Poolside Interview with Matt Errey

Josef Essberger interviews the inventor of Word Up

Matt Errey is a games inventor. Games inventors are themselves a pretty uncommon bunch, but Matt is a games inventor with a difference - he invents board games for ESL. Matt's award-winning game "Word Up" is played by learners of English all over the world and is making its own unique contribution to language teaching. This month Josef Essberger speaks to Matt Errey by the poolside in Bangkok, Thailand, to find out more about this extraordinary game and its inventor.

Josef: WORD UP is getting a lot of attention now as what I suppose must be the leading board game specifically for English learners, and you've just released a new edition. So I have lots of questions for you about Word Up and how you came to invent it. But first, a little background about you...where did you grow up, Matt, and how long have you been involved in teaching English?

Matt: My home country is Australia, and that's where I grew up - in Melbourne, Victoria. And I've been involved in teaching English now for about 16 years - since coming to Thailand, basically.

Josef: Plenty of people have written books and started web sites for English learners, but board games are practically unheard of - I mean board games just for ESL. Whatever gave you the idea to create a board game just for ESL?

Matt: Necessity! Necessity being the mother of invention. It more or less evolved out of the situation I was in. I was teaching at a commercial college here in Bangkok, and I soon discovered that whatever we did it had to be fun. Thai people are very much into things being fun - whether it's work, learning a language, or whatever. So we all had to supplement the course work with games and activities to keep our students on-side. And in those days that meant making most of them up. There were a few books around, like "Games for Language Learning" by Andrew Wright, but it wasn't that easy to get hold of them. You couldn't just order them on the Internet, of course - because there was no Internet back then. And so I started coming up with different types of games for my classes - quiz games, card games ... and board games, obviously.

Josef: And how did you decide on the format for Word Up?

Matt: I was toying with the idea of making a game for my students that was a bit like Trivial Pursuit, but with the questions geared towards learning English rather than general knowledge, and the whole thing more or less came to me as it is now. The question categories seemed obvious enough - one for spelling, another one for vocabulary which is now Crossword Clues, and then Missing Word for grammar and structure, and Multiple Choice for everything else. And then I made a board with squares for each type of question, made some scoring tokens out of coloured paper, got some dice, and that was it. The special squares and the Word Up cards came along later, but the basic format was there from the start.

Josef: How long did it take you to make the original Word Up?

Matt: Well, the version I just described didn't take too long as it only had a few question sets and a pretty simple board. But after seeing how well it worked with my own students, and after getting a lot of positive feedback from other teachers, I decided to have a go at a more substantial version - hoping to get it produced. And that's when the work really began. It took me about 18 months to write the first batch of questions - which ended up being over 5,000 altogether. Then they had to be graded into levels of difficulty, and arranged into sets. That took another few months as I wanted each set to include a fairly consistent range of material - like tenses, idioms, phrasal verbs, collocations, general knowledge and whatnot. I also had to make sure that each set was balanced in terms of the number of difficult and easy questions it had - within the general standard of its level. And after I'd managed to get a company interested in producing it, the questions had to be edited and proofread, the board and the box had to be properly designed, and on it went. So all up it took about two and half years to get it to the point where it was ready to be launched - which was in 1991. And I've just spent another 6 months revising it all for the new editions we've just released.

Josef: That sounds like a lot of effort. Do you work full-time on Word Up?

Matt: No, not at all. I'm still rolling up my sleeves and teaching, and I think that helps me to remain focused on what learners really need, and what works or doesn't work with them.

Josef: Did you especially like board games as a child?

Matt: Yes. When I was a kid we didn't have home computers, let alone computer games, so we played board games all the time. My dad taught me chess - he was a member of the local chess club and a pretty good player. Then there was Monopoly, of course, and Cluedo, and my Mum taught me how to play Scrabble, so we used to play that quite a lot as well.

Josef: Do you still play board games now?

Matt: Only Scrabble, really. I have a couple of friends over every Tuesday night and we play a few games, and we've been doing this for years - religiously. And once in a while I'll play a game of chess, but that's about it these days.

Josef: Do you know who actually plays Word Up - I mean the type of learners, ages and so on? And where they are?

Matt: Well, it's used all over Thailand, of course, given that it's been available here for years. We've sold over 20,000 copies in Thailand alone - many of them to teachers and schools but most to students and their families, so here it's used in homes a lot. And since we've been selling it on the Internet, it's been mostly teachers who've bought it, so we know it's being used in schools and language institutes in over 60 countries already. What I'd like to see is students in other countries using it more at home. What I had in mind when I made it was to create a fun way for people to continue the learning process outside the usual classroom situation, as well as to make something useful for teachers.

Josef: You must have read my mind, because that was my next question. Is Word Up good for playing at home or is it mainly for the classroom?

Matt: I think it works really well for both. If learners want to do something to improve their English at home, I think playing Word Up is perfect. The fact that there are all these levels of difficulty means that the whole family can join in. The older kids could be on level 4 or 5, the younger ones on level 1 or 2, and Mum and Dad on whatever level suits them. But it's also good for teachers to use - it's good for breaking the ice early on, or for a bit of fun later on whenever the class needs a break from the usual format. And it also works well as a break-up activity at the end of a course.

