Researcher as participant

My normal teaching context is classes of 20 to 25 students, so they are split up into different groups based on the game they chose to play the week before. However, today I had the opportunity to use the KR framework in a class of only five students. It was a big change, and in today’s post, I’d like to talk about some of the things that I noticed that are different between this one-off class and my normal teaching context, as well as my reflections as a participant. I’ll be touching on the following topics:

  • Researcher as participant
  • Students staying on task
  • Individualized instruction
  • The ZPD and NS-NNS interactions

The actual lesson that we did was the pre-play, rule-learning class. Students didn’t choose the game that we played, I selected it before the class. The game is called “Dead Last” and you can find reviews of it here. I’ll quote the SUSD site for their description of how it plays so you can get the gist of the type of interaction that is involved.

Dead Last […] begins with 6-12 players sat around a table, each with a coloured standee, a private deck of cards and an unusually shifty look. As soon as the game begins people will start murdering each other by consensus and/or killing themselves by accident, and your objective is to be one of the last 2 people left standing.


  • You vote for someone to be murdered and all play a card facedown
  • The person (or 2 people in a tie) with the most votes is eliminated
  • If you didn’t vote for the person that was murdered, you are also eliminated
  • If you suspect you’ll be the target, you may play an AMBUSH card and if it turns out that you ARE the target, you can eliminate one of those that voted for you.

The game rules are not the main focus of this post, so if you are curious as to the rest of the rules, please check the above links.

So what did I learn today? Read on:

I personally need to experience the framework

I have to admit it. As a researcher, I read papers, have a firm grasp on mainstream SLA theory (mostly), think deeply about how to engage students in their learning, and make appropriate worksheets. But, I don’t actually trial these worksheets on myself.

Today I had the opportunity to participate as a student and experience the pre-play worksheet firsthand. It was a very valuable experience. There are three sections on the worksheet.

  1. The first section ask students to scan the rulebook and look for interesting and useful words that they think they will need during gameplay.
  2. The second section asks students to write down one important rule for the game they’re about to play.
  3. The third section is about tactics and it requires the students to write what they think they will do during the game.

Regarding the first section, the problem is that there is a difference between the vocabulary in the rulebook and the phrases and vocabulary that they will use during the game. So I saw students writing down new words that they did not know, but the majority of these words were only useful in explaining and understanding the rules and theme of the game. So after the students completed the first section, we actually had a brainstorming session to think about the types of words we will use during the game. My original plan was that this would be done by scanning the rulebook. Instead it actually took a second, slightly more focused activity. I know Jonathan has done work with one of his undergraduates which examines the difference in rulebook and gameplay discourses, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the two do not match up.

The second section regarding important rules for the game I thought was a sound section that did not require too much editing. It was interesting for me to see that the students had different ideas for what they thought was an important rule. So getting students to share these ideas is possibly beneficial in making all students aware of the important rules of the game.

The third section was also quite interesting in that it requires students to write about their tactics. But Dead Last is a competitive game, so in actual fact we decided that it was best to keep the tactics talk until after the game had finished.

In summary then, I found the experience of actually taking part in the class really helped me refine the worksheet.

Students staying on task

The biggest difference that I noticed between this small class and the larger class is just how on-task they were. In the larger classes there are usually four to five different groups, and so it is impossible for me to sit down with them all and guide them through the worksheet. They have to figure out exactly what I want them to do, and they are also in charge of completing it. However in today’s class with only five students, because of my presence maybe, students took time to do the activities on the worksheet one by one. What I noticed in larger classes was that students were not reading and analysing the words in the rulebook, but merely translating it into Japanese (so that they could understand it, of course).

Individualized instruction

During our brainstorming session for words and phrases that we thought would be useful for gameplay, we had the opportunity to talk about the word “betray.” One student asked me how to say 裏切り者 in English, which led to me talking about “betray,” “to be betrayed,” and the word “traitor.” This “just in time” feedback and discussion is something that I cannot achieve in larger classes. Although I’m not 100% sure of Jonathan’s and Peter’s teaching situation, I felt like having a small group of students like this was perhaps similar to some of their own projects (and made me a little jealous, haha).

