Minecraft, Pokemon Go and Language Learning

My real fascination with gaming and the possibilities for learning came last summer when both my sons discovered Pokemon Go. Every summer we go back home to the Netherlands and living internationally my boys don’t get to practice Dutch too often. Pokemon Go changed all that. All summer, they were out and about, talking to people, asking them where the next pitstop was and where they could get ….

Back in Phnom Penh for the new school year, I talked to the mother of a Japanese student. With some apprehension, she asked me what I thought of Pokemon Go. I misread her apprehension and I was expecting having to defend it to her, convincing her of its potential worth for education. Instead, the look on her face when I said I loved it, was one of recognition, almost relief. Because, yes, she loved it, too! All summer they had been in the US. And her boys also were out and about, talking English to other Pokemon Goers.

A Finnish boy, Eemil, joined our grade 4 class. He didn’t speak a word of English..┬ábut when the topic of Pokemon Go came up I watched him get very excited. He pushed himself to say ‘I play Pokemon go all summer’. Do you know…? Can you play here…? Where can we?

I tried my best to find more ways to engage this boy. I didn’t have to look far. Minecraft. He brought a book to school about Minecraft in Finnish. We looked at it, discussed it. I suggested we could speak to Mr. Matt, our technology coach, perhaps we could play some Minecraft and use this wonderful book.

The next lesson, Eemil brought with him a whole set of instructions IN ENGLISH, that he had worked on at home with his mother. Now we really had to get ourselves to that lab, so that the other students in the EAL class could follow his instructions and build a house in Minecraft.

What more evidence do I need that gaming, when used in a targeted way, is a potential ‘game-changer’ for education? As an EAL teacher, I want my students to practise the language. We learn a language by using it. What gets students communicating? When they have a need to communicate. When you give them a compelling reason to communicate.


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2 Responses

  1. Matt Dolmont says:

    Hey Marcelle!

    I use this example often when talking to other parents and educators. I couldn’t believe the depth of the language Eemil used when creating his instructions for Minecraft and how inspired the other students were by his example. Sometimes it even resulted in another language flip, inspiring them to create content in their mother tongue: “I could make a roof building guide in French!” was one student’s exclamation.

    Usually I run with games-based learning because it’s so engaging and often offers students a personalized experience, but it’s full of other benefits from language and collaboration to authentic inquiry and student ownership of their own learning. I hope we get another chance to collaborate on something like this before we find ourselves in different countries again!


  2. JON BANULES says:

    Hi Matt and Marcelle,

    Just chipping in here! I think the whole point of what you guys have been discussing here is that when we allow students to discuss what they are interested in, they then have many motivating and authentic reasons to use the target language. We all naturally love games! We want to be masters at games that we are interested in. Allowing kids to discuss games that they want to be masters in seems to satisfy the three important factors of drive that Dan Pink discusses in his RSA chat: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. When we allow them to discuss engaging games we are granting them autonomy to learn about what they really want to learn about. The mastery factor comes into play when we realise that all students who are discussing a game obviously want to become better at playing it. Purpose? The purpose of the language becomes clear in this context: Students will talk about the game to learn about it, share their own experiences, and also make new friends.

    Sometimes I feel that a real problem of teaching students to speak, read, listen to, and write English is that I’m often trying to make them use language to talk about something that they are not really interested in. Maybe the solution is to get away from teaching content! Perhaps we could just focus, as EAL teachers, on the language purposes throughout the unit for EAL students. For instance if mainstream students will HAVE to write a report about oceans, perhaps EAL students could first be guided through writing a report about a certain game they are interested in. I know it’s a bit radical…but in reality if our mission, as language teachers, is to get students talking, speaking, reading, listening…then it obviously needs to be about something engaging and of interest. Again it is a bit radical. But part of this unit has been a discussion of how the school paradigm we have been living for many years should be rethought. Games are a current example of a motivating activity that students want to learn and share about. Perhaps any games having to do with mapping can be used when inquiring into topics involving geography. We can tinge the game with content.

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