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Gamifying your way to Fluency: Read and Be Rewarded

Screenshot2015-04-24-16-44-34Dr Charles Browne is Professor of TESOL and Applied Linguistics at Meiji Gakuin University in Japan,  a recognized expert in vocabulary acquisition and extensive reading, especially as they apply to online learning environments. In addition to creating two well known high frequency word lists for second language learners (known as the New General Service List and New Academic Word List), he has created several free online learning sites including an extensive reading and listing website known as ER-Central, and has helped advise many publishers and companies working in these areas including SecretBuilders, who recently launched a set of ER reading apps using graded readers published by Oxford University Press.

Did you ever notice how whenever you try a new online game, that the first level is almost ridiculously easy to complete but the final levels are incredibly hard? This is done for several reasons, and some of the basic principles of online gaming can be usefully applied to online learning environments as well.

First, most online games provide a way of leveling up – for example if you kill enough monsters in Warcraft, you will gain enough experience points to go up to the next level. Games usually have many levels and make the first level(s) purposely easy both to help gamers to build confidence and interest in the game, to teach them how to use the basic features of the system, and to instill a desire to play the game more to reach higher levels.  Second, most good RPG (role playing games) as well as many other types of online games, provide players with an interesting or compelling storyline which helps to pull them deeper into the world of the game, as they become motivated to find out what happens next. And third, online games usually give players a way to accumulate points as well as to rank themselves against other players. This, too, leads to higher levels of motivation and commitment since most players want to achieve the highest score, or at least higher than others around them.

When we try to apply the use of game thinking and game mechanics to learning environments such as second language learning it is called “gamification”, something which, when done correctly, can lead to higher levels of learner motivation, engagement and time-on-task.

Interestingly, one popular approach to second language acquisition, extensive reading (ER), echoes many of these ideas.  In 2002, Day and Bamford wrote a very influential article on the 10 most important principles of a successful extensive reading program, with the following 3 principles often cited as the being the most important:

1) reading materials should be easy
2) learners should be able to choose what they want to read
3) learners should read as much as possible

First, if the reading material is easy, it instills leaners with a confidence at being able to read well, as well as the desire to read more and more in order to reach higher levels, very similar to the principles of gaming. Second, when learners are able to choose whatever story they want to read, they get pulled into the book’s storyline and become motivated to find out what happens next in a very similar way that gamers are pulled into the storylines of RPG games. And third, when teachers have students keep track of how many pages they’ve read and post those numbers to the whole class (which is common in many ER programs), it leads to higher levels of motivation through a friendly spirit of competition in much the same way this is achieved in the gaming world.


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Children’s Day: Motivating Students through Games

Kids lying in a circle making goggle eyesLysette Taplin, an ELT Editor for Oxford University Press, Mexico and experienced English language teacher, discusses the educational value of games in the English language classroom in celebration of Children’s Day in Mexico.

Kids have amazing imaginations. This is why they have some really great ideas. And sometimes, these ideas become wonderful inventions. Did you know that kids invented the Popsicle and waterskiing? Did you know that a kid also invented earmuffs? And who invented the trampoline? A kid!

George Baez, “From Dreams to Reality”[1]

Universal Children’s Day (http://www.un.org/en/events/childrenday/) aims to promote the welfare of children everywhere and to encourage understanding between children all over the world.[2] In Mexico, this day is celebrated on April 30.

Many schools in Mexico celebrate Children’s Day by hosting special events and festivals which often entail story-telling, games and more. Children love playing and games are a great way to promote communicative skills in the English language classroom. So, why not celebrate our kids with fun-filled games which also foster language development. They are highly motivating and create an enjoyable and relaxed learning environment which encourages active learning, collaboration as well as creative and spontaneous use of language. Task-orientated games engage students and give them a meaningful context for language use. They focus their attention on the task itself rather than the production of correct speech, and the competitive nature keeps students interested and concentrated as most learners will try hard to win.

The advantage of using games is that they are student-centered and can integrate all linguistic skills: reading, writing, speaking and listening. For example, when reading a dialogue from a story or play, project it onto the board, erasing some words or phrases. Have students work in teams to write the missing words. Encourage students to think of the funniest or most interesting captions to complete the gaps. Then, have teams vote for the funniest options. This activity promotes reading and creative writing while at the same time practices speaking and listening skills as students must understand what others are saying and express their own ideas.

