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Learn English with Virtual Environments | Hidekazu Shoto

Students playing computer games to learn english

Communication with native English language speakers is one of the most effective ways to learn English, and using technology makes this possible. I teach English based on my “collaborative-communication model”, one that’s very effective for motivating my students. I use a wealth of technologies with my class such as Skype, Minecraft, and AI robots. I find them useful for not only teaching English, but for teaching 21st century skills as well!

Virtual environments

From my experience, virtual environments can be very effective language learning tools for students of English; they allow students young and old to experience new worlds, communicate, make friends, and build relationships. There are a wealth of tools out there that you can use, but I’m happy to say that I’ve had real success with my students using a combination of Skype and Minecraft (a game many students may already be familiar with). These digital environments offer students engaging opportunities to use English with native speakers and to use the language to achieve a common goal, such as constructing a digital building. Through these activities, students also develop their 21st Century Skills of communication, collaboration, imagination, and logical thinking. These four skills are necessary assets for learners that will help them to succeed in the modern world.

A typical lesson

Typically, students grouped together to make a team of four people, and they are given a task. I might ask the groups to construct a building, like the Kyoto World Heritage Site in Minecraft, before asking them to introduce it to students from overseas. To build something in Minecraft, students need to exercise their imagination, and think logically about the build and their resources. Each student is then given a role; Minecraft Leader, Programming Leader, English Leader, and Building Designer. Finally, they are given a deadline.

Most groups start off by discussing a plan, each student offering an opinion. These discussions continue throughout the duration of the build. Once completed, the group welcome overseas visitors to their digital environment, giving them a tour of their build and gathering their opinions on their work, all in English!

The simplicity and global appeal of Minecraft make it extraordinarily easy to introduce to the class. As a tool, it allowed me to break down subject barriers, combining English, 21st Century Skills, and programming. This is something I’m especially proud of achieving as from 2020 in Japan, the Ministry of Education plans to make ‘English’ and ‘Programming’ compulsory across all Primary schools. The techniques I’ve described combine these two educational programmes, which is great for teachers! And through the “collaborative-communication model”, students can improve their English proficiency in an engaging and motivating way. 


Hidekazu Shoto was born in Osaka, Japan, and is an English Teacher and Head of ICT at Ritsumeikan Primary School. After graduate school, he joined Ritsumeikan Academy as an English teacher, introducing ICT and technology into his English classes.

Hidekazu Shoto was a top 10 Finalist for the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize 2019. Here’s why!


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Using Games For Win-Win Learning

Using games for win-win learning

Like many people around the world, I recently took time off at the end of December and the New Year to relax at home. A common feature of any holiday season, alongside eating large meals and seeing family and old friends, is playing games. For example, my son was playing with a new video game console and within a short time I was addicted and striving to reach the ‘next level’. Then, after finishing off yet another large meal, someone suggested playing a board game that hadn’t been opened since last year. Continue reading


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The Fun in GLEE – Gamified Language Educational E-tivities

Mother and son using digital tabletNo, we’re not talking about the show choir from the hit US TV series; we’re talking about educational digital games. Karenne Sylvester, who used to write the popular ELT blog Kalinago English, shares her insights into why GLEEs bring more to the classroom than just fun.

Gamified language educational e-tivites (GLEEs) refer to modified language activities that appear to learners as if they are digital “games”. This includes e-tivities like Stress Monsters where learners shoot at parts of a word to indicate where the stress in that particular word lies. GLEEs do not, however, refer to the practice of playing non-educational digital games in educational settings. Although these are perfectly valid experiences, due to the incidental learning opportunities which may arise during game-play, this blog post focuses specifically on the educational benefits of using gamified e-tivities with language learners (rather than discussing general video games).

GLEEs as fun

The time flies!”

(Hamad, Qatari student)

This is probably the most obvious benefit: GLEEs add fun to the language classroom experience. But what exactly do we mean by this word, fun? As simple as it sounds, what one person defines as fun is not always fun for another. According to Nicole Lazzaro, the fun in digital game play tends to break down into four different types of engagement experience:

  • Easy fun – creative and relaxing activities that stimulate curiosity
  • Hard fun – activities that make you think and meet challenges
  • People fun – competitive and cooperative activities done in teams
  • Serious fun – meaningful activities that can have real word consequences

GLEEs as motivational tools

On the other hand, for Rigby (an interactive game researcher) and Ryan (an educational psychologist), games and game-like experiences actually offer quite a bit more than just adding a sprinkle of fun. For them, the motivational forces involved include how these environments naturally allow players opportunities to develop feelings of autonomy, competence and relatedness. Their findings were backed up during my recent research into adult ESL students’ perceptions of GLEEs, with my participant-students writing:

As you know, the examples in the book are not enough for us to remind and check the grammar that we’ve learned. But using this game, we have a lot of examples and practices. It’s quite helpful for revision.  I could check and know how much I know and how much I don’t know. And it’s not all my own work. It’s a teamwork so we have to talk and discuss [with] each other. By discussing, we can help each other.”

(Mijin, Korean student)

GLEEs as tools for repetition and feedback

Other related benefits arising out of digital game-play in and outside of the classroom include opportunities for repetition and feedback. Well-designed GLEEs include possibilities for students to replay them as often as they like. The resulting points, the clapping or groaning of their avatars when the answers chosen are correct or incorrect, inform students of how they are doing. The pop-up messages of Congratulations and Try Again at the end are often acted upon; some students are willing to redo e-tivities over and over again until they manage to get all of the answers correct.

GLEEs as tools that enable noticing

Finally, one of the most important aspects of GLEEs lies in how they encourage language students to pay attention to language structure and form. This is especially so in competitive game-play scenarios where language learners have to carefully select the right answers from three or four different options. This element of “noticing” (Schmidt, 1990) is considered very important when developing language learning experiences, because this raised consciousness helps enable greater conversion of language input to language intake.

Each team had to answer five different questions about conditional (we had to choose the correct structure of the sentence among three different possibilities), and then, if the team got right the answer, a member of the team had to score a basket. Finally, the team which had more points won the game. During the game I was a little bit excited and frustrated too, because I don’t like to lose and my classmate couldn’t score a basket. However, it wasn’t important after a few minutes because I realized we were understanding the grammar and were having a good time.”

(Jose, Spanish student)

Have you ever played any gamified language educational e-tivities with your students? What did your students think of them?

References

Schmidt, R. (1990) The Role of Consciousness in Second Language Learning.  Applied Linguistics, 11, 129-158.
Rigby, S. and Ryan, R.M (2011). Glued to games: how video games draw us in and hold us spellbound. CA, USA:  Praeger.


Karenne Sylvester used to write the popular ELT blog, Kalinago English, before she set off to the University of Manchester to do a Masters in Educational Technology. The focus of her dissertation studies is on gamification and game-like language learning environments. Some of the “games” referred to by her students in this article can be accessed via this link. Additionally, for beginners and low-level learners she has also set up this convenient site of Games for Beginner ESL students, collating fun GLEEs from around the internet, which you are welcome to peruse and use with your own learners.