In the Beginning
Long ago, I took a typing class as an elective, but lost interest shortly after learning how to (badly) touch type. Since I had nothing to lose by failing, I happily flunked. When I left the class, I could type about 15 WPM (words per minute).
A while later, I got a part time office job. On slow days, I amused myself by exploring my computer’s software, and discovered Mavis Beacon — a program to teach/improve typing. I tried it and was hooked because it taught typing through games! For instance, I could race against several opponents, and how fast I went depended on how quickly and accurately I typed. Furthermore, Mavis remembered my scores, so the games got harder each time.
I kept playing Mavis for fun, and as a result I ended up typing over 80 WPM! I was 14 years old at the time.
Years later, I taught computer classes and found many students who wanted to improve their typing. Remembering Mavis, I sent them to this free site with online typing games. There, students blasted asteroids, raced cars, danced and more — all by typing. Students enjoyed this so much, that I often had kick them out of the computer lab when it closed!
I got a chance to find out later — when I taught ESL (English as a Second Language). I wanted students to practice more, improve attendance and retention. To this end, I built a toolbox of techniques and sites for games-based language practice. If engagement = success, this was a hit as students skipped breaks and even refused to leave class because they wanted to keep playing!
Here are things I did or am considering doing.
- Taboo: A student gets a card with a word s/he must describe and a list of words s/he cannot use.
- Example: Describe “lunch” without using “breakfast, dinner, meal, or noon”.
- Trains: Vocabulary, prompting, hinting and questioning skills.
- Progression: Use different words or change the forbidden words.
- Guess the Picture: A student gets a picture, and must describe what it looks like so that other students can guess the picture.
- Example: Given a picture of a pig, say “it is pink”, “it has four legs”…
- Trains: Visual language and prepositions
- Progression: More complex pictures or require more complex language forms
- Draw the Picture: A student gets a picture and tells another student how to draw it; when done, the artist must guess the object.
- Example: Given a picture of a pig, say “draw a circle”, “draw 4 lines below it”…
- Trains: Visual language, imperatives, prepositions and shapes.
- Progression: More complex pictures, or requiring more descriptive shape language
- Twenty Questions: A student gets a picture or description of an object and the other students must ask questions to guess the object; they only get 20 questions.
- Trains: Q&A
- Progression: Demanding more or less grammatical correctness.
- Information Gaps: Students get incomplete tasks, and must consult with other students (who have incomplete, but complementary tasks) to complete their sheets (without looking at each other’s sheets).
- Example: Pairs of students get two similar pictures and are then told to find 10 differences without looking at each others’ picture.
- Trains: Vocabulary, preposition use and Q&A.
- Progression: Picture complexity, number of differences, requiring certain language (e.g.: complete sentences, comparison/contrast forms, etc…).
Minimal Word Pairs: A student secretly rolls dice and flips a coin, and reads a word at the corresponding cell in a table. Other students must guess the die roll and coin flip from the word read. Use words that differ only by a single sound — one the students find challenging. Here’s a sample chart:
- These games can be played with the teacher, which can be useful if some students are trouble following, to demonstrate the proper language, or even teach by showing the necessary language as the need arises. For instance, the drawing game can be used to teach/practice shapes and prepositions, like below…
- Student 1: Draw a circle.
- Teacher draws a circle.
- Student 2: No, no, longer.
- Teacher: Oh, that is an OVAL.
- Teacher writes “oval” on the board, has the class say it, then prompts the student to re-word his/her instruction using “oval” before drawing it.
- Student 3: Draw 4 lines.
- Teacher draws 4 horizontal lines.
- Student 3: No, other way.
- Teacher: Oh, draw them VERTICALLY.
- Teacher writes “vertically”…
- Student 4: Yes, but not up, down.
- Teacher: Oh, you mean draw them BELOW THE CIRCLE.
- (and so on).
General Questions About Gamification/Edutainment
Sometimes, gamifying is as simple as adding visuals and sounds to a standard drill. For instance, typing games generally use standard typing drills where successful typing leads to things like shots being fired, and the speed of enemies serving as timers, etc…
Sometimes, teachers can keep score (not a grade!). For instance, passing out tokens for correct answers, counting them up at the end of the class and (possibly) presenting a prize may be enough. For that matter, tokens could be used with any of the above games to add further gamification dimensions.
Can games teach, or do they only provide practice? Sometimes the line is blurred, as when games include tutorials on how to play. Taking this to heart, can the lesson be presented as game rules? Further, even if games are just for practice, practice may be the most important part of learning. Make practice fun and more students will practice more and longer.
Language is great for games because language is how we accomplish anything socially. So any game with a social element is a chance to practice language; it need not be a language game per se. Still, some games are better at training students in certain domains.
Prepositions come up often, since they describe relationships — often spatial or temporal. Picture games naturally train the former, while comic strips (or sequence diagrams) can train the latter. This is fortuitous because students often have difficulty with prepositions.