewings before the following play session to refresh their memories.


I witnessed a fantastic episode of playfulness from one student who was given the demon character card. The card states that the player must lie. As a result, the player didn’t just lie about things related to the game but ‘meta-lied’ about non-game related topics. One example of this is in his utterance: “I have a girlfriend,” poking fun at himself.

Such episodes were again isolated though. I feel that for my context the ‘leader’ character really is a paramount, essential, locus of attention role which prevents or inhibits other players from ‘going about their business’ of gathering information individually. However, whether it’s the games fault that students aren’t more creative is difficult to say.

(Some, no… Most) students are very passive during Two Rooms play

For instance, the Gambler is an easy character to win with. They just need to know who the president and bomber are before the end of the game. If they have this information, they can accurately guess which team has one. However, without making this point explicit, and promoting the gambler mid-game, the person who gets the gambler role just tends to stand around and wait for information to come to them. Why is that? It has to be a mixture of these elements:

  • Lack of understanding
  • Lack of language skills and confidence
  • Lack of interest

Or, as mentioned above, the leader character is such an alpha role, it demands attention from all other players.

I can’t figure out how to teach these students to work as an individual during the game. Could this also relate to cultural differences? Maybe… A tough question to solve.

Post-play character research observations

After playing Two Rooms in the first play session, all students are given the homework of researching a few of the (oodles of) extra characters in the official Character Guide. The task in the following class is to introduce those characters to other students and choose some of the characters to add to our game. However, some students just copied down the text that was written next to characters without trying to understand the meaning!

Perfect! /s

If they did not go to the effort of understanding the unique features of new characters, they were not able to explain this to other classmates. In other words, they were not interpreting the text in a way that either they could understand or their interlocutor. They were just reading the text verbatim and hoping their interlocutor could understand.

This is one of the best examples of how to structure “homework” in my opinion.

The work that students have to do at home is an essential part of the following class and essential for progressing through the model (i.e. play → analysis, debriefing, and learn some more about the game → replay). If they do not do the homework, they cannot participate in the following class. In contrast, in a previous teaching position homework was generally comprised of completing reading activities. These reading activities typically appear at the end of textbook chapters as a way to “check understanding” of the chapter’s content. But there is no following activity… No necessity to complete it other than “you’ll get an F if you don’t…” No connection to the wider curricular aims. That, to me, is an example of ineffectual, boring, generic homework.

So, to backtrack a little, I have students talking amongst each other about characters they have researched. And, among those students are those that haven’t done the homework and have no idea what the “Angel” does or how the “Hot Potato” works. I need to improve this part of the model to be able to identify and punish those that did not do the homework properly. Yes, they already get a sort of punishment by looking foolish in front of peers, but it should have an effect on their final grade, which, at the moment, it doesn’t. This activity should be assessed more aggressively though. Maybe get each student to explain their character to me, and then I grill them on the meaning of the new rules. However, they respond to my questioning determines their score for that particular class.

Post-play reanalysis and discussion observations

At the end of the play, analyze and replay cycle I have asked students to discuss the results of their second play session. In other words, asking them to consider the following question — “Did you use the grammar points or expressions that you researched between play sessions?”

This is a valuable activity as they will be doing the same cycle three more times this year, and so it can inform them on how to conduct the “analysis” session with more focus, more accurately identify errors, or improve efficiency for in future cycles (i.e. so that they research grammar or expressions that they will actually use in subsequent play sessions, or at least think about how to prepare for subsequent play sessions in future cycles).

However, the overwhelming result is that, no, they didn’t use any of the phrases that they looked up during the first analysis session…

One thing they didn’t pick up on was the lack of deep analysis they did between play sessions. For example, some groups looking at how to translate a single, isolated, very specific sentence or word into English. However, just because it came up in the first session, doesn’t mean that it will appear in the second session.

For example, one group looked up:
言ったらスパイにバレる → translated to → The spy will find out if I say.

Then, in the second play session, we didn’t use the spy character, and so they didn’t use that phrase.

They need to look more broadly at their output and find structures or patterns that can be utilized in the next play session instead. Situations change. They need to do deeper analysis.

Reasons that were found or put forth for the lack of usage of the words they researched during the analysis stage:

  • Game time limit too short
  • Not enough time to think
  • Too many characters causing cognitive overload
  • No practice of language before class
  • The situation changed so didn’t need certain items. (as described above)
  • That they were lazy
  • ⭐ They can make themselves understood without using long sentences. Words are enough.

Another new addition to the post play reanalysis class was for students to use a modification of the “5 whys” method of exploration (I just asked students to ask “Why?” three times instead). In other words, I told students to ask “why” three times for each reason:

“We didn’t say ‘Do you wanna … ‘ very much.
Why? → Because we didn’t remember it.
Why? → Because we didn’t study before class.
Why? → Because we aren’t interested in English.

Yes, this reveals some hard truths..! Be careful.

??‍♀️ Spyfall

Much like the 2R1B post-play character research above, when students were asked to look for interesting questions online, they did the activity (searching on Google for “spyfall questions”) but they just wrote down the questions verbatim without considering the meaning. Maybe… One question, in particular, tripped students up:

“What brings you here today?” which they thought meant “what did you bring here?” That was a teachable moment!

Students are not engaging in “reproductive literacy” or #TransformedPractice (a term coined by Freebody and Luke, 1990). They are not remixing the questions or thinking about the underlying structures of the questions that they find in order to generate similar questions or even how to use those questions during gameplay….!

Shadowing (or lack thereof)

I noticed that the vaaaaast majority of groups do no shadowing during gameplay at all.
It is definitely something that needs to be brought up. When a particular student in a particular group was shadowing, it was so very very natural for me to hear, and it really helped show his comprehension of questions. I think I need to push this technique more.

Analysis: YouTube video watching

We took a full hour to do this activity. In groups.
By taking each question individually and really drilling down, they produced some surprisingly good results.
Of course, I went around the room and helped them out, as they are not really proficient enough to pull out example sentences from the YouTube videos on their own (in most cases).

