Video Game + PBL + English Class = Fun

Summer is over. I hear the sad trumpets echoe in the cloudy sky of a rainy day that this news carries while reaching every single fellow teacher. But this shouldn’t mean fun is over at all! As a friend of mine wrote in his thesis “let the games begin”.

Gamefication is hype. Teachers have finally realized that making some activities into games can be a fun way and also effective for language learning, for kids are crazy about games. If this game is any sort of video game, they will certainly ignore everything around them and they will focus 120% on the game – I speak for myself because my girlfriend always complains whenever I get a hold of my PS3. Using video games can also be a great experience forthe English classes we design so that we work the Project-based Learning approach (PBL). In addition to having students work ipfor a ling period, they will certainly become more motivated and excited to perform the assigned task.

Video game won’t actually teach English itslef, the great insight here is to use electronic games in English classes to make the student use their linguistic knowledge and apply it when playing, as James Paul Gee stated (2005). In the online course for teacher we offer – still on progress – we talk thoroughly about how to design PBL activities, but it is worth to remember the importance video games have in the learning process of our students. “Nothing happens until a player acts and makes decisions” (Gee, 2005: 34). This is the background for activities that involve video games and more precisely the application of PBL with these games even in the classroom, which means making our students use their language knowledge to take decisions, create and perform tasks. Before applying a PBL we need to have a well-structured lesson plan where the environment for communication in English already exists and is familiar to students so that information exchange and knowledge sharing happen. Language is a type of knowledge that we acquire and interaction with other students that are working on a similar project enrich the process of language acquisition as they pair up or gather in groups to work inside the classroom according to what you established in your lesson plan.

Maybe you haven’t heard of this game before, but your students have…. for sure. Minecraft. This game has been catching everyone’s attention and it has also been hooking up the kids’ time becoming a worldwide big hit even for some adults. Minecraft is a game available for PS3, Xbox, mobile, PCs and it consists of using a strategy to reach a pre-established goal. You have to stock up blocks to create a world that you imagine and according to the game’s play mode (survival, creative, spectator, hardcore) you need to build things that are determined by the game so you don’t lose. In our English classes we can create a project which students play Minecraft in survival mode and as the game offers guidelines so they continue their project, some lexicon can be drilled, i.e. we teachers play the game beforehand to get to know it and note possible words to present to our students in the classroom before we start the project. When they face unknown words, they look them up and bring the definition to the classroom.

There is also room to work out our students’ speech so they present what they have built and the reason to do so. This means, through this presentation students will have the opportunity to use the words they looked up and to tell their accomplishments in the target language. Thus, we will have the needed motivation for our students to learn English as a second language and the video game become our ally, not to mention that the game itself is really cool. The educational bias that Minecraft has is such that an educational version of the game was released a couple of months ago with special features that can be used in the classroom and, why not, in our English classes. We can also find other ideas to be replicated or improved on their website. Maybe even lesson plans for other subjects that can be adapted to our English classes.

Vacation must be over, but the fun must go on. Surprise your students with this PBL activity that involves technology right now for the beginning of the semester. They’ll love it.

Having Our English Outside The box

In over a decade teaching English, I have lost count of the many times people (students, teachers, principals, TV ads, etc) told that someone speaks good or bad English. By the time I started my (super duper) career as an English teacher, becoming a linguist was not even an option,  but every time I heard something like that it did not sound good. It was as if language had to be performed in a specific manner otherwise the speaker would be burned like a witch. I do not think this is the way.

Thinking about phonetic symbols we will certainly find a an average line for pronunciation. What would this line turn out to be? Those utterances that cause no confusion, so whether you are from the countryside or the capital, Texas or San Francisco, your pronunciation will not lead you to a minimal pair situation, i.e. those small phoneme chunks that once misplaced will generate different words. In addition to minimal pairs, we can think about accent issue, a very regional linguistic feature. For countless times I also heard people (mis)judging another person’s linguistic competence due to the accent being that maybe that funny sound coming from someone’s mouth is the result of an exposure to an English that comes from northern England, Scotland, ?India, South Africa and maybe that person did not know that. Thus, saying a person speaks “good” English under a fully phonetic perspective may cause some breakdown.

Syntax, oh my beloved syntax! Those who have a linguistic educational background just like this poor writer for sure had dark days doodling syntactic trees to analyze phrases. Believing that a person is a good or bad English speaker leaning upon the syntactic elements noted in a person’s speech is understandable yet arguable. If one of our students uttered something like (1), we would certainly say that he or she is a terrible English speaker and we would even say that the student is not proficient if we compare it with (2) – nonsense!

