green-dot

Board games at the core of a game-based language learning methodology: Kotoba Rollers

By James York, assistant professor at Tokyo Denki University

In this post, I will be unrolling (pun intended) a framework that I have been working on for the past year. The framework took many twists and turns, which can be read about further on my own blog here, but this post is a description of the framework in its current form. I do not think this is the final form, but it is still very usable in its current state in a number of contexts, particularly low-level EFL contexts such as my own.

DGBLL

As the title suggests, I am deeply interested in Digital Game-Based Language Learning (DGBLL) and how it may be applied to classroom learning. Why the dropped D though? Board games (or analog games, as they are often referred to) have very unique affordances for language learning in my opinion, and the structure of a board game play session matches the concepts of TBLT much closer than with video games. However, this post is not designed to be a deeply academic romp into the similarities between gameplay and TBLT methodology. For an overview, see the excellent paper by Julie Sykes (2014).

I should mention why the acronym DGBLL exists and not GBLL (as far as I know at least).

Ben Pearson also wrote about this on the blog here. CALL is a firmly established and extremely innovate field, and of course, as a part of that field there are those interested in exploring the affordances of digital games and virtual worlds for second language development. Video games have become such a large subject of research in CALL that the acronym DGBLL arose in accordance. Indeed, Pearson writes about this succinctly:

In the relatively new field of game studies, digital games have attracted the most attention of researchers and scholars. While technology continued to improve, so did the acceptance of digital games as a viable medium for interactive storytelling and artistic expression. In today’s world, most people walk around with mobile devices that play games that look about as good as they did on game consoles a few years ago. As such, digital games have become much more pervasive in society and it is much easier to see them as legitimate fields of study. The problem is that while digital games garner so much attention in game studies as a field of scholarship, very little work has been done on analog games in comparison.

I think it is the dearth in research regarding board games that inspires scholars like Pearson and myself. Additionally, the renaissance of board games is very very real. Board game funding figures have also overtaken those of video games on the popular crowdsourcing website Kickstarter. Yet, despite their increasing popularity, there is little research on the use of board games as a teaching tool in educational, let alone language-learning contexts.

So, without further ado, let me introduce the framework I have been using to promote English communicative competence in a low level EFL context here in Japan.

  • Why communicative competence? — This is a skill that is sorely lacking in my context. 
  • Why not specific skills per game? — I prescribe to learner-centered learning. This comes mainly from my own experiences as a language learner. Yes, I can create an activity to push learners to notice certain grammar points or lexical items, but what if they don’t notice, or what if they noticed something different which has more relevance to them at their current stage of development?

The framework

The framework is derived of six parts. The following subsections of this post will explain each of them in detail. Each part is considered to last a full 90 minute class period.

  1. Learn the rules
  2. Play
  3. Analyse a transcription of gameplay discourse
  4. Play again
  5. Analyse gameplay discourse and compare with previous play session
  6. Complete a final project reflecting on the experience

Part 1: Learn the rules

Rulebooks introduce key concepts, vocabulary, and grammatical structures that will be encountered during gameplay. Thus, students are provided with a huge volume of input before the active gameplay stage (i.e. reading and listening skills targeted before speaking). From a TBLT perspective, then, the rulebook acts as a priming tool for students to become familiar with relevant vocabulary and grammar before play. As well as reading the rulebook, students are prompted to watch “How to play” and “Gameplay YouTube videos to further the amount of input they receive. During this phase then, students are not only learning how to play the game, they are equipping themselves with vocabulary, grammar and keywords to play.

After learning how to play the game, students then get all the pieces out and play for 5 – 10 minutes. In my context, as the game is new and unfamiliar, this is usually done mostly in the L1. However, this stage is also an important learning activity. There is a disparity between the words and grammar found in the rulebook and what is said during gameplay (see Masuda & deHaan, 2015), and so the gameplay session offers students the opportunity to notice what words are needed.

In summary

The first class is designed for students to learn

  1. How to play the game
  2. What words and phrases are common in the rulebook
  3. What words and phrases are actually used to play the game

I provide a worksheet to students so they can keep a note of any new words or phrases that they noticed. The worksheet can then be referenced during gameplay the following week.