Some things we picked up on:

  • “I guess” as an ambiguous answer
    • One student in the group that found this phrase used it in subsequent sessions also which was amazing for me. Even into the “Spyfall Tournament” phase of the semester.
  • “I don’t buy it”
  • “Would you…” as an introduction to conditionals
  • “Where we are” as a way to talk about the location (instead of just “here”)

An interesting ‘difference’ between students and natives was that the natives spoke very fast and had no empty time. Students in my class didn’t think about the fact that the video might be edited…

The learner is not building towards an ideal version of the language which exists in abstract. Rather, the learner is building on and out of his perception of the usage of the language heard in the mouths of other language users and this construction process in the life of every language user is the only meaningful definition of what the language is. (Sockett, 2014, p. 29).

This line made me think of the work I’m doing in the post-play analysis lessons. We are looking at authentic resources to try and supplement their interlanguage.

Grammar instruction

I’ve been experimenting with how I give the grammar instruction between play sessions. Last year, I gave them the worksheet and told them to work through it. Before that, I have asked students to look up particular grammar points on the internet. This time I stood at the front of the room and got them to walk me through the process of making questions in English (in some classes) or got groups to work together on generating a pattern of English sentence formation (in other, more advanced classes). We looked at two particular types of question formation:

  • yes/no questions
  • QUASM questions
    • question word
    • auxiliary verb
    • subject
    • main verb
    • predicate

As an example, writing the first line on the board with separators between the words and getting them to think about the underlying structure of yes/no questions.

Do You Like natto?
Be (are, is) he
your mother

So, instead of me just giving them a “grammar guide” we talk through it or they talk through it in an expert-novice setting, within the ZPD, and from a socially-informed approach to SLA (am I missing any keywords?)

Report phase

I’ve introduced a more formal presentation activity for the final report class. It still needs a rubric created for it though. Some examples:

18RT responses

17RD responses

What is the goal of the class?

This is something that will (probably) need to be fleshed out in a future post. It’s one of the major things on my mind right now and something that I’ve been avoiding. The elephant in the room ? for sure. However, I’ll sketch out the current, basic idea here.

For the most part, the students in my classes have never used English for authentic communicative purposes. By this, I mean that the only oral (and probably written) output they have ever produced has been scripted ? . E.g. “Chapter 2: Planning a party” where students see a model conversation, change a few words and practice using that form as part of a “task.” Such language use is incredibly useless. Useless in that it has no effect on developing their interlanguage. Maybe they get some knowledge of English, briefly, but it has no impact on them as a student, or young Japanese person. What are they to do with a canned conversation about ordering a pizza? No, the tasks given to students in textbooks are not helping to develop students’ interlanguage, or in other words: the L2 version of those students.

From my own experiences as an L2 learner, I used to practice developing my L2 and L2 identity before sleeping. I would lie in bed and try to carry out a conversation in Japanese in my head… Now, not all of the students in my class, in fact, probably none of the students in my classes are prepared to go to that level in terms of their language development, but whilst they are taking my class and participating in oral activities in my class, I’d like them to exercise their communicative competence and practice speaking “without training wheels.

So that’s the main part: Learning about themselves as an L2 speaker, and fostering an improvement in their ability based on structured noticing activities, repeated gameplay sessions, and exposure to native speakers.

But is this “authentic” enough? I’ve been in talks with my friend and colleague Jonathan deHaan over the last few weeks and as always he is keeping me on my toes and pointing at the elephant ??‍? ?? ?. In Jonathan’s context, he has students work towards contributing something to or participating in wider society. As an explicit example, he is currently teaching a class that is specifically about connected learning. I.e., each student will choose something they are interested in, research it, and participate or engage in conversation with people in the wider community around that topic.

The participatory nature of KR is (mostly) missing. It’s a bubble of English practice that exists within the classroom for 100mins a week. This has somecomplexcomplications in terms of the methodological underpinnings of the class. For example, is it really TBLT if it has no “real world” component?

Anyway, focusing on how I can extend their language use outside of the classroom, I am currently trying to do this with the final project, where learners have to produce something of value to be used by the next generation of students. However, I give them an “out” allowing them to decline from making their materials available (via a consent form in the KR textbook). Things students could do as final projects and to increase participation (after seeking ethical approval from TDU of course):

  • Post groups’ videos as public on YouTube
  • BGG review posts or Amazon reviews instead of word documents handed into me
  • Teach and play games with other TDU students outside of the classroom (in an all-encompassing York Game Lab “end of term” gaming event

Playing devil’s advocate

Let’s put it out there:

The activities that students do as part of my course are equally as unimportant as those that they would do with a random textbook, with a random, uninterested, uninformed language teacher.

I don’t want to agree to this, as I have explored how KR can help motivate, re-engage and create a student-centred, productive class (see York & deHaan, 2018). However, I have not measured any learning goals for the course yet. I have nothing to prove the “effectiveness” of the course in helping learners to develop their interlanguage and proficiency in English. So I can’t cling doggedly to the idea that KR is better in some way to the textbook-based class that I taught in the past.

Quite a depressing thought.

How to evaluate students with the KR model…

There have been some problems this semester, and I’m glad they came up because it has given me a lot to think about regarding the next iteration of the model.

The major problem was that I found a group of students during the Spyfall replay class quite unashamedly playing the game in Japanese. All Japanese. They were quick to tell me that they had finished playing in English and were now “killing time” by playing in Japanese. During class time. When the (my) aim of the class was to get the students to a level of proficiency so that they could play in English. My initial reaction was “OK, whatever. Please do what you want,” but as I was walking to the next group which happened to be in the same room, I heard some of the questions that they were asking each other in Japanese. These questions were very basic. They were almost exactly the same as the ones that we had been studying in the first Spyfall class… It was this point that made me react:

  • Why not just play in English?
  • What a waste of a good opportunity!
  • Why would they throw away all of the hard work that they had been doing?
  • What do they not understand about the aim of the class?

A multitude of thoughts flew through my brain which ended with me in a rage.

The biggest shock of the class was discovering how little my goals are being adhered to by students. Like, completely ignored. Or thought of as frivolous? My aim for the class is to gradually build up their speaking skills so that they can use English authentically, without the training wheels (as mentioned above). Now, in this class, the domain prescribed for “authentic” usage just so happens to be gameplay. Is that the problem? By situating the domain for language use inside and around gaming–something that is often thought of as frivolous–maybe that causes students to not take the class seriously. In sum:

It’s all fun and games when using games.

Ba dum tiss!

I provide tools for learners to do serious analysis of their language ability, learn new grammar, teach others, reflect on their learning, improve as an L2 speaker… but they do the bare minimum. What is the problem? By not putting any whips or hurdles (tests/formative assessments) in front of them, do they have no fear of failure and thus no willingness to even try? This is another serious concern.

