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Teaching with Interactive Fiction: ESL

by Stephen Granade

For most people, computer games are just what their name indicates: games. They are entertainment, a way for people to escape into a fantasy world and be someone they aren't. Players charge through corridors blasting enemies. They command armies in great battles. They unravel the mysteries of vanished civilizations.

There are a few people, though, who see in games a potential teaching tool. Most games which are used in the classroom are simulations of one kind or another. Urban planning classes have supplemented lectures with SimCity, while military history professors have used war games to give their students a feel for what it was like to command armies in, say, the Civil War.

Some teachers even use text adventures.


One area of teaching which might benefit from the use of text adventures is that of teaching English as a second language (ESL). Text adventures combine reading with active participation, forcing players to take part in a way which books and movies don't. While you can skip ahead in a book or movie without understanding everything that has happened, doing so in a text adventure is much more difficult.

Erik Dahlin, a teacher and computer administrator at St. Mary College in Nagoya, Japan, has incorporated text adventures into his curricula. He was hired to design and implement several new courses. One of the courses he was asked to create was "Computer Club," a class that was meant to be a fun introduction to computers. Though it was not a traditional ESL class, Erik wanted to find software that would not only be interesting but also help his students improve their grasp of English.

He decided to try text adventures. His first challenge was to find a suitable adventure, one whose English would not be too advanced for his students. He settled on Dracula's Castle, by Al Staffieri. To help ease his students' introduction to interactive fiction, he handed out a number of supplemental materials. He created instruction sheets which explained the special syntax that IF uses. He gave them paper for mapping with the first room already mapped. He made a list of the verbs the game understands and one of all of the inventory items in the game.

The student response was overwhelmingly positive. All of them were able to finish the game; most enjoyed playing it. Erik feels that his experiment was a success. "Not only does [playing IF] give them great practice reading English, but it also provides them with communicative and problem-solving practice. It's a different mode of learning than most of them are familiar with." Since his first trials, Erik has used the game with other college students as well as with high-school juniors and seniors, varying the amount of supplemental materials that he hands out with the level of English expertise of his students. Just about the only negative feedback he has gotten has been that having to replay the game several times to finish can be frustrating.

Text adventures must be used with care in an ESL class. The English used in many adventures, especially newer ones, is not well-suited to the needs of fledgling English readers. Some have puzzles which are hard to unravel unless the player has a good grasp of the nuances of English. To the frustration of solving puzzles is added the frustration of having to decipher a foreign language. In addition, the teacher must feel comfortable with interactive fiction.

Yet text adventures offer the ESL teacher an alternate way to engage students. Text adventures can be fun; certainly Erik's students found them so. The teacher can help lower frustration levels by being ready to give hints and by having hand-outs to guide the students. In return, students are given another method of improving their English, one which involves them in ways other forms of entertainment don't.

Bonus additional resource: ESL Cafe's Idea Cookbook: Games.

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