Youngmin and the Magic World

Attention conservation notice:

This post will mainly interest those who are curious about my experiences using RPGing in language teaching as a method of generation motivation, focus, and interest in language learning (a topic I discussed in a recent essay of mine published in the WyrdCon 2012 Companion Book).

I can’t say it’ll work for every teacher–or for every student–but RPGing has turned at least one of the tutoring gigs I have with one young student into something that he and I both look forward to.

He’s a bright, energetic kid, but when he studying alternate days with Mrs. Jiwaku and I, he frankly was a little worn out on English (because of too much hakwonization, though it wasn’t too bad in his case) and tended to have trouble settling down and concentrating. One reason for this was that he had no strong incentive to do so: comncentrating for an hour wouldn’t make the lesson go any faster, so without some kind of incentive-building technique on my part, he would just dawdle for most of the hour, till his energy ran low, at which point he’d focus… if at all.

Very quickly, I decided to take a different approach, and it’s turn out well.

As I argued in the essay linked above, using RPGs in language teaching is great for a range of reasons–not the least giving young Korean kids a new perspective on their freedom and ability to make choices and deal with the consequences, something far too many parents micromanage out of the equation as much as they can, even for Korean college students. But with little kids, this isn’t the biggest issue: the biggest issue is creative incentive, giving the kid a use for the English he or she learns, and a reason to concentrate and remember it.

Enter the RPG game. Games in general are basically incentive engines, especially RPG games. They take scraps of paper, words, a few tokens, and dice, and generate emotions, characters in whom players get invested, obstacles and problems that players get motivated to overcome, and skill-sets that players are eager to master so as to do better in the game.

And it’s that last point that helps us integrate language study with the RPG game… especially with my student, who is an ardent young fan of the Beast Quest books. Indeed, we spent the first couple of weeks occasionally talking about, reading from, and writing a book report about the volume from that series in which the hero faces down Krabb, a giant monstrous sea crab… which was what led me to think, this kid was born to play some D&D.


As for the game I’m running, it’s really a very off-the-cuff, non-formalized version of the Magicians language-learning game idea (which some may remember from Kickstarter: see the game’s website). However, I do things a little differently–more simply, I’m sure. I use coins as magic tokens: one spell usually costs one token, unless it’s a massively powerful spell, in which case two or three or more might be required. Since we reserve the RPG section of the lesson for the end–despite the protestations of the student I’m working with, who always wants to start with it–coins are given and taken away throughout the lesson. Well-done homework earns bonus tokens, while repeated or significant errors result in a loss of tokens. When drilling a structure, or when I ask him questions and he answers consistently in the correct form, or when we brainstorm vocabulary to use, he has the chance to earn–or, occasionally, to lose–tokens.

The magic tokens I use are basically replica coins from the Joseon Dynasty–something suggested by Kyle, the designer of the Magicians game I linked above–and they work wonderfully for that purpose:

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(Even on its own, this generates incentive; before he even knew what the tokens were for, my student was vehement in his desire to accumulate more of them. Of course, you need to be careful not to take away too many at once, lest demotivation sets in.)

Besides magic tokens, I use a set of dice for the game. The dice we mainly use are language dice, of a sort that are available on the Korean website Gmarket. The dice have thirty sides, which is enough for all the letters of the alphabet plus four “wild” faces.

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Occasionally, we’ll also use my polyhedral (D&D) dice for various purposes–often, I’ll have the student roll a die just for the suspenseful effect it generates, since part of the point of this game is generating incentive… so I want the character to survive as long as possible, and level up consistently, in a way that my student will try to match in his own “leveling-up” in his English.

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When we play, it’s usually just little 10-15 minute vignettes which strongly feature (or, indeed, when possible, specifically drill) the grammar points of the lessons, or from the homework of the day before. This is working pretty well so far.

As for the narrative: the protagonist is a Korean fourth-grader who is studying alternating days with me and with Mrs. Jiwaku. His characterthe same age as the student–and he’s a bit of a loose cannon, since the character is obviously a wish-fullfillment fantasy of sorts, I suppose a Mary Stu (or a Mary Chulsoo, given his Koreanness). The lad basically picks fights with monsters, mouths off to older kids and wizards, and even makes fun of his school principal to his face. Which, of course, stems from the fact he started out not taking the game very seriously.

