August 23rd, 2016
[This piece was originally written for Adventures in Games Analysis: Volume I back in 2013. I now feel that it would be too indulgent to dedicate some 6,000 words on myself to paid copy. Plus, these activities—whilst good in their own right—are not an accurate reflection of my current teaching practice.]
Every Friday night in Shanghai I leave work depressed.
After dinner I teach English to a pair of eleven-year-old boys. Since my other classes are for six- and seven-year-olds, I savour the opportunity to put together more sophisticated and experimental lesson plans. When it comes to the parents meeting at the end of class—like all parents meetings—I focus on how the nuances of my pedagogy assisted the boys in meeting the goals of the lesson. It usually takes about 4 minutes of talk before I’ve dug myself into an explanation that I don’t quite have the Chinese language level to crawl my way out of. The parents take my rambling politely and understand the general gist—not that it makes me feel any less embarrassed. The reason why I get stuck in these weekly ruts is because I’m fascinated by gameplay.
Both on my blog and in my previous book, I’ve talked about the relationship between gameplay and education. The simple takeaway being that in order to play and ultimately beat a game, the player must learn and eventually master the system of rules and mechanics. Thus, teaching and learning is a fundamental aspect of gameplay.
Although lesson planning and game design are different beasts, they follow similar core principles. I therefore often find myself coming across a solution to a lesson planning problem by drawing inspiration from game design, and vice versa. Allow me to illuminate with two examples:
When designing Bomb Game (to be covered in later parts) I needed to add a bit of tension, so I borrowed an idea from a game design article I had read and decided to add a timer. This worked out perfectly. It wasn’t long before all the teachers at my school were using Bomb Game in their classes too.
When preparing the second draft of Game Design Companion’s Level Analysis chapter, it didn’t take long for me to realise that Wario Land 4’s levels were based on restricted-to-freer practice, a model of variation which featured heavily in my initial teacher training.
After several years of consistently bumping into these kinds of parallels, my understanding of video games and teaching has become somewhat intertwined. Observations of game design tend to guide my teaching practice while elements of pedagogy often becomes a focal point of my writing. I can’t think of a better way to illustrate this point than by handpicking a selection of my own TESOL classroom games and dissecting them in the same way I would a video game. These activities cover a range of language levels, teaching contexts, and macro-skills.
Bag, Beg, Big, Bog, Bug
Aim: To have students be able to identify and distinguish between short vowel sounds.
Prerequisites: I do this exercise with older students (9-12 years old) for review and with younger students (5-7 years old) after several months of phonics drills (A-Z phonics, morphing, listening, and spelling). Producing clear vowel sounds is one of the most difficult aspects of learning English, so I designed this game to help students develop their awareness of the five sounds.
I write the numbers one to five and the letters A, E, I, O, U in two adjacent columns on the whiteboard. The students read the vowel sounds. During this time I check to see whether they can produce the sounds correctly—or at the very least have the right idea of how to move their lips and tongue. After that, I read the five vowel sounds from A to U, pause, and then add a sixth vowel sound which the students must identify by calling out its respective number. To prevent students from guessing, I put the class on a scoring system where a correct answer adds a point and a wrong answer deducts a point.
At this stage, the game isn’t about listening for the differences between sounds; rather, it’s a short-term memory test. The rhythm in which I say the sounds and my directing of the students’ attention towards the letters on the whiteboard act as a scaffold and help drill the sounds and their matching visual form into the students’ subconscious. The whiteboard text also grants the game a visual structure.
Given the order of the vowels and the distinctions between the sounds:
- A is easy; all students know it.
- O and U are aurally distinct and come at the end of the sequence, so they’re easy too.
- E and I are quite tricky. The “I” sound is similar to the “E” letter phoneme (long E). Both sounds are near the start of the sequence, so the students must remember them for a longer time.
- A and U sound similar, but are the furthest apart, so it’s sometimes necessary to clarify the aural distinction by saying the two sounds in succession.
Since the initial sounds must be remembered for the longest time, I begin the exercise with the answers U, O, I, A, E. This way the difficulty ramps up a little from U to I, and the A (easiest letter) gives the students the confidence for the E (the hardest letter). Every time the students fall into a slump, I throw them an A to boost them back up.
The reason why I use numbers instead of having the students say the letter sound (i.e., long vowel sound) is because it focuses the task on distinguishing between short vowel sounds. Having to say the letter sound would require the students to make the connection between the long and short vowel sounds—something which extends beyond the purpose of the game and can be a tricky mental hurdle for low-level students to overcome.
I say only the sixth sound and the students call out the corresponding letter. I introduce variant two every odd turn until I am confident that the students are able to make the full transition. By this stage, they should have a firm grasp on the sound-letter relationships. If they do stumble, I just revert back to variant one for a few turns.
Recognising vowel sounds is one thing, recognising vowel sounds within a word is something completely different. Variant three is identical to variant one, but with the words bag, beg, big, bog, and bug replacing the individual vowel sounds.
I call out a “b_g” word and the students call back the corresponding number (i.e., variant two with “b_g” words).
I call out a vowel sound, the students write the letter on the whiteboard (i.e., variant two with letter writing).
I write a few “b_g”s on the whiteboard, say a word, and have the students fill in the blanks (i.e., variant three with letter writing).
I say “b_g” words and the students write them on the whiteboard (i.e., variant four with word writing).
I say any three-letter word with a vowel sound in the middle and the students write it on the whiteboard.
As you’ve probably noticed, the game’s structure remains consistent; it’s only the content (sounds > words) and some interactions (saying number > writing letter > writing word) which change. This design allows the students’ initial interactions to scaffold their later learning as their familiarity with the game and developing phonetic skills ease them though the string of progressive permutations. I’m also afforded a lot of control over the transitions (i.e., moving back and forth between two variations) and can thereby scale the learning according to the class’s performance.
I always teach phonics regularly and in short intervals as it can become dry in long stretches. I find that by dividing the trek from variant one to eight over several weeks, the learning has time to ferment in the students’ minds. Once they’ve completed the journey, we have a short rest and then review with Spot Cruncher, a phonics game inspired by the Wii U’s asymmetric multiplayer, and a Duck, Duck, Goose take on Bag, Big, Big, Bog Bug—three activities which I’ll discuss in part 2.