I threw the whole group out of the class that day and I ended up in the dumps for the whole week. But, with the help of my Japan Game Lab colleagues and a long chat with a former student at TDU, I feel like I am getting somewhere with the “why” and “how to prevent” such behaviour in the future, and it all leads to assessment. Assessment is not an aspect of SLA or education that has really piqued my interest before, and thus I have very little knowledge of how best to design rubrics or evaluate different skills. This is going to be a new area for me, but something that is important to consider for the future of KR.

The framework has a very rudimentary assessment criterion built in as it stands. I take in all worksheets from students and assess them based on how much work they did. A simple “has done” // “has not done” and then plus or minus a few points based on the level in which I feel the work has been completed. However, this assessment criteria is not told to the students so they have no idea. Additionally, I do not assess students in this way until the end of the semester after collecting their work in so they cannot see a “running total.” I think there are a number of areas where assessment could be built into the course, improving the transparency of grading. For example:

  • Learn
    • Explicitly state how many verbs/nouns/adjectives to find.
    • How many questions did they write?
  • Play
    • Total number of transcribed lines.
  • Analyze
    • How many questions did they get correct on the grammar quiz?
  • Replay
    • Total number of transcribed lines.
  • Reanalyze
  • Report
    • Complete a test which focuses on:
      • Game rules
      • Game vocab
      • Typical phrases used in the game
      • Transferability: such as demonstrating how they can use specific grammar points outside of the game context.
    • Write a written review of the games that they played.

      Going forward into the second semester

In conclusion, then, the biggest thing I would like to change is the final “participatory” goals of KR. It could be a proverbial stick, threatening students into taking responsibility for their learning and progression of the class if they know that they have to produce a public artefact at the end of the course. But we’ll see… I have touched on some ideas for wider participatory projects, and will continue to work at this over the next few months. Whether I will have time to implement them this semester, I’m not sure, but I will try!

If you read this far and have any comments, please let me know. I’m very eager to hear opinions on what I am (trying) to do in my teaching context. Also, if you have tried to implement anything that you have read here on the JGL blog, please let us know. Yes, we are named the Japan Game Lab, but we are interested in English teaching as a global phenomenon and practice.

Thanks as always,



  • Freebody, P., & Luke, A. (1990). Literacies programs: Debates and demands in cultural context. Prospect: An Australian Journal of TESOL, 5(3), 7-16.
  • Sockett, G. (2014). The online informal learning of English. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • York, J., & DeHaan, J. (2018). A constructivist approach to game-based language learning: Student perceptions in a beginner-level EFL context. International Journal of Game-Based Learning, 8(1), 19–40.

JALT 2017 “Re-rolling SLA Methodology with Tabletop Games”

Thanks to all of those who attended our forum at JALT 2017. Some of the attendees asked for copies of the slides we used, so we are uploading them here.

There was a lot of content (even though it was a 90 minute workshop), so we hope people can look through at a slower pace here. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below in the discussion section.

Reflection on the post-play “Analysis” lesson

First up, this is the order of activities that students complete as part of this lesson:

  1. Check English errors
  2. Translate JP to EN
  3. Presentations
  4. YouTube viewing

Set up

Before this class, students played a game and recorded the audio during the play session. For homework (or for the time remaining in the previous class) they collectively transcribed the audio and wrote down how many times each member spoke English in a tally.

Checking errors

The first activity of the class is for students to collectively look at their transcriptions for any mistakes they made in English. Of course, it is not obvious to them when they are making mistakes and I often hear the lamentation 「間違えているか分からないよー」as I walk around. However, they can easily pick up on the fact that they are mostly interacting by using single words (Open. Who? Werewolf. This. You? Next.).

I walk around the class looking at students transcriptions, marking areas that I think they should explore further.

Today I pointed out the following expressions as areas to look into:

  • I want you to…
  • Because / because of / so
  • Should / shall
  • He said / who said…?
  • There is / there is no…
  • There’s a good chance…
  • “a” and “the”

The students also realised that they used a lot of Japanese unnecessarily. Things like ‘そうだね’ or ‘これとこれ’ really shouldn’t be being said in Japanese. It’s not like they don’t know how to say such simple things in English, they just didn’t realise that they were using Japanese until they listened back to the audio and made the transcriptions.

Taking the game ‘Insider’ in particular, the group noticed that the main part of the game occurs after thekeyword has been guessed correctly. They also realised that this was the stage where they pretty much only used Japanese. However, I told them that it was not a problem. Certainly not a negative. The fact that they transcribed all of their Japanese discussion for use in today’s class is great. Why? Because it gives them the opportunity to think about how they could do the same discussion in English. I also told them that some students don’t transcribe the Japanese parts they spoke because they think it’s ‘against the rules’ to speak Japanese or that it is not important for the post-play analysis. Realising that the L1 can be a launchpad to thinking about the L2 is a great step here. That is the purpose of this lesson: to critically evaluate their previous performance and to collectively try and improve their knowledge for the next play session.


Each class does the same third stage, which is to present any interesting things they found during the first and second stages. Using the whiteboards that they have available to them, they write out a few English grammar points and Japanese to English translations.

But why present their findings?

I think there are two positive outcomes of presenting.

  1. They reinforce their knowledge of items,
  2. They provide other groups with useful expressions that may not have come up in their own discussions.

I want to write a few thoughts regarding 2) above by referencing what happened in today’s class.

One group (the Resistance: Avalon group) introduced the expression ‘I want you to ….’ I then asked other groups in the class how they could use the same structure in their own games. The Captain Sonar group realised very quickly that the engineer could use this structure. Another group introduced ‘Shall we….’ and ‘You should’ which was picked up by the Avalon group as something they could use when deciding who should be picked to go on a quest. This continued until all groups had introduced some useful expression, phrase, or word that could be used in their games.

The point here is that although the games are different, there is great learning potential in getting students to share their findings because other groups may benefit from incorporating the expressions into their own context. It’s impossible for me to give precise grammar instruction to all groups (or at least, it would take [number of groups] x 90 minutes), so for them to instruct each other is a great compromise, and the laidback, community-based environment is one that I think the students enjoy. It is a real pleasure to see.


