Archive for November, 2021

Seven years ago, the British Council brought out a report (Dearden, 2014), entitled ‘English as a medium of instruction – a growing global phenomenon’. The report noted the ‘rapid expansion’ of EMI provision, but observed that in many countries ‘there is a shortage of linguistically qualified teachers; there are no stated expectations of English language proficiency; there appear to be few organisational or pedagogical guidelines which might lead to effective EMI teaching and learning; there is little or no EMI content in initial teacher education (teacher preparation) programmes and continuing professional development (in-service) courses’.

Given issues such as these, we should not expect research findings about the efficacy of EMI to be unequivocally positive, and the picture that emerges from EMI research is decidedly mixed. In some countries, learning of academic content has deteriorated, and drop-out rates have been high, but we do not have enough information to make global generalisations. Improvements in English language skills are also often disappointing, although a number of research reports indicate gains in listening. We cannot, however, assume that following EMI studies will lead to greater language gains than, say, attending fewer hours of an intensive English course. The idea that two birds can be killed with one stone remains speculative.

The widespread rolling-out of EMI programmes in higher education has led to concerns about a negative effect on the status of other languages. There is also a danger that EMI may exacerbate social inequalities. Those who are most likely to benefit from the approach are ‘those whose life chances have already placed them in a position to benefit from education’ (Macaro, 2018). It is clear that EMI has spread globally without sufficient consideration of both its benefits and its costs.

This year, the British Council brought out another report on EMI (Sahan, et al., 2021), looking at EMI in ODA-categorised countries, i.e. receivers of foreign aid, mostly in the Global South. What has changed in the intervening seven years? The short answer is not a lot. Unabated growth continues: problematic issues remain problematic. Support for EMI lecturers remains limited and, when it is offered, usually takes the form of improving teachers’ general English proficiency. The idea that EMI lecturers might benefit from ‘training in appropriate materials selection, bilingual teaching pedagogies, strategies for teaching in multilingual or multicultural classrooms, [or] an awareness of their students’ disciplinary language needs’ does not seem to have taken root. The insight that EMI requires a shift in methodology in order to be effective has not really got through either, and this, despite the fact that it is well-known that many lecturers perceive EMI as a challenge. The growing body of research evidence showing the positive potential of plurilingual practices in higher education EMI (e.g. Duarte & van der Ploeg, 2019) is not, it would appear, widely known to universities around the world offering EMI classes. The only mention of ‘plurilingualism’ that I could find in this report is in the context of a discussion about how the internationalization (aka Englishization) of higher education acts as a counter-force to the plurilingualism promoted by bodies like the Council of Europe.

The home of the Council of Europe’s ‘European Centre for Modern Languages (ECML)’ is in Austria, where I happen to live. Here’s what the ECML’s website has to say about itself:

Developing every individual’s language repertoire and cultural identities and highlighting the social value of linguistic and cultural diversity lie at the core of ECML work. Plurilingual education embraces all language learning, e.g. home language/s, language/s of schooling, foreign languages, and regional and minority languages.

To support plurilingual education, a ‘Framework of Reference for Pluralistic Approaches to Languages and Cultures’ has been developed, along with a bank of resources and teaching materials that are linked to the descriptors in the frame of reference. Plurilingualism is clearly taken very seriously, and, across the country there are many interesting plurilingual initiatives in primary and secondary schools.

But not at universities. There is steady growth in EMI, especially at master’s level. Almost a quarter of all master’s at the University of Vienna, for example, are EMI. However, this has not been accompanied by any real thought about how EMI changes things or how EMI could best be implemented. It has simply been assumed that the only thing that differentiates teaching in German from using EMI is the choice of language itself (Dannerer et al., 2021). Only when things go wrong and are perceived as problematic (e.g. severe student dropout rates) ‘does the realization follow that there is so much more to teaching in another medium than language proficiency alone’ (ibid). Even language proficiency is not deemed especially worthy of serious consideration. Dannerer et al (2021) note that ‘the skills of teachers […] are neither tested nor required before they begin to offer courses in English. Although there are English language courses for students, academic, and administrative staff, they are mainly voluntary.’ There are no clear policies ‘as to when English or other languages should be employed, by whom, and for what’ (ibid). In summary, ‘linguistic and cultural plurality in Austrian higher education is not considered an asset that brings added value in terms of institutional diversity or internationalization at home’. Rather, in the context of EMI, it is something that can be Englishized and ignored.

