Using Twine to Deliver a Grammar-Linked Creative Writing Assignment in a Hybrid ESL Course
By: Karin Lundberg Ph.D. and Catherine (Kate) Lyons, Hostos Community College
of the City University of New York
In recent years developmental education began shifting from a reliance on high-stakes testing in reading and writing to a multiple measures model for assessment. The multiple-measures model, which opens up a whole new array of writing opportunities for English Language Learning students, also aligns with good practices in course design, in the hybrid modality. This article describes a Grammar Adventure Game that two faculty members at Hostos Community College (CUNY), developed using Twine. The Grammar Adventure game served both as an alternative to a traditional grammar assignment, and as a pre-writing activity for a creative writing assignment, in an intermediate English as a Second Language (ESL) course. The authors discuss students’ experience using this gamified approach, and why it works in the hybrid environment.
Keywords: Twine; Interactive Fiction; Creative Writing; L2 Writing; hybrid ESL
Although the number of hybrid and online courses offered at Hostos Community College has consistently risen over the last decade, very few faculty members have offered partially or fully online courses for English Language Learners (ELL) students at Hostos. Some questions, including ones backed by research, are whether, for ELL students, the development of academic discourse may be impeded due to lack of context and personal interaction (Harrington 2010); whether the heavy focus on the written delivery in the online environment favors students with strong writing skills; whether the holistic intake and output of language becomes limited; and whether online learning is less inclusive and may ignore cultural specifics and educational backgrounds of students.
Despite these concerns, students at Hostos are increasingly taking online courses and the reasons they cite are compellingly relevant for English as a Second Language (ESL) learners. In a survey reported in an article by Wolfe et. al. on student perceptions in online learning, 38% of students cited scheduling (22% had “work or family obligations that prevented them from being present on Campus” and 16% reported that “they could not find anything else that would fit their schedule”) as their reason for taking online courses (2016, p. 53). As the demand for online learning increases at Hostos, then, rises the need to find ways to deliver content online that assuages the concerns of that modality.
Gamification has been shown, in some contexts, including in ESL instruction, to improve students’ learning outcomes. In Ebrahimzadeh’s research study on ELL students’ vocabulary acquisition, students who studied by playing a video game designed to teach vocabulary outperformed students who learned vocabulary either through reading activities or watching videos (2017). Gee & Levine argue that video games help students learn complex language and problem solving skills. They write that this technology “requires action in an environment; it generates vocabulary used in actual situations, which makes meanings clearer and easier to remember” (2009, p.50). The emotional benefits of playing games have also been researched. Hanson-Smith concludes, after studying the benefits of gaming, and especially after studying Jane McGonigal’s works, that “Games move the student from extrinsic motivations toward intrinsic motivation because they lead to the satisfactions of achievement and mastery” (2016, p. 231). She cites McGonigal who writes that, among other benefits, games can make players more courageous. Assuming that freeing students’ inhibitions unlocks writing skills, giving students an environment that encourages courageousness seems beneficial for language learning.
The research on gamification which showed positive outcomes for students, and the shift to the multiple-measures model for assessment in developmental reading and writing, as well as the challenges and opportunities posed by the online environment, served as a catalyst for two faculty members at Hostos Community College (CUNY) to develop a game for ESL learners. The resulting Twine-based Grammar Adventure game served both as an alternative to a traditional grammar assignment and as a pre-writing activity and prompt for an informal, creative writing assignment.
Hostos Community College is a small, urban college, part of the City University of New York (CUNY), in the South Bronx, in New York City. The college, a Hispanic serving institution, serves a large immigrant population. The ESL program serves approximately five hundred students in any given semester. Students are predominantly native Spanish speakers, but in any given ESL class instructors can find students representing seven to twelve, or even more, different countries. This project was developed for ESL 86, an intermediate writing course. The section of this course, which used this gamified, creative-writing assignment was hybrid, and in this case, approximately fifty percent of the course content was delivered through Blackboard, the Integrated Learning Management System. ESL 86 is a heavily content-based, multiple skills academic ESL course designed to transition college students into English freshman composition.
Current nationwide changes in developmental education are shifting assessment of students’ reading and writing proficiency from high-stakes testing to multiple measures. This calls for reflection on new, innovative methods to promote ELL students’ writing and reading skills. Tapping into different rhetorical modes and genres can have a synergistic effect on students’ language skills in academic ESL. Creative writing -a vehicle to promote students’ own authorial voice- is a very different way of going about developmental writing, and is rarely part of the assessment of students’ writing skills. For this project, the authors used Twine, a tool for creating interactive stories, to gamify a grammar assignment and writing prompt.
Twine (http://twinery.org/) describes itself as “an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories.” It is similar to the print-based, “Choose Your Own Adventure Series” (https://www.cyoa.com/). A user playing a Twine game reads a passage and then makes a choice about how the story will continue by clicking on a link. Nick Montfort, Associate Professor of Digital Media in MIT’s Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies, defines a hypertext fiction as “a system of fictional interconnected texts traversed using links” and discusses its characteristics as a game and a literary work (2003, p .12). Narratives are a fundamental part of human communication and written and oral discourse. Hypertext fiction, a playful form of narrative, lets users create a chain of episodes that, while imaginary, fictitious, and even magical, follows traditional conventions of plot, time, place and characters.