A running dictation game also gets students out of their seats and involves the four skills. Prepare and print a short text and place it at the front of the classroom. Have students work in pairs or small groups and decide on who will be the writer and who will be the runner. If students are working in small groups, have the non-writers take turns being runners. Tell the runners in each team to read the text and memorize as much as possible before returning to their team and dictating what they read to the writer. Tell students that the text must be as accurate as possible, including correct spelling and punctuation. With advanced groups, you can add italics, bold, parenthesis, etc. to make the text more challenging. Once teams have finished writing, hand out a copy of the text for them to check their work. This is an excellent and motivating game that can be adapted for both younger and older learners.

Games to practice new or recycled vocabulary can help students learn and retain new words more easily. Chinese Whispers is a simple but effective game that gets students to practice correct pronunciation while reinforcing vocabulary. When playing this game, I usually split the class into two teams to add a competitive element. Tell the teams to stand in a line and ask a student from each team to come to the front of the class. Whisper one vocabulary item to them, or alternatively show them a picture or flashcard without letting the rest of the class see. Have them go to the back of their team’s line and whisper the word to the student in front of them. Tell the last student in each line to say the word aloud. Students love this game and find it hilarious when words get distorted as they pass down the line.

Games encourage students to interact and communicate and to be more sympathetic towards one another, thus fostering understanding. While of great educational value, games are a fun distraction from the usual routine of language learning. They create a relaxed learning environment where real learning can take place and can also reduce students’ fear of speaking in a foreign language, which improves communicative competence. I believe games can and should be central to language teaching and can be used at any stage of the lesson. Many traditional games, such as Hangman, Pictionary, Bingo, Memory, Charades, Battleships, etc. can all be adapted for the ELT classroom. Kids love to play, and fun, exciting games will engage them in communication, making them forget about the language challenges they face.

References:

[1] Baez, George. “From Dreams to Reality.” Ed. Justyna Zakrzewska. Step Inside 3. Mexico: Oxford University Press, 2014.

[2] Unicef, Universal Children’s Day: Celebrating children and their rights, UNICEF Malaysia, 2012. Date of access: 08/04/2015. http://www.unicef.org/malaysia/childrights_universal-childrens-day.html


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Webinar: Having fun with festivals

A celebration of Holi Festival of Colors

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Vanessa Reilly, teacher, teacher trainer and OUP author, introduces her upcoming webinar on 27th and 28th May entitled: Having fun with festivals – cultivating interest in the target culture in your young learner classroom.

Just how important is the target culture to you when teaching English as a foreign language to young learners? Looking at a language from the point of view of speakers of that language and how they live makes the target language more real, not just a collection of words and sentences to be learnt.

All learners need to be introduced to the target culture, no matter how young or early on in their language learning experience, in order to provide them with the optimum conditions for success.

My webinar will provide an overview of the following:

Target culture in the very young learner and young learner classroom

Very early on in my teaching career, I remember reading Claire Kramsch’s book Context and Culture in Language Teaching, and this statement stuck in my mind:

If… language is seen as social practice, culture becomes the very core of language teaching. Cultural awareness must then be viewed as enabling language proficiency… Culture in language teaching is not an expendable fifth skill, tacked on, so to speak, to the teaching of speaking, listening, reading and writing.”

So I started to explore:

→ What are the implications for primary age children?

If, as Kramsch proposes, cultural awareness needs to be an integral part of language learning, then I believe that as teachers of English we need to explore the many aspects of English-speaking culture appropriate for all learners, however young the children we teach.

→ What can we do as primary teachers?

We need to look at culture through a child’s eyes and consider what will motivate a Primary child to want to know more about the target culture. Having worked with children for nearly 25 years, I have found even young children are really interested when I talk about what children in English-speaking countries do that is the same or different to their world. I find activities based on festivals very motivational and the children quickly become engaged in the colourful, fun activities; so festivals are usually where I begin to introduce culture into the Pre-school and Primary classroom.

In my upcoming webinar we will look at bringing cultural awareness to young learners through festivals that are important to the everyday lives of children in English-speaking countries. In this very practical session we will investigate stories, songs, games and other mysterious things to enjoy with our Primary children.


