Applying game design to ELT materials

Monthly Archives: January 2014

I have decided to try gamifying a class again this year. Two years ago, I adapted Chore Wars to use with a group of teenagers studying for the First Certificate Exam and had mixed results. Since then, I introduced Class Dojo to teachers of our school, and it’s been a real hit with the primary and lower secondary learners. After reading Lee Sheldon’s Multiplayer Classroom book, I developed some ideas, such as Unlocked AchievementsBadges and Levelling Up, all of which will appear in a more elaborate form when Language Learning and Technology (Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers) is published next year. I’ve also been following with interest what other teachers, such as Paul BraddockJames YorkDaniel Brown and Dave Dodgeson have been doing with gamification in their teaching contexts.

English Quests

Recently, James York has just published a more elaborate description of implementing game mechanics in his classroom in the latest edidtion (October 2012) of Modern English Teacher. Entitled ‘English Quest’, the paper talks about the pros and cons of gamification in general and then James looks at how he has applied the concept to his own.

In the paper, James talks a lot about motivation, in particular mentioning recent research about the danger of over-using extrinsic motivation rather than intrinsic motivation because it focuses people on the reward and not on the action. James argues, however, that there is evidence that using gamification may “help engage learners who have a particularly low motivation to learn” and, particularly important in my own teaching context, when dealing with teenagers forced by their parents to come to English class, that “in a context that is inherently void of intrinsic motivation, fostering extrinsic motivation may help learners to become engaged”.

Traps to Avoid

Teachers need to be very careful when applying gamification to ELT, which Paul Driver elaborates on in The Irony of Gamification. One point Paul makes is that many instances of gamification involve only the adoption of points and rewards systems, which are “superficial components and not fundamental to the experience of what a game is”. I see this as being similar to the hundreds of so-called games that you can find in many different sectors of education that are really just disguised tests. Gamification, to work well, needs to be more than just a digital star chart for learners.

With all this in mind, I have decided to gamify my secondary English class this year and do some action research, blogging about the results here. The class meets on a Friday afternoon, and I met the learners for the first time two weeks ago (last Friday was a holiday in Spain). I didn’t introduce any elements of gamification into the class during our first meeting. I decided to focus instead on getting to know the learners, their strengths and weaknesses and finding out more about what they can do now with language and what they need and want to learn to do

Class Profile

  • There are 15 level secondary students in the class and we will meet once a week for a three-hour class from October to June.
  • The class is a mixture of boys and girls, aged 13 on average and with a level of English that is pre-intermediate or CEF A2.1.
  • We are using MacMillan’s Hotspot 5, which is a coursebook specifically aimed at this age group.

First Impressions

They are a lively bunch of kids, generally talkative (but not in English!) and they seem to be very bright. I started with some mingling activities and got them to tell the others and me about themselves. We also did some speed-writing, where they wrote as much as they could about themselves in five minutes. I’ll use this information to find more about them, their likes, dislikes, etc. but I also noted that all but one of them reacted negatively to writing in class. They said they didn’t like writing, finding it difficult and boring. Because of this, I decided to ask them to do some speed writing, not to take up much class time. I also decided there and then to make this a feature of the gamification experiment, to see if this can motivate them to write more and to write better. Already, when they finished the speed writing activity, I asked them to count the number of words they managed to write and told them I would subtract the number of mistakes and this would give them a total number of points. I told them that I wanted them to get better at writing and forewarned them that we would do some speed-writing every class. They didn’t seem to mind this, probably because it only took 5 minutes of their time. In fact, although they had said they didn’t like writing, a lot of the students asked for more time when the 5 minutes was up.


Later on in the class, I asked them about speaking and I wondered for how long they thought they could talk on their own about a subject. No longer than ten seconds was the general response, and so we put this to the test. I asked for volunteers to speak about a subject of their choice for at least ten seconds. About half of those who tried managed to do it. I didn’t force those who didn’t want to speak to do so, but I did say that this was something we were going to work on in the classes to come. Again, I’ve now decided to gamify this aspect of the class, and try to motivate them to be able to take individual speaking turns for longer than 10 seconds! I think that using points, badges and levels may be a good way of motivating them to do this.

Preparing to gamify the class

I’ve now prepared a series of badges for writing and speaking, based on the number of words they write and the number of seconds they can speak for. I’ll print these out on sticky labels to give to the students and will encourage them to keep a record of their progress by placing them in the back of their notebooks. I’ll also keep a record of this using the IWB. In fact, with this in mind, I used the IWB software to make the badges. I’m now looking forward to meeting the students again (we have our second class today), so I can try this out and see if gamifying these two skills has a positive effect. I think I’ve identified two areas where gamification will help this class increase both in confidence and in skills. The badges and levels should encourage them to practise – I’ve kept in mind what James York mentioned in his article that “in order to foster extrinsic motivation…activities need to present a sense of purposeand be completed autonomously.” I’ll write another follow-up blog post shortly after the class to let you know what happens.

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