Higher education EMI in Austria, then, is, in some ways, not so very different from EMI in the countries that feature in the recent British Council report. Or, for that matter, anywhere else in the world, with just a few exceptions (such as a number of universities in bilingual parts of Spain). My question is: why is this the case? Why would universities not actively pursue and promote plurilingual approaches as part of their EMI provision, if, as seems highly probable, this would result in learning gains? Are they really unaware of the potential benefits of plurilingual approaches in EMI? Is the literature out there (e.g. Paulsrud, et al., 2021) beyond their budgets? Have they, perhaps, just not got round to it yet? Is there, perhaps, some sort of problem (contracts? pay? time?) in training the lecturers? Or, as the British Council report seems to suggest, is there some irreconcilable tension between plurilingualism and the Englishizing world of most EMI? And, if this is the case, could it be that plurilingualism is fighting a losing battle?


Dannerer, M., Gaisch, M. & Smit, U. (2021) Englishization ‘under the radar’: Facts, policies, and trends in Austrian higher education. In Wilkinson, R. & Gabriëls, R. (Eds.) (2021) The Englishization of Higher Education in Europe. Amsterdam University Press, pp. 281 – 306

Dearden, J. (2014) English as a medium of instruction – a growing global phenomenon. London: British Council

Duarte, J. & van der Ploeg, M. (2019) Plurilingual lecturers in English medium instruction in the Netherlands: the key to plurilingual approaches in higher education? European Journal of Higher Education, 9 (3)

Macaro, E. (2018) English Medium Instruction. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Paulsrud, B., Tian, Z. & Toth, J. (Eds.) (2021) English-Medium Instruction and Translanguaging. Bristol: Multilingual Matters

Sahan, K., Mikolajewska, A., Rose, H., Macaro, E., Searle, M., Aizawa, I., Zhou, S. & Veitch, A. (2021) Global mapping of English as a medium of instruction in higher education: 2020 and beyond. London: British Council

Wilkinson, R. & Gabriëls, R. (2021) The untapped potentials of EMI programmes. The Dutch case, System, 103, 102639

Wilkinson, R. & Gabriëls, R. (Eds.) (2021) The Englishization of Higher Education in Europe. Amsterdam University Press.

Innovation and ELT

Next week sees the prize ceremony of the nineteenth edition of the British Council’s ELTons awards, celebrating ‘innovation in English language teaching and learning … the newest and most original courses, books, publications, apps, platforms, projects, and more.’ Since the Council launched the ELTons in 2003, it hasn’t been entirely clear what is meant by ‘innovation’. But, reflecting the use of the term in the wider (business) world, ‘innovation’ was seen as a positive value, an inherently good thing, and almost invariably connected to technological innovation. One of the award categories in the ELTons is for ‘digital innovation’, but many of the winners and shortlisted nominations in other categories have been primarily innovative in their use of technology (at first, CD-ROMs, before web-based applications became standard).

Historian Jill Lepore, among others, has traced the mantra of innovation at the start of this century back to renewed interest in the work of mid-20th century Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter, in the 1990s. Schumpeter wrote about ‘creative disruption’, and his ideas gained widespread traction with the publication in 1997 of Clayton Christensen’s ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book that Will Change the Way You Do Business’. Under Christensen, ‘creative disruption’ morphed into ‘disruptive innovation’. The idea was memorably expressed in Facebook’s motto of ‘Move fast and break things’. Disruptive innovation was always centrally concerned with expanding the market for commercial products by leveraging technology to gain access to more customers. Innovation, then, was and is a commercial strategy, and could be used either in product development or simply as an advertising slogan.

