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Using Twine to Teach English as a Foreign Language: The Plan
by Lena LeRay on 04/10/14 08:16:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


I am a JET Program participant. My job title is Assistant Language Teacher, which is true at the junior high school where I work, though I am just The [Foreign] Language Teacher at the elementary school. When I don't have classes to teach or lessons to prepare, there's often little I can help with, leaving me lots of free time which I use either to write for or to practice my game design and programming skills.

One problem we have at the junior high school, which is where English instruction begins in earnest (as opposed to playing around using English), is that we have a lot of things to teach in a short amount of time. This forces us to constantly focus on teaching new stuff. When you combine that with the fact that the textbooks teach grammar points in an... interesting order, it becomes very difficult for us to engage the kids in extensive readingExtensive reading is basically lots of reading, the reading of things that aren't too difficult and which are inherently interesting to the reader.

This is an important part of learning any language (including your native language) because the more you read, the more grammar patterns and vocabulary you absorb. Although it may not seem like it, reading a lot helps improve all of one's language skills. There are a number of graded reading materials in existence for people learning English as a second language, but because of the order in which Japanese students learn grammar points, none the ones we've found are really appropriate for our students. It doesn't help that Japanese students often have some pretty bad self-confidence issues. If they come up against something that they don't know how to handle, they tend to freeze up and say it's impossible.

In the past, I've tried to create short stories and dialogues we could give to the kids that would be within their reading skills, but it proved a difficult task which ultimately failed to hold my attention until completion. As impossible as it seems to cram all the things we have to teach into the kids' heads, their list of known vocabulary at the end of the first year of study is woefully limited. That in turn limited what I could do when writing a story. Often times, I ended up with basically the same thing as the textbook dialogues. Boring! If I tried to add a glossary so that I could use more words without sending the students on a dictionary scavenger hunt, I was faced with balancing more freedom to make something interesting with the prospect of a daunting list of new words. Ew?

Between participating in Ludum Dare and writing for IndieGames, though, I've seen a lot of Twine games, and that's given me a bit of an epiphany. Short text adventure games with lots of branches that can be played in any browser worth a grain of salt? Yes, please. Engaging and fun if I write silly enough stories, and playable anywhere the students have internet access. Most of the students have smartphones, which makes internet access a non-issue, and I have a web site at which I can host as many games as I wish. The best part is that exploring all the branches gives them reason to play the same story over and over again, reading text with the same vocabulary words used multiple times in context.

The limited vocabulary problem is also easier to handle in Twine's hypertext format than it is on a printed page. I can turn words the students don't know into hyperlinks and have those links bring up translations right in the passage text. This has the added benefit of making them pay attention to the English words; where a paper glossary would allow their eyes to skip straight to the meaning without looking at the word, this forces them to 1) look at the word, 2) see if they understand it, and 3) take action to find out what it means if they don't. Yet it's still far easier than looking things up in a dictionary.* And since Twine is extensible with JavaScript, I can create scripts to handle the translation and keep my Twine files from getting too cluttered. Indeed, I've already made some progress along that front, which will be the focus of my next post.

*Looking things up in a dictionary is a valuable skill, by the way, and one we encourage the students to practice, but dictionary quests kinda defeat the point of fun and easy reading that I am trying to achieve with this project.

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Mike Griffin
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I've been design consulting on a game called Bot Colony, which I believe will (eventually) become a fun and useful ESL tool for helping to teach conversational English. The team is working to prepare the game's first couple of episodes for Steam Early Access this month, and that's decidedly the game-focused element -- but there will be a focused ESL branch of the game at some point.

It's set in the future on a South Pacific island almost entirely populated by robots, in full 3D, and follows an old school Adventure game-sorta' design. You can speak or type (or both interchangeably) directly to the robots to get an answer. Probably pretty fun for kids as they learn.

Anyway, it's still in early alpha and pretty rough, but it could be a game to reference as an English teaching aid going forward.

Lena LeRay
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That sounds like a cool project. One question, though: ESL, specifically? The needs of EFL and ESL are a bit different. Basically, you want the same sorts of things, but the presence/absence of an immersive environment makes a difference.

Another JET Program participant referred me to Judging by the company name, they are designing primarily for a Japanese environment, but the ebooks (and youTube videos of the books being read) that they're putting out are pretty excellent. Not games, though.

Tanya X Short
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Very cool idea.

I was in the JET program from 2004-2006, and I think a bunch of my students would have loved Twine, especially the 'English club' members.

Looking forward to hearing how it goes!

Lena LeRay
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Once I get this ironed out, I plan to try and spread the word to other JETs so they can make use of them. I'm designing them around the text books we use in my region (One World), but I don't think it'd be too hard for ALTs using one of the other textbooks to make it work.

David Boudreau
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After my three years, I perceived a glaring lack of phonics instruction, and went on to make Fawnix, first for PC, then downloadable from the Xbox 360 Marketplace. I also made a CD-ROM for other ALTs while on the program. Interesting to know about what's being made these days as the software tools get better and easier. I love your asterisked note about looking up words in a dictionary btw; incidentally, that is about the only time anyone really uses the names of letters, practically speaking, yet there was (still is?) always such a big emphasis on that. Good luck! @Tanya I'll also check out Kitfox Games, looks interesting. (how many more JETs are here, I wonder?)

Lena LeRay
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I think learning the letter names is valuable because you can't talk about them without something to call them. The phonics problem is still a big one; they're putting ALTs in elementary schools more often, but a lot of us don't know how to teach phonics (I sure as hell don't). Especially since we aren't allowed to teach writing. The next round of changes to the curriculum will involve teaching writing to 5/6th graders and moving what 5/6th is currently doing down to the 3/4th grade level. We'll have to see how that goes.

I'm not really addressing phonics/pronunciation with this project, either. You can get sound into Twine, but I don't really want to record pronunciations for all of the words if I don't have to. Once I unleash this on the students and start getting feedback, I'll see if the students want pronunciations (I doubt it) and go from there.

David Boudreau
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Good stuff- and thanks for the update. Your project sounds good- it seems like a practical way to make use of some modern tech. The thing that often frustrated me was having to teach the alphabet, i.e. the names of the letters, then suddenly make this huge jump to words and even complete phrases. Students were somehow expected to just, you know, somehow figure out that the letters had sounds that are different from their names, including special rules like p and h together having a different sound than either one on its own. They only have the names of individual letters to go on, which doesn't help them when they're expected to read all of a sudden.

@Mike that project looks tremendously ambitious, but very awesome if it can be applied to language learning!

Lena LeRay
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I have the advantage of being in a rural town, and the elementary school just has me be The Main English Teacher overall, so I make sure to teach them that the name and the pronunciation are different things as early as possible. I still kinda suck at actually teaching phonics, which is partly due to not having the kids often enough and partly due to the fact that I am technically forbidden from making them write letters, but I at least make sure they know that it's different from how it is in Japanese so that they're not taken by surprise when they hit junior high and the teacher has them practice both names and pronunciations.