- This essay attempts to both describe and motivate the Bridging Activities Cycle for game-design enhanced TBLT. For further foundational reading into the philosophical and theoretical motivations for using games and taking a game-design approach to TBLT, see here.
Vernacular video games, or commercial video games, have in the last decade begun to be examined for their usefulness for learning. From a fundamental level, Gee (2007) claims that video games demonstrate excellent learning principles inherent in their design. To operationalize and capture the learning potential in games, Thorne and Reinhardt’s (2008) Bridging Activities (BA) provide an approach to language learning and teaching that utilizes playing games with principles of language awareness (LA) (Bolitho et al, 2003).
In particular for BA, language learning is never seen as something decontexualized or simply about language in some general sense. Instead, BA aims to build in learners an awareness of how multimodalic forms are utilized by a community to make sense, achieve specific goals and perform situated functions. In this way, LA is an awareness both of and about language (Reinhardt & Sykes, 2011). Awareness of language is related to experiences that users have in specific situations, such as saying “hello” in a marketplace. Awareness about language then is the analytic side that users of language use in order to know that saying “hello” to the clerk at the supermarket is different than they “hey” they say to their best friend at home. BA then, attempts to use the situated experience and natural learning potential of video games and the attendant communities (e.g. websites and forums) around specific video games to build LA in learners in this way.
In comparison, traditional language teaching approaches often attempt to decontextualize language, asking students to memorize words, translations and rules. This type of learning is premised on the assumption that learning, and in particular schools, should teach content in general and that students can then apply it in their specific situations. For many researchers like Gee (2007) who reject this view, language learning is always the learning of something in some context. From this view, the fundamental flaw of traditional grammar-translation or even communicative-based instruction is that they ignore at best and deny at worst the context of learning, the classroom. Students who only learn language and only have reason to use language in the language classroom are learning classroom language. The ability to transfer those skills to broader contexts is not clear, and as many learners note, the difference between classroom language learning and real language use can be overwhelming. Even more modern teaching practices, such as task-based learning and teaching (TBLT) (for a review of TBLT see, Skehan, 1998) have been critiqued from a game-design perspective as not contextualizing, or situated language learning enough (Sykes & Reinhardt, 2013; see also this foundational post) by focusing the attention of learning on the content instead of being driven by the learner. Game-designed methods like BA approaches address the need for learner-driven and situated learning.
BA tasks operationalize these ideas into a sequence of three phases: Explore, Examine and Extend. In each phase, students both experience the language through some discourse, whether it be in a game, between players or in the attendent community spaces and analyze that discourse. In the explore phase, learners play (experience) a game and notice and collect (analyze) the rules or important mechanics that are needed to progress in the game. Examine asks students to think more carefully about the discourses they are collecting while playing the game by contrasting them across various contexts or situations in order to raise learner awareness of how specific forms are used differently in different situations. Finally, the extend phase asks students to synthesize the skills and information they have gathered and analyzed through their experiences with the game and create or participant in the attendant discourses surrounding the game. Using their knowledge of the game, learners might make a game review, or discuss strategy in an online forum or create fan fiction narratives involving the characters and places in the game.
A Game-Focused BA cycle
Coup and its community
As a tabletop game, Coup (Boardgamegeek, 2016) is played as a turn-based, deception card game. Its digital version, which maintains the primary features, can be described as a free-to-play, handheld, multi-player, role-playing strategy card game. In the tabletop game, Coup is played between 2 to 6 players who are given two cards face down. Each player’s goal is to eliminate the cards of the other players primarily through collecting coins by deception and launching “coups” against opponents.
Unlike many digital games, the online community for Coup is not specifically focused on just Coup. They think about, comment on and produce content for a wide range of games, without focusing too heavily on one specific game. Forums like boardgamegeek offer a wide range of community activities to assist tabletop players in playing games in their own in-person groups. As such, a primary feature of the community is the creation of gameplay/review videos. These videos demonstrate the rules, show the game in action and generally highlight specific strategies for playing the game. An important feature of tabletop games is that individual, in-person play groups are the primary community for players. The online community is an important additional resource.
Prior to this activity, students will have completed various tasks and gained skills that will help them perform this BA cycle. First, students will have read various informational texts from their traditional reading-oriented textbook and from various teacher-curated internet sources on similar topics. Additionally, language awareness principles of noticing and analyzing differences of and about different genres (e.g. narratives vs informative texts) and modes (video and writing) have been used to build up to this cycle. Students, then, should spend less time learning to do the tasks and more time on the language goals.
Explore: observe, notice and play
To begin, students need to be exposed to and learn the rules and mechanics of Coup. To do so, students will view a more professionally produced community gameplay video from Geek & Sundry (Anderson, 2015). Before viewing, A deck of Coup cards will be shuffled and each student will be given one. They will take a moment to examine it for information. Each student will focus on how their card is used in the game specifically. A separate worksheet will guide the students to categorize their noticing into rules, important actions and how actions are performed.
