Thursday, May 30, 2024

Language learning blocks

Teachers are using online games to engage students. Gerald Nikolai Smith finds out how

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a classroom of young learners in possession of a good (or poor) vocabulary, must be in want of a game.

Jane Austin aside, I believe the importance of games in the classroom cannot be understated. A good game makes reinforcing vocabulary and grammar relatively painless, but more crucially, it means the students have fun, something which is essential for a good English language classroom.

As the Covid pandemic pushed many students into e-learning, games have saved many of my classes from the tyranny of reading PPTs or watching long-winded YouTube videos. However, as we moved online, ELT has underutilised one type of game which could mesh perfectly with the e-classroom: video games.

I’m not just saying this to vindicate my own childhood obsession (although it’s a bonus). Psychologists have long known the connection to fun, learning and creativity. Neurologist Dr Judy Willis points out in a 2007 paper that, “Brain research tells us that when the fun stops, learning often stops too”. In that same paper, she advises teachers to make the material relevant and to promote a stress-free environment.

Many, if not most, young students know and play video games daily. Mention games like Roblox, Minecraft and Fortnite to a school-age student and you will see their eyes light up. They’ll be eager to share their experiences with you.

Video games can be stressful too, especially competitive ones like Call of Duty or FIFA. However, not all games are created equal when it comes to education. Creative simulation games such as Roblox or Minecraft are particularly well-suited to a classroom.

Imagine you’re in a world made up of 4 x 4 blocks. You explore, find caves, craft

“This is the goal: to marry the imaginative motivating fun of video games 
with content-based language learning”

armour and weapons, raise cows and sheep, and dig to the middle of the Earth. Oh, and you’re learning about bees and pollination in English while you do this.

This is the goal of Minecraft-Ed Ltd (not affiliated with Cambridge English’s Adventures in English Minecraft), to marry the imaginative motivating fun of video games with the tried and tested concepts of content-based language learning.

“It’s child-driven learning” says Tracey Athay, director and co-founder of Minecraft- Ed Ltd. As one of the newest edtech ELT companies, Minecraft-Ed seeks to get students motivated and immersed through video games.

“I’m not a gamer. In fact, before I designed these courses, I’d never played Minecraft,” says Athay. However, during her years of teaching online with various companies such as Whales English, her students, particularly the boys, consistently brought up Minecraft in free talk.

“What I ended up doing in the classes, because they struggled with attention and with engaging with the material, is I would try and relate everything to Minecraft.” It seemed Athay had found the magic key for her students.

Athay, along with her business partner, developed two courses with three levels: beginner, intermediate and advanced. One course, a literature one reading books called Diary of a Minecraft Zombie and another more experimental course named Hands On, Minds On. Hands On, Minds On starts out with a PowerPoint going over useful vocabulary and concepts, then both the student(s) and teacher start up Minecraft and practice what they’ve learned.

The students (or at least their avatars) get to move around solving puzzles and read what NPC’s (non-player characters) have to say about the topic.

Often, they’ll need to use what they learn in the first part of the class in the second one. “Maybe once they’ve learned about the importance of pollination, they might build a pollinator garden. They’ll know what a bee needs, they’ll know what you shouldn’t do, like you shouldn’t use pesticides.”

If you’ve taught a three-hour lesson over Zoom, you know how tedious classes can get. PowerPoint slide after PowerPoint slide, video after unending video. A song and a dance, a game and a Padlet. It’s no wonder children and adults alike can get Zoomnosis.

Minecraft-Ed tries to resolve this issue. Athay told me, “It’s not just the teacher saying what they should do anymore. They’re actually in charge. They’re responsible for it. And it really changes the level of their learning.”

Cambridge English has their own Minecraft ELT course. Adventures in English is a well- built narrative-driven adventure for A1/A2 students. This course could be completed with or without a teacher in contrast to Hands On, Minds On.

In Adventures in English, students navigate the blocky world completing language-based puzzles. They visit a library, fetch a hot drink for a virtual friend and help fix a well for a group of virtual villagers. It’s an engaging course, limited only by its focus on lower-level students.

Both courses use Minecraft Education Edition (MEE), a particular version of the original game. MEE has courses ranging from history and how to be an active citizen to coding and chemistry.

Another software which is great for older students in particular is Influent. This simulation game gives the gamer puzzles to solve in their target language. You begin in a bedroom looking over all your things: a cup, a T-shirt, a rock poster, etc. Whenever you look at something, the word for it pops up. While it’s a fun game, it’s probably best used as supplementary material rather than an in- class activity.

Using video games as homework can be effective too. In a 2020 article in the Christian Science Monitor, gamers pointed out how not focusing on the language helped them use English more than they normally would. An expert also suggested collaborative games like World of Warcraft or Fortnite (squads not individual) were excellent ways for students to learn.

I have also used video games in the classroom, but in perhaps a simpler way. I had students in pairs choose and play an online game. Then they would evaluate the game on certain criteria (graphics, gameplay, too many ads, etc). Finally, they’d present and discuss their games with the class.

Although many parents historically have thought of video games as an obstacle to their child’s learning, Athay says they’ve had positive responses from both students and parents. “Parents have been so happy about it so far. [One student’s] mother said that he never cared before for doing any reading [and] now he’s loving reading the diaries and writing his own journal.”

While a lot of parents are concerned that their children are spending too much time in front of screens, Athay said they shouldn’t be worried about how much time they are online, but instead be concerned with whether that time is beneficial or not.

In our modern world, this feels like a compelling argument. As adults, it’s increasingly more and more difficult to envision a future without time spent in front of screens being necessary.

Minecraft Ed and Cambirdge’s Adventures in English could mark the beginning of more video games in ELT. With more edtech companies, like BlaBlaEd, which advertises itself as an ELT TikTok, one must wonder what comes next. Will entrepreneurs develop a metaverse-style English school? Others may just be wondering how else we can reduce our PPT consumption.

Gerald Nikolai Smith is an ESL teacher and multimedia journalist. A native Texan, he currently lives on a houseboat in Glasgow.

Images courtesy of PHOTO BY SHUTTERSTOCK and Library
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