It felt great to be able to help students on such a personal, almost one-to-one level as they needed it.

Social interactions in the ZPD

It goes without saying really, but today was a fantastic chance to experience learners working in the ZPD. Having me, an expert speaker of the TL, as part of the group helped them hear how natives would approach certain constructs during the game, and they were able to modify their own output based on what they heard. Additionally, from a psycholinguistic perspective, I saw the value of recasts as a way for learners to notice any issues with their output. Recasts however, do not require a native speaker or expert as such, their peers should be able to provide such feedback, too.

For an example of our interactions, I showed a certain card to one of the students and said:

York: I will definitely vote for this player.

Student: Definitely? (repeating the word to show that he did not understand the meaning)

York: Yes, definitely. (reformulating the sentence:) I will 100% vote for this player.

Student: Oh, I see.

York: Will you vote for this player?

Student: Yes.

York: Definitely?

Student: Definitely!

This leads me to the more essential point that this game provided the opportunity for such rich interaction, and a stronger sense of the value of my research in this field.

I only made informal observations today, but they helped me think more critically about the worksheets I am developing. Additionally, participating in gameplay confirmed what I have been reading in the literature on game-based language learning, and my own assumptions regarding the power of the Kotoda Rollers methodology. That is: with the right amount of support (activities and teacher instruction), games can be used effectively as part of a TBLT approach to language learning, and I’m positive about my work and research direction.

In the next class, we will go over the recording of today’s gameplay session and focus on their English mistakes and unnecessary Japanese usage. Thus, hopefully raising their understanding of the gaps in their interlanguage, and preparing them to replay the game at a future date.

As always, thanks for reading.

Originally posted on the Kotoba Miners blog.

Learning rules & takoyaki parties

Learning rules & Takoyaki parties

I was trying hard to come up with a metaphor as to why it is important to learn game rules in English before playing a board game. On other words, not taking the easy route and learning the rules in Japanese first, but actually taking the time to sit down with the English rulebook and go through it with their groupmates.

Of course there are a bunch of good reasons why they should do this. It’s L2 input for a start..! It’s a reading task which is activating their passive skills, allowing them to recognise and perhaps recall vocabulary without time constraints. From a sociocultural perspective, it allows them to discuss the meaning of phrases and words as a group, and perhaps notice the meaning of certain words just from context. But I wanted to give them something easy to understand without going all meta-linguistic, so here is what I came up with:

The ever-so-not-quite Takoyaki party

(A takoyaki is a fried dough ball with octopus (tako) and pickled ginger in. It is often garnished with mayonnaise and sauce as well as many other things. See the picture above)

[I said:]

Imagine that you and your friends are having a takoyaki party. Now what do you need to have a takoyaki party? Flower, eggs, water, tako, pickled ginger, seaweed… etc. etc.

So, what if you all arrive at the party and Friend 1 has brought sliced bread, Friend 2 has brought a lettuce, Friend 3 has brought some cheese, and you’ve brought some tomatoes… Is this going to be a takoyaki party?


It is going to be a party, but not a takoyaki party. Maybe a sandwich party. Or at a push, a pizza party..? But definitely not a takoyaki party.

[I digressed:]

So where does this fit into what we are doing in this class? Well, to play these games in English, you need the tako, flour, water, and egg, too. These are the nouns, verbs, adjectives, grammar, etc. that you will find in the rulebook.

Now, imagine if you just learnt the rules to the game at home in Japanese… You could come to class and play the game, but it definitely won’t be a game in English. It will be a game in Japanese. Which is like the difference between a sandwich party and a takoyaki party.

[I ended, rather triumphantly]

That is why you need to learn the rules in English: So you can play the game in English. The goal of this class.

So, what do you think? Was this just bonkers, or did I make a strong(?) and valid point here?

Thanks for reading as always.