In the first session, his character (Young-min) found himself drawn to a usually-locked door in the school hallway. (Shades of Buffy?) When he got down to the basement, he discovered a little second-grader girl being menaced by an adult-sized zombie lurking in the shadows. At first, he was pretty callous, resolving to just feed the girl to the zombie, but at my urging, he figured maybe he could try his magic skills out on the monster. He and the zombie dueled verbally–using grammatically correct sentences for some structure (I can’t remember which) that Mrs. Jiwaku had been trying to get him to internalize. Suddenly, he started paying attention and using the structure properly, which led to his summoning a ball of light that scared the zombie back into the shadow world. After saving the girl, he went upstairs and outside, deciding to cut school. After mouthing off to the principal, he discovered–oops–that magic is tricky. No word of a lie, he spontaneously came up with that old AD&D spell “Ironskin” and declared that his “body is iron”… and promptly turned into a statue before he could set the school bus on fire and fly away.

The second time we played, an older, brooding, vaguely scary-looking sixth grader boy in the school named Sung-Joon approached the statue, turning the Young-min back into a human being… only to challenge him to a wizard’s duel. The duel consisted of rolling the letter dice:

… and then constructing a sentence using either the verb “to be,” or a “regular verb” (i.e. one that can be conjugated in past tense by adding -ed, very generally speaking); both players got to play during a turn, which gave the advantage to the second player, but at the same time, the first player got to choose whether to use “to be” or a “regular verb”. For example:

  • “You are a mouse!”
  • “And you become cheese!”

Though the older kid was wily, our student actually managed (by rights!) to win the game, giving Young-min bragging rights.

In the third installment, today, Young-min met a strange girl at the school–a seventh grader from the nearby middle school–who showed up at the elementary school to find Young-min. He had expected her to come to challenge him to a wizard’s duel, but in fact, she turned out to be not only a wizard, but also the older sister of the little girl Young-min saved on the first day. She’d come to the school just to thank him for saving her baby sister, but was soon dismayed to find out that he had no Wizard teacher, and grew still more alarmed to discover that he had encountered the infamous and dangerous boy wizard Sung-Jun.

Vowing to become his teacher, she led him down the street and into a Forest That Didn’t Exist Last Time He Looked (usually a snack shop stood at the entrance to the forest). Then she summoned the ogre of the forest, and he and Young-min engaged in another kind of magical duel, again drilling “be” and “regular” verb phrases… but with the added twist that words from a vocabulary sheet we built together had to get used in the poem, and that the lines at the ends of the poems had to rhyme.

Young-min launched a nice attack on the ogre, banishing a light he’d conjured by invoking he power of the night:

Now it’s night!
There’s no light!

And soon after, he caused the ogre to weep prodigious tears:

Your breath is bad,
So you are sad!

But instead of draining away, the tears pooled into a dangerously deep pond, at which point the ogre laughed, using one more spell to best the child:

I push you down,
And make you drown!

It was amazing to see just how seriously our student took this turn of events: he was concerned, though not terrified. I think he suspected that Young-min would pull through somehow, and of course, Young-min wasn’t going to drown. The whole thing was a ruse: the girl, Hee-jung, had used illusion magic to assume the form of the ogre, the better to test and teach Young-min. Making him pinky-swear that he’d come back to the park the next day for another lesson, and to take her on as his teacher, she sent Young-min back to the school, and that was the end of the lesson.

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But as you can guess from the rhyming couplets he produced, our student actually is beginning to take the game a little more seriously, enough so that he’s actually trying to remember the grammar and vocabulary that comes up in lesson. We’ll see how long it works, but I’m hoping it will for quite some time, because he isn’t just learning, he’s also having fun doing it. And, I have to admit, I’m having fun doing grammar drills this way, too… which isn’t bad, considering the gaming portion of the lessons is only ten minutes or so at the end of the session. (Though, of course, the approach informs the lesson all the way through, as with the magic tokens.)

As for me, I’m curious to see where this leads… but the parental feedback we’ve gotten (and feedback from his teacher at school, too) is very positive so far.

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