The goal of this activity is to allow the students to explore Coup both by playing and experiencing the community from the very beginning. As Reinhardt and Sykes (2011) emphasize, students are directed to notice the in-game discourses (or the information presented by the rules and the cards) and the emergent discourses, or how the players enact the rules and strategy, by noticing and collecting the actions performed and also how those actions were performed. And because individual games of Coup are between 10 to 15 minutes, they can also begin experiencing those rules and performing the actions immediately. This is important because by watching real people really play the game, the students are exposed to real language. And while this may be overwhelming, by asking the students to focus on very specific tasks (e.g. listen to one player during a specific moment in the game), the overall listening taks becomes much easier. Paired with other strategies (such as a think, pair, share), and suddenly the overwhelming language of the video isn’t so tough to tackle, even for some lower level students.
In pairs, students will share the information they discovered about the card they were assigned and any important actions that they observed. As a class, students will share items they felt were particularly important and students will see if they can identify how the actions were performed by the players. Specific parts of the video will played again and the students will note the ways (i.e. linguistic forms) the players performed their actions. At this stage, students will be guided through a special, full-class version of the game, with the teacher as guide. The teacher will explain all possible and relevant actions that can be taken as each student takes a turn. The teacher may emphasize that later games will be played in smaller groups, with a faster pace.
Examine: Experience and analyze
For the second class, the students will be given a blank version of Coup’s reference chart and asked to fill as much information as they know. After discussing in pairs and in class briefly, students will set it aside until they play the game later. Students will then rewatch a short clip of the video they saw the previous day. Each student will be given a specific player in the video to examine carefully and note all the various things they do when they perform actions and counteractions. A partner with a different observed player will share any similar or different information they noticed.
In their pairs, students will be asked to consider the following questions as they compare information: How did the players use their background knowledge of each other to lie and discover other people’s lies? What kind of words did they use? What kind of body language did they use? How is lying to strangers different than lying to friends? How is lying in a game different than lying at home? or with your friends?
After a discussion of the various things the students noticed, students will be dealt two cards. With a partner, the students will try to play the first two rounds of the game. Based on the strategies they examined and how their partner performed the game actions, students will try to guess which cards their partner has. Students can do this activity several times before playing a real game with four players.
This game-focused examine stage focuses the students, as Reinhardt and Sykes (2011) emphasize, critically on the game discourses. For this activity, student attention is drawn explicitly to the linguistic and paralinguistc forms of deception which is a necessary means players need in order to achieve victory, or the ends, of Coup. The students are able to compare the actions of multiple players in the video and compare them. In addition, The students are given a controlled activity to practice their analysis with a partner and in a full-game.
Extend: Reflect and Participate
Building off the previous game the class played, in the extend phase, students will first reflect critically on how their strategy went. First, they will outline basically what they tried to do and then use one or two reflection questions to guide and focus their attention on how their strategy for deception helped or hindered them. After writing down their reflection, students will trade their writing in a small group and get feedback from their classmates.
Students will be asked to give feedback particular to how the strategy of their classmate might be improved. After reading and commenting on two or three different reflections. Students will consider the different strategies they read and the new advice they have in order to devise a new and better strategy. This phase will end with students again playing another game, testing their new strategy.
While the students are not yet participating in the attendent gaming communities, they are practicing key functions that occur often in the discourses around Coup, namely developing and commenting on strategies. As Reinhardt and Sykes (2011) impress, the extend phase moves beyond collecting and analyze the game and moves the students to actively use the knowledge they have collected and analyzed. In this extend phase, students must practice presenting strategies as well as commenting on other’s creations and actively reflecting on their practice. This will prepare the students to engage in a new BA cycle, that will allow them to both understand communication in the Coup community, and give them a contentful foundation to eventually participate in those communities authentically.
That’s ok. If you are new to this approach or to TBLT, this may not have drawn the clear picture I am hoping for. Don’t worry though. I’ve actually implemented these cycles (and more) in my classrooms and, better still, I have lots and lots of data! I’m still in the process of going through it all, but don’t worry! future posts will certainly include data-driven examples and proposals of game-design Enhanced L2TL and BA cycles! In the meantime, look through these examples from the creators of the approach.
Anderson, B. (2015). TableTop: Love Letter and Coup with the Fine Brothers and Felicia Day | Geek and Sundry. Geek and Sundry. Retrieved 18 June 2016, from http://geekandsundry.com/tabletop-love-letter-and-coup/
Bolitho, R., Carter, R., Hughes, R., Ivanič, R., Masuhara, H., & Tomlinson, B. (2003). Ten questions about language awareness. ELT Journal, 57(3), 251-259.
Gee, J. (2007). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Reinhardt, J. & Sykes, J. (2011). Framework for game‐enhanced materials development. Tucson, AZ: Center for educational resources in culture, language and literacy.
Skehan, P. (1998). Task-based instruction. Annual review of applied linguistics, 18, 268–286.
Sykes, J. M., & Reinhardt, J. (2013). Language at play: Digital games in second and foreign language teaching and learning. Boston, MA: Pearson.
Thorne, S. L., & Reinhardt, J. (2008). Bridging activities, new media literacies, and advanced foreign language proficiency. Calico Journal, 25(3), 558-572.