Originally posted on the Kotoba Miners blog

Kotoba Rollers: Rule Setting

This blog post is a reflection on the feedback I received from the initial implementation of the #kotobarollers framework (1.0 we are calling it) back in the second term of 2015. As part of that implementation, I collected quantitative and qualitative data from students in the form of a course-end questionnaire. The questionnaire was designed to see which activities students completed, which the did not, the elements of the framework they liked and those that they thought could use improvement. It is these last two questions, that were given as open-ended questions where I feel the most interesting and useful data was collected.

Firstly, let’s look at some of the comments I received.

Good points of the framework

Practical English usage

A lot of the comments I received regarding the positive aspects of the framework relate to how playing games was students’ first real experience of using English as a means of communication, and not just as a subject. The term practical came up a lot:


I got a real sense of “practical English communication” in this class.

This is a fantastic result of the framework for me. I want students to use English, not just study it.

From a TBLT perspective, the non-linguistic goals of gameplay were the catalyst to get students talking, and using vocabulary and grammar to solve a real life activity: winning (or at least participating) the game. Compare that to a class that is fronted by the teacher saying, “Today we are going to do the activities on page 34.” Or, “Today we will talk about how to give directions in English.” Students’ expectation would vary greatly I think.

Moving on:

Willingness to communicate

The fun, and laid-back nature (for some) of the games (of course, there are high-stakes games like Werewolf or Spyfall where tensions are high) really helped learners become more willing to communicate with their peers.


I get nervous when doing a speech or presentation in English, but with games, I could speak more freely

Again, an excellent point, but I don’t want to dwell too much on these positive points. I hoped that I would see these kinds of results before starting.

Negative points of the framework

Excessive Japanese usage

Yes, I’m sure you could see this one coming. By far and away, the biggest criticism of both the framework and the students’ own performances was that they talked a lot of Japanese during play. And this is what I want to address with the rule-setting lesson. Comments:

Blaming others:


Some students didn’t make effort to speak English during gameplay

Blaming themselves:


It’s only natural that we’d use Japanese occasionally during gameplay, but once we did, then we’d end up using more and more Japanese, which I don’t think is good.

So what do they think would be a good way to reduce Japanese usage?


When playing, if we speak Japanese, I think there should be some kind of penalty given to that student.

OK. Great. We are on the right track here. Students realise that they are not meeting me halfway by speaking Japanese, so let’s put it to them to fix it.

Rule setting lesson

So that’s where this blog post comes in. I want to put down on paper my thoughts regarding class rule-setting, what I’ve done to towards achieving this, and a reflection on my first class of doing this.

I’ve had some negative experiences with gamification, and both Jonathan and I are ardent fans of the work of Kohn: Punished by Rewards. So I really didn’t want to go full metal jacket on setting rules. That’s partly why I didn’t set any explicit rules regarding the use of the L2 in the first place: I left it for students to figure out. But the result of that has been that students just talk Japanese the whole class. Granted, some of them feel guilty about it, leading to them writing on the final report that they feel something should be done about it.

Rules setting is a tricky beast though. If punishments and rewards are too heavily utilised, we run the risk of “gamifying” the classroom and creating a negative environment. The addition of points and badges, or more generally “rewards” are sources of extrinsic motivation (from Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory), which can sometimes become the only reason students attempt to do an activity.

The often quoted example is a student that might go to the library every day in the summer to read out of sheer pleasure, then one day, he receives a point or sticker for visiting the library. After the summer is over the stickers stop coming, and so does he. He got so used to getting the stickers that receiving them became the sole reason for reading.

In other words, I don’t want to reward or punish students too severely in fear that it just makes them resent the class or lose focus on the goal of the class.

On another note about the idea of play, Nicholson (2015) writes:

A key concept from play that is important when thinking about gamification is that play must be optional (Callois, 2001). If something is not optional, then it is not, by definition, play. If a worker is forced to engage with a game, it is no longer a play experience.

