Not just another App: 4pics1word for English Learners

Not just another app - 4pics1word for English Learners

Apart from making your waiting (or waking) time less monotonous, 4pics1word is also a great vocabulary game.

4pics1word – Four pictures with one word in common

People around me are hooked on this game – the office lady on the train, someone in the checkout line, my colleague, my boss. The addictive word game available on both iPhone and Android appears simple but forces you to think out of the box (or the four boxes for that matter) to figure out the answer. Apart from making your waiting (or waking) time less monotonous, 4pics1word, I have discovered, is also a great vocabulary game.

The basic form of the puzzle is identifying a common word that each of the four pictures (or part thereof) depict. It could be a noun, adjective or adverb, plain words most of the time, but trickier to guess as you move up the levels. The word association exercise teases your mind, making you wonder whether you’ve lost all common sense, but is also a vocabulary builder in disguise, whether you admit it or not.

For English language learners, this game teaches collocation, synonyms, antonyms, word parts, and lots of brainstorming on the go. Here are some suggestions of how to use the game in a teaching context.

#1 Just play it

Learners can be introduced to the app and they can figure out the mechanism of the puzzles on their own. More likely, however, they will grab friends (and very soon, innocent bystanders) to ask them to help them solve the puzzle. The nature of the game cultivates a competitive (or self-improvement) spirit and the desire to outwit a bunch of pictures will soon have players unconsciously devouring dozens of word associations and patterns.

#2 Break the ice

Teachers can use the game as a warm-up activity and use the puzzle as a teaching point. Some puzzles may  have word associations that are too obscure or challenging for learners so explaining the reasoning behind the answer will not only help your students learn, but will also help them to be able to play the game more successfully on their own.

#3 Plan the lesson around it

Teachers can use the game as part of the lesson itself, getting students to explain how they arrived at the puzzles, asking them to keep a journal on new words and their explanations, and perhaps even getting them to compile a list of their favorite puzzles or the hardest ones to crack. Better yet, students could create their own 4pics1word puzzles for both classmates and teacher to solve.

#4 Make it an incentive

If students are already very keen to play the game, teachers could use it as an incentive and reward individuals or groups who solve the most number of puzzles and/or are able to explain their answers. So instead of just receiving virtual old coins, students can be rewarded with something more tangible.

4pics1word is a great example of turning a popular app into a teaching tool where students take to naturally and enthusiastically. While students can easily learn on their own (consciously or subconsciously) through playing the game, bringing their attention to word meanings and clarifying their doubts will help extend and improve their vocabulary.

If you have used the game in class, or if you’re an English learner and have benefitted from the game, please share your experience in the comments.

In the meantime, if you find yourself turning into an addict – skipping meals, losing sleep and ignoring crying children – do what I did – delete the app.

 

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The truths about teaching English

The truths about teaching English

In preparation for a new course with the MAT TESOL program, I read the first three chapters of James Crawford’s “Educating English Learners: Language Diversity in the Classroom“. I was at first overwhelmed with the various programs and acronyms for teaching English to immigrants in America, but soon I grew curious about the assumptions and implications of these programs. By the end of Chapter 3 on Language Policies in the USA,  I viewed the act of educating an English learner with greater appreciation for the non-pedagogical (i.e. social and political) reasons. In fact, I started to think about my personal journey as an English learner, a timely response as Singapore’s annual Speak Good English Movement trots out slogans and ministerial soundbites in a bid to rescue the language from falling standards, whether real or perceived.

Response to Crawford

First, let me sum up my thoughts on Crawford’s overview of the diversity of English language programs in America. On the surface, it seems that the US government makes the effort to help immigrants and their children to assimilate into American society. But assimilation itself is not necessarily an ideal outcome. The whole idea of a Melting Pot sounds innocuous enough, where many cultures combine to form one homogenous culture (therefore avoiding ethnic, religious and political divisions). However, what goes unquestioned is that homogenous culture – whose culture is it exactly?

Crawford seems to champion acculturation instead, which he defines as “adding the new without discarding the old” (Crawford, p. 63). He highlights a competing metaphor, the Salad Bowl, which suggests that cultures should blend without losing their distinct flavors.

According to Crawford, the debate over teaching English in an English-only environment versus a bilingual (and bicultural) program has a lot to do with whether political camps take the Melting Pot or Salad Bowl view.

The America context, historical, social and political is a minefield that I am beginning to understand and discover. (See The Official English Movement: Reimagining America for an overview of the debate over language policies in America.) The Singapore context of language policies, on the other hand, is something that I’ve wondered about, sometimes becoming critical but mostly brushing it aside to deal with its realities. Crawford’s book has ignited my interest once again but this time, I hope to sustain my critical understanding of how English is taught, and “deal with its realities” in less reactive and more proactive ways.

How English is taught

The first thing I’m concerned with is how English is taught in this country. And the way it is and has been taught cannot be divorced from the history of the use of the language.

The history of English language teaching in Singapore goes back to the early 19th century when the British Empire conquered this sleepy Malay fishing village. This village was soon a major trading port and attracted immigrants from a mix of countries including India and China. In the land of immigrants speaking a plethora of languages, or more accurately, dialects, English was the language of the ruling power, administration, law, commerce and over and above all, privilege. English in as ‘pure’ as form as possible as long as the British were in charge, or had a heavy influence, entrenched itself in English medium (as opposed to Chinese medium) schools right up to the 60s. By the late 70s and early 80s, Chinese medium schools were no longer around, and English was firmly taught as a first language in all schools. (Note: These are broad historical strokes from my under-researched understanding. I welcome clarifications, corrections and recommended readings.)

Even as a first language, the way English has been taught (particularly in primary schools) from the 80s right up till today has undergone several changes. The most obvious one to me, since I was a primary school student during the 80s and now I teach students who went through primary school in the 90s, is a shift from a focus on grammar to a focus on communicative competence. I have yet to come across solid researched evidence but my sense (as well as the sense of my peers and elders) is that the standard of English has dropped, with a typical teenager who has undergone the 10 years of schooling, speaking and writing less grammatically. Of course we can all understand each other, and even foreigners will figure us out, but the fact that it is our first language (or is it?) should demand that we know and perform it well.

English language and the immigrant

The second thing that I’m concerned with is how the English language interfaces with the 2nd wave of immigrants coming to Singapore. Now, more than ever before, Singapore is experiencing an influx of foreign workers, blue-collar, white-collar, with a range of qualifications and motives. Many Singaporeans, especially those who speak and understand primarily English, are frustrated at the number of foreign service staff who seem inept at providing customer service since thy struggle with the language. There are others who feel that the immigrants (or perhaps more rightly called migrants) are not even interested in assimilating into Singapore culture, and by that, I think they mean speaking the lingua franca of English.

Apart from the workplace, there are also potential issues in English language learning among immigrant children or foreign students in Singapore who struggle not only with the language, but also understanding other subjects that are taught in English, and mixing with their local peers.

This issue of how English interfaces with the foreign community is complex and I will have to deal with it separately at a later date. But for now, my view is that we cannot assume that the foreigner themselves should bear the burden when it is clear that their language competence affects how we perceive them and how well we all get together.

E pluribus unum (Out of many, one). But there is no one truth about learning or teaching a language. There are many because we as language learners are complex creatures because of our histories, social interactions, personal motivations and aspirations.

Reference

Crawford, J. (2004).  Educating English Learners: Language Diversity in the Classroom (5th edition).  Los Angeles:  Bilingual Educational Services (BES).