Post-mortem: 2010-2013 Classroom Games Part #3

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.]

Skills Triathlon

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:

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.

Post-mortem: 2010-2013 Classroom Games Part #2

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.]

Spot Cruncher

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!

Post-mortem: 2010-2013 Classroom Games Part #1

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.

Variant One

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:

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.

Variant Two

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.

Variant Three

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.

Variant Four

I call out a “b_g” word and the students call back the corresponding number (i.e., variant two with “b_g” words).

Variant Five

I call out a vowel sound, the students write the letter on the whiteboard (i.e., variant two with letter writing).

Variant Six

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).

Variant Seven

I say “b_g” words and the students write them on the whiteboard (i.e., variant four with word writing).

Variant Eight

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.