(1) *You’s cool, man.

(2) You’re cool, man.

Of course our role as teachers is to show our students the language’s canonical manner as can be seen in (2), but labeling (1) as awful and non-proficient English is agreeing with a generative perspective of language, which in fact, even if unconsciously, is part of the behavior some of my peers have. Language does not develop as if there were labelled boxes where we can only put things that are specified in the label. As a matter of fact we can play with the boxes and their content, actually this will happen so that our students know how to explore every characteristic of the language and then they will become a highly skilled speaker once he or she will have become able to to communicate in any sort of context. If we acknowledge that there are some speech community where (1), ‘he don’t work’ among others are accepted, we will not be embarrassed by our students when we hastly correct them – with some kind of arrogant air – because they will certainly say that they had heard that type of utterance from a native speaker which, by our students’ logic, native speakers have more credibility than us. A current phenomenon that portrays metamorphosis in the language is the teen-famous ‘I can’t even‘, where ‘even’ plays a verb. This is not in the correct box, but it is certainly not considered non-proficient.

We teachers have to broaden the matter of language acquisition (Rajagopalan, 1996), because if we keep framing our students’ utterances we will never evolve in the concerns of language in general and we will remain with the biased behavior projecting language as a steady organism that does not carry any proposition, ideas, thoughts and this unfortunately has set the tone of the discussions involving native language teaching in Brazil. We need to try to understand what our students’ point is and then show them the many ways they can achieve their goal in varied contexts. What about you, teacher? How do you have your English outside the box?

Around The World With English Language

Getting around to world to know it. Knowing that chopsticks are the silverware in Japan, that India has a religious perspective different from ours, knowing that Germany was once divided by a wall, that Brazil (our land) has states with no beaches. All this info play an important role in the acquisition process of a second language and having students without access to that knowledge or maybe not motivating them to acquiring such knowledge contributes to a poor performance from Brazilian students with regard to English as a second language. It’s time to make a change.

You might ask me ‘what’s the relation between learning English and knowing that Finland can go through a 6-month period without a blue sky’? Well, all possible. Starting from the awareness that the world is bigger than the community where our students live, that in certain places they may find different people speaking different languages. Thus, understanding that there places where people refer to something they liked using an expression other than ‘que da hora’ is fully relevant for ESL classes and the upcoming book of Professor Cláudia Zuppini for teachers development has an entire chapter about it. For our students with a better performance in English – or maybe those who have a clearer understanding of the language – language transfer is easier when learning that ‘que da hora’ is equivalent to ‘that’s awesome’ in English as it was mentioned before in our article about the use of native language in ESL classes. bur for the students who are still taking the first steps of the second language acquisition path – our younger students – our job finds obstacles for they don’t have the cultural knowledge yet due to their early age and sometimes the socio-financial situation of our students don’t allow the blooming of such knowledge. Thus, we teachers have double work: ring the students the cultural knowledge and turn it into linguistic knowledge, have them understand that the world is gigantic and that learning English as a second language will make the world just as close as our noisy neighbor.

How to bring together all the places of this planet and have them be close to our students given the difficulties our students have to travel and get to know the Eiffel Tower, for instance? Super easy. All it takes is a cardboard and a cutting-edge technology of virtual reality. Google has been invested in its educational department and it has just released the Expeditions, a virtual reality cardboard that let students “visit” any place in the world. Let’s try to come up with an activity for students of the first grades of elementary. The main goal here is to make students talk (of course that reading and writing are also important), so if we use this device and send our kids out in field trip to NY’s zoo, we are going to work on the acquisition of new vocabs, but in a very contextualized manner and also inserted in the syntactic structure. we can divide the class in two parts – since English classes in Brazil take place once or maybe twice a week and last 50 minutes in the average. In the first class of the week we can use our time to use the first two Ps: Presentation so we present what is new which is in our example here names of animals and sounds they produce. Then, the students can Practice with the assistance of flashcards and guidance from the teacher when they’ll tell the names of the animals they see and also the sound they make, all that in the target language. So far, everything looks simple and trivial. In the Performance phase, during the second class of the week, Google Expeditions comes in. After the presentation phase, have students “visit” NY’s zoo so that they know the animals from all parts of the world and later on present to the class the coolest animals and their sounds. as a follow-up activity, the teacher can compare the sounds animals make in Brazil with the ones in English.

The world is really big and we must try to show it the most we can to our students. Knowledge beyond community stimulates them to communicate, besides giving the students information that there are languages other than that they speak, and with regard to English, it is an international language. Travelling around the world is an impossible task to perform with all our students, but technology has come to our help. Have the students get acquainted with other cultures, it will trigger a global awareness that will definitely enhance the acquisition process of a second language.

