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Review ~ Digital Play

An innovative and refreshing look at an area that has long been neglected by ELT.
Reviewed for TEFL.net by James Taylor
Digital Play

Digital Play

Digital Play, written by Kyle Mawer and Graham Stanley, is the latest in Delta Publishing’s Teacher Development Series, an impressive strand that includes Nickly Hockly and Lindsay Clandfield’s guide to Teaching Online and Scott Thornbury and Luke Medding’s seminal Teaching Unplugged. This book concentrates on the use of computer games in language teaching.

The book is divided into three sections. The first looks at the wider place that video games occupy in society, how they are currently used in education and how they can be used with language learners. The second part includes a variety of activities, concentrating on all four language skills and the full spectrum of technical scenarios. The final part highlights the ways that video games can be incorporated into a syllabus and offers suggestions for how they help teachers to develop.

From the offset it is clear that the writers are passionate about their subject. They begin by tackling the doubts that many teachers have about the possibility of including gaming within their classes. They effectively connect the notion of traditional, analog games with learning before convincingly arguing in favour of digital games and their effectiveness when it comes to learning in general, and consequently language learning.

They continue in their efforts to justify the idea of digital gaming by firstly counteracting many of the widely help and inaccurate views of computer games, including violence, gender, age, and that it is an anti-social activity. This is then counterbalanced by arguments in favour of the qualities that video games have, such as innovation and increased motivation and engagement. All of these views are backed up by references to academic research and relevant texts.

The writers explain how these games are already part of language learners’ lives, and as such, give them many opportunities to participate in practical and authentic language activities, all while supposedly “just playing”. As they point out, the need for English competence can range from simply requiring the language to be able to play the game up to participating in real time communication with other players and using online forums and discussion groups.

At the end of this section they show teachers how they can and need to connect to gaming in order for them to be used successfully. They place great emphasis on using the games as a way of facilitating language learning, not the other way around. They recognise that activities need to be designed that allow the learners to reflect on the language used and that moments need to be identified in order to focus on form and meaning. They also acknowledge technical limitations, which are also built into the activities they suggest in part B.

In part B, the second and largest section, there are a range of activities which teachers can use and adapt for their own lessons. Always with a grasp of the reality most classrooms, Stanley and Mawer have created a great many activities which do not involve the students actually playing games in the lessons. Indeed only a quarter of this part concentrates on solo or pair gaming. The majority of activities are based on the premise that students are interested in gaming and are based around their knowledge of video games and their conventions.

The activities are very practical and should not be daunting for any teacher, even one who does not play computer games themselves. They are materials-light and allow the learner space and time to get involved with the task at hand. As with any classroom activity, they recommend that the teacher spends some time beforehand getting to know the game that will be used, but beyond this, no great preparation or specific knowledge is required.

In the final section, Part C, the writers give useful advice regarding integrating the games into a syllabus , specifically through guidance in finding appropriate activities and matching games with language, grammar and vocabulary needs. They go on to encourage teachers to use technology as a means to develop professionally, and create their own digital learning opportunities for their students, all within an environment of sharing and cooperation.

Digital Play, as befits its subject, is an innovative and refreshing look at an area that has long been neglected by ELT. It is written with convincing verve and just the right balance of personal opinion, practical suggestions and academic backing. It skillfully tackles difficult subjects head on, especially the negative connotations attached to computer games and the reticence of some teachers to try using them, leaving the reader with the impression that embracing video games is not so much a big leap into the future, but a realistic and manageable step into the 21st century.

Reviewed by James Taylor for TEFL.net February 2012
James Taylor has taught English as a foreign language to adults in Brazil, South Korea, Belgium and Costa Rica. He is the current President and a co-founder of BELTA, the Belgian English Language Teachers Association. He can also be found moderating #ELTchat, a twice-weekly discussion on Twitter with teachers from around the world, presenting the #ELTchat podcast, mentoring teachers for iTDi, and blogging. His website is theteacherjames.com.

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TEFL.net : TEFL Book Reviews : Teaching : Review ~ Digital Play