 

From the rulebook:

 New words, phrases, or grammar
 Japanese translation
 Example usage sentence
 a  a  a
 a  a  a

 

From playing the game:

 Example sentence
 Japanese translation
 a  a
 a  a

Part 2: Gameplay

The following class is very straight forward. Students come in, get into groups, set up the game and play. Before playing however, they are reminded to record the audio of their play session. All students must do this.

After playing through the game, they reflect on what happened (usually in the L1), and decide how they will transcribe the gameplay audio. Generally, students divide the audio up into equal amounts so that they all have specific sections of equal length to transcribe. Transcription is then completed as homework to be done for the next class. The transcription should be verbatim, including all of the L2 and L1 utterances.

Part 3: Transcription Analysis (1)

First of all I should answer the question: “Why get them to transcribe their gameplay audio?” 

Well, without going too deep into the literature on self-transcription (for those interested, see Mennim, 2012), it is safe to say that during gameplay students are very limited cognitively. They are concentrating on the game and what is occurring in real-time. Thus, they often do not have the cognitive capacity to focus on what they are saying as much as they like. Essentially, noticing errors and L1 usage are given low priority and fluency (meaning negotiation) high priority, taking up the majority of their cognitive capacity. (On a side note, this is often true of tasks in TBLT in general. Accuracy is thus prescribed to a post-task phase).

In the third class then, students look at what was said during game play and do the following:

  1. Correct any L2 mistakes
  2. Translate L1 utterances into the L2

From doing this activity, students should notice what mistakes are common, what grammar they need to play the game using more of the L2, how much they use the L1 and in what instances they use the L1.

After that, they are instructed to complete appropriate grammar exercises from English Grammar in Use (Cambridge) in order to better their understanding regarding the grammar that they picked out as useful for gameplay. 

A worksheet is again provided for students to keep a record of what they discovered.

 

First, they write what English grammar they think is useful for playing the game.

 Grammar point
 Example
 <person> should <verb>
 You should collect the red cards
 a  a
 a  a

Then, translate common L1 utterances.

 Japanese
 English
 どうしようかな~
 What shall I do?
 a  a
 a  a

And finally, they make some sentences based on the work they did in the grammar book. These sentences should use the grammar point and represent what they will say in the next play session:

 English
 Japanese
   a
 a  a

The worksheet is kept and can be referenced during the second play session.

Part 4: Replay the game

This stage is very similar to the first play session, but now we are in a position to expect more L2 use, so, let’s up the ante. money bag 

After 15 minutes (or one full round, or whatever other marker students decide is appropriate) they have to make a new rule. They have an option to make two rules actually, which are:

If I speak Japanese then ….

If we all only speak English then ….

I wrote extensively about this in a previous blog post for those interested. The first rule is obviously a penalty for L1 use, and surprisingly the idea of adding this rule came from the students themselves after I conducted a survey of how to improve the framework last year (York & deHaan, under review). The second is a reward that applies to ALL players, and is seen as the carrot to promote them to cooperate and speak more English. Of course, it is hard to make interesting, and fair rules for all games (“If I speak Japanese I have to reveal my card” in games like One Night Ultimate Werewolf is clearly not going to do the werewolves any favours….) but for the most part this step of the framework has been accepted positively by the students.

Homework for this session is to transcribe their audio once more.

Part 5: Transcription Analysis (2)

The second analysis session is very different to the first.

Now they have transcriptions for two gameplay sessions, it’s time to compare their performance. Did they speak more L2 during the second play through? Was the grammar that they thought would be useful actually used? These questions are answered in this session, and students are asked to make a tally count of how many times they used the grammar points that came up during the first transcription analysis, as well as the sentences that they translated:

 Grammar point
 How many times did you use the form?
 <person> should <verb>
 5
 a  a
 a  a

 

 English expression translated from Japanese
 How many times did you use these expressions?
 What shall I do?
 4
 a  a

 

And a final table to record phrases that they still said in the L1:
どうしようかな
 a
 a

