I am a teacher. I teach English. I work at a small educational club in a town not far from Moscow. Children come to this place to do art, to attend dance classes and to study English. My students’ age varies from 7 to 18. They are boys and girls, and some of them are gamers. Most teachers, at least here in Russia, do not consider gaming worth paying attention to and see no purpose of it in class. But I am not one of them. I am different, and I am a huge gamer myself with more than twenty years of pressing X to continue, blowing at cartridges and feeling envious of friends, who got a new console before me. Gaming is a huge part of my life, and I am in a big debt to it. I have always looked at video games as an educational source. Well, in fact, video games, as well as board and card collecting games, have near limitless academic potential. Games helped me study English back at school and now they help me in my work.
Pretty much every student, who I teach, has some experience with games. Some just play simple mobile or web games, others go hardcore clocking hundreds and hundreds of hours in Counter Strike: Global Offensive or DotA2. So, where other teachers see time wasted, I see an opportunity. First, video games are a great topic for discussion. It simply gets students talking. Well, they are not yet very skilled at speaking, but at least they try using learned grammar and vocabulary in a safe environment. Gaming is a familiar thing to them, it eases the tension of speaking English, shortens the barrier that students need jump over to start talking - it helps us sail the uncharted sea of learning a foreign language without any fear. So, when we have the time or if I see a chance to squeeze gaming into a lesson, we talk video games.
With one student, in particular, we often suggest each other games to play. She is a big gamer and most importantly her parents do not find her devotion to be a deviation. They play together and not only video games but also board games, like Pandemic and Game of Thrones. The latter is especially awesome because she is 11. Amazing.
Another student is a boy of 13, and like any boy of 13, he likes CS:GO, GTAV, and would like to get PlayerUnknown’s Battleground. He also likes to sleep because he plays a lot. He wakes up an hour earlier before school than needed to play a couple of matches. It is also very difficult to get him in shape in class because he is quite lazy, so video game discussions help a lot. His English is simple yet good, so he can express himself quite easily. Another goal of such exchanges is to boost students’ comprehension. Unfortunately, school teachers don’t seem to work to improve on that extremely important aspect. So, it is where people like me step in. We provide essential speaking and comprehension practice. So, even if my students are not able to say something in English, they can hear me saying it, and later they will be able to repeat or say it in their own words. I speak English mostly in class even with children with zero knowledge, and to be understood I rely on gestures, repetition, acting, drawings and sometimes grimacing.
Another way of using video games as a teaching resource is playing them in class. Since I am a teacher of the English language I am constantly searching for video games or table top games that can be played to enlarge vocabulary, drill grammar, improve any other significant skill. Board games are excellent for that matter. I played “Ticket to Ride: Europe” with my students and we had lots of fun. This game is good because it matches the following criteria:
- it has simple rules which can be easily explained to students of the pre-intermediate level. What also makes this game great is that all the rules and mechanics can be introduced during play which is important since time management is critical in class;
- it is a perfect game for small groups and can even be played with only two players (a teacher and a student);
- it has great cross-curricular potential. Geography is fun when taught in English! There are multiple editions of this game and it gives an opportunity for students to learn cities of the USA or Europe. Do not also forget History. “Ticket to Ride: Europe” is set in pre-World War I era, so if teachers have background, they can add some historical remarks while playing;
- the vocabulary of that game is very essential. Students may not become philologists, but they will sure go traveling;
- it is short and can be played in 45-60 minutes;
- this game is designed so that players do not interfere with other players’ actions at least in the first half of the game, but the end game can become very competitive.
All in all, “Ticket to Ride” is an outstanding game on its own, and, if used properly, can become a favorite group activity for students.
I have also had ideas of using other popular board or card games, specifically “Magic: the Gathering” (or its digital version), but the preliminary stage seems overwhelming. Unfortunately, my students do not know what MtG is and it makes things even more difficult.
Now on to video games. The first game I want to talk about is Scribblenauts Remix. This game is meant to be used by English teachers in class. I mostly work with individual students, so I decided to use the tablet version of Scribblenauts, but if you are searching for an engaging interactive activity for a group of pupils, look no further than Scribblenauts Unlimited for PC. I use Scribblenauts to introduce new topics, for example, “School objects” or “Jobs”. Well, in fact, it has an endless set of topics, especially, if you choose to play in the sandbox mode. One the most significant language skills, that you can practice in Scribblenauts, is spelling, but bare in mind that the game uses American orthography, which in its turn can get the teacher to drawing differences and similarities between American English and British English. In a recent article on Kotaku, Jason Shreier has pointed out that Scribblenauts didn’t rely on any complex algorithm to bring its main mechanics to life, but the system was actually created by long, thorough but tedious handwork. Scribblenauts has become a hit among my students and the most admiration of this game comes from its excellent gimmick of creating in-game objects by typing nouns and adjectives.
I play Scribblenauts with kids of elementary and higher levels. With younger children who only make their first steps in the intricate world of English, I choose a game that I learned from a former Kotaku author, Evan Narcisse, and it is no other than the magnificent Metamorphobet. A game that fascinates me every time I fire it up. It is the most fun alphabet activity I have ever used with pupils. This game can be used to achieve several goals:
- learn new letters (which is pretty obvious);
- give interesting vocabulary instead of boring “apples” and “zoos”;
- introduce parts of speech, because Metamorphobet does not only have nouns but throws verbs and adjectives at the player;
- study the pronunciation of words, since it relies heavily on repetition;
- ignite your students’ creativity due to its imaginative aesthetics;
- check the knowledge of the English alphabet.
