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Learning through Play: How Gamification Keeps Children Interested in Learning

by Mark Pemberton

Mark Pemberton, former ELT teacher and co-founder of Studycat, discusses how a blend of game-based learning, both on and offline, is helping children learn languages and connect the classroom to the home.

When you were younger, your parents likely told you to stop playing games and get on with your homework. Games were seen as a distraction from book-bound learning, leaving little to no room for them as a revision tactic. However, fast-forward almost 20 years and gamification has proven itself to be a vital part of any teachers’ toolkit.

Game-based learning has long been a part of the learning experience. We learn through play from the time we’re born, and countries such as Finland have been aware of the benefits of a less formal approach to learning for years. But with rapid technological advances and greater access to devices like smart phones and tablets, today’s digital natives aren’t just accustomed to games online, they have a real appetite for them.

The language of learning

The goal of game-based learning is to maximise the students’ enjoyment and engagement levels by capturing and maintaining their interest in the subject matter. This is achieved by providing immediate feedback; scaffolded learning, where challenges gradually increase in difficulty; forming social connections; and placing an emphasis on fun.

Examples of game-based learning are rife across STEM subjects yet, one of the most potent approaches that I have encountered is within language-learning. I taught my first classroom of pupils an English lesson in Taiwan in 1989. While the children wanted to learn, the lack of resources and traditional pedagogies meant that progress lagged. Instead of creating a fun learning environment, my students and I struggled to tick off the learning objectives day-by-day. Put simply, learning was boring for them.

I was determined to succeed though, and just as the rote approach was boring for them, it wasn’t much fun for me either. So I came to class armed with a range of home-made posters, flashcards and props. Those analogue-style games-based learning lessons transformed the children’s attitude and enjoyment. They progressed rapidly and came to class excited about learning.  Right away it was clear that game-based learning provides a greater sense of ownership and independence, a more relaxed atmosphere, and a willingness to try and try again.

Connecting the traditional with the modern

As any ELT teacher will report, these attributes and a positive outlook go a long way during language learning. It’s not that some people are more gifted with languages than others, it’s about creating an environment that is fun and reassuring and encourages students to persevere. Language-learning can feel like a risk-taking exercise filled with mispronunciations and equivalence issues however, these can be minimised with a game-based approach. By easing the pressure to perform, games build solid foundations through repetition and scaleable activities that progress in line with students’ attainment.

In some form or another, games have long been a part of the learning experience but, in the age of personalised learning, the value of many traditional teaching resources is getting lost. Today, when people think of gamification, their minds go to online platforms and apps that seamlessly guide students through various stages or learning objectives. These are of course incredibly valuable resources and resonate with pupils in a tech-centric era but it is often learning by doing that really helps improve attainment.

Saving teachers time

This combination of app-based learning paired with traditional face-to-face techniques and resources ensures that pupils are engaged and driving their own learning experience. Importantly, it also connects the classroom to the home-learning environment – a crucial element for ESL pupils where practice makes perfect. Connecting the old and the new provides pupils and teachers with best-practice education methods. Crucially though, the way technology has evolved means that we’ve been able to create a solution that enables the concept of blended classrooms to transform into blended homes where students can continue to learn through games.  It also means that teachers save time. Using what I valued when I taught, our dashboard technology allows teachers to play games on digital whiteboards, assign game-based homework to family devices, and receive real time learner outcomes.

Breaking down the walls of traditional teaching has been one of the greatest benefits I have experienced from gamification in language learning. Technology’s advancement now means that children are afforded the opportunity to reflect their classrooms into their home, creating the ultimate flipped classroom while accelerating learning. What’s more, inviting blended learning into the home through gamification has also allowed for greater parental engagement. Game-based learning has demonstrated its ability to foster self-advocacy amongst children, but it is also a great tool for collaboration with peers and parents as friendly competitions and card games emerge.

With the advanced integration of technologies in the classroom and home, teaching and learning practices have rapidly evolved. Edtech is influencing almost every aspect of the modern learning experience and has brought with it a wide range of benefits for pupils and teachers alike. However, it is important to remember the value of paper-based materials and physical games that can also support curriculum objectives to create a holistic learning experience. Finding a way to balance screen time with physical games, get parents engaged in their child’s learning and help children discover the fun of language learning and there is no stopping you!

Pull out box

  • What are some challenges you have faced as an ELT teacher?
  • How has gamification or game-based learning helped you and your students?

Mark Pemberton is a former teacher and co-founder of Studycat – a global leader in education technology, with over 6 million users across the world.

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