Upping My Game for Language Acquisition Teaching – Helpful Apps Listed!

Back to the question of games and education.

I’ve explored this battleground before, for example when I tried to decide if I was an anti-gaming teacher. I then moved up a level when I analysed gaming lessons led by our Ed Tech Coach, Matt Dolmont, and found them to be shining examples of integrating ISTE Standards for technology learning into our PYP curriculum. Ultimately, at least for a short spell, I actually didn’t leave my house for a marathon gaming weekend of Minecraft mania.

Do I believe in gaming in the classroom?

Yeah you betcha!

I actually bought my first game, besides Minecraft, last week. Yep. It was Humble Bundle’s “Gone Home”. I downloaded it after reading this blog post by Ki Sung about how educators are incorporating the game into studies of narrative writing as a new media evolution of fiction. From the post, “Gone Home” also seemed a perfect fit to teach metacognitive skills like inferencing, asking questions and summarising.

I dove into it last Saturday morning flanked by Roland monitors connected to a good mixer and the Macbook Pro.

Gaming Central @StudioChezJonB
Gaming Central @StudioChezJonB

I emerged two hours later, completely disoriented, unaware of the passage of time…a mini Rip Van Winkle. For two hours, I had gained empathy for all the characters whose stories I painstakingly reconstructed through inference and summarising of clues that I virtually immersed myself in. It was a complete and total living of what I teach as “showing not telling”, the art of using imagery to make a reader experience a story rather than hear, or read, it. The creators of the game too must have learned that lesson well from some teacher for they excelled at pulling their readers into the narrative of the life of a 13 year old girl, her world-travelling sister, and their parents.

But wait…I teach 6 and 7 year olds…

English as an additional language…

Is there a game for us?

What is Game-Based Learning and How Does It Relate to My Classes and Students?

Tina Barseghian outlines some basic characteristics of game-based learning in her article How Games Can Influence Learning:

  1. It should absolutely involve interaction. The game has to cause students to participate in activity with the content we want students to learn. As student interaction with key language as a means of internalising and using that language is always a goal in teaching for language acquisition, games that would provoke these interactions would be welcome additions to my EAL classroom.
  2. Game-based learning activities can be personalised, or modified, for players based on their current levels of achievement. In terms of education, this translates to differentiation. If game-based learning offers inherent possibilities for differentiated experience based on what a language learner can currently do with the target language, it would seem to be a very useful strategy.

(Video) Games and the Brain

In discussing how game-based learning, involving video games in particular, meshes with current Constructivist and neurological theories about learning, Judy Willis, MD makes a convincing argument that well designed games offer challenges that students can achieve through effective scaffolding. Most of my job as a language acquisition teacher, is to create learning experiences that bridge what students currently can do with what they need to do to complete larger language tasks. The scaffolding that a good game could offer is my holy grail.

computer game by lastspark from the Noun Project
computer game by lastspark from the Noun Project

Willis also describes how video games can foster effective learning by positively affecting motivation in a few discreet ways. She states that video games present students with multiple cascading situations that they perceive will be challenging, but also that they have a reasonable chance of being successful at. When there is an understanding that success has been achieved In situations like these, she asserts that the brains of children produce dopamine, an essential chemical that provides a pleasurable sensation. The genius of well designed games lies not only in the fact that they present increasingly challenging situations that promote dopamine-producing successes, but also that they constantly create what she terms an “awareness of incremental progress”. In other words, these games make the players aware, on a microlevel through accumulation of points, but on a larger scale through reaching new levels, that they are being successful. When achievement is thus perceived, dopamine gets released into the brain, pleasure is experienced, and the player has intrinsic motivation to keep playing in order to achieve another dopamine release.


When teaching English as an additional language to second grade students, I must try hard to find new ways to motivate my charges. Learning a language, learning through a language, and learning to think in new ways in a new language can be challenging to say the least for my students, who spend a good part of each day trying to survive in and comprehend what they hear in an all English environment. I explain how what students learn in our thrice weekly lessons will help them be “experts” in their classes where they will discuss the same ideas and concepts. I plan lessons where students get to work collaboratively and with many different students. I pick texts and think of writing assignments that offer students creative choices, color, high interest topics, and sometimes surprising potential. I gesticulate, use drawings, and show wild photos. All of these techniques, SOMETIMES motivate MOST students, but I have found the quickest ways to motivate ALL students involve:

  1. Pulling out the iPads for individualised research; AND
  2. Playing a new game, be it electronic or analog.

It was good to see this validated from a brain-based perspective.

Next Steps

I’m starting to wonder how I can apply this renewal of my interest in games for my EAL students with my growing understanding of and proficiency with technology. Just in scouring the internet briefly, I found an article related to online Role Playing Games for ESL students that made me begin to think about the possibility of finding a game like “Gone Home” in which students would have to hear and comprehend texts, possibly while discussing them with partners, but for younger students. For the type of thinking related language I want my students to have practice with, most of the run of the mill ESL games are too basic. These video games, with their heavy emphasis on spelling activities and fill-in-the-blank sentence seem to concentrate mostly on spelling and grammar and seem to operate on the “substitute” or “augment” stages of the SAMR model of tech integration. They replace, for example, literacy based worksheets, flash cards, or simple in class quiz games based on memorisation.