From the start of the innovation wave, the British Council has been keen to position itself in the vanguard. It does this for two reasons. Firstly, it needs to promote its own products and, with the cuts to British Council funding, its need to generate more income is increasingly urgent: ELT products are the main source of this income. Secondly, as part of the Council’s role in pushing British ‘soft power’, it seeks to promote Britain as a desirable, and therefore innovative, place to do business or study. This is wonderfully reflected in a series of videos for the Council’s LearnEnglish website called ‘Britain is Great’, subsets of which are entitled ‘Entrepreneurs are GREAT’ and ‘Innovation is GREAT’ with films celebrating the work of people like Richard Branson and James Dyson. For a while, the Council had a ‘Director, English Language Innovation’, and the current senior management team includes a ‘Director Digital, Partnerships and Innovation’ and a ‘Director Transformation’. With such a focus on innovation at the heart of its organisation, it is hardly surprising that the British Council should celebrate the idea in its ELTons awards. The ELTons celebrate the Council itself, and its core message, as much as they do the achievements of the award winners. Finalists in the ELTons receive a ‘promotional kit’ which includes ‘assets for the promotion of products or publications’. These assets (badges, banners, and so on) serve to promote the Council brand at the same time as advertising the shortlisted products themselves.

Innovation and a better world

Innovation, especially ‘disruptive innovation’, is not, however, what it used to be. The work of Clayton Christensen has been largely discredited (Russell & Vinsel, 2016). The Facebook motto has been changed and ‘the Era of “Move Fast and Break Things” Is Over’ (Taneja, 2019). The interest in ‘minimal viable products’ has shifted to an interest in ‘minimal virtuous products’. This is reflected in the marketing of edtech with the growing focus on how product X or Y will make the world a better place in some way. The ELTons introduced ‘Judges’ Commendations’ for ‘Equality, Diversity and Inclusion’ and, this year, a new commendation for ‘Environmental Sustainability and Climate Action’. Innovation is still celebrated, but ‘disruption’ has undergone a slide of meaning, so that it is more likely now to refer to disruption caused by the Covid pandemic, and our responses to it. For example, TESOL Italy’s upcoming annual conference, entitled ‘Disruptive Innovations in ELT’, encourages contributions not only about online study and ‘interactive e-learning platforms’, but also about ‘sustainable development and social justice’, ‘resilience, collaboration, empathy, digital literacy, soft skills, and global competencies’. Innovation is still presented as a good, even necessary, thing.

I am not suggesting that the conflation of innovation with positive social good is purely virtue-signalling, although it is sometimes clearly that. However, the rhetorical shift makes it harder for anyone to criticise innovations, when they are presented as solutions to problems that need to be solved. Allen et al (2021) argue that ‘those who propose solutions are always virtuous because they clearly care about a problem we must solve. Those who suggest the solution will not work, and who have no better solution, are denying the problem the opportunity of the resolution it so desperately needs’.

There are, though, good reasons to be wary of ‘innovation’ in education. First among these is the lessons of history, which teach us that today’s ‘next big thing’ is usually tomorrow’s ‘last next big thing’ (Allen, et al., 2021). On the technology front, from programmed instruction to interactive whiteboards, educational history is littered with artefacts that have been oversold and underused (Cuban, 2001). Away from technology, from Multiple Intelligences to personalized learning, we see the same waves of enthusiasm and widespread adoption, followed by waning interest and abandonment. The waste of money and effort along the way has been colossal, although that is not to say that there have not been some, sometimes significant, gains.

The second big reason to be wary of technological innovations in education is that they focus our attention on products of various kinds. But products are not at the heart of schooling: it is labour, especially the work of teachers, which occupies that place. It is not Zoom that made possible the continuation of education during the pandemic lockdowns. Indeed, in many parts of the world, lower-tech or zero-tech solutions had to be found. It was teachers’ readiness to adapt to the new circumstances that allowed education to stumble onwards during the crisis. Vinsel and Russell’s recent book, ‘The Innovation Delusion’ (2021) compellingly argues that the focus on innovation has led us to ‘devalue the work that underpins modern life’. They point out (Russell and Vinsel, 2016) that ‘feminist theorists have long argued that obsessions with technological novelty obscures all of the labour, including housework, that women, disproportionately, do to keep life on track’. Parallels with the relationship between teachers and technology are hard to avoid. The presentation of innovation as an inherently desirable value ‘rarely asks who benefits, to what end?’