A criticism of this activity is that students are generally only looking up one-to-one translations for expressions meaning that instead of introducing structures (as shown above) they will introduce extremely specific sentences translated from Japanese, or just one to one lexical items such as ‘当たった is Hit! in English.’ My next goal is to get them looking more deeply at the grammar behind what they want to say.

YouTube viewing session

This is possibly the most difficult part of the class for the students and as a result, very difficult for me to provide guidance. Here’s why:


  • YouTube auto-translations are incredibly unreliable.
  • Videos sometimes don’t exist (like for Insider)
  • Videos with subtitles are rare.
  • Native speakers talk too fast and interrupt each other a lot which means that the listening activity is too advanced for the students
  • Students don’t take time to pause and reflect on what they are hearing.

However, it is not all doom and gloom(haven).

Although there are not many games that feature subtitles on YouTube, some generous, kind and wonderful people do include subtitles. Subtitles can be accessed by pressing “filter” on search results:

I also had a really interesting experience last week doing this class. One group played Mafia de Cuba, and so watched a YouTube video of native speakers playing the game.

This video:

What was so amazing was that having played the game themselves the previous week, watching the video was a real pleasure for the students. They got to see other people’s tactics, see how the game unfolded, and were enthralled in watching. We spoke about it afterwards and came to the conclusion that because they were deeply interested in the content, and wanted to know how the game would conclude, it didn’t feel like traditional “English class video-watching.” The group were instructed to rewatch the video more critically after the first viewing to understand what was being said, and look for expressions that they could use in their own gameplay.

Therefore, students do pick up expressions from the videos, write them down, and finally share what they found with their group, further increasing their potential repertoire for the next class. However, this whole section needs more work.

Final ideas

Possible ways to improve the class:

  • Provide common grammar error handouts to complete for homework

Such handouts could be created by myself, or the students could be pointed to specific websites to study grammar. The only issue I see here is that, unless they are really motivated to learn the grammar, I can’t see a lot of students being excited to do this activity.

  • Dedicate time to explain how to look for grammar guides online.

As mentioned, Students just look at Google Translate for one-to-one translations, not websites that explain the details behind the how and why of English grammar. I think it would be beneficial for students to learn how to use digital tools to help them acquire correct grammar rules during class time. I also think they should be expected to explain grammar rules to other groups as part of the their presentations.

Possible extensions to the class:

  • Quiz each other at the start of the following class before replaying the game.
  • I could make a short test based on their findings and make a more structured quiz also.

As always, thanks for reading. Comments welcome.

Multiliteracies pedagogy and the Kotoba Rollers framework

I’m a neophyte when it comes to this pedagogy, so please bear with my ignorance in this post. As a language teacher, and more importantly, researcher, I am a little embarrassed that it has taken me this long to really dig into the literature on this topic, and hope that this post can act as a springboard for others, too.

My colleagues Peter and Jonathan are more of the experts in this field and I have been putting it off mainly because I wanted to keep my focus on TBLT as I was developing Kotoba Rollers. TBLT is the teaching methodology that I am most familiar with (learning about it since my MA days) and it is well documented and referenced in the literature on games and language learning meaning that I have a large volume of work to call on. However, we recently got into a discussion regarding CLT and its shortcomings, to which they both pointed towards multiliteracies as an alternative. Being uninformed regarding the literature on multiliteracies, I had no real argument against it, and felt left of the conversation somewhat. This ignorance has lead me to pick up some books and research papers on the subject and dive in.

In this post, I will outline the extent of my knowledge regarding multiliteracies including the areas that have surprised me, delighted me and made me think. Then, I introduce a lesson I carried out with classes this week explaining how I made pedagogical considerations from a multiliteracies approach.

Initial findings and reactions

A multiliteracies approach primarily focuses on social learning, and thus shares a perspective with other socially-informed approaches to SLA. Knowledge is created through meaningful discourse with others. In López-Sánchez (2009) we find a focus on the use of authentic texts as a source of learning. Texts need not be literary pieces of work per say, but instead a poster, road sign, painting, Internet forum post, song, etc. This is due to the multimodal nature of the world that we now find ourselves in. Everything we are in contact with is designed (or at least contains) cultural, historical and social meaning. Unpacking these meanings and critically evaluating them is seen as a goal of a multiliteracies approach.

The motto put forward by López-Sánchez is “control tasks not texts” (p.32). I’m honestly not sure how to interpret this, though. In my mind: The tasks used to analyse and reflect on texts are fluid, somewhat undecided, and negotiable based on student and teacher needs; but the texts that make up the course need to be carefully chosen, and fixed before starting the course. This seems opposite to the motto, so maybe someone can shed some light on this for me.

Let’s compare the stance of “control tasks not texts” with a cognitive, TBLT approach to SLA. Doughty and Long (2003) proposed 10 Methodological Principles (commandments?) for TBLT. The first of these being: MP1 Use task, not text, as the unit of analysis. Regarding the rationale for this focus the authors write:

  • The focus in TBLT lessons is on task completion, not study of a decontextualized linguistic structure or list of vocabulary items — and not the same phenomena at the supra-sentential level, text. Spoken or written texts are static records of someone else’s(previous)task accomplishment, i.e., a by-product of tasks. Building lessons around texts(as in much content-based language teaching)means studying language as object, not learning language as a living entity through using it and experiencing its use during task completion. (p.42)

The notion here is that studying texts has no language learning value at all. Indeed, they continue the rationale by comparing learners role-playing a social telephone conversation to a “text-based program of some kind, listening to or reading a ‘dead’ script of someone else’s effort” (p.42). Their stance is thus extremely negative on the activity of spending any time evaluating genuine “texts.” Texts are relegated to only providing comprehensible input to be internalized and regurgitated during task performance. Or, as Byrnes et al. (2010) point out, as something to be decoded.

So we have two very different (in fact, opposing) considerations of the importance of text, reading, and writing. That has been the biggest eye-opener for me. In TBLT, (and CLT more broadly) spoken communication is generally considered to be the key to language acquisition, and text analysis is relegated to second place. This is especially true for “language” focused or beginner courses, which are seen as foundational courses which lead onto “content” or “literacy” focused courses for intermediate and advanced level learners. Bridging the gap between this dichotomy of courses is another goal of teaching from a multiliteracies perspective (Kumagai, López-Sánchez, & Wu, 2015), which is achieved by bringing a literacies focus into the beginner-level classroom.

