'Poolside Interview with Matt Errey'
An EnglishClub.com Interview
Josef Essberger interviews the inventor of WORD UP
Josef: WORD UP is
getting a lot of attention now as what I suppose must be the leading board game
specifically for English learners, and you've just released a new edition. So I
have lots of questions for you about Word Up and how you came to invent it. But
first, a little background about you...where did you grow up, Matt, and how
long have you been involved in teaching English?
Matt: My home country is
Australia, and that's where I grew up - in Melbourne, Victoria. And I've been
involved in teaching English now for about 16 years - since coming to Thailand,
Josef: Plenty of people have
written books and started web sites for English learners, but board games are
practically unheard of - I mean board games just for ESL. Whatever gave you the
idea to create a board game just for ESL?
Matt: Necessity! Necessity
being the mother of invention. It more or less evolved out of the situation I
was in. I was teaching at a commercial college here in Bangkok, and I soon
discovered that whatever we did it had to be fun. Thai people are very much
into things being fun - whether it's work, learning a language, or whatever. So
we all had to supplement the course work with games and activities to keep our
students on-side. And in those days that meant making most of them up. There
were a few books around, like "Games for Language Learning" by Andrew Wright,
but it wasn't that easy to get hold of them. You couldn't just order them on
the Internet, of course - because there was no Internet back then. And so I
started coming up with different types of games for my classes - quiz games,
card games ... and board games, obviously.
Josef: And how did you decide
on the format for Word Up?
Matt: I was toying with the
idea of making a game for my students that was a bit like Trivial Pursuit, but
with the questions geared towards learning English rather than general
knowledge, and the whole thing more or less came to me as it is now. The
question categories seemed obvious enough - one for spelling, another one for
vocabulary which is now Crossword Clues, and then Missing Word for grammar and
structure, and Multiple Choice for everything else. And then I made a board
with squares for each type of question, made some scoring tokens out of
coloured paper, got some dice, and that was it. The special squares and the
Word Up cards came along later, but the basic format was there from the start.
Josef: How long did it take you
to make the original Word Up?
Matt: Well, the version I just
described didn't take too long as it only had a few question sets and a pretty
simple board. But after seeing how well it worked with my own students, and
after getting a lot of positive feedback from other teachers, I decided to have
a go at a more substantial version - hoping to get it produced. And that's when
the work really began. It took me about 18 months to write the first batch of
questions - which ended up being over 5,000 altogether. Then they had to be
graded into levels of difficulty, and arranged into sets. That took another few
months as I wanted each set to include a fairly consistent range of material -
like tenses, idioms, phrasal verbs, collocations, general knowledge and
whatnot. I also had to make sure that each set was balanced in terms of the
number of difficult and easy questions it had - within the general standard of
its level. And after I'd managed to get a company interested in producing it,
the questions had to be edited and proofread, the board and the box had to be
properly designed, and on it went. So all up it took about two and half years
to get it to the point where it was ready to be launched - which was in 1991.
And I've just spent another 6 months revising it all for the new editions we've
Josef: That sounds like a lot
of effort. Do you work full-time on Word Up?
Matt: No, not at all. I'm still
rolling up my sleeves and teaching, and I think that helps me to remain focused
on what learners really need, and what works or doesn't work with them.
Josef: Did you especially like
board games as a child?
Matt: Yes. When I was a kid we
didn't have home computers, let alone computer games, so we played board games
all the time. My dad taught me chess - he was a member of the local chess club
and a pretty good player. Then there was Monopoly, of course, and Cluedo, and
my Mum taught me how to play Scrabble, so we used to play that quite a lot as
Josef: Do you still play board
Matt: Only Scrabble, really. I
have a couple of friends over every Tuesday night and we play a few games, and
we've been doing this for years - religiously. And once in a while I'll play a
game of chess, but that's about it these days.
Josef: Do you know who actually
plays Word Up - I mean the type of learners, ages and so on? And where they
Matt: Well, it's used all over
Thailand, of course, given that it's been available here for years. We've sold
over 20,000 copies in Thailand alone - many of them to teachers and schools but
most to students and their families, so here it's used in homes a lot. And
since we've been selling it on the Internet, it's been mostly teachers who've
bought it, so we know it's being used in schools and language institutes in
over 60 countries already. What I'd like to see is students in other countries
using it more at home. What I had in mind when I made it was to create a fun
way for people to continue the learning process outside the usual classroom
situation, as well as to make something useful for teachers.
Josef: You must have read my
mind, because that was my next question. Is Word Up good for playing at home or
is it mainly for the classroom?
Matt: I think it works really
well for both. If learners want to do something to improve their English at
home, I think playing Word Up is perfect. The fact that there are all these
levels of difficulty means that the whole family can join in. The older kids
could be on level 4 or 5, the younger ones on level 1 or 2, and Mum and Dad on
whatever level suits them. But it's also good for teachers to use - it's good
for breaking the ice early on, or for a bit of fun later on whenever the class
needs a break from the usual format. And it also works well as a break-up
activity at the end of a course.
