Computer Game as Brain Warm-Up: Language Classes build Vocabulary, Preparation and Engagement through Duolingo

How do teachers get the most effective use of limited class time with students? Teachers face many challenges planning a class period. One is the pressure of completing the day’s activities in a short period. They also recognize that students are coming from other subjects or activities. That creates a need to transition into a class period, preparing them for the work ahead. Students learn better and have less stress when they have time to “warm up” into the discipline. Along with this, teachers must take time to do some of the “classroom business.” Attendance, returning work or individual conversations cost extra instructional time with the whole class. At University Prep, Language classes are addressing these challenges through play. Students entering a French or Spanish class may go straight to their desks and play an online game to practice their vocabulary. These classes use Duolingo as a warm-up and transition tool. Students enter and get settled by playing at their level, preparing themselves for the language immersion class. Once the class begins, students use the website to continue practice if they finish classwork early.

Starting the class with Duolingo gives students agency and control over their learning. With many levels available, they can practice and move through at a pace appropriate to them. Students move through these levels after mastering the current one. Since they access the website on their own laptops or iPads, students practice vocabulary outside of class as well. In the classroom, the practice can help set the stage for the rest of the day’s activities. Language classes spend the whole class period in the target language. Practicing translation in Duolingo gives time to transition from English into the target language. French teacher Isabelle Rio points out that playing games makes a good bridge between English and French. In her middle school classes, students like to play games on their iPads before class. By giving them a game in French, the students turn that energy towards the language, and they have a social experience sharing the game with other students.

A student's Spanish translation practice in Duolingo.
A student’s Spanish translation practice in Duolingo.

French teacher Jennie McCullough notes that her beginning students build up their vocabulary quickly. “When we’re reading something, it’s very obvious when they encounter language that wasn’t in the textbook, but they’ll say, ‘Oh! That was in Duolingo!’,” she says. Her students enjoy the “gamification” of the program- elements such as points and hearts show their performance. As students move through sets of vocabulary, they “level up,” or move on to harder and more extensive ones. Language Department Head Elena Tello Portoles finds benefits with her more advanced students as well. “It’s very precise, so it makes them pay attention” to things such as accents, spelling and punctuation, which often plague beginning language students. After her students play for a few minutes, she discusses their experience with them. “Sometimes a student will know a lot of the words, but they miss it because they don’t know the articles [such as la or el], so we can talk about how important it is to know them.”

One class period is a short amount of time for teachers and students to deeply engage with a topic. Duolingo is one example of how U Prep teachers maximize that time while giving students tools to further their own understanding. Allowing students to work at their individual level helps them each continue to develop their language fluency. The transitions into class give students a mental warm-up before language immersion, and the additional vocabulary practice gives students even more ability to speak, read and write in their target language. For the Language department at U Prep, this “game” gives students and teachers many ways to win.

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