Perhaps it’s the word ‘drill’ that fuels my dislike of grammar drills, as it conjures up in my mind visits to the dentist. Often painful, repetitive and while good for us, definitely not fun. In many regards, this also describes grammar drills in language acquisition. In psychological terms it is using a brute force method of getting the information into long-term memory, in the hope that it can then be recalled later. The Berlitz method as well as old school audio-lingualism emphasizes this form of drill at their core. This post won’t be looking at whether or not this is effective, instead it will look at how gamification can help a teacher to design better drill exercises.
The first thing to define is what is the purpose of the drill.
The drill is to practice the target grammar repeatedly to encourage fluency in responses.
By ‘repeatedly’ I mean that any activity that is designed must have, in gamification terms, replay value. The second important feature is to encourages fluency, therefore the answers are best when spoken, not recorded in another way.
The next step is to look at the number of sides in an activity. In the classic drill scenario, the teacher takes the role of calling out the questions to which the students respond.
T: Is this a pencil? (holding up a pencil)
Stds: Yes, it is.
In the classic scenario, there are two basic sides: the questioner and the responder. The two sided nature works really well with an activity using two students alternating between the roles.
What are the elements of uncertainty in the activity?
In the classic call and response drill, there is no uncertainty. There is perfect information exchange – all the elements are visible to all the players. The only uncertainty is in student pronunciation performance (even that can be mitigated by unsure students speaking at a lower level than those around them.) This is the area where the classic drill loses most of its potential for impact from the perspective of gamification.
When an activity doesn’t contain any uncertainty it is very predictable and so, cognitively un-engaging (I will be doing another post in the future on the importance of uncertainty in curriculum design). As soon as a pattern becomes fossilized, the brain can in fact tune it out like a song that is playing in the background. Furthermore, once students recognize the pattern they lose their desire to engage with it (see Ralph Koster’s discussion of tic tac toe in “A Theory of Fun for Game Design).
Having identified the main area in which gamification can improve the activity, as well as the goals of the activity (while preserving its pedagogical value) and the number of sides in the activity (players), it is now possible to discuss one of the gamified approaches to drill activity.
Proposed solution: Grammar Battleship
The students play a game of battleship in which they use the target grammar form for the coordinates of the shots, instead of traditional alpha numeric coordinates. For example, instead of calling out A2 the student asks “Do you play soccer?” and instead of hit or miss, the answer is “Yes, I do” or “No, I don’t”.
With a four by four grid, this will provide a maximum asking and answering run of 32 questions with the target language (but in all probability will be shorter). It is also set up for strict elimination so players are very aware of when the game has ended, thus reducing the potential wait time for starting a new game.
Levels of uncertainty in the game
The information is not symmetrical in the game – the player is aware of where their ships are, but not of their opponents. This can be characterized as containing at least three forms of uncertainty: 1- random generated, 2- hidden information, and 3- player unpredictability. This helps to keep students engaged with the activity and to take part in the activity, they are fulfilling the goal of classical grammar drilling(multiple repetitions of questions and answer forms). This leads to increased fluency and recall as the student is more engaged than in the classic drill scenario.
It is important to note that this is only one of the potential activities that can be created to address the weaknesses of grammar drilling. This article doesn’t present a full analysis of all the elements in the activities and their implications in order to keep this post short and concise, but further information can be made available.
A sample PDF game grid with instructions is provided here: Battleship Drill Activity.