Well-Structured Classes Give You Wings

I have already mentioned in previous articles the importance of having a 3P structure for our lesson plan, but I have never dove into this issue because otherwise we would turn a simple 500-word article into a book. However, it is possible to detail this structuring through Lecercle’s speaker/listener system and how it promotes autonomy of our students – because autonomy.

Lecercle’s communication structure (1999) establishes that a speaker utilizes cognition to organize utterances and then produce them. All this linguistic information – phonetic combination, syntactic structure, lexical choices, intention, etc – reach the listener who has the role of decoding what is being spoken, understand the information and formulate his own reply once is his turn to talk. This system turns listening into an active skill and we can do the same with our students in the classroom (that’s why I insist in saying that teacher have to develop their lesson plan and not only lean on textbooks). Making our students listen and speak gives them an opportunity to use their higher functions (cognition) to make out what is being said to them and also it allows them to produce and such production is the main step to have them work freely.

The deal here to make our students have more and more autonomy, which here is the use of English to perform tasks, is to develop our lesson plan very well and carefully. Brazil is still at the baby-step phase with regard to the implementation of student-centered culture, but we English teachers can start promoting it and dividing our classes in sections Presentation, Practice, Performance makes the assignment of this freedom to do their activities more natural and these activities are going to be developed to meet the needs of our students. In order to shorten this article and not make you doze off or lose interest and turn on the TV – I myself do doze off when texts are too long – I’m going to put the highlight on the last P, Performance. This is the phase that we teachers worry about having our students work freely. Debates, role plays, games are some of the tasks that promote students’ autonomy for, in a drilling phase, we can challenge our students with tasks which communication in the target language is essential for the activity to be successful. Our role then is to pay close attention at our students’ performances (remember that the grouping and pairing them up facilitates) without any sort of interference. After all, we seek student autonomy and having them talk, listen, understand and solve problems is our goal. If we put our hands in it, we break the whole purpose of the activity.

We sure talked about only a chunk of our lesson plan and many other things can be done in the other P-sections of our classes. However, what matters is that we create activities that are relevant and promote autonomy by speaking the target language (English in this case). This will only happen if we prepare our classes, if we teachers leave the status quo and try to commit to developing our lesson plans. The activities will certainly be positive more often for nobody knows students better than the teachers.

To Correct Or Not To Correct? That’s The Question

Have you guys ever seen that little plant that when it’s touched it closes instantly? Well, that’s exactly what happens to our students when teacher end up poorly providing feedback. Correction is the moment in which students really learn and this learning will influence the evaluation they will go through.

For times, teachers believe they have the formula for correction and support the perspective that students must receive feedback firmly for thus order and discipline will be kept. That is not true. Correction is more technical than behavioral and with regard to English classes, order has a different characteristic: it comes from noisy classes because students have to talk and express themselves. Thus, the feedback given by the teacher needs to be delicate, subtle, preferably with as a follow-up activity so that students do not feel they are being punished. A follow-up activity with a good transition will transmit to the students the necessary information for the feedback towards errors without that look of ‘what a boring teacher, he corrects me all the time’ for students not always need to know they are receiving feedback.

According to Ellis, Loewen and Erlam (2006), it is through feedback that acquisition takes place for they have almost all their attention directed to the teacher besides the activity have happened moments before, i.e. it is easy for students to relate the correction to what they said. Among the types of feedback available there are explicit and implicit feedback. As redundant as it may sound, the explicit one is evident for our students that they are being corrected whereas the explicit is not (duh, huh?). The explicit form of feedback is apparent for students there was an error or mistake for correction is directly addressed to the student.

Student: Yesterday I go to the mall.

Teacher: You need past tense here.

Student: Yesterday I went to the mall.

In classrooms with younger students or with a beginner level of proficiency, this type of feedback tends to be more effective for students are said what they should have uttered.

For students with a proficiency level a bit higher (let’s be clear here that i’m not talking about C1s or C2s only), corrections can be made subtly and yet be very effective. Recasts are also a very subtle way of correcting  our students without their noticing they are actually being corrected for recasts are part of implicit feedback category.

Student: She will going to the concert tonight.

Teacher: Oh! She will go to the concert. What concert will she go to?

Student: She will go to Foo Fighter’s concert.

Obviously, by using recasts the expectation is that the student notices the proper model of the language and reproduces it from that moment on, although that doesn’t always happen.

