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Catalyst: Sample Content

The How-to section of the Instruction Booklet that comes with Truth or Dare for English Language Learners is excerpted from a work-in-progress called variously “Conversation Dynamics,” “Catalyst ESL/EFL Handbook” or more typically, just “The Book”. The title is also a work-in-progress.

Following remarks made on the TESL-L Listserve on the topic of using word associations as a source for student-centered, communication-enabled, hyper-hyphenated conversation topics a number of list participants requested more details.

For that reason I’m including a selection of pages from “The Book” which can be downloaded as a PDF below.

Please note that this very much a work-in-progress and is most definitely going to change in the coming weeks. A number of security measures have been implemented including the disabling of printing and copying in an effort to protect my interests as copyright holder in the work. Feel free to try out the techniques described therein in your own day-to-day teaching but please respect the copyright of the work by refraining from attempting to circumvent these security features.

Feel free to leave comments, suggestions, rants or observations through the commenting feature of this Blog or take it back to TESL-L for a wider discussion.

I will be looking for testers once Beta testing commences later this spring so those hoping to get a more comprehensive look at the approach should send me an e-mail through this site.

Catalyst: Sample Content

“No” Means “Yes,” Maybe

Yes/No Questions can be a showstopper in the communicative classroom especially with lower-level students.  When confronted with a question like “Do you have a cat?” many will answer a simple “No” and leave the conversation hanging. The reason is simple: they haven’t sorted out what the expectations are yet. As often as not, they come from cultures that still ascribe to the empty vessel notion of teaching. This discredited idea may have  been repetitively reinforced over a dozen or more years by 60 or more teachers so in their minds, normal learning ought to be a very one-sided, top-down affair. Spend some time making it clear that a simple yes or no is not enough. Work through a few examples so that students come to understand that they are expected to give more, taking their response to two, three and many more levels.  So while yes or no is not enough with a question like “Do you have a cat?” The following would be acceptable responses.

  • No, I don’t but I have a dog.  She’s a beagle.  Her name is Snoopy….
  • No, I don’t but I did when I was a child.  She was gray….
  • No, I don’t but I have many fish. My favourite is called “Goldie”….

Of course students need to understand that they can carry their answers much further. Students also need to understand that communication works in two directions in the class as on the street. So in a pairwork situation both partners are equally responsible for the roles of interrogator and responder. Set aside time to practice ending an answer with a question. So in the case of the above examples, summing up with something like “How about you, do you have any pets?” would be ideal. The roles are reversed, the clock is reset and conversation goes on: Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.

Real Communication

The whole point of Truth or Dare for English Language Learners is real communication: gameplay demands it. Gameplay provides the incentive and structure that encourages language learners to share self-generated anecdotes and personal insights. Many homemade or freely-available games are really thinly disguised behavioral-structural drills. Pick up a card, move to a square and fill in the blank with the target du jour. This may arguably have a place in the language classroom but Truth or Dare for English Language Learners remains the antithesis of such mechanistic teaching.

Topics by Association

If you’ve ever taught a bona fide conversation course you’ve probably done this. You roll into class armed with a killer topic, fling it out there without a whole lot of prep because you know it’s foolproof. Then it shudders to a stop — dead! — right there in front of everybody. A few throats clear, some students squirm, mumble even, but the topic is roadkill. So what happened? An ill-wind driving bad feng shui? Sunspots? Monosodium glutamate?

At other times quite the opposite happens. Somehow a topic materializes out of nowhere. As a topic, it’s nothing special but the students grab it, hang on and roll with it. Discussion is animated, punctuated with laughter and carries on even outside after the class. You scratch your head, mystified, but grateful nonetheless.

A popular buzzword in teaching circles these days is “student-centered learning”. Surprisingly the term was coined in 1905 [O’Neill and McMahon; 2005] but that’s neither here nor there. The important point is that the concept is often at the heart of both sessions that soar and those that fall flat. When as a teacher you happen upon a topic that causes your heart to pitter-patter, there’s no guarantee that students will have the same reaction. I’ve had many students ask me why teachers all seem to want to talk about abortion or capital punishment or euthanasia or some other hot button topic. I usually do my best to explain that the answer lies in many of the materials published in both print and online that put forth such topics.

What really is going on in these two scenarios is a failure to communicate. In both scenarios empathy is lacking, impaired by a cultural gap, a generation gap, a power gap or a combination of all three. The top-down or teacher-centered process by which topics are doled out is seriously flawed, frequently incapable of bridging these gaps between the roles of student and teacher.

Empathy fails less often in Truth or Dare for English-language Learners [TOD] by design. TOD has a built-in mechanism for generating topics of high interest to participants. I call it Catalyst and a workbook by that name is in the works. Instead of handing students preconfigured questions, topics are student-generated through the mechanism of word associations. Like many revolutionary ideas, the beauty of this mechanism is in its simplicity. When a participant draws a Truth Card they’ll find a one- or two-word prompt. This is typically a broad-based lexical item that will resonate one way or another with just about every player from false beginners and up. Let’s look at an example.

Suppose a student from Japan, a snowboarding enthusiast, draws a prompt card from the Truth deck that says simply “Snow”. For her it will spawn many memories but might provoke a particularly strong recollection of a close call in a blizzard with an avalanche.