Modified SAMR

Photo Credit: katiahildebrandt Flickr via Compfight cc

I want a deeper game, a game that causes children to have to think about the language they are learning, engage with the game, and respond…all while practicing structures and academic vocabulary that we are covering in class. I also want a game that modifies what children are tasked with based on the complexity of their utterances.

Does such a game exist? And can it be played on an iPad, as this is the technology available to my students in my EAL class?

The Games That Won

After a few days of lengthy searching, purchasing, downloading, and playing with many apps on my personal iPad, I settled on the following apps, all of which have game-based or game-like aspects. It must be noted that none provide a perfect gaming solution for a language acquisition class. Few are free for the best options. Most offer a teacher some method of setting up classes or accounts and tracking student progress. Some individualise instruction and play, slowing down lessons or games based on student responses.

  1. Bitsboard
  2. Sentence Creator (Bitsboard)
  3. Duolingo free, PERFECT IF and ONLY IF students speak and read: Greek, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Turkish, Polish, French, Japanese, Ukrainian, Vietnamese, Arabic, Indonesian, Chinese, Portuguese, Romanian, Dutch, German, Hindi, Czech, or Korean
  4. Beginner’s English Linguascope comes with one unlocked module – “In Town” which is perfect if students are studying urban environments, like mine
  5. Futaba reading based, free, Pure fun, multiplayer, with some vocabulary and text-to-image-connection/comprehensible input thrown in
  6. Crack the Books literacy comprehension based but has game like features
  7. Mindsnacks Kid’s Vocab for advanced students
  8. Tinybop – toys for tomorrow interactive graphical models that students can label and listen to labels about for a variety of academic topics like the human body, skyscrapers, and plants

I ultimately decided that two of the best game-related apps to have for language acquisition were Bitsboard and a spin off, Sentence Creator. Both of these apps, although not free, allow for teachers to decide what vocabulary they want students to inquire into, and to associate text with images and audio. Bitsboard then makes many games around those words that increase exposure and/or give possibilities for students to produce the language with or without partners. As a teacher, you can modify games to make them more or less challenging, add student “users” so that you can monitor progress, and combine boards to create great sorting activities. Sentence Creator gives students practice in actually putting words together into sentences. Again, you can create the type of sentences you want students to be familiar with. I could see having students use these games as part of a center for vocabulary introduction, exploration, practice, and review.

Duolingo is a good resource for students who are new to English. In their mother tongue, it will give them a preassessment. Based on responses in the preassessment, Duolingo places them at a certain place in the English program. Duolingo then teaches students through a combination of listening, speaking, reading, and typing exercises. At frequent intervals, the app asks the student to play a game related to the lesson.

Beginner’s English Linguagescope also offers language learners a variety of lessons they can study, or be assigned. Students are introduced to new vocabulary then they can play many games related to the lesson.

With Futaba, up to four students can play a game in which they compete to match a rapidly appearing picture with one of four words in front of their side of the iPad. Teachers can add new sets of words and pictures based on vocabulary they are studying in class. You can then tell the game which word sets to include in the game.

Crack the Books is not really a game, but is such a wonderful app that I thought I would include it here. With this app, you receive a “bundle” of ebooks about various science topics such as: trees, deserts, aquatic environments, grasslands, and seashores. Each of these ebooks can be leveled by the app. While reading the text, students have access to videos, maps, tests, glossaries, and other resources that increase the comprehensibility of the text. The texts are levelled very high, but the media that surrounds the text can compensate for this high levelling. If you combine the text with the iPad’s text to speech feature, these texts could become very meaningful for less proficient students.

Mindsnacks Kid’s Vocab is an app for advanced English language learners. The app teaches children tier 2 and 3 words about academic topics such as maps, issues of today, and arts before giving them games to play by reading the words and completing cloze-like activities. After games, students are shown how close they are to mastering certain vocabulary.

Finally, Tinybops are apps that allow children to explore various pieces of big topics such as the human body, the solar system, and skyscrapers. Students have the option to, for example, play with the springy stabilisers under sky scrapers that allow them to move slightly in the wind and during an earthquake.

As I am currently facilitating the language acquisition of my Grade 2 EAL students in a unit about urban environments I plan to offer these game based learning experiences, most likely as centers activities during our EAL class and in their homeroom classes:

  1. Bitsboard and Sentence Creator work using vocabulary related to these topics: things and places in urban environments, words to describe things and places in urban environments, issues that bother people about urban environments;
  2. Beginner’s English Linguascope for “In Town”;
  3. Futaba with vocabulary I glean from a language plan I have created for this unit;
  4. Mindsnacks Kid’s Vocab centered around the language of maps and possibly issues of today, other areas of focus in this unit;
  5. Tinybop about skyscrapers.

Are games from these lists always going to encourage the deep thinking and speaking I would like students to display? Not always. However, I’m thinking now that some of these games can be modified to play with partners or groups, which will increase discussion. It will be interesting to see how use of these games affects students’ production of vocabulary and language for our unit.

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