First TESOLTalks Ho Chi Minh City

A report on TESOL Talks (first session), organized by HCMC TESOL Association, Australian Centre for Education and Training, and RMIT University Vietnam

For a link to the event brochure, click here:


Presenters: Anna Mendoza (English Language Teacher, Australian Centre for Education and Training) and Travis Henry (English Language Educator, RMIT Vietnam)

Photo 1: Workshop Presenters


What is Gamification? The presenters borrowed a definition from Sheldon (2012,p.75): ‘Simply put, Gamification is the application of game mechanics to non-game activities. Its underlying idea is to increase engagement.’ We can see that game mechanics would be the controlling concept in the definition. Analyzing principles that makes ‘Angry Birds’ a very popular mobile game, they listed their main characteristics. Firstly, games often maintain a reasonable progression of difficulty so that every player can have a sense of achievement in the first few rounds. Secondly, games provide players opportunities to undertake repetition; they will try until they succeed, learning from mistakes. And most enjoyably, games engage all ages because they involve competition – self and peer. Anna and Travis then analyzed Briggs and Tang (2011, p.6)’s taxonomy of engagement: Memorizing à Note taking à Explaining à Relating à Applying à Theorizing, which would then be illustrated through these activities:

  1. Activities for describing and explaining

a. Pictionary: there are two main stages. First, a volunteer would draw an illustration of a given word on the board which would be guessed by teammates. Then the team must brainstorm as many words as they can relating to the drawing.

b. Pelmanism: matching words to pictures.
c. 10-second idea: in 10 seconds, students draw pictures to illustrate a concept. Others the guess the concept and further provide collocations or more lexical sets.

Photo 2: 10-second idea

2. Activities for Relating
a. Picture-Word search: They first must to figure out what words to search for before searching them on a traditional letter grid. A nice twist to the traditional word search activity!

Photo 3: Picture-word Search


b. Vocabulary soup: pick words/concepts from a container and describe and explain. The reason it is called ‘Soup’: just a catchy name for the activity! 
3. Activity for Applying and Theorizing: Investment Presentation
Personally I think this activity is a truly gamified activity. The outcome of lesson is a presentation about investment. Instead of reading and writing from traditional materials, they would go to, sign up for an account, join a group set by the teacher and live the life of a broker/trader. After a given time, they would give a presentation about that experience, collecting data from their investment losses and gains. A must-try activity!

Part 2: Panel Discussion on Student Engagement.

We were pleased to have these distinguished guests:

Heather Swenddal (English Language Educator, RMIT Vietnam, Moderator)

Dr. Nguyen Ngoc Vu (Dean of English Department, HCMC University of Education)

Paul Williams (English Language Educator, RMIT Vietnam)

Jason Bednarz (Director of Studies, Australian Centre for Education and Training)

Nicholas Maxwell (English Language Educator, RMIT Vietnam)

Dr. Tran Thi Minh Phuong (Lecturer – Faculty of English Linguistics and Literature USSH)

Photo 4: Panel guests

jpg (1)

We experienced a power cut so our Moderator’s pre-prepared slides were omitted, making it somehow harder to keep track of the discussion rationales, but the discussion was still rigorous and maintained a high level of ‘engagement’. Heather introduced the topic by narrating her own personal story of a quiet student who turned out to be a total different personality after contacting her on Facebook, telling his life challenges leading to his problems in the classroom.

  1. Definition: different perspectives were discussed on a definition of student engagement, whether it is a state or something that leads to learner autonomy from the benefits and purposes of using games in the classroom. Dr. Vu treated it as a verb, ‘engage’, elaborating that engaging students mean using engaging content and technology. It should also involve affective factors relating to Heather’s narrative.
  2. What kinds do we value?

This part provoked a much heated debate. The panel agreed on the importance of standardized testing (backwash) in Vietnam’s context, citing the example of IELTS and other high-stake tests. Paul advocated that ‘We can’t change assessment. IELTS is IELTS’ but then further clarified how his student thanked him for things beyond exam skills. External and internal motivation seems a perpetually controversial issue.

  1. Whose responsibility is it? How can we develop learner autonomy?

No final decision reached but it appears that students do have a role to play in the engagement process, that they have to ‘experience themselves’ (Nick). Paul then called for an adaptation in curriculum written for Vietnamese learners thus highlighted the importance of personalization. Dr. Vu again stressed the power of technology as well as students’ self-regulation and choices while Dr. Phuong directed the focus on teacher’ design tasks. Nick then argued that sometimes teachers had to make negotiations, not to give students’ too much freedom, asking ‘What if they suggested unprofessional things?’. Heather concluded by saying that we had to balance the ingredients, channeling students’ future career, being ‘a scholar or businessman’


  1. How can we build students engagement?

Heather listed different levels where changes should be implemented: institutions, circular, lesson planning and lesson delivery. On the institution level, Paul advised deans to take teachers’ feedback seriously. Jason said that as teachers we should be salesmen to convince our deans or heads to trust our implementation. As far as lesson planning and delivery was concerned, Dr. Vu reflected on how he treated students as digital natives, making more use of technology and project-based learning which was useful both for themselves and the greater good of our society. Ms. Phuong called for a clearer outcome of each lesson.

Photo 5: Great contribution from the audience


Key Takeaway from TESOL Talks:

1. Design classroom tasks from the view of Gamification: Increasing Difficulty, Task Repetition and Competition.

2. Try for Business English classes.

3. Student engagement must be a multi-way interaction: top-down (curriculum) and bottom-up (students themselves).


1. Not many teachers have heard of this meaningful event so many seats were unoccupied. We should inform this to a larger demographic teaching community: Facebook groups, TESOL HCM website and spreading the news to colleagues.

2. Let’s hope the next session of TESOL Talks would last at least a full day J

Mai Minh Tiến




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