Multiliteracies pedagogy

There are different interpretations of how to pedagogically sequence a curriculum from a multiliteracies approach, but there are a number of common themes, originating with the New London Group (NLG, 1996). I will outline what I have understood of these practices briefly here before writing about how I think I am already conducting some of them with the KR model, and then move onto how I explicitly designed a post-play activity to adhere more fully to the pedagogical considerations.

The major pedagogical concept is known as “Designing” which I will now provide an overview of.

Designing (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000)

Students have Available Designs, which they remix and alter as part of Designing, the results of which are considered the Redesigned. These Redesigned products then become integrated with the Available Designs that they can call upon in future Designing sessions.

Available Designs → Designing → Redesigned (→ Available Designs)

  • Available Designs includes:
    • The grammar of the language
    • The genre
    • Students pre-existing knowledge of the language
  • Designing is the act of [insert words from below] Available Designs
    • Re-presenting
    • Re-contextualizing
    • Remixing
    • Playing with
    • Transforming
  • The Redesigned are the products of the Designing phase, which actually become new Available Designs.

In order to achieve this process, learners are involved in the following activities:

Experiencing, Conceptualizing, Analyzing and Applying. (Kalantzis & Cope, 2005)

These were originally known as Situated practice, Overt Instruction, Critical Framing, and Transformed Practice, and confused me for a while (Kalantzis & Cope, 2000).

  • Experiencing / Situated practice
    • Immersion in the FL, utilizing Available Designs
    • Experiencing the known and the unknown (new genres/cultures/texts)
    • For me, this reads as a “fluency-focused” activity.
    • Learners are told to practice using the language without too much reflection, but may be asked questions such as “what do you think will happen next?”
  • Conceptualizing / Overt instruction
    • Simply put — grammar-focus
    • Introduction to metalanguage
    • Make generalizations of the texts
  • Analyzing / Critical Framing
    • Stand back from the texts that they are studying and think more critically about them
    • Why did the author frame the text in a particular way?
    • What are the social / economical / cultural underpinnings of the text?
    • Are there any patterns in the text?
  • Applying / Transformed Practice
    • Can the learners create something similar?
    • Can the learners remix what they have learned into their own context?

The literature on teaching from a multiliteracies perspective generally posits that these four phases of the pedagogy are not to be done in any particular, rigid order, but weaved together (Luke, Cadzen, Lin & Freebody, 2004). I understand the reason for making this point explicit. It reminds me of how in some institutions (such as my own) language courses are divided into “skills” such that there may be a “reading” class and complementary “speaking” class. However, clearly, these activities, although separate in terms of skills, are not mutually exclusive and it is possible (and sometimes advisable) to dip in and out of each. Thus, sometimes learners may be Experiencing, then Conceptualizing and Analyzing during the same activity or class. However, it seems to me that there is a natural progression through these activities, where the boundaries may blur between them, but in general should follow the Experience → Conceptualize → Analyze → Apply order.

There is another approach which has been used by the Georgetown University German Department, which implements the following four pedagogical phases:

Negotiation, Deconstruction, Joint-Construction, Individual-Construction

However, I will not go into these, and any differences to those proposed by the New London Group above. For those interested, there is a detailed description in Kumagai, López-Sánchez and Wu (2015).

Putting this knowledge into practice

I have now briefly introduced what I have learned of a multiliteracies approach and the pedagogical considerations. Now I will talk about how I have tried to apply these ideas in my own class.

This week is a post-play ‘Analysis’ class (of the Kotoba Rollers framework). We had been playing Spyfall the week before, and there are a number of points below that are specific to the game, so if you do not know how to play this game, please check the link here. The main focus of the class was for students to watch a YouTube video and answer questions that I had written in order to guide their reflections. I feel like this class touches on Experiencing (the new), Conceptualizing, and Analysing parts of the above pedagogical considerations.

The YouTube video is the authentic text, and whereas up until now I would have treated the video just as a source of input, I wanted students to engage with it more. The questions I proposed are provided below including the rationale (from the multiliteracies perspective) and expected answers.

  • Who are the players? (age, jobs, relationship, social status, etc.)
    • To understand the background of the participants. Humanizing the language use, that it does not just exist on its own, but that it originates with a particular person of a particular social status, etc.
  • Where are they?
    • Again, to promote students to pay attention to the cultural and social context.
  • What are some interesting questions they used?
    • Simply as a way to pay attention to the style of questioning employed by the group.
    • In the classroom context here, questions have been very dry and straightforward. I wanted students to notice the creativity available to them when forming their own questions.
  • How did they accuse another player of being the spy?
    • Paying attention to the fact that it is OK to question other people during the game and verbalize (or at least make public) your suspicions.
    • Promoting students to pay attention to nonverbal communication like gestures or facial expressions.
  • How did they check (confirm) what a player said?
    • Simply as a way for students to consider what is natural when asking someone to repeat what they said. In my context, clarification requests are rarely initiated, but left as unknowns, or grunts at best.
  • What words or phrases appear frequently? Why? What do they mean?
    • To look for repetition and patterns in the discourse. Each group of players will have their own play style and vernacular. I wanted students to pick up on this.
    • People copy each other in their social group.
  • What is different between how you played and how the native speakers play?
    • Asking students to critically evaluate their play session against native speakers.

The activity was therefore designed as a way to get students critically evaluating what they see and hear. Additionally, as I read in the literature, for situated practice activities, it can be useful to pause and ask students what they think will happen next. In this instance then, I asked students how they would respond to certain questions, and what they thought the players responses would be. For overt instruction, I asked students to translate certain expressions that appeared in the gameplay such as “That’s something the spy would say,” a phrase that was not something they had seen before, and thus a real challenge to translate. Google Translate did not help much there..! Finally, as critical reflection I asked them to compare their performance to that of natives.

Feedback and discussion

Having asked students what they thought of the activity responses were mixed.

The good

Some said that it helped them to understand how to play by seeing native speakers, because natives used different expressions than they would in Japanese. In other words, and my own interpretation of this is: Instead of thinking of how they would play in Japanese and then translating that into English, by seeing how it is naturally played in English, their schema for playing changed to reflect authentic English language use.

