Leveling Up Language Learners’ 21st-Century Skills with Minecraft

Game-Based Learning

Leveling Up Language Learners’ 21st-Century Skills with Minecraft

By David Dodgson     Feb 18, 2019

Leveling Up Language Learners’ 21st-Century Skills with Minecraft

This article is part of the guide: Game-Based Learning: Preparing Students for The Future.

“Can we set the story in Minecraft?”

We had been working for several weeks on a storytelling unit in my ESL classes in 2012. We had read and analysed short stories, examined the grammar of narrative tenses, looked into setting, character descriptions and developing plots. It was time to create our own stories.

Yet, one group was struggling for ideas. I needed to intervene. I suggested taking inspiration from a story they knew. What films had they watched recently? Were there any popular TV shows to use as a starting point?

“Or video games,” one student suggested.

“Why not?” I replied, and then someone popped the Minecraft question.

Fast forward a few weeks; Minecraft kept finding its way into my classroom. Oral presentations became screen-casted videos of student-created builds. Projects on natural environments were illustrated by the biomes in the game. We even had a recreation of a Sherlock Holmes tale made in the game!

We then brought the game itself into class, using the now defunct MinecraftEDU with impressive results. How could a game featuring so little language drive this much language learning? In addition to the language generated by the students themselves in their projects, I found that a huge amount of English was being generated as students shared tips, accessed online guides and built a common understanding.

The game had given them a reason and a context, not only for using English, but also for activating 21st-century skills. Here are six examples of higher-order thinking skills my students developed while creating and playing games:

1. Collaboration

Minecraft is a game with a vast online community. Its endless possibilities mean there is always something new to discover. In my experience creating projects in Minecraft and running after-school clubs, expert players are always keen to help their novice peers learn the essential skills. This can occur with two players at the same workstation or with the class playing together on the same networked map. The novices raise their skills very quickly, uncovering ideas even the experts didn’t know.

After choosing Minecraft as an in-class resource, I found that not everyone knew how to play—including me! The solution was simple: I put the novices together, and we brainstormed questions about the game. Meanwhile, the experts prepared a rough survival guide. We then paired up, and the newbies learned gameplay tips and tricks, most of which was conducted in English. Suddenly, my English Language Learners (ELLs) had a reason to use all that language for advice and requests, explanations and asking for clarification.

2. Critical Thinking

Minecraft is truly an open-world game. When a player spawns to start a new game, the map stretches in all directions. Playing in survival mode, a new player is quickly required to learn the basics. They fail...and fail a great deal. However, each failure is a learning experience. If a player cannot build a base or find a light source before dark, or strays too far from their shelter, they respawn and try again. As they learn, they start to hypothesise, experiment, reflect and adjust. This process parallels that of scientific inquiry and encourages resilience and problem-solving skills to negotiate with an occasionally unforgiving digital world.

Planning and reflection became a regular feature of our play. Before entering the game, students would outline their plans for the day—a great way to get them using the “going to” future tense and conditional form for hypotheses. At the end of class, we reviewed the plans and ideas to evaluate what worked and what didn’t. Students recorded these reflections on a Google Doc as a reference for the next time we played.

3. Initiative and Creativity

The harsh reality of the survival world forces players to come up with inventive ways to stay alive. I once witnessed an 11-year-old novice panic as night fell and his overly-ambitious base remained incomplete. Then, he simply encased his in-game character inside a wall of dirt. He had no room to move but also, as he pointed out, gave the mobs—computer-controlled enemies—no way to get to him. After waiting a few minutes for the in-game night to pass, he broke down his wall of dirt to resume his base building. This was not an idea he had been given by a fellow player, nor was it one he had seen online. It was simply one he invented when he had no other options.

Minecraft generates excitement with each new discovery, whether a feature of the game or a gameplay idea. That excitement was always communicated around my group very quickly and with a remarkable degree of fluency. And these discoveries were added to the student's Google Doc log so that descriptive or instructional language was captured and refined as necessary.

4. Digital Literacy

While players in a school environment can turn to each other for assistance and support, they may also visit the numerous Minecraft-dedicated wikis, blogs or YouTube channels for inspiration. This involves navigating search engines, identifying key ideas, evaluating and assessing the quality of information and adapting it to the player’s own unique game world context. Many students go on to create such guides themselves, learning how to edit wikis and take screenshots, or capture, narrate and edit in-game footage in the process.

This resulted in several of my students engaging in lengthy and demanding composition tasks. One group of junior high students who were very reluctant writers took it upon themselves to create their own guide in the form of a blog. They pooled their experiences, conducted online research and ultimately created multiple gameplay guides in English. They even requested feedback from me and their peers, very keen to root out any grammatical errors.

5. Communication

As mentioned earlier, Minecraft doesn’t feature much language, aside from some incidental vocabulary specific to the game. However, that is the beauty of this game for language learners. The lack of in-game language creates opportunities for players to generate their own. There’s also a clear context and great motivation for engaging in higher-level language, even with monolingual groups.

Several years ago, I was working with teenage Turkish students who were huge fans of gaming. Once we introduced Minecraft to our learning program, I witnessed several reluctant readers pore over English-language handbooks and websites in pursuit of deeper knowledge of the game, translating to each other and pooling their linguistic resources to come to a common understanding of the text. Without the inspiration of the game, that would not have happened.

6. Productivity

The game world is vast, and the game itself has seemingly infinite possibilities. Minecraft is a great tool to encourage production and creation. While teacher-generated builds for specific learning purposes are great, there is nothing more satisfying than seeing a student engage in a project with real gusto. Using their Minecraft skills to create something, they then use their language skills to describe it, demonstrate it, encourage others to try it and tell the story behind it.

Whether a recreation of a famous landmark, an original build in response to a classroom topic, or the setting for a narrative tale, nothing is more powerful than a project generated by the students’ own voices.

For more about using Minecraft with language learners, David Dodgson recommends the following resources:


Minecraft MOOC


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