ELT Sandbox 1.0 – A New Dawn

It was about 4 years ago that excited whispers started to spring up around the corridors and the playground at my school in Turkey of a new game, a game seemingly like no other that had come before it. This was a game in which the players could become builders, manipulating the game world and creating structures on a limitless scale. This was a game in which the players could become adventurers, trying to survive against the odds and the terrors of the night. This was a game in which players could compete or collaborate in pursuit of their self-defined goals.

It was, of course, Minecraft.

This desire to learn more about the game and share with each other soon spilled over into our English lessons as well. I soon began to see 9 year-old A1-A2 level ESL students walking round with copies of Minecraft: The Redstone Handbook – original English copies as it had not yet been translated to their native Turkish. They would get together in break times and pore over the pages of this book written for native-speakers and come to a collective understanding, combining their extensive knowledge of the game and their developing knowledge of English to make sense of it.

Soon, Minecraft was appearing in our lessons too as it proved to be a great tool for project work. Students recreated landmark buildings in the game. They created huge rollercoasters, palaces and even entire towns. They showcased natural events like volcanoes and gathered farm animals for show and tell. Taking screenshots or making their own screencasted videos, they brought these creations into class and narrated them in English. Stories were set in the Minecraft world as well and suddenly, students who had been reluctant to write simple sentences were composing their own narratives over several pages.

And it was not just Minecraft either. One day close to the end of the school year, I showed the game Tropico 4 to my students. Despite having never played or even heard of it before, the class gathered round and watched me play. They started to give me advice in English about how best to proceed. Again, even reluctant and/or shy speakers were getting involved.

That summer, I decided this was an area worth further investigation and discovered there was such a thing as Digital Game-Based Learning (DGBL). ELT Sandbox was soon born and this became a serious professional interest of mine. I experimented with ideas in class, blogged about it, presented sessions about it and later wrote articles about it.

In the early days, I went down the ‘classic’ ELT route with this new (to me) authentic resource – I looked at ways to impose traditional language learning activities on games. I had students describing gaming avatars, completing gap-filled walkthroughs, composing their own guides using modal verbs for advice, and naming common objects and locations in the games….

However, as I explored the field more, met other educators who were interested in DGBL, and reflected on my own teaching, I realised I had moved away from what had originally made me interested in games as part of the language learning process. Those early experiences with Minecraft and Tropico 4 had been successful because they were student-driven. It was not me as teacher who was pre-selecting activities for them. It was the kids who explored the game and the language they needed to talk about it and share emerged from there.

These days, I make an effort to explore activities using games with my learners that allow them to take the lead, experience the game, and then produce the language. I am there as a guide, both as a fellow player in the game and for the language they need to relate their experiences.

So, now, as I move this learning project to a new web address, this is an area I am keen to explore more. On these pages, I will share my thoughts on DGBL, highlight different games and how they could be used in class (perhaps with the odd lesson plan appearing here and there), reflect on my experiences and interactions, and bring in other voices through interviews and guest posts.

The last four years have only started to scratch the surface of the potential of DGBL in ELT. I am excited to see how we will learn and develop more and better ideas in the years ahead.

Image from http://minecraft.gamepedia.com under fair use

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