A simple example of this is the use of the Japanese word 怪しい (ayashii). This word means “suspicious” in English, and it is used on its own in Japanese to indicate… suspicion…! But we don’t just say “suspicious” in English. If someone pointed at another player and said “suspicious,” we would understand what they meant, but we have other ways of accusing someone of being suspicious. From watching the YouTube videos, we saw that players would generally make comments on others questions or answers as a way to show their suspicions, such as saying, “That was a weird question.” Alternatively, they would just straight out accuse someone of being the spy, “James is the spy..!”

Exposing students to natural, authentic English seemed to promote the noticing of these differences (for some students at least).

There were also a number of students that were extremely engaged in this activity. They were actively listening to the audio, trying their best to parse the difficult and fast speech of the natives. Additionally, they would answer my questions regarding what they thought was going to happen or how they would answer certain questions.

The bad

One problem was that students couldn’t do this activity on their own. The most obvious reason for this was that the native speaker discourse was too advanced. Specifically:

  • High level of English
  • Talking very fast
  • Cultural points not clear
  • Overlap between players talking (arguing)

This meant that I had to do the class as a teacher-fronted activity. Gameplay videos were shown on the projector and I was in control of stopping and rewinding the video. This resulted in numerous problems. Students input was limited to what I focused on which lead to a lack of agency and engagement. I have to admit, it was a rare class where I had students nodding off at their desks… I have two opinions on this. 1) It was essentially my fault for not engaging those students, or 2) students lack of engagement with this university level activity is a real disappointment. I’m not sure exactly which side of the coin I want to go for here. Maybe a bit of both…

So in sum, there is a gap between their ability and the materials provided. Questions arising from this are:

  • How can I bridge this gap?
  • Is it even bridgeable?
  • What other options do I have?

Possible solution – Support material creation

Looking at the GUGD course materials, it appears that they select authentic texts, and create a large volume of support materials to help students understand the contents of texts. For the activity described above, I feel like the following may be useful support materials:

  • Transcripts of a particular YouTube gameplay video (instead of choosing randomly at the start of the class)
  • Get students into smaller groups to work on the questions together. (With the transcripts available, this should be more manageable)
  • A question and answer sheet asking them to engage with the discourse more intimately. A possible example of this could be the following table:
Player Accused who? How?
David Brandon Made eye contact with another player and pointed his finger at Brandon


John David Said “David is the spy!”




Final words

I feel that this brief foray into the world of multiliteracies has been very insightful regarding the role of teachers and authentic texts in the classroom. The shortcomings of just assigning learners to engage with an authentic text with little support materials shines out as the biggest thing I learned here, and reconfirms my thoughts regarding how critical pedagogy is.

Thanks for reading.


  • Byrnes, H., Maxim, H. H., & Norris, J. M. (2010). Realizing advanced foreign language writing development in collegiate education: Curricular design, pedagogy, assessment. The Modern Language Journal, i-235.
  • Cope, B., & Kalantzis, M. (2000). Multiliteracies: Literacy learning and the design of social futures. Psychology Press.
  • Doughty, C. J., & Long, M. H. (2003). Optimal psycholinguistic environments for distance foreign language learning. Language Learning & Technology, 7, 50-80.
  • Kalantzis, M., & Cope, B. (2005). Learning by design. Common Ground.
  • Kumagai, Y., López-Sánchez, A., & Wu, S. (Eds.). (2015). Multiliteracies in world language education. Routledge.
  • López-Sánchez, A. (2009) Re-Writing the Goals of Foreign Language Teaching: The Achievement of Multiple Literacies and Symbolic Competence. International Journal of Learning 16(10) 29-38.
  • Luke, A., Cazden, C. B., Lin, A., & Freebody, P. (2003). The Singapore Classroom Coding Scheme: technical report. National Institute of Education, Center for Research on Pedagogy and Practice, Singapore.
  • The New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard educational review, 66(1), 60-93.
  • Willis Allen, H., & Paesani, K. (2010). Exploring the Feasibility of a Pedagogy of Multiliteracies in Introductory Foreign Language Courses. L2 Journal, 2, 119–142.

Featured image from

The role of the L1 in the classroom

This post, as always, is used as a scratchpad for my opinions and ideas regarding a specific topic. This time, the role of the L1 in my classroom. I provide a number of anecdotes which outline my stance, and invite comments regarding similar experiences, or even opposing views as to those expressed here.

Until recently I’ve always felt guilty about speaking Japanese in the classroom. I’ve also felt guilty (or at least disappointed) about allowing students to speak Japanese in the classroom. I felt like if they are resorting to Japanese it’s because of a particular issue such as:

  • A pedagogical failure. In other words, there may not be enough supportive material, the level of the materials may be too high, the progression of the class may be to fast, etc.
  • Students are not interested enough in the class to attempt to try speaking in English.
  • We are all just being “lazy.”

Instead of focusing on the legitimacy or causes of these issues and concerns, I want to look at the positive uses of the L1. After all, the students in my context all share the same mother tongue. Therefore, it would (in my opinion) be ill-advised to disregard their shared ability to communicate using their mother tongue. Below are my thoughts on L1 use. I present a number of scenarios where the L1 use was deemed a useful tool for mediating students’ language learning.

Just as a reminder, and not to use my context as an excuse, I teach compulsory English communication classes for students at a science and technology university in Japan. I am also in charge of one of the lower level classes.

“In Japanese, OK?”

The first anecdote is more of a reflection on English education in general. How does one deal with the question “In Japanese, OK?” when asked by a student (As in – Is it OK to speak Japanese?). Possible responses:

A) “No…! In English, please.”

B) “Sure.”

There are probably times when either answer is “correct” and I’d like to go into these ideas here.

At first I suggest that students adopt the mindset of “English first.” In other words, it is a general rule in my classroom that students should attempt to express themselves in English first. If they are not able to make themselves clear, then switching to the L1 is an appropriate follow up. Using an “English first” approach promotes students to recognise the shortcomings in their interlanguage and thus the idea of noticing the gap in SLA. If they do not even attempt to speak English, there is little chance of any development occurring.

Thus, promoting a safe, secure and forgiving classroom ethos towards mistakes is of utmost importance. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly is that English should be used during activities that are designed to promote communication. Surely it goes without saying right? Well, not all students are 100% committed to speaking English during such activities, so, whereas I am rather lenient on students speaking Japanese during pre- and post-play activities, I am a ruthless enforcer of the “English first” rule during gameplay. Indeed, the KR framework has students add a rule during their second play through to punish L1 use, and reward L2 use.


