Five Video Games for ESL and Language Development

Kathy Sargent, outgoing editor for TechEdge, (who is a great editor and has done a remarkable job over the years as Director of Communications for TCEA) recently accepted my article on “Virtual ESL” for the next issue. This post expands on the article with games suitable for ESL and the ongoing development of English skills. Certain video games are particularly well-suited to language acquisition and development, a point I made here a couple years ago. There is a heavy dollop of personal opinion in the assertions below, and I welcome dissenting views. Some of these suggestions are relatively expensive, some are free, and all but one are available online.

  1. Second Life
    Second Life
    has a long history of educational adaptation, and the idea of using the environment for ESL purposes was adopted early. Like many efforts with no external motivations however, some formal ESL initiatives have fizzled over time. One still going strong is the Second Life English Community. Founder Kip Boahn had a nice article profiling his work in Forbes a while back. Players from almost 100 different countries regularly gather for such online ESL activities as phonetic treasure hunts through SLEC.

    The global reach, open nature, and ease of use offered by SL, (not to mention the fact it’s free), have helped academics around the world key in to the platform for language training. Since avatars can type or talk over a simple computer connection, engaging native speakers in an interesting 3D environment that is not overly taxing to most hardware results in an ideal environment for language learning.
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  2. World of Warcraft.
    Of the millions of players frequenting the popular MMORPG, you might be surprised to learn there are some engaged in educational activities amidst all that medieval fantasy action. The most famous group devoted to exploring pedagogy in WoW is the guild Cognitive Dissonance, run by Lucas Gillespie and Peggy Sheehy. Lucas’ blog EduRealms follows his educational efforts in the game.

    It is very easy to start up groups and guilds in WoW, and while Asian gold farmers have annoyed North American players in the past, Dr. Edd Schneider over at SUNY-Potsdam gained considerable attention in 2007 for suggesting WoW was a promising platform for ESL in Asia, provided stateside supervised guidance was included.
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  3. My Word Coach
    Although available for the Wii, the DS version of My Word Coach offers players an easier time writing, with its included stylus and touch screen. Plus, the “DS factor” makes it more portable and affordable for classroom or after-school use. It’s not promoted as an ESL product, but the vocabulary training couched in a gaming environment works just as well for non-native speakers.
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  4. Webkinz
    The popular children’s game tied to collectible plush dolls offers a restricted communications feature. “Kinz chat” uses basic sentence elements for players to communicate. While Webkinz probably is not suitable to older ESL students, for the younger crowd it offers a fun and relatively painless way to introduce English. It’s also offered in 12 other languages, so gamers can play in their native tongue as well as the Queen’s.
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  5. Whyville
    Whyville
    is the free online world designed for children learning, and it has an impressive pedigree with corporate and government sponsorship stretching back several years. Although its strengths lie in STEM games and activities, one of the key features of Whyville appealing to teachers is the sanitized chat feature where cursing is automatically edited out.

In the process of investigating the many mini-games out there, a couple of nifty titles rose to the top. The advantages to using online mini-games for ESL include the fact that teacher supervision is not as heavily needed as it is for the above examples. On the other hand, mini-games typically focus on a much narrower skill set, and kids may tire of them quickly.

A couple of my favorites in the mini-game category included Word Frog, which is a neat way to drill antonyms and such, ala Number Crunchers. I also enjoyed Grammar Ninja,which drills identifying parts of speech in a playful way.

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