The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
I am a JET Program participant. My job title is Assistant Language Teacher, which is true at the junior high school where I work, though I am just The [Foreign] Language Teacher at the elementary school. When I don't have classes to teach or lessons to prepare, there's often little I can help with, leaving me lots of free time which I use either to write for IndieGames.com or to practice my game design and programming skills.
One problem we have at the junior high school, which is where English instruction begins in earnest (as opposed to playing around using English), is that we have a lot of things to teach in a short amount of time. This forces us to constantly focus on teaching new stuff. When you combine that with the fact that the textbooks teach grammar points in an... interesting order, it becomes very difficult for us to engage the kids in extensive reading. Extensive reading is basically lots of reading, the reading of things that aren't too difficult and which are inherently interesting to the reader.
This is an important part of learning any language (including your native language) because the more you read, the more grammar patterns and vocabulary you absorb. Although it may not seem like it, reading a lot helps improve all of one's language skills. There are a number of graded reading materials in existence for people learning English as a second language, but because of the order in which Japanese students learn grammar points, none the ones we've found are really appropriate for our students. It doesn't help that Japanese students often have some pretty bad self-confidence issues. If they come up against something that they don't know how to handle, they tend to freeze up and say it's impossible.
In the past, I've tried to create short stories and dialogues we could give to the kids that would be within their reading skills, but it proved a difficult task which ultimately failed to hold my attention until completion. As impossible as it seems to cram all the things we have to teach into the kids' heads, their list of known vocabulary at the end of the first year of study is woefully limited. That in turn limited what I could do when writing a story. Often times, I ended up with basically the same thing as the textbook dialogues. Boring! If I tried to add a glossary so that I could use more words without sending the students on a dictionary scavenger hunt, I was faced with balancing more freedom to make something interesting with the prospect of a daunting list of new words. Ew?
Between participating in Ludum Dare and writing for IndieGames, though, I've seen a lot of Twine games, and that's given me a bit of an epiphany. Short text adventure games with lots of branches that can be played in any browser worth a grain of salt? Yes, please. Engaging and fun if I write silly enough stories, and playable anywhere the students have internet access. Most of the students have smartphones, which makes internet access a non-issue, and I have a web site at which I can host as many games as I wish. The best part is that exploring all the branches gives them reason to play the same story over and over again, reading text with the same vocabulary words used multiple times in context.
*Looking things up in a dictionary is a valuable skill, by the way, and one we encourage the students to practice, but dictionary quests kinda defeat the point of fun and easy reading that I am trying to achieve with this project.