Changing Perspectives – Different directions for games in ELT

My thinking about how best to use digital games for language learning has shifted over the last year. Looking back, the Virtual Round Table Web Conference was one of the turning points for me and this repost from the original ELT Sandbox blog explores some of my reactions in the weeks after the event.

Earlier this year, (May 18th, 2016 to be exact), I had the pleasure to be part of the Games Symposium at the Virtual Round Table web conference. Expertly marshalled by host Ed Russell, I joined Dave Gatrell (the teacher behind Digital Alternatives) to talk about the benefits of games in ELT. If you were unable to attend live, please check out the recording form the following link:

As always, it was a pleasure to be involved in the Virtual Round Table, one of the mainstays of the ELT conference calendar. It was well attended and the reactions were positive.

There were also a few questions asked and comments made at the event and afterwards that gave me pause to think and reflect and I will add my responses to those in this post. I always value critical comments that lead to re-evaluation of my thinking and these are no different.

Speculation language is produced in most games, not generating much more than ill-formed modals, maybes and suggestions with ‘lets’ – perhaps we need to move beyond this?

Marisa Constantinides

This seems to be one of the most obvious places to start with game-based learning. Indeed, if you go back to the first post on this blog, you will find a description of a time I played a game with my students and used it to generate exactly this kind of language.

That is not to say that that is all we ever did with games and language but I take Marisa’s point that we need to avoid simply using the game as a vehicle for focusing on the same old language points. Taking speculation as an example, I would say we need to look beyond the ‘language’ of speculation (which is often limited to using a few modal verbs and semi-fixed structures) and push students into the area of speculation as a critical thinking skill.

That means not just forming a sentence like “I think we should go to the lake” but explaining why, justifying the choice with reference to the context of the game and our ultimate aims as players. Going a step further, we then need to evaluate our speculated thoughts against what subsequently happens. Was our line of thinking correct? Did events play out as we expected? What was wrong with our initial ideas? All backed up by the most important question of all – why?

If we can get our students thinking and discussing in this way, we are going far beyond the realm of classic language work, which brings me on to the next quote:

In the same way that early TV mimicked theatre, early ELT lesson plans mimic those from course books and other old media.

Paul Driver

Paul also gave a talk on DGBL at VRT, and it is definitely worth watching it you haven’t done so already: The Growing Pains of Digital Games.

He explained that whenever a ‘new’ form of media enters the world of ELT, our first approach is usually to view it through the lens of what has come before. This then leads to teachers and publishers taking something like a digital game and producing a gap-fill worksheet version of a play-through guide to go with it. Or the game is introduced by the teacher explaining some key vocabulary items and then showing a clip of the gameplay before asking learners to discuss it in the same way we might show a regular video.

Again, I have used activities similar to those above in the past, at times with my mind turned towards justifying why and how I am using to games to stakeholders – if they see something familiar, there is less likely to be resistance, right?

But, of course, that kind of approach can lead to us losing sight of what makes games so appealing in the first place. The game should provide a context for language production but it should be the driving force of the lesson, not the square peg which is to be hammered into the round hole of an ELT lesson plan.

I have been thinking about this one a lot and I still don’t have the answers yet… All I can say is that my understanding and ideas about digital game-based learning are developing and I will certainly be looking for alternative approaches to using them in class in future.

There’s something really wrong in the way we use digital games for ELT…. It’s just like students play funny video games and then they get an assignment and have to write a composition about the game they have played. Won’t it be frustrating for them?

Elena Peresada

Again, Elena’s comments (see my write up of her talk on gamification at IATEFL 2015) come back to the idea of introducing a fun and exciting game, only to bring the students back to earth with a bump by getting them to sit down and write a story or short essay about the game (a classic case of honey-coated peas…)

Personally, I have used games like Minecraft to get my students writing but I would qualify that by saying I do not shepherd them all towards the same set task. I try to offer them choices – some may write a story from the point of view of the character in the game, others may write a guide to a particular aspect of the game, others may reflect on what they have learned about the game and what they still want to find out.

It is also important to make sure these tasks break the mould of traditional classroom writing. Rather than submitting something to the teacher and getting it marked, we should do things like encourage the class to collaborate to build a guide to the game. Using a class wiki, different groups can work on different aspects of the game, they can visit, edit and comment on each other’s pages. Collectively they can build something bigger than just another composition that is likely to leave them feeling a sense of accomplishment rather than frustration at being hoodwinked by their teacher once again.

So, good food for thought from these comments and plenty to ponder over the summer break. I will be doing some reading, exploring some other examples of game-based learning, engaging in discussion with other DGBL enthusiasts, and, of course, playing some games to continue the development of my ideas!

This post originally appeared at in July, 2016.


4 thoughts on “Changing Perspectives – Different directions for games in ELT

  1. Hi, David!

    So great to see you blogging often now.

    I learned couple of things from the discussions I’ve had with my students who play online multiplayer games with players from around the world.
    1) even though their English was limited, they used online resources (google translator) to help them communicate.
    2) some of them got by without really interacting with people who spoke other languages.

    If around monolingual peers, encouraging them to use their L2 is a challenge, encourage them to use it with strangers is even more daunting. So, although it blows my mind to see how kids out there learned English through games (without ELT instruction) and the power of games to develop knowledge, skills and competencies, as Gee points out in his work, I think using a game as a teaching resource, just like songs and movies/tv series, is a real challenge. I mean, how can we not lose the authenticity of the media when you use it in a way other than it was intended?

    Some games demand more language than others for one to be able to play it. So, I wonder if instead of asking whether we should bring games into the classroom, we could be asking what linguistic level would be most appropriate to bring it to. And plus how to deal with those two things I pointed out above. I think connecting classrooms in a minecraft environment and running projects would benefit even elementary students because Minecraft doesn’t demand one to use a lot of language and there are naturally lots of resources (vídeos, walkthrough pages and wikis, etc).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Rose – hopefully I can keep the pace going into the New Year and Minecraft EVO (though I am cheating a little at the moment with reposts from the previous site!)

      Point 1) is something I love about the way my language learners interact with the games and the community around them. They push beyond their limits to understand, learn more about the game and perhaps even share their own thoughts and ideas.

      As for 2), this also happens of course. This is where using games in class can help – as teachers, we can coach our learners to recognise and exploit the language learning opportunities that are there.

      When it comes to levels, it all depends on the game. An interactive fiction story with a lot of text to read or dialogue to listen to that is integral to the game will obviously be better suited to higher level learners. There are also plenty of games with little or no language that can then be adapted easily. Minecraft is a prime example of a game have used with A1/2 kids and B2+ kids. Can You Escape? is another – I used it last term with a beginner class when they had a topic about home and furniture and with a B1 group, who were able to go far beyond the vocabulary and basic descriptions to produce quite complex language to describe each level.

      As you say, Minecraft also offers the chance to connect different classes and access a lot of resources around the game – the possibilities are almost endless!

      Liked by 1 person

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