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Using Twine to Teach English as a Foreign Language: The Plan

By day, I am a JET Program participant, teaching English to Japanese kids who have no choice about taking my classes. I want to use my programming and game design knowledge to enrich their education by giving them fun things to read.

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 IndieGames.com 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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