The ‘ELT’ in the ELTons

It’s time to consider the ‘ELT’ part of the ELTons. ‘ELT’ is a hypothetical construct that is often presented as a concrete reality, rather than a loosely-bound constellation of a huge number of different practices and attitudes, many of which have very little in common with each other. This reification of ‘ELT’ can serve a number of purposes, one of which is to frame discourse in particular ways. In a post from a few years ago, Andrew Wickham and I discussed how the framing of ‘ELT’ (and education, more generally) as an industry serves particular interests, but may be detrimental to the interests of others.

Perhaps a useful way of viewing ‘ELT’ is as a discourse community. Borg (2003) argues that ‘membership of a discourse community is usually a matter of choice’. That is to say that you are part of ‘ELT’ if you choose to identify yourself as such. In Europe, huge numbers of English language teachers do not choose to identify themselves primarily as an ‘ELT teacher’: they may see this label as relevant to them, but a more immediate and primary self-identification is often as a ‘school teacher’, a ‘primary school teacher’, a ‘(modern) languages teacher’, a ‘CLIL teacher’, and so on. They work in the state / public sectors. The concerns and interests of those who do not self-identify as ‘ELT practitioners’ are most likely to revolve around their local contexts and issues. Those of us who self-identify as ‘ELT practitioners’ are more likely to be interested in what we share with others who self-identify in the same way in different parts of the globe. The relevance of local contexts and issues is mostly to be found in how they may shed light on more global concerns. If you prioritise the local over the global, your participation in the ‘ELT’ discourse community is likely to be limited. Things like the ELTons are simply off your radar.

Borg (2003) also points out that discourse communities typically have ‘experts who perform gatekeeping roles’. The discourse of ‘ELT’ is enacted in magazines, blogs, videos, webinars and conferences aimed at English language teachers. I exclude from this list academic journals and books which are known to be consulted only rarely by the vast majority of teachers. Similarly, I exclude the more accessible books that have been written specifically for English language teachers, which are mostly sold in minuscule quantities, except for those that are required reading for training courses. The greatest number of contributors to the discourse of ‘ELT’ are authors, developers and publishers of language teaching materials and tools, teachers representing product vendors or (directly or indirectly) promoting their own products, representatives of private teaching / training schools, and organisations, representatives of international examination bodies, and representatives of universities (which, in some countries, essentially function as private institutions (Chowdhury & Ha, 2014)).

In other words, the discourse of ‘ELT’ is shaped to a very significant extent by gatekeepers who have a product to sell. Their customers are often those who do not self-identify in the same way as members of the ‘ELT’ discourse community. The British Council is a key gatekeeper in this discourse and it is a private sector operator par excellence.

The lack of interest in the workers of ‘ELT’ is well documented – see for example the Teachers as Workers blog. It is hardly unexpected, especially in the private sector. The British Council has a long history of labour disputes. At the present time, the Public and Commercial Services Union in the UK is balloting members about strike action against forced redundancies, which ‘are disproportionately targeted at middle to lower graded staff, while at the same time new management positions and a new deputy chief executive officer post are to be created’. One of the aims of the union is to stop the privatisation / outsourcing of Council jobs. The British government’s recent failure to relocate British Council employees in Afghanistan led to over 100,000 people signing a petition demanding action. The public silence of the British Council did little to inspire confidence in their interest in their workers.

The Council is a many-headed beast, and some of these heads do very admirable work in sponsoring or supporting a large variety of valuable projects. I don’t think the ELTons is one of these. The ideology behind them is highly questionable, and their ‘best before’ date has long expired. And given the financial constraints that the Council is now operating under, the money might be better spent elsewhere.


