Digital approach to foreign language learning launched

A digital game developed by the University of York and the National Centre for Excellence for Language Pedagogy (NCELP) in collaboration with the University of Reading, is helping to improve the way that children learn French, Spanish and German grammar.

Uptake of Gaming Grammar, in which pupils enter a virtual world of code-cracking and spies to complete a series of missions presented as mini-games, has more than quadrupled across UK schools over the last 12 months.

By combining digital technology with language learning and teaching research, the team behind the game has introduced a fresh approach to a subject often regarded as difficult and dull. In order to successfully complete each mission, the player must crack the code by learning how to understand and use new grammar features.

Since the first playable online version of Gaming Grammar was launched, more than 350 primary and secondary schools across the UK have registered with the game. In the period between December 2020 and December 2021, the number of games played increased from 3,325 to 15,326.

Aimed at upper Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3, the game aims to provide a strong foundation of grammatical knowledge for teachers and students to build upon in preparation for the revised Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) GCSE Subject Content in French, German and Spanish, announced on 14 January 2022.

The release of the revised GCSE Subject Content marked the culmination of the Department for Education’s consultations on proposed changes to the subject content requirements, following a review of language pedagogy carried out by the Teaching Schools Council in 2016.

Gaming Grammar aligns closely with the grammar components of the MFL pedagogy review and uses a research-informed teaching and learning approach that makes grammar essential for understanding meaning. The approach, called form-meaning mapping, teaches grammar through listening and reading practice.

Emma Marsden, Professor of Education at the University of York and Director, NCELP commented: “Research on form-meaning mapping has shown that by providing focussed listening and reading practice, which draws students’ attention to the meaning (or function) of grammar, students get better at understanding new pieces of grammar when listening and reading. Students also tend to improve their ability to accurately use new grammar features when writing and speaking.”

Dr Rowena Kasprowicz, Lecturer in Second Language Education at the University of Reading, commented “By using this grammar teaching technique and harnessing the proven educational power of games – narrative drive, in-built rewards, interactivity, personalised pace, and measurable progress – Gaming Grammar aims to make grammar practice effective, engaging, and motivating.”

In addition to providing a new and research-informed curriculum resource, the game also generates valuable data on the nature of the grammar learning process, and on the wider application of gamification in education.

Data from Gaming Grammar provides the research team with information about how learners’ grammar knowledge is developing and how effective the game is at supporting this learning. The online nature of the game also means that researchers can collect learning data on a much larger scale than is normally possible in traditional classroom-based research.

Gaming Grammar has received funding from the EPSRC (via the Digital Creativity Labs), and from the Department for Education, ESRC IAA, and the Higher Education Innovation Fund (for NCELP).

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