Digital Dialects Helps Students Learn Oromo, Kurdish and Czech (and Also English) For Free

Digital Dialects is a free way to learn over 60 languages for the cost of a breath of air. You can learn Malay, Cebuano, and Maltese, but I suspect most people will use it to learn the more plain vanilla languages like English and Spanish.

It has been around for about 5 years now, but it still retains its shelf life as the activities and games cover basic English Language vocabulary like food, clothing, numbers, colors without looking like a preschool site.

Most of the animations were produced by Craig Gibson, who developed the idea after working on a dissertation about online English language study. By now the project has grown and continues to expand, with many games featuring audio files to help the student with the proper pronunciation. Again, it is designed for true neophytes, so don’t expect much in terms of extensive language lessons.

I put my newcomer students on Digital Dialects and they spent the better part of the morning fully engaged. According to them, (5th and 6th grades) the games were “easy” to “so-so”.  We’re recommending it here because it is free, and visually engaging enough to supply the brain with enough dopamine to sustain learning. Plus, it helps out your students who just walked in the door from El Salvador, without having to deal with logins and passwords.

Here is an example of some of the artwork.



MangaHigh: Free, Standards Based Games for Students and Reports for Teachers

While I don’t want to sound like a commercial for this site, I do want to give props where props are due!

Since I began incorporating MangaHigh into my weekly Math routine, my students have been thrilled to obey my every command.  Buah, ah, ah!  Well, maybe not, but they’re certainly more willing to follow instruction on math content as well as be more engaged during the “boring” direct instruction because they see the MangaHigh light at the end of the tunnel.

As a teacher, MangaHigh helps me keep my students engaged, motivated, and learning the basics.  After learning the basics and getting the exposure and practice at their level on MangaHigh, one begins to see students going beyond the analysis into the synthesis and evaluation pieces in Bloom’s Taxonomy.  I upload a whole class list, assign challenges for my students on the standards they need the most practice knowing they’ll get adequate feedback, get reports on their progress toward assignment completion (keeping us all honest), and work with a small instructional group that needs more of my personal support.

Good Game!

eLearn Magazine, Education and Technology in Perspective published What Makes a Good Learning Game? Going Beyond Edutainment in February of this year.  The author,  Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen, outlines components in useful buzz words for non-techie educators and the sleek-edu-geeks alike to quickly evaluate the utility of the tons of “learning games” out there when looking for meaningful ways to integrate technology and curriculum.  The buzz words stay with you, and I can see them crossing my mind as I type ready to shoot them down with my semantic knowledge; ready, set, here we go.

1. Substantives – the signifiers and signified – the nouns that set-up the scene,

2. Verbs – the things learners have to do to meet the challenges and get the rewards,

3. Problem-solving – the challenges have to be interesting, and if I may add my two cents, culturally relevant,

4. Rewards – the rewards must definitely be culturally relevant,

5. Feedback – I remember an old mentor always used to say “Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent.”   So be weary of games that do not offer corrective feedback if the educator is not present., and

6. Alignment – while Egenfeldt-Nielsen doesn’t explicitly say to look for games that are tied to standards or even lesson objectives, I am.  If a game has all the first five components without this last one, you might as well just flush your professionalism down the toilet and admit you’re using gaming to baby-sit your class.

That said, Egenfeldt-Nielsen validates drill-and-practice games describing them as a “sound learning principle”.  I use drill-and-practice games aligned to standards and lesson objectives in order to pull small instructional groups for more support toward mastery. (Boy, o boy, a traveling tablet lab would be nice!)

Both drill-and-practice and mission-based games can be used to get that much closer to the Holy Grail of buzz words in education today individualized and differentiation.  So let the games begin!

Link Your Mexican-American Students to Their History Online!

Many Mexican American students who come to the United States quickly lose the historical knowledge needed to build a strong self-identity.  Those who were born on this side of the “tortilla curtain” have few, if any opportunities to learn about the history of their parent’s country of origin.  Their chances to learn and reconnect with their history will often times be reduced to taco shop murals and Cinco de Mayo celebrations.

Luckily, the Mexican government released a web portal last year  full of engaging educational material relating to the Mexican War of Independence and the Mexican Revolution, both of which were celebrated in a bicentennial and a “one-centennial,” respectively.

Niños 2010, as the  site is titled,  features “audiolibros” (audiobooks), animations, interactive games and activities and printable material. The age group is elementary, but much of the material could also apply in the middle school setting, especially if students are struggling to maintain their Spanish.

