Thursday, July 2, 2015

"Oh la la! Un Game de Computer pour le language learning!"

Games are a bit like movies: Most of the time, magically, everybody speaks the same language. If you are lucky, a short segment in an additional language is used for stylistic effects. Or a fantasy language is used as part of puzzles (cf. D'ni in the Myst series). But that's about it.
Choosing in what language to address a non-player character (NPC)? Code-switching mid-dialogue? Translanguaging? Things that are a fundamental part of the daily life of non-monolinguals are weirdly absent from most games.
At the MElang-E project, we are trying to create a language learning game that is, as far as feasible, sociolinguistically realistic. A game in which multilingualism does not merely become visible through 'decorative' accents and stereotypical phrase (see title of this blogpost), but is part of the gameplay.
This is easier said than done, though. How do you create an interface that does not just reflect WHAT the player character says, but also, IN WHICH LANGUAGE he/she says it? Without confusing the player with too many options, of course... How do you create branching structures for dialogues in multiple languages? Can you offer the same basic dialogue in multiple languages, just by translating it? Or do we have to assume that a dialogue would run a different course in another language, perhaps depending on the NPCs language skills and language attitudes? How do we deal with the fact that the player character may have much stronger receptive than productive skills? How do we signal NPCs' non-comprehension, and what consequence does NPCs' noncomprehension have for gameplay? Is there any chance to implement translanguaging in an adventure-style game?
A lot of tough questions that we tried to answer last weekend, during our second transnational project meeting in Barcelona. In the end, we might not be able to do all that we envision right now. But we will try! I can't wait to see the finished product!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Reading blogs in EFL - but which blogs?

In an earlier research project (forthcoming), I looked at how teachers introduce learners to blogging. I have been surprised to see that reading blogs often plays only a minor role. Nobody would ask students to write poetry or novels without them having experienced reading poetry and novels beforehand. By reading such texts, you develop a feeling for the expectations held concerning these types of texts. How long does a text have to be a novel? Is it OK to include dialogue in a novel? What kinds of stories do people tell in novels? Reading novels (on its own) does not make you a good novelist, but it prepares you for the expectations future readers might hold if presented with a text labeled as 'a novel'. This is even more helpful if you move from the level of 'novel' to the sub-level of 'detective novel' or 'romance'. The same, I'd argue, applies to blogs, and especially to blogging in EFL.
Of course, reading blogs is not only relevant when you plan to have students write blogs in class. In current English textbooks, publishers like to include 'modern' text types such as blog posts or emails. Yet, the imitation-blog posts and fake e-mails are sometimes so badly done, it is nearly hilarious (Saskia Kersten gave a fascinating talk about this on the last GAL conference). Adding a blog post or two - printed on paper, if need be - can give students a better idea of how these texts look like 'in the wild'. The best part about this is that blog posts - unlike novels - tend to be fairly short, and that if students like what they see, they can easily continue reading other posts from the same blog at home.
The questions remains: If we read blogs in class, which blogs? I have started a Google Docs file to collect suggestions. I will add my own discoveries, but would be very happy if others added their favorite blogs-for-EFL, too!

Click here for the list of blogs for EFL.

Friday, April 24, 2015

The underwear approach to learning languages

One of my favorite authors is Dorothy L. Sayers. In her "Clouds of Witness", she describes a shopping trip in Paris by the English Inspector Parker. It is a wonderful literary example of what I call the underwear approach to language learning: Have a real mission to accomplish (buy underwear in Paris), use all your skills and experience to succeed in your mission (such as remembered tidbits of dialogues in English concerning camisoles), and how you feel about language is just as important at the vocabulary you acquired.

Mr. Parker was not the kind of man to be deterred by the difficulty of buying ladies' underwear in a foreign language; he was not very imaginative. He remembered that a learned judge had one day asked in court what a camisole was, and recollected that there had seemed to be nothing particularly embarrassing about the garment when explained. He determined that he would find a really Parisian shop, and ask for a camisole. That would give him a start, and then mademoiselle would show him other things without being asked further.

Accordingly, towards six o'clock, he was strolling along the Rue de la Paix with a little carton under his arm. He had spent rather more money than he intended, but he had acquired knowledge. He knew for certain what a camisole was, and he had grasped for the first time in his life that crêpe-de-Chine had no recognisable relation to crape, and was astonishingly expensive for its bulk. The young lady had been charmingly sympathetic, and, without actually insinuating anything, had contrived to make her customer feel just a little bit of a dog. He felt that his French accent was improving.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The ICT approach to teaching literacy

If books were introduced at school like ICT, this is how it might happen:
  • First: Students are warned about the inherent risks of books. They learn about political propaganda in books, about pornography and skewed gender depictions in books, about faulty and dangerous information, and about copyright violations. They learn that they cannot just take any text from a book and use it for their own book, or just copy it into their school essays without indicating sources.
  • Second: Students learn about how a book works: What a page is, what a binding is, how text and images may be combined. They see an example page of a comic and of a telephone directory. Large note is taken not to contextualize these example pages. 
  • Third: Students are told to write a book themselves now. 
  • The result: Students have developed full book literacy. Yay! 

[BTW: I know that many teachers are doing a FANTASTIC job using ICT in the classroom: YAY for great teachers! If you think this description above doesn't fit your experience at all, please share how you approach this in the comments below.]

