Game-based learning (GBL) is an area of education that has been getting a lot of attention in recent times. It's easy to find articles and entire websites devoted to the power of games for engaging learners and providing a vehicle for their learning. However, many of these articles seem to focus on math, science, and language arts.
But what about language learning? How can GBL help English-language learners develop their comprehension and communicative skills? Well, the short answer is very similar to the above: it can engage ELLs and give them an inspiration and a context for communicating. I've spent many years working with language learners in different countries, and they are always eager to talk about their personal interests, especially when it comes to video games.
The one question that I'm often asked, however, is: "How can teachers get started with GBL in the language classroom, especially when they have little experience of it?" The remainder of this post is my response.
Start a Conversation
GBL is all about engaging learners, so your first step is to find out if they like the idea -- after all, there's little point in trying to push GBL with a class who are simply not into gaming! (Such classes are rare, but they do exist.)
Ask your students what kind of games interest them and what their devices of choice are. Learn about their gaming habits, and find out how they balance game time with their other out-of-school activities. Exchange opinions on how much gaming is too much. Show an interest, and use this information to help you bring games into class.
And make sure that you have a conversation with your colleagues as well. Anyone else interested in GBL will most likely be delighted to help with advice and ideas. Let's not forget the other stakeholders, too. Keep your school administration and the parents in the loop about your GBL plans to avoid any misunderstandings (like the difference between "playing" and "learning") further down the line.
The Power of Choice
Once you've started the conversation with your ELLs, it’s important that you keep it going. Involve them in the choice of what games or apps to use in class. This will make them even more invested in the process. Here are two ways that I've done this:
- Brainstorm a list of games that your learners play and ask them to identify which ones have learning potential for the classroom. Remind them of a few criteria first:
- The game should not be inappropriate in any way for learners of their age.
- It should be either free or cheap.
- It must work on the devices available to the class (school-owned equipment or BYOD).
- Alternatively, you could research and vet some suitable games, and present the options to your ELLs. They then would spend some time researching the titles themselves before voting on a preferred choice.
Set the Rules
It is always a dangerous assumption with GBL (or any other use of edtech, for that matter) to expect the students to be automatically wowed into staying on task and taking the work seriously. Classroom management is as important as ever in these situations, and I find that having clear rules helps.
First and foremost is a reminder that we are still in class, and we are here to learn. If anyone just wants to play, they can do so at home. There will be set tasks just like any other lesson, and all normal school rules and expectations still apply.
All said with a smile of course!
All Part of the Plan
A decade ago, not that many people were using online videos in class. Now, even where I work in Gabon, almost everybody does! But do we just hit play and expect learning to happen? Of course not! We make the video part of our lesson plan. We think about how it links to our current topic and wider curriculum goals. We have pre-viewing, while-viewing, and post-viewing activities designed to get our ELLs focused on and producing the target language.
It's the same for games. Recently, my ELLs had a homeroom topic about the natural world and different biomes. This was a perfect time to use Minecraft and explore the different in-game environments, comparing them to their real-world equivalents as we did so.
Another group of fourth-grade students was learning about instructions and creating "how-to" guides. This led to us using an app called "Can You Escape?" in which the player must solve puzzles to unlock a door and escape a room. It was a great way to get them following and ultimately creating their own playthrough guides.
Where Can We Find Ideas?
This is the second question that I'm often asked, and there are four resources that I recommend for GBL with a focus on language learning:
- Digital Alternatives: a site about GBL for language learners by Dave Gatrell, an ESL teacher trainer in Hong Kong
- Digital Play: a blog and award-winning book by Graham Stanley and Kyle Mawer, two experts in game-based language learning
- Digital Debris: a site by Paul Driver focused on mobile learning, AR, and the pedagogy behind edtech
- ELT Sandbox: my own site of lesson plans, ideas, and reviews
Do you use GBL with ELLs? Are you considering it? Please share your thoughts, comments, and experiences.