Fall 2017 was the first time that ESL 86 was taught online. The course was redeveloped in the hybrid modality during the Spring 2017 semester. Generally, in redeveloping the course, more assessments were created that went beyond traditional quizzes and tests, which were perceived by the instructor to be more difficult to administer online. Professor Lundberg, one of this article’s authors, was the instructor, as well the faculty member who revised the curriculum and developed the online component for the course. In developing the online component of the course, she took into consideration that a highly diverse student population with different educational backgrounds requires inclusive instructional modes responsive to different learning habits and study skills. The interactive online gamified storytelling assignment was designed to work against these discrepancies and potential hurdles in the hybrid teaching and learning environment. The Twine-based Grammar Adventure Game encouraged collaboration, creativity and risk-taking within a playful framework meant to entice and motivate students and their peers.
Project Description: Gamifying Grammar Exercises with Twine
In creating this game, the authors first considered the most common grammar errors anecdotally encountered by students of intermediate ESL (ESL 86), and then considered a traditional grammar assignment, which would simply show students the correct and incorrect versions of sentences and ask students to select the correct one. Striving to make the assignment more engaging, the authors used Twine to turn this type of traditional grammar assignment into a hyper-text story, using the course’s content as the narrative. Students play the role of the main character, who is visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) with their aunt for the first time. ESL 86 and other ESL courses at Hostos often involve a trip to the MET, so the game’s grammar instruction is situated in and enhanced by the course content and students’ real life experiences.
The online component of the hybrid course is hosted on Blackboard (http://www.blackboard.com), the Learning Management System subscribed to by CUNY. Although there are third party websites that host Twine games, the authors worked with the Office of Educational Technology at Hostos Community College, so that the game would be hosted locally. The instructor linked to the game on the course’s Blackboard site.
As they play the game, students can select how they phrase their plans for visiting the museum. One version of the phrase is written with common grammar mistakes, and the other version of the phrase is grammatically correct. Students are prompted to choose between two of these sets of activity-based text segments that, while embedded in the story, also move the plot forward. The sentences themselves involve activities and actions. The character of the aunt admonishes the player when they select the incorrect grammar phrasing, and the aunt charges the player money. As the players progress through the story, the game keeps track of their debt to their aunt, and then depending on their final debt scores, they are presented with varying creative writing prompts. The scoring (the debt the main character owes the aunt) is low-stakes for the student. If they select the incorrect option, students can read more about the grammar rules they broke, and then move forward, or, on the browser (or the side navigation bar in the game itself), go back and select the correct option.
Regardless of their scores, all students end the Twine narrative with a creative writing prompt that asks them to conclude the story, and then to write their response in a 500-word narrative. The prompt is framed slightly differently depending on their final debt scores. For example, one of the prompts, for a student who does well in selecting the correctly phrased grammar options, is:
You look at the walls of the temple and see the names of tourists from centuries ago. Your finger moves across the inscription and you imagine people standing right as you are now, looking at the same ruins. You can’t help yourself… the Temple of Dendur is more amazing than you ever thought possible… it’s too compelling, too tempting… your aunt is the first to walk right through one of the temple doors, and she vanishes. Poof! She’s gone. You’ve been having a great time with your aunt today and you’ve even been playing along well with her grammar questions. You owe her so little money, and yet so much gratitude for her company and hospitality. Do you decide to try and find her? What do you do? Finish the story.
Another, for example, ends with: You stare at your reflection as you contemplate your next steps. You see all the coins in the water and think about your debt to your aunt. You lose your footing. Woah… you’re falling!! Finish the story. Different prompts have slightly different wording, so even though students did not report their final scores on the Grammar Adventure Game, it was still possible to tell how well they did, based on which prompt they saw. Students were not told beforehand that they would have slightly different creative writing prompts depending on how they scored on the game.
Anecdotally, using the Grammar Adventure game did not seem to affect the completion rate for the assignment. Students who generally did not complete assignments were not more likely to try this one. However, the students who did complete the assignment had noticeable differences in the quality and quantity of their writing. Students overall wrote more extensively for this project. They also exposed a higher level of fluency in the freely invented, narrative discourse. Additionally, as the complexity of students’ writing increased, their ownership of the assignment and their language improved, all of which contributed to their development of an emerging, independent, authorial voice in their second language.
Students generally understood the creative writing assignment. Rather than start the assignment with a handout or short explanation of what to write, the ownership process began before they even saw the writing assignment. Their involvement in the writing assignment began as they moved through the Twine game. Because they were engaged with the story, already starting to write it as they made choices as to how to proceed during the game, offering them the final step to write on their own meant that they understood reasonably well what the assignment required. The Twine game itself was modelling the creative writing they would need to complete. Making reading the assignment part of the game eliminated the obstacles some students face when they don’t understand the assignment.
