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Games in EAP

March 4, 2011 3 comments

Like many who came into EAP through the TEFL route, I was rather relieved when I finally started teaching in a proper faculty where students weren’t always saying “Teacher, can we play a game?” All those fun TEFL activities can get a bit wearing after a while. Then there are those who come into EAP through the Freshman Composition route, who are probably wondering why anyone would be playing games with (almost) grown adults. Either way, games are something we associate more with elementary language learning than with academic English. When I moved from our university’s preparatory school to help found the impressively-titled Faculty Academic Support Team (now FAE), I thought, “OK, no more realia, no more cutting up cardboard, and no more games.”

How wrong I was. The games started creeping back, partly because often you have to find something to fill the last ten minutes of a class, but mainly because I’m essentially a playful person. At the very least, I wanted to indulge in a word game or a trivia quiz from time to time. Then along came content-based instruction, and before long I found myself designing and teaching ENG 102: The Philosophy and Psychology of Games. Now you can’t very well teach a course like that and not play games, and as it happened, I was playing ring-a-ring-of-roses in the first lesson simply because Wittgenstein mentions it in the famous passage about games in Philosophical Investigations, and playing it was the easiest way to explain it. Later, when the weather improved, we ended up outside playing tag, stick-in-the-mud and the like. If you can do that in an EAP course, you can do anything.

Now I’m teaching this course for the third time, and I’m still trying to come up with ways to integrate games into the lessons, and, what interests me in particular, to make learning more game-like. I’ve been watching various videos at sites like TED.com (some of which came out of my students’ references pages for their term papers) and there is a clear message coming across: the more you can make education like game-playing, the more students will learn, and that goes for both syllabus content and general personal development. Games have certain features which facilitate learning as well as enjoyment, notably clear objectives (e.g. kill orcs), constant feedback (you have killed 8 out of 10 orcs), frequent but variable rewards (loot from dead orcs) and improved self-esteem (you are the orc-killer!). What I would really like is a situation where, as one gamer put it, “every time you learned something important, gold light shot out from your body,” but that won’t be practical until I make a lot more progress with our OpenSim server. In the mean time, what I can do is “gamify” some ordinary classroom activities, to provide, as Spike puts it in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “a little less ritual and a little more fun.”

To give an example, I have just concluded a series of six fifty-minute lessons based around one journal article (“Games Children Play“). Two of those involved a vocabulary “game” that was really just a bog-standard vocabulary exercise dressed up to look like a game – and because this was a course about games, I confessed this. I’d picked words out of the text (vocabulary used to comment on research) which would be used in a cloze exercise. So far, so dull. To provide an element of competition, I had the students do it in groups, awarding points for finding the correct word, and rather fewer points for words which weren’t in the text but still more-or-less fit in the sentence. At this point, we still do not have a game, though, since “games” which only involve competition (like most Olympic events) are not so much games as, well, competitions. What really made it a game was handing each team a set of playing cards: by surrendering a card, they could get a clue about the target word in the question corresponding to the card (since I only had ten questions, I missed out the court cards). It took a fair amount of tweaking the scoring system to get students to surrender a suitable number of cards (I settled on 6 points for the correct word, 3 for a possible word and 1 bonus point for each card left in their hands) but again, since we were talking about games, I could be explicit about this. The point is that in addition to straightforward task performance, you have an element of strategy (however basic) and risk-taking, and that is something which is often lacking in classrooms. Occasionally I toy with the idea that some students copy, turn up to class as late as they can without being marked absent or write entire term papers the day before the deadline just to provide an element of risk. Wouldn’t it be great if, as you handed your last assignment to the professor, you could say “OK, double or nothing”?

Anyway, I have to stop blogging and play Lord of the Rings Online do some work, so I’ll leave you with some of the videos I mentioned.

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Categories: Classroom