Historically speaking, the purpose of the site is clearly to help kids develop a strong sense of civic pride as well as to integrate them into a national narrative that, at times seems too simplistic and hero-worshiping, but that can nevertheless serve as a starting point for deeper discussions, should you wish to take it that far.

Try it out and leave a comment if you have success using this in your class.

The best feature I found are the audio-books, which offer printable text to accompany an instructional read aloud in Spanish class. Comprehension questions and vocabulary is not included, however.

For a more grown-up site, look at :

This bicentennial site has similar content as the kids site, but also has everything from flyovers that take you to important historical sites to  historical newspapers digitized for 21st century eyes. It’s quite probably the largest and most impressive effort to date to officially present Mexican history on the web.

Mexico 2010 also exists for the English-speaking world. It is available here: english.bicentenario. gob.mex

It is a great resource for any student working on a biography, or a Social Studies project.  You will even find materials you can use in biology and music.

On the downside, much of the content requires Flash, so no leave your iOS devices by the door.

I’ll end this post on this note  so I can return to peruse its content some more!

Engage Your Student’s Brain with Dopamine

Reluctance is only one of the words that comes to many a teacher’s mind when thinking about letting students play video games in class. After all, video games ruin your brain, so they say. They turn you into passive, drooling vegetables and will ultimately ruin your grades and your life and nobody will ever want you.

But seriously, the idea that video games can be a beneficial and engaging tools in a classroom  no longer seems as controversial as before. Millions of students around the globe have learned their times tables by shooting rockets  at asteroids,  or learned their spelling words by guiding a frog across a river of drifting logs, or gone on web quests around the world collecting artifacts,  and learned a multitude of skills without even realizing they were learning,  simply by playing video games.

Recent studies have found that what makes video games so addicting and so engaging can also help in making learning irresistible.  The brain, according to Tom Chatfield in this TED Talk,  is rewarded  when put in a game environment. Those rewards are intrinsic in our chemistry, and if we as educators can learn how to tap into those veins, we can make students into learning junkies.

It all has to do with dopamine and how the brain craves more of something it finds rewarding.

Watch the video to find out the 7 ways in which video game architecture can be used to engage students, as I don’t want to repeat what he says. However the ideas he advances should be taken very seriously by todays education gurus. Here are a few points that I think could be furthered developed:

Experience Points

Current assessment models that track student progress are known for being obtuse and non-immediate. A student report card is usually a collection of grades weighed with different considerations in mind like homework, test results, effort, etc.  They are mere summaries of a grading period and especially in the elementary grades, provide very little feedback.  Instead, students academic progress should be measured by experience points, starting in Kindergarten and ending at graduation. These records could follow a student throughout her or his educational career and would provide a greater motivation than simply getting an A here and a B there, year after year. It would make learning into a cohesive continuum in which students move at different speeds and accumulate points as they move through life.  Furthermore, a student would not be limited to gaining these points by attending a particular school  or completing a regular course, but in theory they could accumulate them through other means, as long as they prove they master the essential steps (in our case academic standards). They could learn from home, or accrue more points though real life learning situations. A whole variety of programs and curriculum would exist to permit students to play and gain points though video games, simulations, brick-and-mortar learning,  digital portfolio evaluations, and even peer review.


Learning Missions

Chatfield mentions that engagement is greater when there are mini-missions to complete. Huge tasks are overwhelming, but smaller, more manageable ones are a lot more fun and will give the brain a better “high” in the end. These mini missions would essentially replace the typical lesson.

“Today, class we will work on dividing decimals by two digit whole numbers. Take your textbook and turn to page 89!”


“Today we will see how well you can use conjunctions in a sentence with correct punctuation. Open you practice books and try not to fall asleep.”

Quotes like the ones above will hopefully be a  thing of the past one day.

“Today we are going to play a game with some students in Singapore who are challenging our class to divide decimals in order to escape a labyrinth they made! Make teams of five and log on to…”

This example shows how students could complete a quest as part of a team (this part is key) and move through to the next level only if they problem solve and use the skills above. They could complete the mission at home on the Wii, or on their mobile device, in the learning lab, or in their portable holographic projector while they run on their treadmill. (Hey, learning does not mean sitting on your butt).

In fact a student could go on a hunt and take pictures, video, and gather evidence, to later present to their peers and show how they were able to use decimals and conjunctions and earn a digital “badge” like scouts.