Allen, R., Evans, M. & White, B. (2021) The Next Big Thing in School Improvement. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational

Borg, E. (2003) Discourse Community. ELT Journal 57 (4): 398-400

Chowdhury, R. & Ha, P. L. (2014) Desiring TESOL and International Education. Bristol: Multilingual Matters

Christensen, C. M. (1997) The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book that Will Change the Way You Do Business. Cambridge: Harvard Business Review Press

Cuban, L. (2001) Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Lepore, J. (2014) The Disruption Machine. The New Yorker, June 16, 2014.

Russell, A. L. & Vinsel, L. (2016) Hail the Maintainers. Aeon, 7 April 2016

Taneja, H. (2019) The Era of “Move Fast and Break Things” Is Over. Harvard Business Review, January 22, 2019,

Vinsel, L. & Russell, A. L. (2020) The Innovation Delusion. New York: Currency Books

NB This is an edited version of the original review.

Words & Monsters is a new vocabulary app that has caught my attention. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, because it’s free. Secondly, because I was led to believe (falsely, as it turns out) that two of the people behind it are Charles Browne and Brent Culligan, eminently respectable linguists, who were also behind the development of the New General Service List (NGSL), based on data from the Cambridge English Corpus. And thirdly, because a lot of thought, effort and investment have clearly gone into the gamification of Words & Monsters (WAM). It’s to the last of these that I’ll turn my attention first.

WAM teaches vocabulary in the context of a battle between a player’s avatar and a variety of monsters. If users can correctly match a set of target items to definitions or translations in the available time, they ‘defeat’ the monster and accumulate points. The more points you have, the higher you advance through a series of levels and ranks. There are bonuses for meeting daily and weekly goals, there are leaderboards, and trophies and medals can be won. In addition to points, players also win ‘crystals’ after successful battles, and these crystals can be used to buy accessories which change the appearance of the avatar and give the player added ‘powers’. I was never able to fully understand precisely how these ‘powers’ affected the number of points I could win in battle. It remained as baffling to me as the whole system of values with Pokemon cards, which is presumably a large part of the inspiration here. Perhaps others, more used to games like Pokemon, would find it all much more transparent.

The system of rewards is all rather complicated, but perhaps this doesn’t matter too much. In fact, it might be the case that working out how reward systems work is part of what motivates people to play games. But there is another aspect to this: the app’s developers refer in their bumf to research by Howard-Jones and Jay (2016), which suggests that when rewards are uncertain, more dopamine is released in the mid-brain and this may lead to reinforcement of learning, and, possibly, enhancement of declarative memory function. Possibly … but Howard-Jones and Jay point out that ‘the science required to inform the manipulation of reward schedules for educational benefit is very incomplete.’ So, WAM’s developers may be jumping the gun a little and overstating the applicability of the neuroscientific research, but they’re not alone in that!

If you don’t understand a reward system, it’s certain that the rewards are uncertain. But WAM takes this further in at least two ways. Firstly, when you win a ‘battle’, you have to click on a plain treasure bag to collect your crystals, and you don’t know whether you’ll get one, two, three, or zero, crystals. You are given a semblance of agency, but, essentially, the whole thing is random. Secondly, when you want to convert your crystals into accessories for your avatar, random selection determines which accessory you receive, even though, again, there is a semblance of agency. Different accessories have different power values. This extended use of what the developers call ‘the thrill of uncertain rewards’ is certainly interesting, but how effective it is is another matter. My own reaction, after quite some time spent ‘studying’, to getting no crystals or an avatar accessory that I didn’t want was primarily frustration, rather than motivation to carry on. I have no idea how typical my reaction (more ‘treadmill’ than ‘thrill’) might be.

