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Digital Games and Language Teaching

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Book Review  Digital Games in Language Learning and Teaching” Palgrave, Macmillan 2011 Author: Hayo Reinders

Why are digital games so interesting for teaching? Trying to answer the question I read the book and found several answers.  Although the book was written two years ago, it is by no means out of date. First of all, it is a compilation of many contributions made by language teachers and linguists experimenting with all kinds of digital games during the past decades. As the author puts it:  “The diversity of contributions in the book is united by the belief that the rationale for instructional intervention, including the use of games, should be pedagogically sound.” 

The author goes through the history of digital games and their development first; later he talks about educational games in modern times offering an insight into experiments and findings at different universities. I was especially interested in the use of MMORPG’s in class as they are -in my opinion- very useful for the purpose of teaching English as a foreign language. One of the most interesting questions arising was what principles do we need for designing video games in order to learn a language. Important factors to consider are learning objectives, should the game be text based or should students rather speak? Do we need written or oral interaction and language production? Should we have grammar in the game? And what kind of exercises should our students complete? Grammar bits, collocation or other exercises like in old “games”? (“games” is what some of us now call gap, crossword or matching “exercises” for instance.) (An example for grammar exercises/ games that can be integrated in educational sites and platforms is Hot Potatoes) The exercises have to be considered, but what else makes a successful language learning video game? According to the author; video games for teaching must have the following characteristics:

  1. Well-ordered focus on problems rather than on facts and information.
  2. Give learner the tools to act; the tools are in form of facts and information.
  3. Clear goals, should also encourage learners to rethink the goals.
  4. Encourage learners to try new styles of learning by reducing the cost of failure. Gives learners the chance to try again without losing earlier achievements.
  5. Performance is more important than competence, experience and action is more valued than words and texts. Learning by doing is the motto.
  6. There are icons and images that represent what learners are going to read later. This gives learners some confidence as they can see what is coming next.
  7. Feedback all the way; assessment accompanies the learner/ player all the time giving advice in difficult situations. Learners need a tutor.
  8. Play and learn as social interaction with mentoring through collaborative and competitive play, as well as through interest-driven fan sites with knowledge to extend learner’s own knowledge and at the same time facilitate production of new knowledge. This encourages creativity and problem solving and it is good to develop skills in team work.
  9. Learning is marked in levels with new problems to tackle. The problems become more difficult, so the routine mastery that learners have developed is challenged.
  10.  Narrative is used to engage in a story or to allow players to create their own story through consequential choices they make while playing the game. It gives more self-confidence to choose individual solutions.
  11. Every person has the same high-standard, but their own way to reach the target. Everyone has enough time to complete the tasks with more freedom due to the non-linear way of learning/ playing. All that counts is that a learner finishes the level/ game, it doesn’t matter when or where a learner started.
  12. Transfer as preparation for future learning, learners acquire skills and apply them in the next situation. Theory and praxis go hand in hand.
  13.  Players have to figure out the rule system and if savvy, they can make new versions by using the software. Good way to develop skills.

Teaching language and literacy through games is easy when it involves problem solving activities, not just skills for passing tests. The games should have in situ problems instead of drill. An example for game play and literacy mentioned by the author is iSTART-ME, a game originally created to learn reading. The old game was coached and had many activities like guessing, alternatives and collocation. It has been developed; now it is used for helping students read difficult texts.

The advantages of video games in language learning are:

a) Learner’s fears are bypassed by creating situations where engagement is needed.

b) Learners gain metalinguistic and metacognitive skills at low levels by having to solve engaging and motivating problems.

c) Learners also have to situate meanings, associate words with images and actions and engage in dialogues in order to achieve goals; games put a face to the name, so learners can better understand and remember meaning. 

The main advantage of using digital games at school is that they combine linguistics, literacy, computer sciences and second language acquisition in new teaching environments. New teaching environments mean non-linear environments where informal learning with technology is possible. Games that can be adapted for teaching have, for example, immersive environments where situated learning takes place; they motivate to keep on learning, think of World of Warcraft (WoW) for example. Computer games in language education in general integrate learning into the socio cultural context of learner’s lives encouraging collaboration and lifelong learning inside and outside the classroom.

Games can indeed motivate and encourage the use of the target language offering opportunities for negotiation, but do they really result in a greater uptake in second or third language acquisition? The answer is worth while reading in the book where you’ll find interesting points of view and many insights into creative collaboration among teachers. What we can do in future is learn more from video games and adapt “mobile-free” lessons to non-linear learning, focus on problems and learning by doing and, of course, adapt video games for class use.

Digital Games in Language Learning and Teaching


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