Josef: Do you still use Word Up
in your own classes?
Matt: Absolutely! For a start
I'll use it early on with a new class. A lot of students are reluctant to speak
at that stage - they're afraid of making mistakes, or they just feel a bit shy
- and Word Up is a good way of getting them started. And it's also a good
chance for me to observe them from a distance, so to speak - I can see pretty
clearly the strengths and weaknesses of each student while they're playing, get
some idea of where they're at as a group, and also find out a lot about their
personalities. You can learn a great deal about someone by watching them play a
game - and that's all useful stuff in teaching.
Josef: How specifically does
Word Up help learners to develop their English?
Matt: Well, players obviously
practise their reading, pronunciation and listening skills, but it also works
as a good way to learn new material - like new vocab., new idioms and phrasal
verbs, or new ways to use modals or prepositions or articles or whatever - just
about everything anyone needs is in there somewhere, I'd say. And students
really do seem to remember the material they're exposed to. Not because they
particularly want to, mind you, but because they're totally focused on what
they're doing. And they have to be if they want to win...and believe me, they
do! They really listen - even if it's not their question, they'll listen and
try to think of an answer. And when they hear the correct answer, they'll tend
to remember it - because of their level of concentration. That's why the game
format works well in general, I think - because it really does motivate
students to concentrate, to focus - and if they're focused, they'll learn.
Josef: Was Word Up the first
game you ever made?
Matt: It's the first one I've
made that's been produced and marketed. I've had plenty of other ideas for
games, and used them in my classes, but nothing else that I've felt could
really be developed further.
Josef: I imagine it's not easy
to just "create a game". How did you learn to do it?
Matt: No, I wouldn't say one
just "creates a game", as such. In my experience at least, if an idea comes,
and if it seems to work well, you tend to play around with it, develop it
further, and then it slowly evolves over time until you end up with something
you can call "a new game". I've gone through the whole business of consciously
trying to come up with another game that we could market...and it just doesn't
work like that. You can't just sit down and demand that good ideas come on cue
- they come when they're good and ready.
Josef: If I asked you for the
three main advantages of learning English with Word Up, what would they be?
Matt: Hmmm - that's a difficult
one. But I'd say the first one would be simply that it's fun and that students
never seem to get bored with it. They can play it over and over again and it'll
still be fun and interesting - and will continually motivate them to learn. The
second would be that it involves real communication and interaction - and it
creates a genuine social situation in which this can occur. I'd say this is one
of the main advantages of using board games in general, as opposed to computer
games, for example. Most computer games involve interaction between a player
and the computer itself - which I don't think is as authentic, or as useful, as
the experience a board game provides. And the third? Probably the range of
material, and the fact that it's all graded in such a way that a particular
student can play the game from when they're a beginner right through to when
they've got quite an advanced level of English. So it can provide a sense of
continuity. Course books might change, teachers might change, but Word Up will
always be there for them...a rock they can cling to in the turbulent waters of
learning English. [laughs]
Josef: How many questions did
you say there are in the game?
Matt: Today there are over
4,400 questions. 4,480 to be precise. Plus answers of course.
Josef: That's a lot of
questions! How did you manage to come up with all those questions? And why an
exact figure like 4,480? Why not something round like 4,000, or 5,000?
Matt: Well, to answer your
second question first...the explanation is pretty mundane. It's a technical
matter, to do with printing and how many question sheets fit on a large sheet
when they're printed, before cutting up. And how did I come up with the
questions? I had to take a fairly systematic approach. I'd think about each
category and then come up with particular question types or themes. So for
example, for Multiple Choice I'd think of something like proverbs, say, and
then just make a whole bunch of questions on proverbs. Then maybe question tags
- I'd list all the common ones and then make a series of Multiple Choice
questions on them. Or for Missing Word I'd decide on phrasal verbs as a
question type and then go through a phrasal verb dictionary and make a question
for each - within reason, of course.
Josef: And how many people can
play Word Up?
Matt: Two to six individual
players, or two to six teams, though if teams are formed the total number of
players shouldn't really be more than about twelve.
Josef: Now. the question I've
been dying to ask you. Where did the name come from?
Matt: There was a hit song called "Word Up" in the 80s by an
American group called Cameo. They were African Americans and apparently the
phrase was part of their particular idiom, and still is I believe. It's used
either as a sort of general greeting, especially among men, or as a way to
indicate agreement with someone. So this was how I first heard it, and when I
was trying to come up with a name for the game it got added to the list of
possibilities. And in the end it seemed like the best one I had. It had
reference to language, obviously, but didn't sound too bookish or academic. It
was short and simple, so I thought it'd be easy to remember, and it had a
positive ring to it. So that was the one I settled on.
Josef: Well, it must have been
a good choice, judging from the game's popularity. Do you have any plans for
"Son of Word Up" or other games?
Matt: None at this stage! I'm
still really busy getting Word Up out into the world - but who knows? Maybe
I'll get another idea and be hounded by it until I see it sitting in front of
me as a finished product...
(Reproduced here courtesy of EnglishClub.com)