Having worked with many school children over the years, I noticed that only few know alphabet properly, can read it forwards and backwards (you may even ask students to read ABCs with their eyes shut to increase difficulty), name separate letters out of particular order, give examples of words for each letter (the most difficult task, of course, is to come up with examples for Q, U, X, and Y). That unfortunate fact can make future letter-sound work rather complicated. Metamorphabet is a one-of-its-kind game that has simple yet intriguing visuals, easy, intuitive controls, and invaluable educational qualities. Every student who tried that game was intrigued by its visual style and gameplay. Alphabet did not seem like an annoying chore. It was more like a visit to fun-fair where each letter was a stall with a tiny mystery.
That said, I do not think that Metamorphabet is not without flaws. I would like the developers to add new words, give the ability to select between parts of speech (nouns, verbs, and adjectives) and categories (animals, abstract concepts, etc.) and add some sort of a challenge or some competitive element.
This little game will introduce all young learners to the magic of worldbuilding and open the “cellar door” of linguistic fantasy.
But the king of all games with educational potential has to be Minecraft. No wonder it has a special, Education Edition, which is already used to teach children Art, Technology, History, Environmental Studies and so much more all over the globe. The list can go on and is only bound by your imagination and creativity. I am yet to experience the magical world of Minecraft. At the moment I only have ideas of how to incorporate Minecraft into my lessons and use its sandbox as a learning environment. I have always thought of Minecraft as a possible teaching tool, and since the majority of my students are more or less familiar with it – one girl, for example, does weekly streams on Youtube, another who is studying at college to become an architect, builds cities of her dreams – I have decided to get to know it better. So if I have enough time and patience, I will try it in the upcoming school year. As for now, it is only an intention, but the prospect seems hugely attractive.
How can a teacher utilize Minecraft in class? Well, as I said, we are prisoners of our inventiveness, so it is quite hard to suggest a straightforward guideline here. Nevertheless, I would like to share several of my draft concepts:
- Minecraft can be used to practice vocabulary from various topics, for instance, to revise words associated with the household. Teacher can ask students to build a house of their dreams, then furnish it and give a spoken or written description of it. This can be carried out in group form or individually, or can be given as a project;
- it may also be used to introduce certain language phenomena, grammatical structures, and lexical units in a visual form. For instance, – and this illustration is quite rough – to introduce the use of link verbs. Link verbs to a smaller or greater extent have lost their meaning hence their importance can be neglected by beginners. They are especially hard for Russians since the link verb “to be” is not used in Present Tense in the Russian language, so pupils often make mistakes. I usually compare link verbs to bridges which connect two banks of a river. Using Minecraft the teacher can load a prebuilt world separated by a river. There is a village on one of the banks, and it is the place where the protagonist lives. On the other bank, there is a big town populated by NPCs. The protagonist has a dream of becoming a wizard, but the Archmage is in the town but at the moment there is no way of getting to the town. Here teacher need highlight the significance of a bridge - not only for the protagonist but for other village folks - drawing parallels to the importance of a link verb in a sentence (its main purpose is to connect the subject to the nominal part of the predicate). Let’s give our protagonist a name. Charles or Arnold. Let’s call him Arny. So, if Arny builds a bridge over the river, he will be able to study magic and become a mage. The same thing happens in a sentence. Arny, a wizard. That is not a statement. We need a link verb. Having built the bridge with students teacher can finally say the complete sentence with the link. Arny is a wizard. That may seem quite far-fetched but is illustrative of the function of link verbs;
The above-mentioned video games are perfect for kids and teens but what about adults. Is there room for gaming in class with grown-ups? Of course, there is. As with kids, teacher may decide to throw a gaming themed discussion into the mix, but with adult learners disputes can be deeper and cover a wider range of topics: “Favourite genres”, “Gaming habits and rituals”, “All time best game soundtracks”, “Place of games in family life”. While we are at it, what games can teacher choose to play in a class of adults? I would say that point-and-click adventure games are perfect for this occasion. They have a lot of dialogue with useful vocabulary: collocations, idioms, phrasal verbs. Most adults see their ultimate goal of learning English as good communicative competence. So, such games as “The Secret of Monkey Island”, “Heavy Rain”, “Walking Dead” or any other story-driven and dialogue-heavy game will be able to fit this purpose. With this in mind, check if your adult students do not mind gaming, and if they do not, improvise. Play it by ear.
Additionally, video games are an excellent tool for rewarding students for making academic progress. Nothing can please a kid more than a favorite toy! Even if the kids are in their thirties.
I myself cannot separate English from video games. To me, they go hand in hand, and I want my students to find educational capabilities in their favorite free time activity. When I look at these kids I remember my school years, when “Ayrton’s Senna Super Monaco GP 2” helped me study sports vocabulary or when Mortal Kombat games introduced me to such slang expressions as “Gotcha” or “Toasty”. It may seem funny to you, but I had a very heated debate over “Gotcha” with my friend who told me that I was wrong saying it means “Got you!”, and even my teacher could not help. Well, I got him anyway. I hope that you have come to think of video games not only as mere entertainment but also as a productive educational tool. You must forgive me for this banal idea, but I have to express it. Gaming is like an iceberg with its larger part hidden under the water. Do not be afraid to dive into the coldness of the ocean. Unless you do, you will not discover what gaming has to offer apart from cheap thrills and time killing. It is so much more than that. I have just only started paying my debt to gaming by providing my students with new, refreshing, challenging activities.
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