Languaging is the action of communicating with others (or yourself) in order to make meaning. It therefore differs from “output” in that students are essentially talking about what they want to say, or about the meaning of a particular input (see Swain, 2010).

In more simpler terms, and how I first learnt about it, is to consider languaging as “talking about the L2.” So how does this manifest itself in my classes? Mainly during group work, and more specifically during debriefing sessions. Some examples include:

  1. Confirming their comprehension of rules with others.
  2. Talking about English mistakes and possible corrections.
  3. Discussing why they did or did not use a predicted grammar point.
  4. Discussing what they did and didn’t enjoy about game sessions.
  5. When presenting ideas to the class which they do not have the ability to formulate in the English.

I think the above list represents the majority cases when I think it is appropriate to use the L1. My goal is to get them engaged in and around English, so discussions and talk on the _subject _ of English, even if in the L1, is a productive and valuable use of time in my opinion.

Where do others stand on the topic of L1 usage in the classroom? I’m very eager to hear opinions.

  • What to do with low level learners?
  • What to do with monolingual classes?
  • What to do with large 20+ classes?
  • Should skills to communicate outside of activities be focused on instead?


Swain, M. (2010). Talking-it through: Languaging as a source of learning. In R. Batstone (Ed.), Sociocognitive perspectives on language use/learning (pp. 112–130). Oxford: Oxford University Press.


The Kotoba Rollers framework

This post first appeared on the Games2Teach blog here.


As the title suggests, I am deeply interested in Digital Game-Based Language Learning (DGBLL) and how it may be realised in classrooms. Why the dropped D though? Board games (or analog games, as they are often referred to) have very unique affordances for language learning, and in my opinion, are much more suited to be used in classroom contexts. Additionally, the structure of a board game play session matches the concepts of Task-based Language Teaching (TBLT) much closer than with videogames. For an overview of these similarities, see the excellent paper by Julie Sykes (2014).

I should mention why the acronym DGBLL exists and not GBLL (as far as I know at least).

First of all, and Ben Pearson also wrote about this on the Games2Teach blog. CALL is a firmly established and extremely innovate field, and of course, as a part of that field there are those interested in exploring the affordances of digital games and virtual worlds for second language development. Videogames have become such a large subject of research in CALL that the acronym DGBLL arose in accordance. Indeed, Prof. Pearson writes about this succinctly:

In the relatively new field of game studies, digital games have attracted the most attention of researchers and scholars. While technology continued to improve, so did the acceptance of digital games as a viable medium for interactive storytelling and artistic expression. In today’s world, most people walk around with mobile devices that play games that look about as good as they did on game consoles a few years ago. As such, digital games have become much more pervasive in society and it is much easier to see them as legitimate fields of study. The problem is that while digital games garner so much attention in game studies as a field of scholarship, very little work has been done on analog games in comparison.

I think it is the dearth in research regarding board games that inspires scholars like Prof. Pearson and myself. Additionally, the renaissance of modern board games is very very real. Board game funding figures have also overtaken those of video games on the popular crowdfunding website “Kickstarter.” Yet, despite their increasing popularity, there is little research on the use of modern board games as a teaching tool in educational, let alone language-learning contexts.

So, without further ado, let me introduce the framework I have been using to promote English communicative competence in a low level EFL context here in Japan.

  • Why communicative competence? — This is a skill that is sorely lacking in my context.
  • Why not specific skills per game? — I am framing this research as a way to promote learner-centered learning. This comes mainly from my own experiences as a language learner. Of course, I can create an activity to push learners to notice certain grammar points or lexical items, but what if they don’t notice, or what if they noticed something different which has more relevance to them at their current stage of development? For the most part, I’d like students to uncover their mistakes, and learn the grammar they deem necessary.

The framework

The framework is derived of six parts. The following subsections of this post will explain each of them in detail. Each part is considered to last a full 90 minute class period.

  1. Learn the rules
  2. Play
  3. Analyse a transcription of gameplay discourse
  4. Play again
  5. Analyse gameplay discourse and compare with previous play session
  6. Complete a final project reflecting on the experience

Part 1: Learn the rules

Rulebooks introduce key concepts, vocabulary, and grammatical structures that will be encountered during gameplay. Thus, students are provided with a huge volume of input before the active gameplay stage (i.e. reading and listening skills targeted before speaking). From a TBLT perspective, then, the rulebook acts as a priming tool for students to become familiar with relevant vocabulary and grammar before play. As well as reading the rulebook, students are prompted to watch “How to play” and “Gameplay” YouTube videos to further the amount of input they receive. During this phase then, students are not only learning how to play the game, they are equipping themselves with vocabulary, grammar and keywords to play.

After learning how to play the game, students then get all the pieces out and play for 5 – 10 minutes. In my context, as the game is new and unfamiliar, this is usually done mostly in the L1. However, this stage is also an important learning activity. There is a disparity between the words and grammar found in the rulebook and what is said during gameplay (see Masuda & deHaan, 2015), and so the gameplay session offers students the opportunity to notice what words are needed.

In summary
The first class is designed for students to learn

  1. How to play the game
  2. What words and phrases are common in the rulebook
  3. What words and phrases are actually used to play the game

I provide a worksheet to students so they can keep a note of any new words or phrases that they noticed. The worksheet can then be referenced during gameplay the following week.

From the rulebook:

New words, phrases, or grammar Japanese translation Example usage sentence

From playing the game:

Example sentence Japanese translation

Part 2: Gameplay

The following class is very straight forward. Students come in, get into groups, set up the game and play. Before playing however, they are reminded to record the audio of their play session. All students must do this.

After playing through the game, they reflect on what happened (usually in the L1), and decide how they will transcribe the gameplay audio. Generally, students divide the audio up into equal amounts so that they all have specific sections of equal length to transcribe. Transcription is then completed as homework to be done for the next class. The transcription should be verbatim, including all of the L2 and L1 utterances.

Part 3: Transcription Analysis (1)

First of all I should answer the question: “Why get them to transcribe their gameplay audio?”

Well, without going to deep into the literature on self-transcription (for those interested, see Mennim, 2012) it is safe to say that during gameplay students are very limited cognitively. They are concentrating on the game and what is occurring in real-time. Thus, they often do not have the cognitive capacity to focus on what they are saying as much as they like. Essentially, noticing errors and L1 usage are given low priority and fluency (meaning negotiation) high priority, taking up the majority of their cognitive capacity. (On a side note, this is often true of tasks in TBLT in general. Accuracy is thus prescribed to a post-task phase).

