September 6th, 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. Part 2.]
Aim: To review grammar, have the students use full sentences, and test all language skills.
This is a good game for reviewing a unit of work. I type up a series of review questions (around twenty), print them out, and cut them into small slips which are then placed on a chair outside the classroom. I put the students into teams of two and give each team a blank piece of paper. One student from each team must run out the room, grab a slip of paper, bring it back, and read the question to their team mate. The team then write a full-sentence answer and raise their hands to call me over. The students read their sentence. If the grammar and spelling are correct, the second team mate can go grab another slip. If they’re not correct, I’ll point out the error directly or give the students a clue or have them find the mistake for themselves (the response depends on group’s language level). Once they’ve corrected the sentence, they must raise their hands again. The students keep each slip of paper on their desk. If they pick up a question they can’t answer, they need to run back and exchange the paper for another. The team with the most slips of paper when there are none left is the winner.
Skills Triathlon is governed by an organic timer created by the gradual reduction (decay) of paper slips. This timer prompts the students to play quickly and efficiently. There are two dimensions to the time dynamic: how far your team/the other teams are in front (relative time) and the remaining number of slips (absolute time). The former tells a student how much lead they/the other teams have while the latter tells them how long they have to maintain/close that lead. There are many natural opportunities for the students to read the timers as the game takes place in a shared space. When one team rushes to get the next slip, the other teams can see that they’re a few seconds behind. Similarly, when one team calls the teacher over or a student curses their partner for choosing a difficult question, the other teams can overhear it. Just by being in the classroom the students are constantly given feedback on the progress–something which helps draw them into the game.
The interesting thing about the timer is that because of the game’s variable and changing nature (difficulty of questions, the team the teacher chooses to go to first, how heavily the teacher scrutinises the answers, the likelihood of the students picking a question they can’t answer, and each team’s individual progress), the further the students are into the game, the harder it is for them to tell who’s out in front. This is ideal for the teacher because it prevents students from giving up when they realise they’re on a losing streak. The obfuscation of the timer keeps all students engaged in the game.
Another powerful dynamic that affects the gameplay is the choice of questions. Since some questions are harder than others, students will often try to pick out the easy questions for easy points. Yet the longer they take to find an easy question, the more time the other teams have to rush back and answer their own. So there’s a risk/reward dynamic that governs the hunt for easy questions. As the game progresses and there’s fewer easy questions in play, the students are persuaded to just take whatever’s available. This pursuit of the path of least resistance not only adds an interesting risk/reward dynamic to the game, it also carves out a nice difficulty curve (as the questions organically become more difficult as the game rolls on).
Movement also presents its own form of challenge. As students move in and out of the classroom, they need to be careful not to run into their classmates. If they’re really sneaky, they can slow down the other teams by “accidentally” blocking their path. Since the game takes place in the physical space of the classroom, controlling that space is a viable tactic.
Each turn the two students must switch roles (even if the students can’t answer a question and need to exchange their slip of paper for another). This prevents them from designating their own “runners” and “writers” (i.e. the strong student does all the work while the weak student acts as their delivery boy).
Getting Chinese students to speak in full sentences (instead of one-word answers) often takes far more work than it should do. As an English Second Language teacher in China, it’ll be the bane of your existence. Many of my classes—especially with individual students—have been all about getting the students to open their mouths and say something—anything! Skills Triathlon was designed to tackle this problem head on and in my experience it has been a great success. Here are some of the reasons why it’s so effective:
- A hard lock—the only way to submit answers is to read them aloud.
- The students have their answer written down in front of them, so there’s no excuse not to read it.
- Given that it’s slow for the “writer” to be handed the paper, read the question, and then write an answer; the “runner” can save time by reading the question to the “writer” as they approach their seat. Any mistakes here can find their way into the final answer, so the students have to be clear and say the whole question.
- I often take advantage of the students being caught up in the haste created by the timer to elicit longer and better sentences. This trick doubles as a reminder to not skimp on the quality of one’s answers. Hold students up a few times in the heat of a good game and they will never give you less than their best responses again.
Skills Triathlon was named as such because it is similar in design to a triathlon and covers a good distribution of the four macro skills: reading (choosing a slip of paper and reading the question to the “writer”), speaking (reading the question to the “writer” and submitting your answer to the teacher), listening (listening to the “runner” read the question and listening to the teacher’s response), and writing (writing the answer).
Phrasal Verb Variant
Skills Triathlon also works well when teaching phrasal verbs. I replace the questions with phrasal verbs (“get up”, for example) and an accompanying sentence which uses the verb (like “I get up at 7 o’clock in the morning”). The students must then use this information to deduce the phrasal verb’s meaning and construct their own sentence. Since the students tend to paraphrase the original sentence (“I get up at 8 o’clock in the morning”) and are more likely to make errors (as they may not have used these words before), the teacher needs to be on guard when checking answers.
In Part 4 we’ll look at the design space of slip matching games and a clever way of getting young children to engage in simple dialogues.