Post-mortem: 2010-2013 Classroom Games Part #4

September 13th, 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. Part 3.]

Slip Matching Game

Aim: To test the students’ understanding of vocabulary and grammar.

Slip matching games are common in ESL teaching. You write a few words on some pieces of paper and have the students match them up. Such activities may include:

There are various different dynamics going on in these games: the physical moving of slips, the team work and social dynamics, and the sharing of collective knowledge among students. Here are some of my own special variants:

Wrong Months

When teaching months I create two sets of words: one with the months spelt correctly and one with the months spelt incorrectly. I then mix them together and have the students find the months with the correct spelling and arrange them from the start of the year to the end. For the first step, the students recall the spelling of each month and compare it with the spelling on the paper. For the second, they recall the order of the months and arrange the slips of paper accordingly. Most students do both at the same time. I like this game because two sets of knowledge are tested for the price of one. By adding an extra layer of complexity (misspelt words), I was able to achieve much more depth out of this game (depth being  the higher-order task of managing two distinct processes simultaneously; spelling and month order).

The Never-ending Listening Task

I take a dialogue from the text book, remove a couple of words per sentence, and print each line out on a slip of paper. In class I set the dialogue’s audio track to repeat on a loop and have the students arrange the slips of paper in sequence and fill in the word gaps. As the students can’t complete the task on their first listen, their progress is suspended across multiple runnings of the dialogue. Therefore each time they listen they have to listen for different pieces of information—whether that be to identify the next part of the conversation, check an answer from the previous rotation, or listen for the missing word. Groups of students work together to complete the task and they all hear the dialogue at the same time, and so there’s a lot of potential for interplay between them (such as when one student hears an answer that another student was listening for). By making a few alterations to the formula, I was able to transform a simple slip sorting task into a “listening for specific information” task which shifts dynamically with the students’ progress.

Category Mix-up

I put together a group of words that can be sorted into multiple categories and have the students–you know–sort them into the those categories. For example, the students could sort food words by flavour, size, colour, food type, healthy/unhealthy, and the meal at which they’re eaten. Switching up the parameters forces the students to filter the content and tests adaptation skills.

Have/Don’t Have Game

Aim: To get young learners engaging in natural dialogues using “have” and “don’t have”.

I have the students sit in a circle and close their eyes. One by one each student opens their eyes, takes a picture card, and places it face side down on their lap. Once everyone has a card, they can open their eyes. I then ask each student, “Do you have a …?” and they answer, “Yes/no, I have/don’t have a …?”. For the second round (the main game), I have the students ask each other. The student who answers one question must then ask the next. When a student guesses correctly, the other student must forfeit from the game. The last remaining student wins.

It’s best to choose a group of words that the students know well, this way you can focus all your attention on the grammar.

From a teaching standpoint, what I like about this game is that it gives young students the opportunity to construct their own dialogue independently. From a game design standpoint, I love the deductive reasoning and decay dynamic (the more students sit out, the fewer answers remain) and how the two feed into each other. For the kids the social interaction is engaging in and of itself, but the option to scale the difficulty by listening carefully and thinking deductively adds a layer of higher-level play. From personal experience, the difficulty level is optimal for 6-year-old students as they’re just old enough that they can engage on a higher level, but doing so is still a challenge. The game also has a card-game-like quality where the students must hide their cards from their classmates.

In Part 5, we’ll explore a series of activities related to debating.

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!