In the third class then, students look at what was said during game play and do the following:

  1. Correct any L2 mistakes
  2. Translate L1 utterances into the L2

From doing this activity, students should notice what mistakes are common, what grammar they need to play the game using more of the L2, how much they use the L1 and in what instances they use the L1.

After that, they are instructed to complete appropriate grammar exercises from English Grammar in Use (Cambridge) in order to better their understanding regarding the grammar that they picked out as useful for gameplay.

A worksheet is again provided for students to keep a record of what they discovered.

First, they write what English grammar they think is useful for playing the game.

Grammar point Example
<person> should <verb> You should collect the red cards

Then, translate common L1 utterances.

Japanese English
どうしようかな~ What shall I do?

And finally, they make some sentences based on the work they did in the grammar book. These sentences should use the grammar point and represent what they will say in the next play session.

English Japanese

The worksheet is kept and can be referenced during the second play session.

Part 4: Replay the game

This stage is very similar to the first play session, but now we are in a position to expect more L2 use, so, let’s up the ante. ?

After 15 minutes (or one full round, or whatever other marker students decide is appropriate) they have to make a new rule. They have an option to make two rules actually, which are:

If I speak Japanese then ….
If we all only speak English then ….

I wrote extensively about this in a previous blog post for those interested. The first rule is obviously a penalty for L1 use, and surprisingly the idea of adding this rule came from the students themselves after I conducted a survey of how to improve the framework last year (York & deHaan, under review). The second is a reward that applies to ALL players, and is seen as the carrot to promote them to cooperate and speak more English. Of course, it is hard to make interesting, and fair rules for all games (“If I speak Japanese I have to reveal my card” in games like One Night Ultimate Werewolf is clearly not going to do the werewolves any favours….) but for the most part this step of the framework has been accepted positively by the students.

Homework for this session is to transcribe their audio once more.

Part 5: Transcription Analysis (2)

The second analysis session is very different to the first.

Now they have transcriptions for two gameplay sessions, it’s time to compare their performance. Did they speak more L2 during the second play through? Was the grammar that they thought would be useful actually used? These questions are answered in this session, and students are asked to make a tally count of how many times they used the grammar points that came up during the first transcription analysis, as well as the sentences that they translated:

Grammar point How many times did you use the form?
<person> should <verb> 5
English expression translated from Japanese How many times did you use these expressions?
What shall I do? 4

And a final table to record phrases that they still said in the L1:


Part 6: Final report

In the final two classes students create something of value for future players of the game. I was inspired by the work of Squire (2011) who wrote about how students start out as learners, then become master, and finally creators of content. In a similar vein then, here students learn the game, master the game (and language (to a certain extent anyway)) and finally create something for future students to refer to. They choose from one of the following projects and complete them either as a group or individually. The popularity of the projects is in descending order. The fear of having to present something live to the rest of the class seems to push the “teach” project down to the bottom.

  1. Make a gameplay video [Group]
  2. Make a “How to play” video [Group]
  3. Write a game review [Individual]
  4. Transcribe gameplay and provide a grammar explanation [Individual]
  5. Teach other classmates how to play the game [Group / Individual]

These projects all have their own worksheets to guide students, and at the back is an evaluation sheet so that students know exactly how they will be graded. Here is an example from the “How to play” video project.

| This worksheet | 10 points |

☐ Did you complete all sections of this worksheet?
☐ Did you hand this worksheet in?

| Game Introduction | 5 points |

☐ Was the game introduced?

| Player introductions | 10 points |

☐ Did all players introduce themselves?
☐ Did all players speak clearly?

| Rules introduction | 50 points |

☐ Were game-specific words explained clearly?
☐ Did players speak only English during the explanation?
☐ Did the players use the board to explain rules?
☐ Did players say what they were doing? (i.e. did they speak when they moved pieces?)
☐ Did all players speak clearly? (Pronunciation)

| Filming and editing | 25 points |

☐ Was the game filmed clearly? (could we see what players were doing?)
☐ Was there a lot of silence? (i.e. were silent episodes cut out?)
☐ Was the camera stable?

Once a group has completed their project, they are instructed to hand it in over on my blog (which basically links to a Dropbox file request folder). I’d love to show some of their work, but unfortunately I did not ask for permission to publicly reveal what they have made (I only asked that their work be made available to other students within the university).


The framework introduced here is designed to put students in charge of their own learning. Learning that is enjoyable. Agency is promoted as they are in control of their learning at the macro (choosing a game to play, making groups) and micro (learning rules, creating transcriptions, progressing gameplay turn by turn) level.

So what do I do in class? My role is to provide rule explanations when things are not clear, strategies for games in play, target language examples, and generally facilitate their play sessions as best I can. Due to the nature of the final projects being different for all groups, I have a very passive role. Groups often go to different rooms of the university so that they can record their sessions in a quiet environment, so at this stage I go around all the rooms and make sure everything is proceeding smoothly.

I have collected data regarding students perceptions of this framework and am continuously improving it for future implementations. The next step is to collect data regarding their transcriptions to see if there are any improvements in their oral performance between the two play sessions.

I’d like to thank Ben Pearson for inviting me to write this post, and hope readers find it useful for their own teaching context. If you have any further questions or would like to get involved with the Japan Game Lab research team you can contact me at yorksensei @ gmail . com.


  • Masuda, R., & DeHaan, J. W. (2015). Language in Game Rules and Game Play : A Study of Emergence in Pandemic International Journal of English Linguistics, 5(6), 1.
  • Mennim, P. (2012). Learner negotiation of L2 form in transcription exercises. ELT Journal, 66(1), 52–61.
  • Squire, K. (2011). Video Games and Learning: Teaching and Participatory Culture in the Digital Age. Technology, Education–Connections (the TEC Series). Teachers College Press. 1234 Amsterdam Avenue, New York, NY 10027.
  • Sykes, J. (2014) TBLT and synthetic immersive environments: What can in-game task restarts tell us about design and implementation? in González-Lloret, M., & Ortega, L. (Eds.). (2014). Technology-mediated TBLT: Researching technology and tasks (Vol. 6). John Benjamins Publishing Company.

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.