Learning a language is never easy and no one, no matter what age, can acquire language without one crucial element. Input. Comprehensible input. When people study English as a second language, that is, in an English speaking country, they are surrounded by the target language. Input becomes comprehensible over time. This is immersion. It’s not that ESL students don’t make mistakes, but rather their mistakes eventually get corrected by their immersive surroundings.
People studying English in their home countries, also known as English as a foreign language or EFL, are at a huge disadvantage. They have much less comprehensible input in the target language as they are surrounded by their native tongue. This often results in first language or L1 influence.
“First language influence seems to be strongest in ‘acquisition poor’ environments, where natural appropriate intake is scarce”
– Stephen Krashen (2002)
Such is the situation and challenge for many EFL students and their teachers. Fortunately, there is some guidance. Alla Rozovskaya and Dan Roth of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign studied written errors from non-native English students of nine different L1 backgrounds: Bulgarian, Chinese (Mandarin), Czech, French, German, Italian, Polish, Russian, and Spanish. The study revealed patterns that could be traced back to L1 influence. For example, Mandarin and Slavic languages do not include articles (a, an, the), and the results showed that Russian, Czech, Polish, Bulgarian, and Mandarin speakers were roughly three to four times more likely to make mistakes using articles than speakers of French, Italian, or German, all of which do have articles (Rozovskaya and Roth, 2010). As EFL students’ linguistic backgrounds result in patterns of L1 influence, these areas must be deliberately targeted for further practice.
Over my 12 year career as an EFL teacher working with Taiwanese elementary students, my colleagues and I have noted a number of errors resulting from Mandarin L1 influence. While there are specific errors for each level of student, it is not uncommon for errors from students’ early EFL study to persist even as their vocabulary becomes quite advanced. For example, Mandarin has no verb conjugation, which leads to frequent omission of the third person singular -s as well as correctly forming questions with Do and Does. This poor grammar can greatly interfere with one’s ability to communicate fluently. For this reason, it is important to target simple elements of foundational grammar from which students can build.
For the best chances of success, targeting EFL students early is crucial. EFL Foundational Grammar Decks provide targeted practice for students in their second year of EFL study, when they have basic reading skills but are still acquiring foundational grammar. It is gender neutral, appropriate for 1st through 4th graders, and ideal for in-class play in small groups and adaptable for private lessons or self study with friends.
Ouroboros of Game Elements:
The three key elements below enhance player experience and help EFL Foundational Grammar Decks achieve its serious goals: resources, mechanics, and player-player interactions.
The most straightforward is the resources in the game, which are simply the cards themselves. The current deck consists of 99 cards made up of four categories that can be played to make a sentence: subjects, verbs, auxiliary verbs, and prepositions of time. Each categories’ vocabulary has been specially chosen to lighten players’ cognitive load and allow for greater concentration on the target grammar pattern.
- Subject cards, of which there are 28, consist of…
- The seven basic pronouns, with sets of both upper and lower case,
- easily decodable short vowel names
- and common sight words “my friend” and “your teacher”.
- There are 30 verb cards.
- All are standard elementary level action verbs appropriate for TPR, or total physical response, meaning any verb card can be acted out.
- There is a mixture of transitive (verbs with objects) like “plant trees” and intransitive verbs, like “run” and “swim”.
- Verbs are already conjugated with the third person singular -s ending for students to recognize, and at this low level, that’s more important.
- There are 13 auxiliary verbs, six Do and seven Does, for making questions, and it is up to the students to match appropriate subjects to each.
- Lastly, there are 28 prepositions of time that can be added to the end of any sentence regardless of its form or subject. Days and months become sight words as they are frequently seen throughout students studies and they are used in this game with their proper prepositions as passive vocabulary acquisition. The prepositions “at, on, and in” were chosen as they are notoriously tricky but also go hand in hand with this fundamental daily language.
- Telling time using “at”
- 7 days of the week with “on”
- And the 12 months of the year using “in”
The mechanic of the game, playing off of others’ cards to collectively make sentences, requires students to concentrate solely on sentence structure and word order. Players must note details like capitalization, conjugated verbs, and different subjects in order to play correctly and decrease the number of cards they have. The first player with zero cards wins.
This mechanic inspires lots of player-player interaction as players prevent others from playing incorrect cards. Implict or explicit explanation is often needed in such cases, and every instance serves as a reminder of the grammar rule for the entire group. As there are no official rules for the game, players also negotiate their own terms of play, for example a penalty for playing an incorrect card. In both of these situations, EFL students generate meaningful unscripted language.
Although I have a few cited sources that provide evidence of patterns of L1 influence in EFL students, most of the choices for my design of this game have been based on my observations and experiences from over a decade in the field of EFL instruction.
The greatest value embedded in EFL Foundational Grammar Decks is cooperation. Though the objective to “get rid of one’s cards” is competitive, as mentioned before it also motivates peer correction. Players wish to prevent others from being able to play, and force them to draw instead. However, they must first help that player by effectively tutoring them. Despite this competitiveness in the game, there is also a clear collective effort to work together to clear sentences and maintain the flow. When there is a correction followed by meaningful language, this helps students see each other as valuable sources of knowledge and builds a stronger learning community.
Gameplay is intuitive. Playtesters established flow within minutes as capitalization and other card elements guide players to the correct sentence structure. Players read aloud as they play and odd entertaining sentences form randomly. During playtesting joy and positive tension were the most common emotions observed.
Piaget’s cognitive learning theory of assimilation and accommodation can shed some light on the importance of the mechanic provided in EFL Foundational Grammar Decks. To a large extent, learning vocabulary in a foreign language falls within assimilation. For example, an English-speaking student knows the word “desk,” and upon learning the Spanish word “escritorio,” transfers the same meaning to the new word. The learner easily integrates this new knowledge into his or her existing knowledge, or schema (Van Eck, 2007, p.286).
Accommodation, on the other hand, “requires much more effort than assimilation, including replacing or reconstructing existing ideas” (Van Eck, 2007, p286). As Rozovskaya and Roth’s previously mentioned study clearly shows, EFL students’ L1 linguistic backgrounds may require the accommodation rather than assimilation of varying elements of English syntax, and these must be deliberately targeted for further practice. By focusing solely on sentence structure, this card game provides that practice.
The second obstacle that EFL students face is a shortage of comprehensible input. The interactivity that occurs during gameplay in EFL Foundational Grammar Decks not only teaches and reinforces the grammar point, but also increases the amount of input beyond the language on cards. As a small group activity, gameplay generates meaningful language as players read the sentences as they are built, comment on the funny nature of word combinations, prevent misplaced cards with explanation, and negotiate rules of play. Though originally designed for Mandarin speakers, the game mechanic and player controlled elements that deliver this interactivity serve as an adaptable framework for any English syntax requiring accomodation into another first language.
Krashen, Stephen. (2002). Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Retrieved from: http://www.sdkrashen.com/content/books/sl_acquisition_and_learning.pdf
Rozovskaya, Alla and Roth, Dan. (2010). Annotating ESL Errors: Challenges and Rewards. NAACL’10 Workshop on Innovative Use of NLP for Building Educational Applications. Retrieved from: http://cogcomp.cs.illinois.edu/papers/RozovskayaRo10a.pdf
Van Eck, Richard. (2007). Building Artificially Intelligent Games. Idea Group Inc. Retrieved from:http://www.academia.edu/1856556/Building_Artificially_Intelligent_Learning_Games