Whether we use explicit or implicit feedback, we have to be sure corrections will be made subtly, delicately so we do not block English in our students minds. Furthermore, poorly offered feedback will not generate the desired outcome which means that moment when students say ‘oh yeah, I got it’ will not happen. there isn’t a magic formula for feedback, it hinges on the profile of our students after a thorough scanning by the teachers and on the development of follow-up activities so that our plant do not close.

A GPS For The Scavenger Hunt

I am pretty sure that all teachers, and I am one of them, have already used bi-dimensional maps whether they were those fold-up maps, illustrations that were in  textbooks or even a simple map drawing on the board. But, imagine the reaction of a student whose daily routine is all about iPads, Playstations and smartphones. Such map would be really boring to this kid.

That’s exactly when someone might say “map apps are also bi-dimensional. How can they be so different from what has been done in the classroom?”. Well,  many maps nowadays are 3-D which means that teaching directions and even some expressions that are very useful for those who travel often or those who don’t want to get lost when looking for a place or address. As a drilling activity the teacher can design a game in which the classroom becomes a neighborhood and then students are separated in groups. Each group  can be a car, given that every car would have 4 people, then there would be around 10 cars on the “street”. In case there is and odd number of  students, there can also be pedestrians and bikers. The teacher can be a traffic guard controlling the “traffic” so that students respect the rules (all communication must be made in the target language). When students do something other than what they were asked to, the teacher corrects them using the appropriate technique granting the “traffic” flow.

I know I have mentioned Michael Tomasello and his study on language acquisition through its use before. This means that interaction takes an important role in the acquisition process of sintax, phonetics, semantics and pragmatics whereas the brain then has the responsibility of decoding  all these features, thinking, in other words, to produce sppech in an organized manner. I wonder if the proposed activity is aligned with Tomasello’s proposal. Let’s find out. The interaction between student and teacher happens naturally and the fact this is a group activity the Zone of Proximal Development takes place and students can assess one another and communication in the target language (maybe with very few words in Portuguese) stimulates cognition in the acquisition process. Mission accomplished! But what about the map? And what is so techie about it? At the end of the lesson plan there may be a performance activity, when students fly freely, without interference from teachers. Considering a class of Primary school, or maybe the first grades of Secondary, the teacher can suggest a scavenger hunt. The plus here is tat the teacher can hand out GPS devices and set them to English language so that students find their treasure by listening to the directions given by the device.

Almost everyone has seen and used a GPS device. Stepping into a classroom with an activity that requires old fold-up maps is nonsense in a context and reality where students use smartphones and tablets. Doing it so might demotivate students and they are not going to be as engaged as you wanted them to, resulting in a poor performance. Once motivation is zero, then the whole process is disabled. But that is an issue for another post.

Let’s Hang Out

In the last 14 years working as an English teacher the top-3 most heard sentences from students are ‘I hate English’, ‘this present perfect stuff has no equivalent in Portuguese, does it’ and ‘this phrasal verb thing is too hard’. Well I would respectively reply like ‘maybe our previous teachers were not so good then’, ‘yes, there is’ and ‘yes’. Say what?! Sure it is hard, phrasal verbs are idioms that carry a strong semantic function and therefore are really tricky to be taught and learned.

The dilemma of teaching an idiom is how to shape meaning so that students understand it and at the same time the teacher’s talking time is reduced? Of course that depending on the methodology adopted, the teacher will indeed speak a lot (not recommended by CELTA), but with a fun and well prepared activity the teacher may have an A+ performance in the classroom and also engage his or her students. As it was previously discussed in another article, Google offers more than just a searching tool. There is something called Hangouts which is some sort of Skype embedded in Android OS and allows us to make calls and video calls with those who have a Google account. In addition, hangouts provides people with live stream automatically uploaded to a YouTube  account which means that someone might be visiting MoMa and call a group of students who are inside a school on the other side of the planet. Although this might look like a Google ad it isn’t. What happens is that there are so many resources available that can be used in the classroom that encourage the development of activities.

Let’s take the following phrasal verbs: ‘come up with’, ‘get along with’ and ‘set in’. The teacher can prepare a very interactive and communicative activity using Hangouts. Making use of context that involves friendship, social interactions as themes, it is possible to introduce such idioms and for drilling students can interview one another. To make practice more interesting, the teacher can hand out roles to students in which they can be athletes, celebrities, filmmaker, whereas the other student (considering an activity in pairs) plays a journalist. Students can also drill questions besides the idioms for many find asking questions quite hard to be produced. In order to make it up for the time possibly spent by the teacher to introduce the content of the day and the highly used talking time, the activity can have a grand finale with the students’ performance using Google’s tool. Inside the computer lab, students can make contact with other students around the world who were previously arranged by the teacher so that interview could be held and the studied phrasal verbs could be used. As the video is automatically uploaded to YouTube, the teacher can evaluate the students more accurately.