This is also very pertinent to my own situation where my whole class is built around getting students to play games. I am kind of forcing students to play games right? Well, not really. Reading a few paragraph7s below on Nicholson’s paper we get:

One way to soften a required engagement with a gamification system is to ensure that the system allows for exploration. This falls in line with the concept of Choice.

Yes. My students have a LOT of choice in class.

  1. What game to play
  2. Who with
  3. The post-play activities they complete.

Anyway, moving on:

I attended a conference in Okinawa in February where I was introduced to the work of Tim Murphey et al. (2014) who talked about the concept of getting students motivated by thinking about ideal classmates. Their work is laid out in more academic terms in this paper.

Essentially: First, get students to think about what they would look for in an ideal classmate. Then, the following week, compile all the students answers and give them back. Students are then in a position to see what others are expecting of them. Finally, a few weeks after this, move the shift of questioning onto the students themselves, giving them chance to reflect on if they have been behaving as an ideal student based on the feedback they got from the first week.

I was impressed.

So I started thinking about how I can use this in my own classes.

What is the goal?

I think the first step that wasn’t mentioned in the Murphey paper is getting the students to consider what the actual goal of the class is. This can be from their perspective, my perspective or the university’s perspective.

I want them to become more fluent in English, and particularly their speaking skills. The university wants them to gain discreet English skills week after week as they are presented………. yeah…. I can see that working…. Their goals (as they wrote on the board today) ranged from: “enjoy English,” and “become an active communicator in English,” but I think a good proportion of them would probably have written “get a passing credit” as the main goal.

The idea is that based on these goals that we have identified, we need to figure out how we can best help each other achieve them. Here is a copy pasta of the worksheet I concocted:

  1. What is the goal of this class?
  2. What problems prevent us from achieving that goal?
  3. What kind of behaviour will help us achieve the goal? Think of some examples:
    • Good
    • Bad
  4. Can you think of a good rule for Japanese use (for students, and me, Mr. York)?
  5. How can Mr. York help you speak English?
  6. How can you help other students speak English?

Fairly to the point questions in my opinion. The only question that directly asks about rule setting is the one about Japanese usage, because I want to hear what they think, their opinions and possible solutions to the problem of excessive Japanese usage in class.

What rules can help them stay on task?

Upon completing the survey, they had 10 minutes to discuss with their group what they had written. I expected a lively conversation, but to be honest, a lot of them looked bored. There are pockets of active, interested students, but unfortunately as this is a non-English major class, there are a lot of uninterested students, too. I’m not sure I can do much about that (or haven’t found a way so far).

Unfortunately, their ideas regarding what can be done were quite uninspired. The main idea was to ban Japanese usage, which to me just seems impractical. They need Japanese for some parts of the class and its not to be demonized. That’s not the idea I want to have proliferate in my classes.

I think the idea that some students came up with a few months ago is the best way to go: by having them check themselves during gameplay with the addition of a new rule:

If I speak Japanese [something bad happens].

Well, I’m not done with this yet. I think this kind of consciousness raising is important, and I want students to work with me to decide what is good or bad behaviour, and get them to help each other stay on task.

Next week I will be handing back a list of good and bad behaviours that they wrote, and ideas for how other students can help them achieve the class goal. let’s see if it inspires them to become more aware of themselves as active learners with responsibility towards learning English themselves, rather than being taught by me at the front of the class. Because we all know how the assimilation of knowledge is as simple as me passing it from my head and into yours….
As always, thanks for reading my rambles.


Callois, R. (2001). Man, Play and Games. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Murphey, T., Falout, J., Fukuda, T., & Fukada, Y. (2014). Socio-dynamic motivating through idealizing classmates. System, 45(1), 242–253.

Nicholson, S. (2015). A recipe for meaningful gamification. In Gamification in Education and Business (pp. 1–20).

(Originally posted on the Kotoba Miners blog)

KR2.0 Framework test with Diceplomacy


In today’s class I wanted to try and play Diceplomacy as a way to test the KR2.0 Framework. The new framework is in development right now, but I’ll outline some of the main points here.