Part 6: Final report

In the final two classes students create something of value for future players of the game. I was inspired by the work of Squire (2011) who wrote about how students start out as learners, then become master, and finally creators of content. In a similar vein then, here students learn the game, master the game (and language (to a certain extent anyway)) and finally create something for future students to refer to. They choose from one of the following projects and complete them either as a group or individually:

  1. Make a gameplay video [Group]
  2. Make a “How to play” video [Group]
  3. Write a game review [Individual]
  4. Transcribe gameplay and provide a grammar explanation [Individual]
  5. Teach other classmates how to play the game [Group / Individual] 

The popularity of the projects is in descending order. The fear of having to present something live to the rest of the class seems to push the “teach” project down to the bottom. These projects all have their own worksheets to guide students, and at the back is an evaluation sheet so that students know exactly how they will be graded.

 

Here is an example from the “How to play” video project:

 This worksheet
 10 points

☐ Did you complete all sections of this worksheet?

☐ Did you hand this worksheet in?

 

 Game Introduction
 5 points

☐ Was the game introduced?

 

 Player introductions
 10 points

☐ Did all players introduce themselves?

☐ Did all players speak clearly?

 

 Rules introduction
 50 points

☐ Were game-specific words explained clearly?

☐ Did players speak only English during the explanation?

☐ Did the players use the board to explain rules?

☐ Did players say what they were doing? (i.e. did they speak when they  moved pieces?)

☐ Did all players speak clearly? (Pronunciation)

 

 Filming and editing
 25 points

☐ Was the game filmed clearly? (could we see what players were doing?)

☐ Was there a lot of silence? (i.e. were silent episodes cut out?)

☐ Was the camera stable?


Once a group has completed their project, they are instructed to hand it in over on my blog (which basically links to a Dropbox file request folder). I’d love to show some of their work, but unfortunately I did not ask for permission to publicly reveal what they have made (I only asked that their work be made available to other students within the university). 

Conclusion

The framework introduced here is designed to put students in charge of their own learning. Learning that is enjoyable. Agency is promoted as they are in control of their learning at the macro (choosing a game to play, making groups) and micro (learning rules, creating transcriptions, progressing gameplay turn by turn) level.

So what do I do in class? My role is to provide rule explanations when things are not clear, strategies for games in play, target language examples, and generally facilitate their play sessions as best I can. Due to the nature of the final projects being different for all groups, I have a very passive role. Groups often go to different rooms of the university so that they can record their sessions in a quiet environment, so at this stage I go around all the rooms and make sure everything is proceeding smoothly.

I have collected data regarding students perceptions of this framework and am continuously improving it for future implementations. The next step is to collect data regarding their transcriptions to see if there are any improvements in their oral performance between the two play sessions.

I’d like to thank Ben Pearson for inviting me to write this post, and hope readers find it useful for their own teaching context. If you have any further questions or would like to get involved with the Japan Game Lab research team, you can contact me at yorksensei @ gmail . com.

References

  • Masuda, R., & DeHaan, J. W. (2015). Language in Game Rules and Game Play : A Study of Emergence in Pandemic International Journal of English Linguistics, 5(6), 1. 
  • Mennim, P. (2012). Learner negotiation of L2 form in transcription exercises. ELT Journal, 66(1), 52–61. http://doi.org/10.1093/elt/ccr018
  • Squire, K. (2011). Video Games and Learning: Teaching and Participatory Culture in the Digital Age. Technology, Education–Connections (the TEC Series). Teachers College Press. 1234 Amsterdam Avenue, New York, NY 10027.
  • Sykes, J. (2014) TBLT and synthetic immersive environments: What can in-game task restarts tell us about design and implementation? in González-Lloret, M., & Ortega, L. (Eds.). (2014). Technology-mediated TBLT: Researching technology and tasks (Vol. 6). John Benjamins Publishing Company.

6 thoughts on “Board games at the core of a game-based language learning methodology: Kotoba Rollers

  1. www.augmentedandvirtualreality.com

    Do you mjnd if I quote a couple of your articles as long as I provide credit and sources
    back to your webpage? My blog is in the very same niche ass yours and my users would definitely benefit from a
    lot of thhe information you provide here.
    Please let me know if this okay with you. Many thanks!

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *