Kotoba Rollers

Kotoba Rollers 2018: A reflection of the first term

? Two Rooms reflection

Two rooms and a boom is the first game we play. Here are some small tweaks to the general model I’ve made, why I made those changes and reflections on what the changes brought about.

Model updates

Grammar presentations

During the first analysis session, students find errors in their transcriptions, discuss how it could be corrected and make notes on grammar, phrases or vocabulary that they will be able to use in the next play session. The presentations went well but have been lacking a ‘test’ element. The “test” element may be considered a quiz where each group introduces the grammar/phrases/vocabulary that they researched as well as four or five questions to check other groups’ comprehension.

I wanted to do this activity so that there is a need for students to listen to each others’ presentations. Additionally, as they are all playing the same game, the lexical items or grammar that each group researches will have relevance to all other groups. Finally, by grading themselves and giving themselves a score I am able to use it towards their final grade which hopefully inspires them to be responsible for what they do in the classroom.

Here is a sample worksheet for the grammar presentation and quiz

I only did this activity with one class. It went well, but they are still only focusing on super low-level grammar. “Let’s…” “Do you want to…” etc. Where is the deeper dive?

Let’s play video → SUSD video

I didn’t show my Minecraft-based let’s play video, instead opting for SU&SD’s play through. As a part of this, I made students answer six questions based on the video such as:

  • How does Quinns ask the leader what colour he is?
  • What do players say when giving information to their teammates?

As a result of watching the YouTube video, I saw those expressions come out in the subsequent play session, but only in limited, isolated instances. Not all classes or students seemed to internalise the expressions they had been exposed to. In fact, it was the vast majority of students that used what they had seen/heard the previous week. This calls for additional viewings before the following play session to refresh their memories.


I witnessed a fantastic episode of playfulness from one student who was given the demon character card. The card states that the player must lie. As a result, the player didn’t just lie about things related to the game but ‘meta-lied’ about non-game related topics. One example of this is in his utterance: “I have a girlfriend,” poking fun at himself.

Such episodes were again isolated though. I feel that for my context the ‘leader’ character really is a paramount, essential, locus of attention role which prevents or inhibits other players from ‘going about their business’ of gathering information individually. However, whether it’s the games fault that students aren’t more creative is difficult to say.

(Some, no… Most) students are very passive during Two Rooms play

For instance, the Gambler is an easy character to win with. They just need to know who the president and bomber are before the end of the game. If they have this information, they can accurately guess which team has one. However, without making this point explicit, and promoting the gambler mid-game, the person who gets the gambler role just tends to stand around and wait for information to come to them. Why is that? It has to be a mixture of these elements:

  • Lack of understanding
  • Lack of language skills and confidence
  • Lack of interest

Or, as mentioned above, the leader character is such an alpha role, it demands attention from all other players.

I can’t figure out how to teach these students to work as an individual during the game. Could this also relate to cultural differences? Maybe… A tough question to solve.

Post-play character research observations

After playing Two Rooms in the first play session, all students are given the homework of researching a few of the (oodles of) extra characters in the official Character Guide. The task in the following class is to introduce those characters to other students and choose some of the characters to add to our game. However, some students just copied down the text that was written next to characters without trying to understand the meaning!

Perfect! /s

If they did not go to the effort of understanding the unique features of new characters, they were not able to explain this to other classmates. In other words, they were not interpreting the text in a way that either they could understand or their interlocutor. They were just reading the text verbatim and hoping their interlocutor could understand.

This is one of the best examples of how to structure “homework” in my opinion.

The work that students have to do at home is an essential part of the following class and essential for progressing through the model (i.e. play → analysis, debriefing, and learn some more about the game → replay). If they do not do the homework, they cannot participate in the following class. In contrast, in a previous teaching position homework was generally comprised of completing reading activities. These reading activities typically appear at the end of textbook chapters as a way to “check understanding” of the chapter’s content. But there is no following activity… No necessity to complete it other than “you’ll get an F if you don’t…” No connection to the wider curricular aims. That, to me, is an example of ineffectual, boring, generic homework.

