Case study

Gaming grammar: using digital games to teach foreign languages

Our computer scientists are helping primary school children learn foreign languages with the help of digital games developed with digital and education researchers from the Universities of York and Reading.

The issue

Learning grammar is a fundamental part of learning a new language, because it can help us understand how we put words together to make phrases and sentences. The importance of understanding basic grammar is emphasised in England’s primary school National Curriculum for foreign languages, which came into effect in 2014 and made foreign language learning compulsory from the age of seven. Similarly, the MFL Pedagogy Review of language teaching in secondary schools emphasized the importance of pupils developing systematic knowledge of grammar.

However, there is a shortage of research- and evidence-based resources to support grammar teaching and learning. Gamification has the potential to make language learning interesting and challenging. We are working with schools across the UK to trial a digital game that helps children learn French, Spanish and German grammar.

The research

The game teaches grammar through listening and reading practice called form-meaning mapping, a research-based teaching approach that makes grammar essential for understanding meaning. In the game, pupils must complete spy missions (mini-games); in order to successfully complete each mini-game, the player must learn how to understand and use new grammar features.

Research included interdisciplinary collaboration between education researchers at the Department of Education’s National Centre for Excellence for Language Pedagogy (NCELP) and the University of Reading, as well as computer scientists, software engineers and games developers at the University of York’s Digital Creativity Labs to create the concept and then develop and trial the game.

In 2017, the game was trialled in seven schools in the York and Tadcaster area working directly with ten teachers and 200 children. This large-scale classroom-based evaluation provided evidence of the efficacy of the use of games for teaching and learning. The data gathered from the trial also provided a more detailed understanding of the learning that occurred as a result of playing the game.

The outcome

Following the trial, the prototype game is being developed into a full product by the Department for Education’s National Centre for Excellence for Language Pedagogy. This work includes extending the game to cover more grammar features. In addition, a teacher interface has been developed to allow teachers to track the progress of pupils within their classes.

The game is now being used as a curriculum resource in the 45 secondary schools who are part of the NCELP network. In 2020, the game will be rolled out more widely to both primary and secondary schools across the UK.

Featured researcher

Rowena Kasprowicz

Dr Kasprowicz's interests are in innovative techniques for classroom-based foreign language teaching.

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Featured researcher

Andy Wood

Andy's interests are in web development and game design and creation.

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