Thus, learning a controversial such as idioms (frowned by many) gets a plus through a very  real experience that might motivate your students. Leave your students hanging out with other from abroad with Hangouts using the phrasal verbs that were taught in the classroom.

Google Beyond Research

Everyone is more than used to turning to the greatest research tool in the world: Google. Everything there is in this planet can be found there, there is not a single thing this tool cannot  fetch and if Google cannot find it, then it just does not exist. What maybe few second language teachers know is that there is also another tool that can be very well used in language classes.

Even those teachers who are not tech aficionados ended up giving in to Google. However, a very low number of them have used their precious time of lesson preparation to explore every single corner on Google For Education. Calendars can be synced, files are shared and edited there, which is good for students’ work. In case you haven’t been introduced to each other yet, Google Drive offers their users a powerful tool to receive and share content with your students which means that if you want to flip your classes, you can kiss goodbye your excuses. Inside the core of lesson planning (warm-up, drilling, performance), with the resource of Google Drive it is possible to create a video clip that is going to be used at the warm-up stage. For instance, supposing that the content of the day is about looks, it might be interesting to go to a park and record all walks of people tall, short, fit, skinny, blondes, brunettes, people with curly or straight hair. Such a beginning of activity can expand the options for other sections of the lesson plan and, in addition, you will not be stuck with the school’s technical resources which are, in many cases, unfortunately limited.

On the other hand if Google Drive is already your BFF and you think you know all its features like the back of your hand, coding may be a good option for you to work with in your classroom. Yup, coding. That programming language used to design websites, apps and softwares. Of course Google’s Made With Code is not going to teach us exactly how to write codes, instead it uses the concept of functional blocks and offers a valuable tool for second language classes. Creating an avatar through geometric shapes can also be a fun activity with a techie pitch for K-12 groups. In this activity creativity and logical thinking are worked on and the outcome can become a tangible evidence of how students perceive, for instance, a character of book previously read. The stimulus for students to present and justify, in the target language, what each part of the avatar represents will make them communicate and use the vocab they learned such as geometrical shapes, colors, body parts. And what about asking your students to reproduce a poem in another language, with the same theme, but with a contemporary viewpoint? Too boring? Not if they can make their work into music. After they make their version of the poem, the students can use Google to create beats and become a rockstar for one day.

We all know how powerful Google has become and its education division has developed so impressive tools as the research. Knowing how to use such tools hinges on how willing a teacher is to understand how they work and think about implementing them in their activities. Go beyond the basics.

What Is Fluency After All?

There has been a lot of language schools promoting and guaranteeing that their students end up their courses fluent in a second language. However, do professionals who work for with education really know what it means to be fluent? Many think that it is something regarding the accent, others believe that it is related (or is it?) to thinking in the target language which means that students shouldn’t (or should they?) think in their own native language.

All of us, born and raised in Brazil, have Portuguese as our mother tongue. We are natives and, therefore, fluent in that language and many factors support such status. One of them is our lexical range. Sociolinguistics studies a case called Speech Community, a group that can easily be recognized through linguistic features. In our case we share them with 100% of the Brazilian population thus we are natives and fluent in Portuguese for our Speech Community is obviously recognized through our language. Thinking time can also be an issue that contributes or not to fluency, it is not the reason why it happens though. Thinking time displays how articulate a person is, maybe you have a student not so articulate and takes time to conclude a speech however no teacher will question his or her fluency in Portuguese language.

What second language teachers can do to reach fluency is to develop activities that make their students speak, express themselves in the target language as much as they can. Exercises to master a language’s syntax, which expose students to current vocabs, registers and all the technical and subjective aspects of a language must be drilled with the students. Reading may enrich vocabulary, but silent reading and controlled speech activities help master syntax and role play activities help students understand how to convey in different situations. Pronunciation should be the frost in the cake in the classroom. Furthermore, many languages also have varied paces and pitches which means that teachers have to pay attention several pronunciation features other than just accent for they may contain semantic importance.

Pronunciation is indeed important in a language. It can represent a social group, a social identity and students should have access to such linguistic characteristic as well while in the process of a second language acquisition inside the classroom. What should be in every teacher’s minds is that pronunciation is not a determining factor that defines a student’s fluency. However, it plays an important part in the show.