So, to backtrack a little, I have students talking amongst each other about characters they have researched. And, among those students are those that haven’t done the homework and have no idea what the “Angel” does or how the “Hot Potato” works. I need to improve this part of the model to be able to identify and punish those that did not do the homework properly. Yes, they already get a sort of punishment by looking foolish in front of peers, but it should have an effect on their final grade, which, at the moment, it doesn’t. This activity should be assessed more aggressively though. Maybe get each student to explain their character to me, and then I grill them on the meaning of the new rules. However, they respond to my questioning determines their score for that particular class.

Post-play reanalysis and discussion observations

At the end of the play, analyze and replay cycle I have asked students to discuss the results of their second play session. In other words, asking them to consider the following question — “Did you use the grammar points or expressions that you researched between play sessions?”

This is a valuable activity as they will be doing the same cycle three more times this year, and so it can inform them on how to conduct the “analysis” session with more focus, more accurately identify errors, or improve efficiency for in future cycles (i.e. so that they research grammar or expressions that they will actually use in subsequent play sessions, or at least think about how to prepare for subsequent play sessions in future cycles).

However, the overwhelming result is that, no, they didn’t use any of the phrases that they looked up during the first analysis session…

One thing they didn’t pick up on was the lack of deep analysis they did between play sessions. For example, some groups looking at how to translate a single, isolated, very specific sentence or word into English. However, just because it came up in the first session, doesn’t mean that it will appear in the second session.

For example, one group looked up:
言ったらスパイにバレる → translated to → The spy will find out if I say.

Then, in the second play session, we didn’t use the spy character, and so they didn’t use that phrase.

They need to look more broadly at their output and find structures or patterns that can be utilized in the next play session instead. Situations change. They need to do deeper analysis.

Reasons that were found or put forth for the lack of usage of the words they researched during the analysis stage:

  • Game time limit too short
  • Not enough time to think
  • Too many characters causing cognitive overload
  • No practice of language before class
  • The situation changed so didn’t need certain items. (as described above)
  • That they were lazy
  • ⭐ They can make themselves understood without using long sentences. Words are enough.

Another new addition to the post play reanalysis class was for students to use a modification of the “5 whys” method of exploration (I just asked students to ask “Why?” three times instead). In other words, I told students to ask “why” three times for each reason:

“We didn’t say ‘Do you wanna … ‘ very much.
Why? → Because we didn’t remember it.
Why? → Because we didn’t study before class.
Why? → Because we aren’t interested in English.

Yes, this reveals some hard truths..! Be careful.

??‍♀️ Spyfall

Much like the 2R1B post-play character research above, when students were asked to look for interesting questions online, they did the activity (searching on Google for “spyfall questions”) but they just wrote down the questions verbatim without considering the meaning. Maybe… One question, in particular, tripped students up:

“What brings you here today?” which they thought meant “what did you bring here?” That was a teachable moment!

Students are not engaging in “reproductive literacy” or #TransformedPractice (a term coined by Freebody and Luke, 1990). They are not remixing the questions or thinking about the underlying structures of the questions that they find in order to generate similar questions or even how to use those questions during gameplay….!

Shadowing (or lack thereof)

I noticed that the vaaaaast majority of groups do no shadowing during gameplay at all.
It is definitely something that needs to be brought up. When a particular student in a particular group was shadowing, it was so very very natural for me to hear, and it really helped show his comprehension of questions. I think I need to push this technique more.

Analysis: YouTube video watching

We took a full hour to do this activity. In groups.
By taking each question individually and really drilling down, they produced some surprisingly good results.
Of course, I went around the room and helped them out, as they are not really proficient enough to pull out example sentences from the YouTube videos on their own (in most cases).

Some things we picked up on:

  • “I guess” as an ambiguous answer
    • One student in the group that found this phrase used it in subsequent sessions also which was amazing for me. Even into the “Spyfall Tournament” phase of the semester.
  • “I don’t buy it”
  • “Would you…” as an introduction to conditionals
  • “Where we are” as a way to talk about the location (instead of just “here”)

An interesting ‘difference’ between students and natives was that the natives spoke very fast and had no empty time. Students in my class didn’t think about the fact that the video might be edited…

The learner is not building towards an ideal version of the language which exists in abstract. Rather, the learner is building on and out of his perception of the usage of the language heard in the mouths of other language users and this construction process in the life of every language user is the only meaningful definition of what the language is. (Sockett, 2014, p. 29).

This line made me think of the work I’m doing in the post-play analysis lessons. We are looking at authentic resources to try and supplement their interlanguage.