 Learning Teams

Students should not have to be limited by their particular school in order to make progress. They should be able to connect to students at the global level and work on solving problems in teams, like in the virtual worlds described by Chatfield.  I would also expand this to include a peer-teaching component. It is no secret that students often learn faster from each other.

Any sort of online learning collaboration should, as a fundamental part, include an element of peer review and instruction. Those students who have more experience points can team up with those who are starting out and lend them a hand.

Competition could still play a role, but students would be compelled to make sure everyone on their team was up to task in order for the team to complete a mission.

Bright Horizons?

The challenge in all of this is not merely to change the way we teach our children. Many of these ideas are already permeating the educational world in smaller, more limited settings. Others are still in their infancy. What is truly worrisome is that these changes will arrive and that they will become centralized and monetized for the for-profit world.  The last thing we need is for all of this to be handed over to Pearson or some other large conglomerate whose only concern is reaping a profit and who see our students not as the leaders of tomorrow, but as items on a quarterly report.


Also of interest is a study by Stanford Medical School that found that the male brain is more likely to be rewarded by video games than the female. Hmmm…definitely throws another wrench into the equation!

Also, check out this podcast for some funny insight on the world of video games:

A Life Well Wasted



iPad Hits All Learning Domains

An article  in T.H.E. Journal recently highlighted the efforts of a “newcomer” school” in Illinois that has successfully implemented an iPad program at their school for the specific purpose of getting their students to improve their English language skills before transerring back to their regular high schools. Every student was provided with an iPad at the beginning of the year and, according to the article, they have had great success in breaking down some barriers that many first year English learners encounter when they move to the U.S. (or any other Anglo-speaking country for that matter).

Students at Newcomer School using iPads

According to teachers and administartors, the program has been highly successful in that students are now able to take their iPads home to build academic bridges between the home and the school.  The conclusion that has been reached is that the iPad (as well as its junior cousin, the iPod Touch) is a hit with students and has boosted engagement and success.

While the article cites no data, the conclusion is clear: iPods are great for educating English Language Learners. Here are just some of the benefits:

1. Students are able to record their own reading using audio recording tools (Voice Memos, Voxie), and then keep a record of their reading attempts to compare over time, thus they can monitor their progress in fluency.

A notable app in this category is Toontastic. Students can make their own digital puppet shows, record narration and animate them. The app also instructs the students on a proper story arc so their shows have conflict and resolution, build -up and climax.

Use Toontastic to create your own shows

Q: “What did students do when they didn’t know what a word meant?”  A: they had to raise their hand and ask the teacher.

2.   On-the-go dictionary: If defining words was all that  the iPads and iPods did, they would still be a significant improvement over the traditional  printed and bound pocket dictionaries, which never have all the words you need, nor do these allow the user to see the words used in different contexts like you can with online tools and dictionary apps. The options for word definition on the iPod/iPad are too numerous to list here, but a good start is which is free and available to anyone with a web browser.

3. Handheld Translation: With apps like Google Translate  and ITranslate they can translate English into their own language, including speech recognition features. And with WorldDictionary, by Penpower Inc, students can now point to text directly and have it translated into English or their home language (from Swahili to Croatian ) by simply pointing their iPod camera to a printed word.

3. Reading: Students can read content from a variety of sources, including the Kindle e-reader app that helps students define, highlight, and take notes on the text they read, then share those notes with others. Other notable apps include Stanza and Google eBooks.

iphone kindle e-reader app

4. Listening: Audio books and podcasts have revolutionized the way students can access language. Primary school teachers are used to books on tape in their listening libraries, but why quit after elementary school? English learners can now download whole audio books and follow along the written version. They can pause and replay. Also, there are a variety of language courses, some free, some charging a fee, in the form of downloadable podcasts available from iTunes. While we can’t fully recommend any one podcast at the moment, there are enough reviews out there to point you in the right direction.  And the podcast format also allows students to create the podcasts and then share them with other listeners.

Music has long been an easy and effective way to introduce and develop language skills with second language learners. With the  iPod, which was originally designed as a music listening device, students can listen to songs in English and then find the corresponding lyrics online for a reading/listening experience that they can later discuss  or write about. This has been written about extensively and lesson ideas abound after a quick Google search.

