Video games in the classroom is a topic that’s all the rage in recent years. No matter which side of the fence you fall on as far as this trend is concerned, there’s mounting evidence that games can be effectively used to teach a variety of things. One of those is helping students learn a new language.
Andrew Ross, an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) with a Master’s Degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, has been teaching English in Japan since 2012. He’s one instructor leading the charge on adding games to student learning in order to facilitate growth. Ross says he realized the power of gaming as a teaching tool during one of his English Club meetings.
“I had a single student show up to English Club one day,” said Ross. “Usually, we just do conversation, but I’d done that with this student a lot. We’d hit most of the more interesting topics, and conversation without a context can be really hard for the kids. I had my tablet with me and the teacher said that I could show the student a game if she was interested.”
According to Ross, this interaction facilitated a change in how the student was learning. She took well to the game (Earthbound), and it helped her work on language skills that were otherwise difficult to instruct.
“Simple stuff like [using the word] ‘nope’ may not seem like much, but students don’t usually learn casual speech in class, so they’re a bit more interested in it,” says Ross. “When a new student came in, she said, ‘Hey! I am nuts! Nuts means crazy!’ The game helped them expand their vocabulary and reminded them, like their own language, words can have multiple meanings, not just the first one they see in their dictionaries.”
Ross is very interested in using gaming to break social stereotypes in Japan. Currently, Ross’s project is focused on helping female students to empower themselves while learning. The project receives funding from the U.S. Embassy. It will use a multitude of media to assist in teaching English to the students. Ross plans on using the Nintendo Wii U, a tablet, and television shows and movies to aid in lessons. Students will keep a diary in order to evaluate how much their writing changes and progresses over the course of the program. Ross will also compare test grades, especially vocabulary tests, throughout the year.
“I want to focus on Mario Party 10 and Animal Crossing: amiibo Festival,” says Ross. “Both are similar to board games, so they’ll share vocabulary. Both are also familiar brands, even to students who don’t play games, and they make use of verbs students can see on screen.”
While Ross wants his program to reach both male and female students, he is focusing on girls for this first phase. He says most English Clubs in Japan are already run by female students, so focusing on them was a good starting point. He hopes games will garner more interest from his students and help them understand his lessons more thoroughly.
While using video games as a teaching tool may be a newer concept as far as language is concerned, Ross points out that using games in general has been a teaching tool for decades. He recalled an instance when he joined a new school as a child and a teacher took him out of the classroom to play board games. He only realized later the teacher was taking him to speech therapy. This teacher was showing Ross new language through playing the game and helping him to move forward in a real and tangible way. “That’s the beauty of including games in your lessons,” says Ross. “You can really get people to learn and they won’t even know it.”
Ross hopes participating in his program will help students expand their English vocabulary and become more willing to communicate. He also hopes they’ll take advantage of the money offered to the club and do more with it.
When it comes to using games as a teaching tool for any subject matter, Ross says he wants to ensure teachers using games are paying attention to what their students are learning.
“The big point I want to drive home is games are educational already,” says Ross. “The question, though, is what are they teaching? You can’t just play games; you need to understand how a game can be used to teach (or not teach!) whatever your topic is. Fail, and kids just play games. But if you succeed, the lesson’s absorbed without the students even being aware of it.”