Grammar instruction

I’ve been experimenting with how I give the grammar instruction between play sessions. Last year, I gave them the worksheet and told them to work through it. Before that, I have asked students to look up particular grammar points on the internet. This time I stood at the front of the room and got them to walk me through the process of making questions in English (in some classes) or got groups to work together on generating a pattern of English sentence formation (in other, more advanced classes). We looked at two particular types of question formation:

  • yes/no questions
  • QUASM questions
    • question word
    • auxiliary verb
    • subject
    • main verb
    • predicate

As an example, writing the first line on the board with separators between the words and getting them to think about the underlying structure of yes/no questions.

Do You Like natto?
Be (are, is) he
your mother

So, instead of me just giving them a “grammar guide” we talk through it or they talk through it in an expert-novice setting, within the ZPD, and from a socially-informed approach to SLA (am I missing any keywords?)

Report phase

I’ve introduced a more formal presentation activity for the final report class. It still needs a rubric created for it though. Some examples:

18RT responses

17RD responses

What is the goal of the class?

This is something that will (probably) need to be fleshed out in a future post. It’s one of the major things on my mind right now and something that I’ve been avoiding. The elephant in the room ? for sure. However, I’ll sketch out the current, basic idea here.

For the most part, the students in my classes have never used English for authentic communicative purposes. By this, I mean that the only oral (and probably written) output they have ever produced has been scripted ? . E.g. “Chapter 2: Planning a party” where students see a model conversation, change a few words and practice using that form as part of a “task.” Such language use is incredibly useless. Useless in that it has no effect on developing their interlanguage. Maybe they get some knowledge of English, briefly, but it has no impact on them as a student, or young Japanese person. What are they to do with a canned conversation about ordering a pizza? No, the tasks given to students in textbooks are not helping to develop students’ interlanguage, or in other words: the L2 version of those students.

From my own experiences as an L2 learner, I used to practice developing my L2 and L2 identity before sleeping. I would lie in bed and try to carry out a conversation in Japanese in my head… Now, not all of the students in my class, in fact, probably none of the students in my classes are prepared to go to that level in terms of their language development, but whilst they are taking my class and participating in oral activities in my class, I’d like them to exercise their communicative competence and practice speaking “without training wheels.

So that’s the main part: Learning about themselves as an L2 speaker, and fostering an improvement in their ability based on structured noticing activities, repeated gameplay sessions, and exposure to native speakers.

But is this “authentic” enough? I’ve been in talks with my friend and colleague Jonathan deHaan over the last few weeks and as always he is keeping me on my toes and pointing at the elephant ??‍? ?? ?. In Jonathan’s context, he has students work towards contributing something to or participating in wider society. As an explicit example, he is currently teaching a class that is specifically about connected learning. I.e., each student will choose something they are interested in, research it, and participate or engage in conversation with people in the wider community around that topic.

The participatory nature of KR is (mostly) missing. It’s a bubble of English practice that exists within the classroom for 100mins a week. This has somecomplexcomplications in terms of the methodological underpinnings of the class. For example, is it really TBLT if it has no “real world” component?

Anyway, focusing on how I can extend their language use outside of the classroom, I am currently trying to do this with the final project, where learners have to produce something of value to be used by the next generation of students. However, I give them an “out” allowing them to decline from making their materials available (via a consent form in the KR textbook). Things students could do as final projects and to increase participation (after seeking ethical approval from TDU of course):

  • Post groups’ videos as public on YouTube
  • BGG review posts or Amazon reviews instead of word documents handed into me
  • Teach and play games with other TDU students outside of the classroom (in an all-encompassing York Game Lab “end of term” gaming event

Playing devil’s advocate

Let’s put it out there:

The activities that students do as part of my course are equally as unimportant as those that they would do with a random textbook, with a random, uninterested, uninformed language teacher.

I don’t want to agree to this, as I have explored how KR can help motivate, re-engage and create a student-centred, productive class (see York & deHaan, 2018). However, I have not measured any learning goals for the course yet. I have nothing to prove the “effectiveness” of the course in helping learners to develop their interlanguage and proficiency in English. So I can’t cling doggedly to the idea that KR is better in some way to the textbook-based class that I taught in the past.

Quite a depressing thought.