Josef: Do you still use Word Up in your own classes?

Matt: Absolutely! For a start I'll use it early on with a new class. A lot of students are reluctant to speak at that stage - they're afraid of making mistakes, or they just feel a bit shy - and Word Up is a good way of getting them started. And it's also a good chance for me to observe them from a distance, so to speak - I can see pretty clearly the strengths and weaknesses of each student while they're playing, get some idea of where they're at as a group, and also find out a lot about their personalities. You can learn a great deal about someone by watching them play a game - and that's all useful stuff in teaching.

Josef: How specifically does Word Up help learners to develop their English?

Matt: Well, players obviously practise their reading, pronunciation and listening skills, but it also works as a good way to learn new material - like new vocab., new idioms and phrasal verbs, or new ways to use modals or prepositions or articles or whatever - just about everything anyone needs is in there somewhere, I'd say. And students really do seem to remember the material they're exposed to. Not because they particularly want to, mind you, but because they're totally focused on what they're doing. And they have to be if they want to win...and believe me, they do! They really listen - even if it's not their question, they'll listen and try to think of an answer. And when they hear the correct answer, they'll tend to remember it - because of their level of concentration. That's why the game format works well in general, I think - because it really does motivate students to concentrate, to focus - and if they're focused, they'll learn.

Josef: Was Word Up the first game you ever made?

Matt: It's the first one I've made that's been produced and marketed. I've had plenty of other ideas for games, and used them in my classes, but nothing else that I've felt could really be developed further.

Josef: I imagine it's not easy to just "create a game". How did you learn to do it?

Matt: No, I wouldn't say one just "creates a game", as such. In my experience at least, if an idea comes, and if it seems to work well, you tend to play around with it, develop it further, and then it slowly evolves over time until you end up with something you can call "a new game". I've gone through the whole business of consciously trying to come up with another game that we could market...and it just doesn't work like that. You can't just sit down and demand that good ideas come on cue - they come when they're good and ready.

Josef: If I asked you for the three main advantages of learning English with Word Up, what would they be?

Matt: Hmmm - that's a difficult one. But I'd say the first one would be simply that it's fun and that students never seem to get bored with it. They can play it over and over again and it'll still be fun and interesting - and will continually motivate them to learn. The second would be that it involves real communication and interaction - and it creates a genuine social situation in which this can occur. I'd say this is one of the main advantages of using board games in general, as opposed to computer games, for example. Most computer games involve interaction between a player and the computer itself - which I don't think is as authentic, or as useful, as the experience a board game provides. And the third? Probably the range of material, and the fact that it's all graded in such a way that a particular student can play the game from when they're a beginner right through to when they've got quite an advanced level of English. So it can provide a sense of continuity. Course books might change, teachers might change, but Word Up will always be there for them...a rock they can cling to in the turbulent waters of learning English. [laughs]

Josef: How many questions did you say there are in the game?

Matt: Today there are over 4,400 questions. 4,480 to be precise. Plus answers of course.

Josef: That's a lot of questions! How did you manage to come up with all those questions? And why an exact figure like 4,480? Why not something round like 4,000, or 5,000?

Matt: Well, to answer your second question first...the explanation is pretty mundane. It's a technical matter, to do with printing and how many question sheets fit on a large sheet when they're printed, before cutting up. And how did I come up with the questions? I had to take a fairly systematic approach. I'd think about each category and then come up with particular question types or themes. So for example, for Multiple Choice I'd think of something like proverbs, say, and then just make a whole bunch of questions on proverbs. Then maybe question tags - I'd list all the common ones and then make a series of Multiple Choice questions on them. Or for Missing Word I'd decide on phrasal verbs as a question type and then go through a phrasal verb dictionary and make a question for each - within reason, of course.

Josef: And how many people can play Word Up?

Matt: Two to six individual players, or two to six teams, though if teams are formed the total number of players shouldn't really be more than about twelve.

Josef: Now. the question I've been dying to ask you. Where did the name come from?

Matt ErreyMatt: There was a hit song called "Word Up" in the 80s by an American group called Cameo. They were African Americans and apparently the phrase was part of their particular idiom, and still is I believe. It's used either as a sort of general greeting, especially among men, or as a way to indicate agreement with someone. So this was how I first heard it, and when I was trying to come up with a name for the game it got added to the list of possibilities. And in the end it seemed like the best one I had. It had reference to language, obviously, but didn't sound too bookish or academic. It was short and simple, so I thought it'd be easy to remember, and it had a positive ring to it. So that was the one I settled on.

Josef: Well, it must have been a good choice, judging from the game's popularity. Do you have any plans for "Son of Word Up" or other games?

Matt: None at this stage! I'm still really busy getting Word Up out into the world - but who knows? Maybe I'll get another idea and be hounded by it until I see it sitting in front of me as a finished product...

Word Up is available from EnglishClub ESL Store.