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Fun with flashcards

Ahead of her workshop at IATEFL 2012 about engaging students with flashcard games, Weronika Salandyk talks about some methods she uses to teach with flashcards in the classroom.

Flashcard games belong to my favourite classroom activities with young learners. Kids love them, I love them and they seem to help my students remember the new vocabulary. When teaching a class of six- or seven-year-olds I try to stick to a few rules: remember about classroom management (otherwise these lessons would be a mess, not fun), reduce the amount of materials I use (why should I waste time copying and cutting if I can use a pile of flashcards and a few everyday objects?) and mix new activities with my ‘tried and tested’ favourites.

When I introduce new material I show students flashcards and ask them to repeat the words a few times. To keep this activity more lively I make funny voices or ask children to speak as if… they were eating hot soup, chewing bubble gum or sitting in the dentist’s chair with their mouth open. In this way students repeat the same words many times without realising it. They practise pronunciation and begin to remember what each flashcard presents. And what’s more, they’re having great fun!

After a few revision activities we play games based on associating the word with the picture. At that point students don’t feel perfectly comfortable with the new words so I make sure they get plenty of practice in the safe and entertaining environment. Slap the card is one of the games my kids want to come back to during every lesson. I divide the class into two teams. We sit on the floor in two rows, one team opposite the other. I put flashcards face up between them, usually in a single or double line.

The games starts when I say a word and children who sit near that flashcard must quickly slap it with their hands. The first team to do it get a point. Actually the points are not important at all, the kids just love the tension the game involves. It is a very dynamic activity which wakes the sleepy ones up but also allows the over-energetic children to work off their energy surplus a bit.

Finally, we play flashcard games which make children say the word or use it in a sentence such as pass the bomb. Students sit in a circle and I give one child a bomb which is a ticking egg timer. At the same time I show him/her a flashcard and the student must say what is in the picture or build a sentence with the word according to a pattern we practise (I like…, I have got…, I can….). Then s/he passes the egg timer to the next person and I show a different flashcard. The person holding the bomb in the moment of explosion is in real trouble!

With the rest of the class we prepare a special task for this person (e.g. s/he has to name three words that come next in the pile of flashcards). Pass the bomb is a great activity as it gives you a chance to check every student’s progress – but you need to be careful not to scare anyone. With my youngest students we call it buzzer and I give them funny tasks at the end, so the result is that everyone wants to hold the timer when it buzzes!

Do you and your students like using flashcards? What are your favourite flashcard games?

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Party Mix: Engaging teenage learners

Group of teenagers at a partyIn this guest post, Anna Musielak, a Gimnazjum (Lower Secondary) teacher and teacher trainer from Poland, tells us how she coped with teaching teenagers and gives her tips for how to engage this troublesome age group. Feel free to follow Anna on Twitter (@AnnaMusielak).

Teaching teens is a very challenging job. They are extremely hard to please and it is our role as teachers to provide them with tasks and activities that will be interesting, motivating and effective. Of course, our teenage students very often decide to make our life, well… living hell!

When I taught Gimnazjum students I very often felt like screaming. There were days that I could (literally) stand on my head and they would still say the lesson sucked… But there were those precious moments when I got to them, when the lesson was so interesting that they forgot to moan and complain and just took part in it!

The key, in my opinion, is to introduce a variety of animated and efficient exercises that motivate students of mixed abilities and help them learn and reinforce the material. The activities have to be engaging and directed to all students – those better at English and those who struggle with it.

Of course, it helps a lot when we have an idea what our teenage students are into. For some it will be the Twilight Saga, for others Facebook, and for some, playing Guitar Hero. It is our role to find out about their passions and hobbies – by doing so, we prove to our students that we are genuinely interested in their lives. Obviously, I don’t mean channeling your inner rock star or coming to the classroom plugged into your iPod. I just think that knowing a bit about our students’ activities outside school gives us a perception of their temperamental life and, what’s more, helps us understand them better.

There is one activity that always works with my Gimnazjum students – I call it Party Mix. It does not require a lot of preparation from the teachers (one of the biggest advantages when conducting a lesson) and gives freedom to the learners.

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