Shaking up Language Learning with Technology

Wade Nichols
Reignite students’ passion for learning through game-based, and importantly, playful learning techniques aided by technology.

I originally trained as a biological sciences teacher but, after deciding to go to Korea to teach English for a year, I opened my own language institute. The success of the institute led to teacher training for Pearson and Oxford University Press (OUP) after which I became academic director for Disney’s chain of private English schools. I’ve always been interested in the way we learn, and language learning, in particular, holds a fascination for me. After four years writing English courses for a local publisher in Taiwan, I decided to do a Masters in international education development with an emphasis on languages, literacies and technologies. Later, I began to write courses for leading language learning app, Studycat.

From the beginning, I was aware of the power of playful learning. When I first taught in Korea, I wasn’t familiar with the language and I had to incorporate a lot of demonstrating or acting to get vocabulary words across clearly. This often involved using a lot of pictures and flashcards. I soon realised the kids were bored by the textbook they used and were much more engaged when we taught through games or activities, which led to better language acquisition for them.

Far from being games for games’ sake, or filling in gaps during the lessons, this approach is rooted in research. In 1982, the linguist and educator, Stephen Krashen, published his theory of second language acquisition. Through his research, Krashen and Tracy Terrell, a Spanish teacher in California, developed the Natural Approach (NA). One of the hypotheses of this approach is the affective filter. Put simply, if children have any fear or anxiety about making a mistake, it will act as a filter that blocks the child’s ability to learn or acquire the target language. Games are incredibly good at lowering the affective filter. Children are children, and no matter where I have taught, I’ve found they go back to their childhood mentality, in which games are a natural and stress-free way of learning. They aren’t afraid of making mistakes and just want to do well in the game.

Playful learning goes back even further though. Think of Friedrich Fröbel in Germany in the early 1800’s, who called his early childhood learning centre the child’s garden, or Kindergarten, as we know it. He was an advocate of songs, games and hands-on toys to help children learn in general.  Maria Montessori was also driver for this playful approach in Italy, and John Dewy in the US. Games teach us from an early age.

How children learn best

The games that worked best in my classroom were those that felt familiar for the children. These included card games, flash card games, board games and even games I read up on from African villages that have been played for generations. I started adapting all these games and put together a collection that I could use for any topic. Games make language practice much more intensive than oral drills, which don’t motivate children. When you build a game, children become excited about it they tend to respond much more quickly, and my experience has shown that higher levels of engagement make the learning ‘stick’ in an effective way.

When teaching, we need to be able to put ourselves in a child’s mind set and remember what type of vocabulary children want to use. What types of sentence structures do kids use in their daily lives? They want to talk about what colour crayon they want, or which animals they like. If they get hurt, they want to tell you where it hurts. When planning a curriculum, those are the things I try to teach very early on. I want to keep in mind that young children are incredibly egocentric until they are in first grade, which is when we can try to accustom them to concepts like empathy, cooperation and teamwork. In the beginning, if I am teaching very young learners, I try encouraging them to talk about their own lives; their favourite colour or favourite food. This uses their natural inclination towards self-interest and gets them communicating in a way that feels natural to them.

Technology’s role

In the early days of technology, our games were purely analogue but, as technology continued to evolve, I explored different ways in which it could be used. Research has recently shown parental engagement helps enormously when it comes to educational attainment and this is an area that technology lends itself very well to streamlining communication between the school and the home. In addition, children feel a natural affinity towards certain technologies; look at the way they instinctively navigate smart devices like phones or tablets. We’re teaching digital natives now, and using the natural interest that they have in technology in order to improve their language acquisition is a sensible step.

I’ve recently completed a set of courses for Studycat, who create fun language learning apps for children. The apps are designed to encourage critical thinking and build the foundations of language. They also provide performance metrics to measure how the child is learning when they are playing those games. Is their performance improving? Are there certain vocabulary words they seem to be struggling with or certain structures they seem to be struggling with? This insight into individual learners is like solid gold to teachers, enabling them to tailor lessons accordingly to ensure that each child is progressing well. We can assign every child the same, or different, game depending on their personal focus areas as determined by the performance metrics. It has a dual benefit though, as it also enables parents to see how their child is doing, connecting the home and school environments seamlessly.

For us, as English language teachers, it is incredibly rewarding to see our pupils build the foundation of knowledge they need at an early age, but it is even more rewarding if they have fun while learning. I would encourage any teacher to explore games and incorporate them into every lesson. Watching the children shake off the nerves that often come with rote learning is a pleasure all in itself!

Written by Wade Nichols for EnglishClub
Wade Nichols is a children's English as a foreign language education consultant and curriculum developer and author at Studycat - a leading global language learning app.

One comment

  • Richard Mellott says:

    I was a special education teacher for 25 years, and a CTEL Certificate instructor for California teaching credential candidates at University of Phoenix online, for a four year period. I was constantly fighting with my administration to include gaming applications and MMOG (Massive Multiple online Games), as well. I had been going to CUE Conferences to In service and teach about the integration of technology in my classroom. I’m glad that it’s not controversial anymore, but you’d be surprised at how much time I spent in the doghouse for thinking outside the box.

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