First, what is Diceplomacy?

Very simply, it is a massively reduced version of the famous Diplomacy game that can take up to 12 hours to complete and features more feuds and fall outs than a low-budget soap opera. Read more on Diplomacy here. Diceplomacy on the other hand has a set of rules that fit on two-sides of A4, and the only requirements needed are a dice per player. Simple!

Diceplomacy rules

I won’t go into the rules here, as you can check them at the link provided above. However, a quick overview is:

  • Each player rolls one die, to determine their Power, and keep their die hidden.
  • On your turn, you can do 1 of the following 4 things: Declare war on another player, propose an alliance with another player, cancel all alliances, or reroll your Power die
  • If you declare war on another player – the one of you with highest Power scores a Victory, and the other a Defeat.
  • The goal of the game is to get 3 Victories.
  • If a player is defeated 3 times, he is out of the game.

Lesson Plan

Ok, so how am I using this game in my class? Let’s look at the structure of the lesson. Following on from this overview are notes on why I am doing each stage, what I expect, and what happened (in quoted speech).

  1. Introduce the rules
  2. Brainstorm useful language
  3. Play & record audio
  4. Transcribe the audio
    • Correct any English mistakes
    • Translate any Japanese
  5. Play again with additional rules
  6. Write a report on their experiences

Introduce the game

I have created a Google Slides presentation to introduce the rules.

I also drew simple diagrams on the board to highlight key points such as the rules and options available when making alliances and declaring war on other players. I plan on making slides in the future to more accurately show how these concepts work.

Brainstorm useful language

In groups, students think about what words and expressions they may need to use during the game. I collate their ideas and write them on the board.

Examples included:

  • Will you make an alliance with me?
  • I declare war on you.
  • Help me!

I was surprised that they couldn’t come up with much more than very basic expressions. It was like they couldn’t think about what the game would involve and were stuck at this stage, so I called the brainstorming session to a halt and decided to just play and see what happened instead.

As expected, the language they come up with will mostly be related to procedural actions in the game, not the meta-game talk such as:

  • If you make alliance with me, you’ll be strong.
  • If you attack me, you’ll lose.
  • Who’s turn is it?
  • Who is your ally?


Play the game and record what they say.

During the play session I noticed that students really didn’t understand that the meta-game language as described above was done predominantly in Japanese, like that part of communication is not considered part of the game..! They are in for a shock when they have to transcribe ALL that they said.

Listen and transcribe

It needn’t be so long, as I’m sure there will be a ton of useful language to analyse. Perhaps go through the audio until each person has had a turn in the game. That should generate enough to look at.

We didn’t get to do this in today’s class, so I have given it as homework for them to complete before next week’s class.

Upon completion of the transcription phase I want them to do two things:

Correct mistakes in English

As a group, correct any mistakes they think they have made in English and write down any common errors.

Translate any Japanese they spoke into English

This may be harder, and if necessary I can do a session on useful English for this part. I presume they will need to look at the use of

  • conditionals,
  • phrases for giving suggestions,
  • because / so / because of constructs.

Play again

Whether we’ll have time this week or not, I’m unsure, but the next activity will be to replay the game (recording again of course).

We definitely didn’t have time.

Upon completion of the second play through, we’ll transcribe their speech again and compare it with the first session to see if there is an improvement.

For the second play through I will also add a rule:

If I speak Japanese, I have to reduce my power level by 1.

That should keep them on their toes, and, more importantly, make them aware of when they are speaking Japanese because I’m very sure that they speak Japanese without even thinking about it during gameplay. Conscious raising via game rules!

This article first appeared on my personal blog here.


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

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

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

In today’s workshop our goals are:

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

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


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

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

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

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

Framework explanation

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

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

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

Q&A Session

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

One participant mentioned fairly obviously that

This framework would work with people that like games.

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

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


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

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

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

James / ちーぷ

Originally posted on the Kotoba Miners blog