A magic wand for schools?

The Linguist Published on Wednesday, 01 July 2020 Parent Category: News Share page with AddThis

By Lorna Price

How a gaming app is providing motivational assessment for language learners in primary schools.

More and more countries are introducing language learning in primary school. One of the reasons behind that move is to promote positive attitudes to language learning at an early age. But while research suggests that motivation for language learning is generally high among young learners, there is still room for improvement. Suzanne Graham et al found that instilling in learners a sense of progress is very important for motivation, both in primary school and as they move into secondary school.1 Their findings have been a key underpinning for the Goethe-Institut’s new tool: The Language Magician.

Assessment, if of a formative, diagnostic kind, could give learners that crucial sense of progress when approached in the right way. Language assessment that is constructive and maintains the motivation of learners is not, however, necessarily easy within classroom-based early language education. Reporting on their 2019 research on The Language Magician,2 Louise Courtney and Suzanne Graham state that there is a need to employ assessment methods which, as well as being viable and reliable for a range of learners, protect rather than diminish motivation. That goal is especially important in the UK, where declining numbers are opting for GSCE and A-level languages.3 

In March 2018, after three years of continuous development, The Language Magician – an educational videogame project produced by the Goethe-Institut London in strategic partnership with nine partners in the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain – was launched. The scope of this Erasmus+ project was to create a free assessment tool that would provide diagnostic information on pupils’ language proficiency in the areas of vocabulary, listening, reading comprehension and writing, without them noticing that they were being tested, and at the same time engage them and let them have fun learning foreign languages. Versions were created in English, German, Italian, Spanish and French.

The storyline of the game centres on a young magician striving to liberate his animal friends from the curse of the evil magician Winivil, who has transformed them into doorknockers. Learners can free the animals when they have solved a sequence of language questions. The game is available at two levels: level one is aimed at learners with 50-70 hours of language instruction, and level two is for learners with 70-100 hours.

Limits of traditional assessment

Finding effective methods of assessment for young learners is particularly challenging for a number of reasons. Their short attention span, along with reduced capacity for abstract concepts, and the nature of mixed attainment classes in the junior years are all limiting factors. Indeed, in an age where the mental health of our children is such a high priority, it is important to acknowledge that the reliability and validity of assessments are threatened if the anxiety level of those taking them is too high, which is so often the case with traditional assessment tools.4

Overcoming these limitations required the creation of assessment tasks which are concrete rather than abstract, and presented in a way that helps learners to maintain concentration and motivation to complete the tasks at their own pace. This means that they must offer the right amount of challenge to give a sense of progress, and be delivered in a format that is similar to regular daily activities related to the learners’ realm of experience.

We began by creating a digital game-based assessment (DGBA) – a format that is well known to the digitally literate children of the 21st century – which would contextualise language learning through virtual situations and which, through the clever use of storyline, design and interactive elements, would make language assessment stress-free and enjoyable. By offering different levels of tasks, with a manageable amount of challenge and a score tally, it would also encourage learners to keep going and promote a sense of progress.

The project has been immensely successful. The Language Magician was awarded the Erasmus+ Quality Seal 2018 in the schools sector, and in March 2020 it was selected as a ‘success story’ by a panel of experts at the European Commission. It was seen to not only resolve some of the problems faced by primary teachers, but also to contribute significantly to the aims of the Europe 2020 strategy of fostering language learning in the primary sector and setting the foundation for improved learning results at a later stage in the educational sector.

On a practical note, The Language Magician fills a gap in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). While A1 is set as a standard for primary-age learners, it is arguably not sufficiently fine-grained to capture the very early stages, and the small amounts of progress learners might make, especially in contexts where limited curriculum time is devoted to language study.5

More than 28,600 children have played the game within 6,784 sessions. Although it is intended only for assessment, children keep asking for more. In response to this demand, we have created a set of teaching resources for integrating The Language Magician into lesson plans, which can be downloaded for free from www.thelanguagemagician.net.

In their 2019 study, Courtney and Graham report that 3,437 young learners of English, German, Italian, Spanish and French found the game fun to play, worth playing again, helpful for telling them about their progress, and moderately difficult. In other words, it provided an appropriate level of challenge. Furthermore, learners liked the game regardless of how old they were and how well they scored, which suggests that it is suitable for learners across the age and attainment range.

Building on success

The question is how this increased motivation among primary pupils plays out in secondary education and beyond. In 2016, Graham et al noted that while learners showed increased motivation as they moved into secondary, motivation levels began to decline towards the end of Year 7 (ages 11-12). Students expressed a dislike of the tests at secondary school and a desire for more communication and game-based activities.6

In response, the Goethe-Institut London will release our second motivational assessment tool this year: The German Quiz Challenge. Produced in partnership with ovos media GmbH, this stress-free assessment tool for learners of German aged 13-16 will be launched regionally across the UK. It follows the lives of five skateboarders in Munich and explores a wide range of content, from the environment and holidays to hobbies and everyday situations, and will be available for free via Google Play and Apple’s App Store.

See www.goethe.de/ins/gb/en/spr/unt/kum/ dfk/the_language_magician.html and www.thelanguagemagician.net for further details. With thanks to Domini Stone at the Goethe-Institut London and our partners, professors Suzanne Graham and

Norbert Schlüter, for their expertise and advice.


Notes

1 Graham, S, Courtney, L, Tonkyn, A and Marinis, T (2016) ‘Motivational Trajectories for Early Language Learning Across the Primary-Secondary Transition’. In British Educational Research Journal 42(4)

2 Courtney, L and Graham, S (2019) ‘“It’s Like Having a Test But in a Fun Way”: Young learners’ perception of a digital game-based assessment of early language learning’. In Language Teaching for Young Learners, 1(2), 1

3 Tinsely, T (2019) ‘Language Trends 2019: Language teaching in primary and secondary schools in England, 2019’, British Council; britishcouncil.org/sites/default/files/ language-trends-2019.pdf

4 Op.cit. Courtney and Graham, 4-5

5 Ibid. 6

6 Op. Cit. 2016, 682-702

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