Why did students write more? The grammar adventure game provokes a reactive, playful response where students are not bound by genre conventions, using an affective rather than cognitive approach. Do students produce more language when they are affective?
The drive to be creative and have fun with the story motivated students to reach for vocabulary and grammar structures beyond the context of this particular exercise. Because they attempted to come up with their own original endings to the narrative, they could not rely on summarizing what they had already read or reuse phrases and vocabulary from the narrative in the game. They tended instead to come up with their own vocabulary, pulling from other units in the course, and their own unique experiences. In order to be creative, they could not simply regurgitate material from short-term memory. Instead, their narratives were by and large infused with ideas from students’ individual and cultural reference framework and episodic memory, all of which favor the structure of narrative discourse and render the story more authenticity.
At the core of the preliminary examinations of the narratives was the perception of independent play with ideas and concepts, real and imaginary. Each story showed a unique line of thinking and the motivation to be original. Almost every student invented a plot within the plot, and used the tools and resources from the actual museum to create a new fictitious dimension to the story line. Here, the willingness to go beyond formal fact-bound limitations stands in contrast to the more contrived form of fact-driven written discourse one normally observes in formal L2 (second language learners) students’ writing. The playful treatment of the plot had elements from fairy tales, such as witches, fairies, spirits, omnipotent, supernatural powers, and transformation in time and place. Students used the aspects of different sections of the museum to empower the characters in the plot, such as armor, kings, mythical figures, paintings and interiors, but also common themes such as law and order, theft and fraud, or their private wishes and desires, such as in love and romance. The plots themselves were at all times coherent and possessed their own inherent logic, which again, is a strength that is often lacking in more formal writing assignments. Each plot had a beginning, a middle and end, where the end usually consisted of a solution, i.e., happy ending.
In terms of students’ display of vocabulary, pulling expressions and concepts for plotlines from outside the confines of that particular assignment was easier, as the content was already linked to other parts of the course. Here, one could observe a more natural flow and selection of words, mostly driven by the emotional aspect of the individual narrative. Students used a variety of vocabulary appropriate to the situation, feelings or actions. Expressions representing strong contrasting emotions of fear, anger, surprise, happiness, joy and love were dominating. Since they mostly used a first person narrator, the story appeared to be kept close to themselves. It is also interesting to observe a stronger control of sentence boundaries and a more natural flow of coherent discourse. This is most likely attributed to the intrinsic motivation behind the freedom to create an imaginary plot line unique to the individual and their very own world of imagination.
Conclusion and Future Directions
As a tool to create games, Twine is intuitive for educators to learn, and is freely accessible on the web. It gives educators the opportunity to engage students in active learning and to rethink the way they deliver content and write assignments. In this specific case at Hostos Community College, using Twine to create a grammar assignment that led up to a creative writing prompt seemed to produce more complex writing in ESL students, along with increased development of their authorial voice.
By using a game to activate their grammar skills, students are involved in play, more so than in the usual graded grammar exercise. Their grammar skills are being activated in a playful way as the game leads them to the final writing prompt. The creative writing assignment is designed to trigger students’ imaginations based on the content from the grammar game. Students are free to use any content from the game as a plot device and are encouraged to experiment using magic, myth and their individual knowledge of the world to build a narrative of their own. They are not bound by accurate facts and can move freely between past and present. They can include narrative traditions from their own cultural backgrounds without fear of not following conventions in the target language, or without desire to please the reader (Blake 2012). By freeing up students’ creative play with words and storyline, they are more likely to delve into the language by taking risks and actively produce meaningful discourse embedded in a narrative they entirely own themselves. This role of ownership turns the students into active meaning makers within a creative framework which helps build identity (Thesen, 1997) as they transition into a community of academic discourse in a language different from their own.
After the initial pilot using the Grammar Adventure Game in an ESL 86 course, questions arose for future research. While this game was developed specifically for English Language Learners, it seems reasonable to wonder whether the model of using Twine to deliver content could be adapted to any General Education Course. Though this article discusses the benefits specific to ESL students, it might be a helpful approach for encouraging student ownership, and students’ development of an authorial voice, in any written assignment. Additionally, the possibility of differentiating assignments— giving students different assignments based on their progress through a game (or quiz)– could be beneficial for disciplines outside ESL.
Another question that arose after this assignment was whether the digital nature of the game had a significant impact on learning. For example, could this have been a print assignment like the original “Choose Your Own Adventure Series”? It would be possible to write out and print the content of the online game and expect students to flip to different pages depending on their responses. Because this section of ESL 86 was partially online, it was assumed that students were comfortable with navigating websites, and that they had access to hardware and the Internet. If this wasn’t the case, the authors question whether a print booklet, or perhaps a card game that breaks down the narrative, would have had a similar impact.
Finally, rather than lead students to a creative writing assignment, it would be possible to ask them to create their own Twine game based on the one they were assigned to play. In this case, the authors considered the same prompt for all students– create an ending for the game using Twine. The authors in this case decided that the students’ improvement in grammar and writing was the desired outcome for the game, so they did not assign students to create their own works using Twine, but are considering that as a future direction for using this technology in teaching.
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