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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. Initially, there was typical resistance to starting a game which had a long set of rules and which could take up the whole evening. And yet, 15 minutes later, everyone was thoroughly engrossed and participating fully.

This was a demonstration of just how engaging games can be! And it doesn’t stop at board games, there are action or guessing games, treasure hunts, trivia or memory games, games with props, online games, or even game shows on TV (which we invest our time in with no hope of winning an actual prize). Games incorporate fun, incite collaboration and competition, which in combination is incredibly motivating.

One theory for the motivational power of games (both physical and online) is that players reach a mental state where they are completely focused on the task. This is sometimes referred to as ‘flow’ (1); in other words, the difficulty of the game is not too hard or too easy, equally matched to the player’s skill level.

It is at this level that games have the most potential as valuable classroom tools. As teachers, we are always looking for classroom activities which take students to that place in their language learning when they feel fully engaged and motivated to continue to the end. Of course, we normally think of games as involving winning and losing, but when we use games in the classroom I prefer to think of them as achieving a win-win outcome.

Yes, you can try to win the game, but you also win by taking advantage of playing a well-designed language practice game. Because when games work well, students often forget that they are doing an exercise, as they start to use English in their state of flow.

As for the type of language that games can practise, I have yet to find a language point that a game isn’t good for! Take, for example, the board game format where everyone starts on one square, rolls a dice and moves round the board landing on different squares. For vocabulary, you can write different words on squares and students have to say a sentence with the word or ask another player a question using the word. For functional language, write speaking tasks on the squares such as ‘Ask the player on your right out for dinner this evening.’ Or even have students make their own board game and write the rules for other teams to play.

Finally, when choosing or creating a game to use in the classroom with your students, try to make sure that it contains these five components which all begin with the letter ‘C’:

  • Games benefit from having an element of chance which can be created by the throwing of a dice or picking up of a card at random. Chance adds tension to a game, and for language practice it encourages students to use language in response to changing situations.
  • Challenge. Players like to feel a sense of achievement in a game and this is only reached by including the right level of difficulty and including factors where students must succeed against adversity in some way.
  • Competition. Although you don’t want a classroom entirely based on winning and losing, a little bit of competition is often an effective way to change the pace of a lesson.
  • Collaboration. Games which involve students working together in teams or pairs are the perfect way to create a collaborative environment in which students support each other’s learning.
  • Communication. This is probably the most important C. Games for provide students with an authentic reason to communicate, allowing them to start using the targeted language.

To test these five C’s out, here is a game taken from my course book Business Result Second Edition. See if you can find the element of chance, challenge, competition, collaboration and communication within the game:

 


John Hughes is a trainer and course book author. In his webinars on the 13th and 15th February he’ll be showing your more ways you can incorporate simple games into your lessons, and demonstrate how you can use games to target the specific interests and needs of your students. He’ll also provide a board game template for you to download and use with your students.


(1) Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: the psychology of happiness. Rider: London.


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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.