Unsurprisingly, for an app that has so obviously thought carefully about gamification, players are encouraged to interact with each other. As part of the early promotion, WAM is running, from 15 November to 19 December, a free ‘team challenge tournament’, allowing teams of up to 8 players to compete against each other. Ingeniously, it would appear to allow teams and players of varying levels of English to play together, with the app’s algorithms determining each individual’s level of lexical knowledge and therefore the items that will be presented / tested. Social interaction is known to be an important component of successful games (Dehghanzadeh et al., 2019), but for vocabulary apps there’s a huge challenge. In order to learn vocabulary from an app, learners need to put in time – on a regular basis. Team challenge tournaments may help with initial on-boarding of players, but, in the end, learning from a vocabulary app is inevitably and largely a solitary pursuit. Over time, social interaction is unlikely to be maintained, and it is, in any case, of a very limited nature. The other features of successful games – playful freedom and intrinsically motivating tasks (Driver, 2012) – are also absent from vocabulary apps. Playful freedom is mostly incompatible with points, badges and leaderboards. And flashcard tasks, however intrinsically motivating they may be at the outset, will always become repetitive after a while. In the end, what’s left, for those users who hang around long enough, is the reward system.

It’s also worth noting that this free challenge is of limited duration: it is a marketing device attempting to push you towards the non-free use of the app, once the initial promotion is over.

Gamified motivation tools are only of value, of course, if they motivate learners to spend their time doing things that are of clear learning value. To evaluate the learning potential of WAM, then, we need to look at the content (the ‘learning objects’) and the learning tasks that supposedly lead to acquisition of these items.

When you first use WAM, you need to play for about 20 minutes, at which point algorithms determine ‘how many words [you] know and [you can] see scores for English tests such as; TOEFL, TOEIC, IELTS, EIKEN, Kyotsu Shiken, CEFR, SAT and GRE’. The developers claim that these scores correlate pretty highly with actual test scores: ‘they are about as accurate as the tests themselves’, they say. If Browne and Culligan had been behind the app, I would have been tempted to accept the claim – with reservations: after all, it still allows for one item out of 5 to be wrongly identified. But, what is this CEFR test score that is referred to? There is no CEFR test, although many tests are correlated with CEFR. The two tools that I am most familiar with which allocate CEFR levels to individual words – Cambridge’s English Vocabulary Profile and Pearson’s Global Scale of English – often conflict in their results. I suspect that ‘CEFR’ was just thrown into the list of tests as an attempt to broaden the app’s appeal.

English target words are presented and practised with their translation ‘equivalents’ in Japanese. For the moment, Japanese is the only language available, which means the app is of little use to learners who don’t know any Japanese. It’s now well-known that bilingual pairings are more effective in deliberate language learning than using definitions in the same language as the target items. This becomes immediately apparent when, for example, a word like ‘something’ is defined (by WAM) as ‘a thing not known or specified’ and ‘anything’ as ‘a thing of whatever kind’. But although I’m in no position to judge the Japanese translations, there are reasons why I would want to check the spreadsheet before recommending the app. ‘Lady’ is defined as ‘polite word for a woman’; ‘missus’ is defined as ‘wife’; and ‘aye’ is defined as ‘yes’. All of these definitions are, at best, problematic; at worst, they are misleading. Are the Japanese translations more helpful? I wonder … Perhaps these are simply words that do not lend themselves to flashcard treatment?

Because I tested in to the app at C1 level, I was not able to evaluate the selection of words at lower levels. A pity. Instead, I was presented with words like ‘ablution’, ‘abrade’, ‘anode’, and ‘auspice’. The app claims to be suitable ‘for both second-language learners and native speakers’. For lower levels of the former, this may be true (but without looking at the lexical spreadsheets, I can’t tell). But for higher levels, however much fun this may be for some people, it seems unlikely that you’ll learn very much of any value. Outside of words in, say, the top 8000 frequency band, it is practically impossible to differentiate the ‘surrender value’ of words in any meaningful way. Deliberate learning of vocabulary only makes sense with high frequency words that you have a chance of encountering elsewhere. You’d be better off reading, extensively, rather than learning random words from an app. Words, which (for reasons I’ll come on to) you probably won’t actually learn anyway.

