A colleague of mine, Kathy, and I have been discussing ways to create a language sandbox game. This idea would be to create blocks with words on them that somehow interact in a way that demonstrates grammaticality.
Kathy’s oldschool. She’s been experimenting with blocks of wood painted different colors which students can manipulate. Great for kinesthetic learners! We discussed cutting them into puzzlepiece shapes so that each block only “fits” other words according to grammatical rules. At first, it seems like it would be possible to make nouns with square tabs that fit into square slots on verbs, and so on. However, as complexity increases, this becomes exponentially more difficult. Structures as complex as nouns modified by multiple adjectives would be prohibitively difficult.
What if a computer application could be developed that would replace the wood blocks with word tiles that could be manipulated with a mouse (or an interactive whiteboard!)? Could the tiles snap together and repel each other like magnets according to grammar rules? Could words be tagged for part-of-speech automatically within the application? Could different categories of words (verbs, adjectives, adverbs, specifiers, etc.) be added and deleted with the check of a box? Could students add their own tiles seemlessly into the pile? Clearly, some intelligence would be required of the application to implement all of these features.
As I was kicking all of this around, my friend Mike at Ohio University pointed me to siftables, which seem to be the synthesis of both ideas. Rather than try to describe these brilliant little devices, watch the TED Talks video.
Not only could these little devices fit the bill perfectly, the way they interact could inform interactions in the language sandbox I’ve been envisioning. Until we’ve all got pockets full of siftables to pass out in class, my $50 wiimote-based interactive whiteboard will have to do. In the meantime, I’m hoping that having students drag word tiles across the screen will work almost as well for kinesthetic learners.