Sunday, March 15, 2015

"Shaping the way we teach English" - a language teaching MOOC

By now, there exists a wide range of MOOCs on a myriad of topics, including MOOCs on teaching with technology, linguistics, or language learning (In my other blog, I maintain a list of language learning MOOCs. The next issue of SiSaL Journal will have a review by me on a language learning MOOC, Exploring English.)
Coursera also offers a set of two courses on TEACHING languages, and I took both of them to see how they approach that (and to brush up my own knowledge on TESOL). "Shaping the way we teach English" consists of "The Landscape of English Language Teaching" and "Paths to Success in ELT", each taking 5 weeks with a workload of 4-6 hours, according the the course description. They can be used in any order, as they do not build on each other.
The basic structure is identical in both MOOCs. Each week, you start with a short intro video and a quiz that tests your previous knowledge and understanding of key concepts. The main content is presented through required readings and a video with classroom scenes and observation tasks. To pass the course you have to do a weekly online quiz and to contribute to the week's forum discussion. Twice per course, you also have to write a lesson plan that incorporates the topics covered so far, which is then evaluated by your peers.
The course is offered by the University of Oregon, and most of the material is freely available for educational use at their website, independently from the MOOC.
From a theory point of view, there wasn't much I learned. The focus lay on very basic concepts - authentic materials, pair and group work, critical and creative thinking, feedback & assessment, content-based instruction in course 1, integrated skills, alternative assessment, differentiation, classroom management and reflection in course 2 - and how to apply them to your teaching practice. The reading material specifically was rather unsatisfying. I appreciate the practical outlook, but the sections on WHY teaching should be done this way or that way could have used some more empirical support or theoretical embedding. I liked the videos, though, and think that they could be a valuable addition to many university courses, as they allowed us to see teaching-in-action in very different educational settings.
This last point is actually the MOOC's biggest strength. Not only was the course material very international in its perspective, but the course community was, too. The forums helped me better understand how different the challenges in language teaching are around the world - and how similar at the same time. If you do the course but don't want to do all the course work, skimp on the lesson plans or the quizzes, but definitely engage in the forums. This is where most of my learning happened.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015


I like computer games. I like earning badges. I like languages. I like working together with researchers, teachers, developers all across Europe. In short: I love MElang-E! :)
MElang-E is an Erasmus+ project in which I take part. Over the course of two years, we will develop a serious-game-inspired language learning platform for teenagers. While solving quests and earning badges, students can improve their communicative competence in English. BUT, and this is the really interesting part, not only in English. Depending on who you talk to within the game, you can use different languages, as each character in the game has a full sociolinguistic profile. The player gets to chose the language he/she wishes to use with a specific person in a specific setting. Also, multiple 'Englishes' will be included in the game, as most characters will be non-native speakers of English. This is not just for the sake of realism, but also as a preparation for using English as a lingua franca in real-world contexts.

Last weekend, we had our first transnational meeting, where we developed our basic storyline, the main characters, etc. Using English as a lingua franca, of course, unless another language was contextually more appropriate ;)

Sunday, February 1, 2015

One week of CALL

This year, I got a headstart on teaching. How? Well, Frankfurt University has long Winter vacations, lasting from the day before Christmas Eve till after Epiphany, nearly three weeks. During the last week of these winter vacations, when no regular classes are scheduled but most students have finished seasonal celebrations and the stock of mulled wine and home-made cookies has been somewhat diminished, I had the wonderful opportunity to teach an intensive seminar on computer-assisted language learning.
Computer-assisted language learning is a topic that requires a solid foundation in theory, of course. But this theoretical foundation is, by far, not enough to prepare teacher training students to actually use CALL in their future teaching. Hands-on learning, though, is not always easily integrateable into 90-minutes-per-week rhythms. Therefore, the opportunity to teach an intensive seminar, with the workload of a full semester collapsed into just one week, suited me very much.

We had five full days, each one of which we could dedicate to one major theme within CALL. On Monday, we discussed competencies and infrastructure, trying to come to grips with the conditions under which CALL happens – or does not happen – at schools.
On Tuesday, we focused on the four skills – reading, writing, listening, speaking – writing wiki pages and starting a blog (both of which were maintained throughout the week), learning about podcasts and apps for speaking practice. As all of this required some revision of theory (Krashen's comprehensible input, Swain's comprehensible output) and getting to know a broad range of tools, we could have used even more time on that topic.
Wednesday, we moved on the topic of multimedia, discussing Mayer's cognitive theory of multimedia learning, the ARCS model of motivation, and the options digital storytelling provides for the language learning classroom. We also had Michael Filsecker of University Duisburg-Essen join as as a virtual guest to prepare us for the topic of Thursday, which was game-based language learning.
Thursday certainly was a day of emotions, not only because we discussed serious games using the deeply serious Depression Quest and the extremely enjoyable Argument wars, but because we used half the day to experiment with developing games. A student had developed expertise with Construct 2, so we could split the group into two subgroups, one of which developed a simple game using Construct 2, while the other group stayed with me and made interactive stories with Ren'Py.
Friday was dedicated to evaluating CALL products using the LORI instrument. It was a good opportunity to tie together many things we had discussed during the week: We evaluated the Anki vocabulary drill software, a bunch of Tiptoi and Ting reading-pen supported books, and a student-created game for practicing irregular verbs.

Teaching 5 hours a day for 5 days in a row was certainly a challenge – but being able to focus on a topic for a full week was pleasurably different from the often fragmented experience of one-session-per-week teaching. I could have used twice the time, as we had way too little time to discuss options for speaking practice, to do practical work on multimedia and digital storytelling, or to delve into CALL research. Looking back, I wish we'd had time not only to discuss in general terms how one can use CALL in different teaching contexts, but to actually plan a lesson together. I do hope, though, that I was able to strike a balance between mainstream ideas and bleeding edge work, between small-scale ideas and year-long-projects, between theory and hands-on-work, to give all students the knowledge needed to critically assess claims about hyped language learning products and the tools needed to start experimenting with CALL in their teaching.

What do you think should have been included? What tools and techniques should be covered in any CALL seminar?

Life, Language and E-Verything

So Long, and Thanks for All the Ghoti.