How to evaluate students with the KR model…

There have been some problems this semester, and I’m glad they came up because it has given me a lot to think about regarding the next iteration of the model.

The major problem was that I found a group of students during the Spyfall replay class quite unashamedly playing the game in Japanese. All Japanese. They were quick to tell me that they had finished playing in English and were now “killing time” by playing in Japanese. During class time. When the (my) aim of the class was to get the students to a level of proficiency so that they could play in English. My initial reaction was “OK, whatever. Please do what you want,” but as I was walking to the next group which happened to be in the same room, I heard some of the questions that they were asking each other in Japanese. These questions were very basic. They were almost exactly the same as the ones that we had been studying in the first Spyfall class… It was this point that made me react:

  • Why not just play in English?
  • What a waste of a good opportunity!
  • Why would they throw away all of the hard work that they had been doing?
  • What do they not understand about the aim of the class?

A multitude of thoughts flew through my brain which ended with me in a rage.

The biggest shock of the class was discovering how little my goals are being adhered to by students. Like, completely ignored. Or thought of as frivolous? My aim for the class is to gradually build up their speaking skills so that they can use English authentically, without the training wheels (as mentioned above). Now, in this class, the domain prescribed for “authentic” usage just so happens to be gameplay. Is that the problem? By situating the domain for language use inside and around gaming–something that is often thought of as frivolous–maybe that causes students to not take the class seriously. In sum:

It’s all fun and games when using games.

Ba dum tiss!

I provide tools for learners to do serious analysis of their language ability, learn new grammar, teach others, reflect on their learning, improve as an L2 speaker… but they do the bare minimum. What is the problem? By not putting any whips or hurdles (tests/formative assessments) in front of them, do they have no fear of failure and thus no willingness to even try? This is another serious concern.

I threw the whole group out of the class that day and I ended up in the dumps for the whole week. But, with the help of my Japan Game Lab colleagues and a long chat with a former student at TDU, I feel like I am getting somewhere with the “why” and “how to prevent” such behaviour in the future, and it all leads to assessment. Assessment is not an aspect of SLA or education that has really piqued my interest before, and thus I have very little knowledge of how best to design rubrics or evaluate different skills. This is going to be a new area for me, but something that is important to consider for the future of KR.

The framework has a very rudimentary assessment criterion built in as it stands. I take in all worksheets from students and assess them based on how much work they did. A simple “has done” // “has not done” and then plus or minus a few points based on the level in which I feel the work has been completed. However, this assessment criteria is not told to the students so they have no idea. Additionally, I do not assess students in this way until the end of the semester after collecting their work in so they cannot see a “running total.” I think there are a number of areas where assessment could be built into the course, improving the transparency of grading. For example:

  • Learn
    • Explicitly state how many verbs/nouns/adjectives to find.
    • How many questions did they write?
  • Play
    • Total number of transcribed lines.
  • Analyze
    • How many questions did they get correct on the grammar quiz?
  • Replay
    • Total number of transcribed lines.
  • Reanalyze
  • Report
    • Complete a test which focuses on:
      • Game rules
      • Game vocab
      • Typical phrases used in the game
      • Transferability: such as demonstrating how they can use specific grammar points outside of the game context.
    • Write a written review of the games that they played.

      Going forward into the second semester

In conclusion, then, the biggest thing I would like to change is the final “participatory” goals of KR. It could be a proverbial stick, threatening students into taking responsibility for their learning and progression of the class if they know that they have to produce a public artefact at the end of the course. But we’ll see… I have touched on some ideas for wider participatory projects, and will continue to work at this over the next few months. Whether I will have time to implement them this semester, I’m not sure, but I will try!

If you read this far and have any comments, please let me know. I’m very eager to hear opinions on what I am (trying) to do in my teaching context. Also, if you have tried to implement anything that you have read here on the JGL blog, please let us know. Yes, we are named the Japan Game Lab, but we are interested in English teaching as a global phenomenon and practice.

Thanks as always,



  • Freebody, P., & Luke, A. (1990). Literacies programs: Debates and demands in cultural context. Prospect: An Australian Journal of TESOL, 5(3), 7-16.
  • Sockett, G. (2014). The online informal learning of English. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • York, J., & DeHaan, J. (2018). A constructivist approach to game-based language learning: Student perceptions in a beginner-level EFL context. International Journal of Game-Based Learning, 8(1), 19–40.