A student from Dubai, drawing the same card, might be momentarily baffled. Having already learned through exercises detailed in the TOD Instruction Guide that a negative experience is still an experience he’ll recover his momentary imbalance by mentioning that he’s never seen snow before but would like to. He adds that he has seen snow on TV of course and imagines it’s like the sandstorms back home. With that he’s on familiar territory, able to proceed in nearly any direction.

A student from Québec might have an entirely different take on snow, something involving a snow shovel no doubt.

Ideally, in the ebb and flow of gameplay, all three will share their unique, highly personal “truths” about the topic at hand.

The important point here is that the top-down gaps never enter the picture yet topics arise and conversation occurs precisely because the real topic of discussion is ME, everybody’s favourite topic.

Banter, Yes, but Hardly Idle

When you first started teaching you probably hit on the idea of using old favourites like Monopoly or Clue or Trivial Pursuits in the classroom. After all, the banter that goes along with gameplay seems to mesh ideally with your role in the classroom. You set it up and the students dutifully played along, making nary a peep for much of the class. Counting off [one, two, three…] or passing the dice with a curt “Your turn” were about the extent of productive output. Some students may have even wondered aloud why they were playing silly games when they came to school to study. With that you realized why those games were covered with dust, piled high in a back corner of the resource room.

So what went wrong?
Engaging gameplay is one thing but what really makes a commercial tabletop game work is the idle banter that accompanies it. As satisfying as crushing your opponents in the heady real estate market of Atlantic City might be, what really keeps people coming back is the opportunity to socialize and interact in a completely relaxing setting. Fun derives not from the mechanics of gameplay; rather as a by-product. When language learners are tasked with commercial analog games too often the demands of gameplay AND interaction are too much so they concentrate on the easiest element, joylessly.

How is Truth or Dare Different?
Banter is not simply a by-product of Truth or Dare for English Language Learners: it’s the whole point. Built right into the mechanics of gameplay is the need for discourse: exposition and interrogation and interaction and, well… yeah… a whole lot of fun.

That’s how we put banter back in the box.

Them’s the Breaks…

If your school only has one class set of Truth or Dare for English Language Learners make sure you book the game early through your materials department as you can expect demand to be red hot just prior to important holiday breaks like Xmas and Spring or Summer Break.

Black & White and Green All Over

With its bright, colorful graphics, it may be hard to tell at first glance but Truth or Dare for English Language Learners is actually green through and through. Both the game box and the spinner board are made with 100% post-consumer recycled fibre. The 24-page instruction booklet, the cards, the card boxes and the wrap are all a minimum 50% post-consumer fibre. The exact amount varies depending on sourcing at the manufacturing end.

Reduced impact is integral to other aspects of the design as well. Most games are designed to appear large on retail shelves to aid in merchandising the product. With a more compact design Truth or Dare for English Language Learners uses less materials overall even though game components are full-sized. Energy use at the shipping end is reduced as well.

The small footprint [19 x 19 x 3.2 cm; 7.5 x 7.5 x 1.3 inches] was also born out of a practical consideration for teachers who may need to lug several copies to the classroom depending on the class size.

Unlike with most retail products these days, we left the shrink wrap off. The outer finish is designed to be scuff-resistant, negating a need for that extra layer. We employed tighter standards to make sure the box top and bottom stay together. As a bonus, when browsing Truth or Dare for English Language Learners in a retail setting, you can view the contents first hand.

With durability built in, Truth or Dare for English Language Learners can be used and reused, over and over again. When it does eventually wear out, be assured, the whole thing is 100% recyclable.

Truth or Dare in Many Languages

The truth or dare of your youth is a game with nearly universal appeal. The reason is simple. More than just a pajama-party diversion, gameplay allows young people, just as their bodies are undergoing the hormonal shift into adulthood, a chance to explore topics that are often considered taboo in the wider society. Within the secure zone of their peer group and fortified with the loophole afforded by the “dare” element, participants are freed to broach topics that might be subject to censure in other contexts.

Truth or Dare for English Language Learners employs a wider topical range, of course, but still leverages for the classroom, those elements of traditional gameplay that make truth or dare a powerful communication tool.

Below is a list of nearly identical games from many corners of the globe. If you know of parallel games in other languages send us an e-mail and we’ll add them to the list. If you notice any incorrect info drop us a line as well so we can right that folly.

Language Game Name Transcription Literal Translation
Mandarin Chinese 真心話大冒險 zhēnxīnhuà dàmàoxiǎn Truth or Risk
Japanese 真実ゲーム 
王様ゲーム
shinjitsu ge-mu or
oosama ge-mu
Truth game or
King game
Korean 진실게임 jinsil geim Truth game
Russian Истины или осмеливается Truth or Dare
Finnish Totuus vai tehtävä Truth or Task
Swedish sanning eller
konsekvens
Truth or Impact
German Wahrheit oder Pflicht Truth or Duty
Dutch waarheid of uitdaging Truth or Challenge
French action ou verité Action or Truth
Italian vero o falso Truth or Falsehood
Portuguese verdade ou desafio Truth or Challenge
Spanish Juego de la botella The Bottle Game
Mexican Spanish verdad o mentira Truth or Lie
Turkish doğruluk mu cesaret mi Dare to face the truth
Arabic الحقيقة او يجرؤ Truth or Dare
Farsi شاه دزد Shah Dozd King Thief Game
Hebrew אמת או חובה Truth or Duty

The Tower of Babel
by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Year circa 1563


tower of babel