An Experiment in Game-Based Learning in an ESL Classroom

I have experimented with using a table-top role-playing game to develop vocabulary, grammar, and language skills in an ESL classroom. From this experience, I am not sure whether there is a place for this kind of game in the classroom, but I intend to revise and retry this experiment in a future course, and maybe this will give others some ideas. I would certainly welcome any comments, suggestions, or questions.

Let me briefly explain my experiment. I teach ESL at OU’s Center for English as a Second Language (CESL – pronounced “sessle”). What my students really want to do in the US is study engineering or business, not language, but they have to come through my program to develop the language skills they’ll need in their majors. For many students, that means a full year or more of intensive language study (read: boring stuff they have to do until they can get on with their real lives), and consequently motivation is a constant problem. In order to experiment with ways of building intrinsic motivation into the program, I proposed a course that focused on playing a Wild West table-top RPG in class: Studying gerunds is boring, but if you have to learn to use them to capture some train robbers (or rob a train yourself), that can be interesting.

Since learning and improving the students’ abilities in the English language is the primary educational goal, I developed my own game that eliminated “gamer speak” like hit points, armor class, etc., as much as possible. The rules and character stats themselves were expressed in natural English. This way, the students were learning vocabulary and grammar as they learned, talked about, and played the game.

I knew from years of refereeing table-top RPGs like D&D, Shadowrun, Cyberpunk, etc., that I needed a small group of students who had volunteered to do this, so I arranged with our director to have a special class with enrollment limited to 8 students. For two semesters this worked well, but finally program constraints caught up with me and I had to decide to discontinue the class or to accept up to 12 students. I tried it for a couple of semesters with the higher limit, but it greatly slowed play and in the end I discontinued the course.

Lessons learned: The results were pretty mixed. Let’s begin with the negatives.

First, limiting a class to 8 students is a problem. I can imagine dividing the class into two teams (16 total) which play on alternate days, but that means developing something for the non-playing team to work on while I referee the playing team. I considered having the off team play NPCs, and that may end up being the best answer.

Second, I greatly underestimated the amount of preparation necessary for this. I think it will take me a year or so of working on my own time to prepare for the next trial class. For students whose native language is not English, far more description is required, good maps are a necessity, and some visuals would go a long way toward making the game clearer and move faster. In addition, the options presented to players need to be fairly well developed and described.

Third, games really do need to be voluntary. To deal with this, I spent the first class explaining the class and then doing a quick 30-minute example role-playing scenario with the students. At the end of the class, I told them that’s what the class was all about, so if they were not interested, they needed to find another class. However, there were students who decided half way through the course that they didn’t want to play anymore. By that time, there really was no other option for them. They had to finish the course or fail it. That’s a real problem.

Nonetheless, there were some positives as well.

First, most of the groups who took the course had fun and I saw good improvement in oral fluency. This was especially pronounced in my Chinese students, who generally struggle more with oral communication than my Saudi or Western students. Some students who had been withdrawn and only spoke when required to in normal ESL classes came to life and began participating very actively. Reports from the instructors in their others classes indicated that the effect had carried over, which was great.

In addition, the scenarios I put the players in required team work and problem solving, and every group rose to the occasion and learned to work together to solve the problems. That said, a few individual players resisted working as part of the team, and I will need to think about how to address that when I do this again.

Finally, it was fun for me, and I’ve found that students have more fun and learn more when the teacher has fun.

I could write a lot more about this, but my post is already pretty long. I’d be happy to talk more with anyone who’s interested, and of course I welcome any comments, questions, suggestions, etc., here.

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