With very few exceptions, the learning objects in WAM are single words, rather than phrases, even when the item is of little or no value outside its use in a phrase. ‘Betide’ is defined as ‘to happen to; befall’ but this doesn’t tell a learner much that is useful. It’s practically only ever used following ‘woe’ (but what does ‘woe’ mean?!). Learning items can be checked in the ‘study guide’, which will show that ‘betide’ typically follows ‘woe’, but unless you choose to refer to the study guide (and there’s no reason, in a case like this, that you would know that you need to check things out more fully), you’ll be none the wiser. In other words, checking the study guide is unlikely to betide you. ‘Wee’, as another example, is treated as two items: (1) meaning ‘very small’ as in ‘wee baby’, and (2) meaning ‘very early in the morning’ as in ‘in the wee hours’. For the latter, ‘wee’ can only collocate with ‘in the’ and ‘hours’, so it makes little sense to present it as a single word. This is also an example of how, in some cases, different meanings of particular words are treated as separate learning objects, even when the two meanings are very close and, in my view, are hardly worth learning separately. Examples include ‘czar’ and ‘assonance’. Sometimes, cognates are treated as separate learning objects (e.g. ‘adulterate’ and ‘adulteration’ or ‘dolor’ and ‘dolorous’); with other words (e.g. ‘effulgence’), only one grammatical form appears to be given. I could not begin to figure out any rationale behind any of this.

All in all, then, there are reasons to be a little skeptical about some of the content. Up to level B2 – which, in my view, is the highest level at which it makes sense to use vocabulary flashcards – it may be of value, so long as your first language is Japanese. But given the claim that it can help you prepare for the ‘CEFR test’, I have to wonder …

The learning tasks require players to match target items to translations / definitions (in both directions), with the target item sometimes in written form, sometimes spoken. Users do not, as far as I can tell, ever have to produce the target item: they only have to select. The learning relies on spaced repetition, but there is no generative effect (known to enhance memorisation). When I was experimenting, there were a few words that I did not know, but I was usually able to get the correct answer by eliminating the distractors (a choice of one from three gives players a reasonable chance of guessing correctly). WAM does not teach users how to produce words; its focus is on receptive knowledge (of a limited kind). I learn, for example, what a word like ‘aye’ or ‘missus’ kind of means, but I learn nothing about how to use it appropriately. Contrary to the claims in WAM’s bumf (that ‘all senses and dimensions of each word are fully acquired’), reading and listening comprehension speeds may be improved, but appropriate and accurate use of these words in speaking and writing is much less likely to follow. Does WAM really ‘strengthen and expand the foundation levels of cognition that support all higher level thinking’, as is claimed?

Perhaps it’s unfair to mention some of the more dubious claims of WAM’s promotional material, but here is a small selection, anyway: ‘WAM unleashes the full potential of natural motivation’. ‘WAM promotes Flow by carefully managing the ratio of unknown words. Your mind moves freely in the channel below frustration and above boredom’.

WAM is certainly an interesting project, but, like all the vocabulary apps I have ever looked at, there have to be trade-offs between optimal task design and what will fit on a mobile screen, between freedoms and flexibility for the user and the requirements of gamified points systems, between the amount of linguistic information that is desirable and the amount that spaced repetition can deal with, between attempting to make the app suitable for the greatest number of potential users and making it especially appropriate for particular kinds of users. Design considerations are always a mix of the pedagogical and the practical / commercial. And, of course, the financial. And, like most edtech products, the claims for its efficacy need to be treated with a bucket of salt.


Dehghanzadeh, H., Fardanesh, H., Hatami, J., Talaee, E. & Noroozi, O. (2019) Using gamification to support learning English as a second language: a systematic review, Computer Assisted Language Learning, DOI: 10.1080/09588221.2019.1648298

Driver, P. (2012) The Irony of Gamification. In English Digital Magazine 3, British Council Portugal, pp. 21 – 24

Howard-Jones, P. & Jay, T. (2016) Reward, learning and games. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 10: 65 – 72