August 30th, 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. Part 1.]
Aim: To review the alphabet, phonics, or word recognition.
I draw three boxes on the whiteboard, number them, and fill them with letters. Each letter appears only once. I then say a letter and the students call out the number of the corresponding box. If they’re correct, they (team students) win a point. If they’re incorrect, they lose a point. I identify the letter in question after each answer so as to offer clear feedback as well as an opportunity for the students to connect the verbal and printed forms. Later I say the sound instead of the letter. Later still I replace the letters with words. I like to mix in similar-looking words (e.g., cup, cap, and cop) to draw the students’ attention towards the ever-important vowel sounds. Spot Cruncher has a number of parallels with Bag, Beg, Big, Bog, Bug. The focus, however, is on a separate but related set of skills (identifying sound-form relations and differentiating between similar forms, e.g. F and E or p and b). The use of numbers as a reference helps keep the communication and feedback channels clean.
Spot Cruncher (De-optimised)
Sometimes I create new classroom games out of existing ones by subdividing the interactions and mining the untapped design potential. Spot Cruncher is a good example of this. I divide the class into two groups (readers and checkers) and play the role of a student. The readers choose a word on the whiteboard and say it aloud. I then say which box it belongs to and the checkers respond with either “yes” or “no” depending on whether my answer is correct or not. After a few turns we swap roles. The beauty of this deconstructed version is that I’m able to isolate speaking and reading skills so as to be more specific with my monitoring and feedback. The designation of roles also allows for fun mental knots. When one of student can’t undo the knot they can fall back on their team mates to speak out the problem in their first language (i.e. “the readers said ‘cup’ and the teacher said ‘2’, but there’s no ‘cup’ in box ‘2’, so we should say ‘no’”). By purposefully adding mix-ups in the form of incorrect answers, I can prompt the students to externalise their thinking processes.
Asymmetric Multiplayer Phonics Game
Aim: To test students’ sound blending skills.
This game is inspired by the Wii U’s asymmetric multiplayer.
I write a list of three-letter words on the whiteboard. There are two teams: team student and team class. Team student, our lone hero, stands ready at the whiteboard with me. Team class (the remaining students) sit in their seats, with the teaching assistant in front of them. They are shown flashcards of various sight words and must say each word aloud (but not too loud) to burn through the pile. (A good alternative would be to replace the sight words with questions which the students must answer aloud). When the students sitting down finish all the flashcards, the turn ends. As all this is going on, the student at the whiteboard is trying to produce (morph together sounds) as many words as possible. Each correct word equals one point. Every student gets a turn up the front. At the end of the game the student with the most points wins. What makes this game so engaging is the group vs. individual dynamics. Team class work together to shorten the time available for team student to earn points; and team student attempts to hold his own against the rest of the class. Very few classroom games involve asymmetric team challenges, so it’s a refreshing change for the students.
When I introduce this game I don’t tell the students that one team acts as a timer for the other. It’s important that they figure this out for themselves as the realisation brings a new energy to the game. It usually only takes one or two rounds for students to make the connection.
Each round, team class get a bit better at identifying the flashcards, so I always ask the weaker students to come to the whiteboard first as starting earlier gives them the best chance to net a decent score.
As with most classroom games, I can rebalance the game live and in secret. In this case, I can send a secret hand signal to the teaching assistant to add more flashcards or questions, or I can force the student at the front to produce the words more clearly before I accept their answers. This is one advantage that classroom games have over video games—a live moderator.
Duck, Duck, Goose with Phonics
Aim: To have students be able to identify and distinguish between short vowel sounds.
This game is a variant of the classic kids game Duck, Duck, Goose. Instead of saying duck and goose, though, the students must say two words of the teacher’s choosing (for example, bag and beg).
To check whether or not the students are listening for the vowel sound, I play as the speaker first. As I’m circling the group, I’ll say a “duck word” and pretend to run away from the student. If they chase me, I’ll know that they were paying attention to my movements and not the vowels. As we play I’ll occasionally throw in this mix-up (and encourage the students to do the same) to remind them to use their ears and not their eyes. Such a mechanism is needed to prevent the excitement from detracting from the purpose of the activity.
The art of the shoulder tap (tapping with indifference to catch players unaware) further sharpens the game’s focus on the vowel sounds. It also increases the game’s inherent tension–which comes from the random-via-best-friend-bias selection of geese (i.e.,“oooh, it could be me next!”). Although it can be tricky to telegraph the art of shoulder tapping to a group of excited six-year-olds, I like to model it anyways and see if they catch on. As with any physical activity (including video games), knowledge skills (art of tapping, listening for the vowel) can be used to reduce the player’s dependency on action skills (chasing the other player).
The glaring weakness of Duck, Duck, Goose with Phonics is that the production of the duck and goose words, the hinge which holds the game together, can often get lost in the excitement. And once the kids start running around, it’s difficult to reel them back in. Duck, Duck, Goose with Phonics is therefore one of my weakest games and should be reserved for classes with good self-control*. Part 3, on the other hand, will be dedicated entirely to my favourite—and probably also my best—classroom activity.
*I was going to say adult learners, but often they can be worse than the kids!