Working with phrases

Vocabulary and games

I believe in games for educational purposes. I’m aware that there is a distinction nowadays between gaming and gamification, and that the trend is moving more towards gaming and that gamification is getting a bad reputation (see my post here on the rapidly changing trends in terminology and “hipness” in edtech), but I’m kind of stubbornly adhering to very concrete and tangible learning objectives, objectives that are first and foremost measureable, as well as assessable. So I will keep on creating online word and grammar games, and for these I almost always use the platform The premium version is not completely free of charge, ie. it’s free for teacher accounts but there is a small charge for each student account per academic year, and this is the version I use for a lot of reasons that I will go into later.

Now, collocations (sequence of words or terms that co-occur more often than would be expected by chance) abound in the English language, and in order for advanced sixth form students who are preparing for their Finnish matriculation exam to really perform well, it is of vital importance that they know how to use these fluently, or at least correctly. I’ve read essays where students talk about “animals’ homes” when what they mean is “animal habitats”, just because their vocabulary can’t encompass words that do not really have any exact corresponding word in their mother tongue. Students in general, in my experience, tend to cram wordlists for their language tests, L2 words without context but with a 1-1 relationship to the L1, their mother tongue. Not a very effective language learning method, maybe for a smaller test the next day but especially not in a longer perspective.

This is where games come in.

Environmental collocations

Today I was thinking of collocations needed when we’re talking about environmental problems and possible solutions, a subject that recurs in our annual matriculation tests. What words might be useful to know here? I came up with this list:

exhaust, global, landfill, disposable, toxic, soil, extinction, irrigation, emission, pollution, annual, endangered, sustainable, pesticide, flora, fumes, resources, habitat, site, waste, erosion, location, conservation, levels, precipitation, species, residue

The easy way would be to give the students a bilingual wordlist to study, or with a little more effort, make a bilingual matching game. There is nothing wrong with either, but if I wanted to challenge the students’ cognitive skills, making them work for their “food”, which in this case of course is the learning part, I would have to add something more. First of all I wanted to take out their mother tongue here and make it more authentic. One solution would be to have them match these words to their English explanations or definitions or make a gapped exercise where these words needed to be filled in.

However, I decided to go for a collocation kind of task. And these were the collocations I ended up with:

  • exhaust fumes
  • global warming
  • natural resources
  • animal habitat
  • landfill site
  • disposable product
  • toxic waste
  • soil erosion
  • collection point
  • extinction of species
  • irrigation system
  • drop-off location
  • nature conservation
  • emission standards
  • pollution levels
  • annual precipitation
  • endangered species
  • sustainable development
  • pesticide residue
  • flora & fauna

This would also be suitable for a matching exercise but in order to make it more gamified I wanted to add the time element to the game, which meant that once the students were ready to take on the game they had a limited time in which to score. This is what I did in Didactor using the game type TIMEOUT from the student’s first view:


This is the sort of pre-game stage where the students have the opportunity to google words they don’t know or recognize (I usually recommend for  easy access to word meaning in their own language or Cambridge Online Dictionary for English definitions or example uses). Once they are confident enough to start the game, this is what they see:


In this particular game I have set the time limit for each collocation to 10 seconds but that could easily be changed and is best left to the teacher’s own discretion. The game looks easy enough, but quite a lot of thinking and reacting skills are required, and one really needs to automate the collocations in order to reach a 100% score.


What  tech skill demands does a game like this put on the teacher? Not very much, actually. The pedagogical aspects are what take time and professional ingenuity and that’s what we are trained for as teachers. The back-end version of this particular game looks like this:



The beauty of didactor games is that they are easy to create and easy to modify (in a matter of seconds I can delete items, change them or add new ones). I can add media of all sorts – video, youtube embeds, pdf documents, images etc. –  according to my own pedagogical needs, but, as I said, I will talk more about that later.

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