5. Writing: Let’s face it. The writing functionality of the iPod and the iPad has faced criticism from  people who find it too difficult and unnatural. It’s not just folks with fat fingers who complain, but even the petitely-digited can get frustrated at the lack of a physical response one expects when typing. And while using an external keyboard can solve this problem in most cases, this may not be feasible or even affordable for many students or schools.  Still, there are more than enough conventional writing apps like Pages or Notes.  Text can be auto corrected, saved, shared, and uploaded to the cloud via Dropbox.

But beyond simple text editing apps there are a number of interesting apps that combine writing with images and storytelling, which make for more compelling and engaging writing activities. Moxier Collage, for example lets the student use images from the iPhoto library and add text, captions, banners, much in the manner of a collage, which is perfect for students at the beginning to intermediate level.

Moxier Collage lets you make storyboards, greeting cards and collages

Other apps like Notability, Keynote and a host of others allow for the integration of text and images for presentation purposes or for displaying written content in a variety of ways.

With all of these options, and with the portability of the devices, it is clear why so many schools are choosing to purchase iPads and iPods for their classroom. That is not meant to be a plug for Apple, assuming that there are Android developers out there quickly trying to catch up–as they should–to expand the platform in areas where the iPad is lacking.  But for the time being, we can only wait for more of these apps.

For more Reviews check out and Fun Educationl .

And for more stories on schools using iPads in schools see this post on  Technology Bytes and Nibbles.

BBC’s Bitesize Offers Banquet of Online Learning

It’s rare to come across an engaging, all-inclusive digital learning portal like I did this week when I came upon the BBC’s Bitesize education websites. I was actually looking at an old site, Skillwise, which is still good and recommended, but its nothing like what the blokes at the BBC have been working on lately. Here in the United States you would expect to pay a few hundred bucks, or at least a good thousand bucks for access to this kind of learning (think BrainPOP and IXL Math), but the folks in the UK still believe in the government’s role in funding public education, and they are doing a much better job of bringing technology to their students for free .

A full review of Bitesize  is still in the works, and with so many lessons, games and activities it will take a while to truly explore all of the content. But here is a rough synopsis and links to some great starter content:

Bitesize is divided into 3 main areas, KS1 for the youngest kids, KS2 for those 7-11 year-old students, KS3 for the 11-14 crowd and then another level, GCSE for the upper secondary. Each site includes classroom-ready tools that are guaranteed to engage students. Take Questionaut, for example. It is simply put, one of the finest, most beautifully designed flash games I have ever seen. Students have to use their Maths, Language and Science skills to navigate through different tiny worlds where the user has to answer multiple choice questions, but the engaging part is in the actual game activation. The questions do not appear automatically, but have to be figured out from the items in the planet’s environment. Today my students and I played all 8 levels and they stayed glued to their seats, while maintaining an impressive eyeball-to-screen ration the whole time. It is geared towards the 11-14 age group, so it was perfect for my 6th graders.

KS2 offers some great material on Reading, Spelling, and Grammar, which will be very useful to those struggling to learn the basics. Even KS1 might be useful to those who are completely new to the English language, and the games are not too childish to turn off older students. KS3 offers a more mature sense of humor in its lessons. For example the lesson on clauses and types of sentences features a HAL-like computer teaching the lesson using sentences that talk about first kisses that are sure to hold any newly minted teen engaged in what would normally be a boring English lesson.

But it’s not all about games. The lessons are standards-based, and take a learner trough all the requirements of instruction, including learning through reading and direct teaching of concepts, followed by a flash activity, and finally an assessment of the standard. Here is where I think this site stands above all others. The quality and scope of the content are without match in free sites.  There are simply so many activities and lessons that it will be hard to get through them all. And if you are worried about standards correlating to your local standards, I guarantee you will find that the UK’s standards are not that different. Every lesson has some discrepancy to US English, but these hardly detracts from the overall success of this site.

The lessons and content lend themselves well to both single-presentation arrangements, or for use in a multimedia/computer lab. My students all participated in the direct lesson on the LCD and this Friday they will have a chance to explore the site further on their own, with some guidance of course, as it will be easy for them to get lost in all of that amazing content.

Teachers can also access the suggested lesson plans and students can chat in a social-networking forum to share ideas and ask for help in revision (the British term for Reviewing).

More posts on this subject should be forthcoming, so keep reading. I haven’t even tried the High School material yet, which includes many more subject areas than just English, Maths and Science. They also include a few very high-quality games like the foreign language mystery Destination Death.

Maybe a review of each game is in order and perhaps, if  a form is created, students could be involved in separating the good from the great.