The application of digital games on vocabulary learning of non-English majors students and their learning attitudes

DO THI HUYEN, MA. and VO THI DUYEN ANH, MA. (Van Lang University)


The rapid development of information technology has provided numerous supports for English language teaching. Integrating information technology into teaching activities has become a trend and a requirement for practitioners in an attempt to facilitate learners to achieve the best outcome in the new era. Recently, the use of digital game-based activities for teaching and learning foreign languages has emerged and brought undeniably impressive benefits. This quasi-experimental research examines the significant impacts of digital games on the vocabulary learning process of non-English major students at Van Lang University. The mixed research method was employed in this research and the qualitative data sets were collected via Pre-tests, Post-tests and questionnaire. Meanwhile, the quantitative data sets were collected via open-ended questions. This research’s findings indicate that digital games help students learn vocabulary effectively. In addition, the researched students show positive attitudes towards the application of digital games in language learning.

Keywords: Digital games, vocabulary learning, learners’ attitudes.

1. Introduction

Learning vocabulary is a pivotal part of learning a foreign language as the meaning of new words is often emphasized. Underlining the importance of vocabulary acquisition, Schmitt (2000, p.55) stated that “lexical knowledge is central to communicative competence and to the acquisition of a second language”.  Paul Nation notes: “Vocabulary is not an end in itself. A rich vocabulary makes the skills of listening, speaking, reading, and writing easier to perform.”  Limited vocabulary in the second language blocks successful communication. Ibharim, Yatim, & Masran (2015) emphasized that students’ English skill is depending on the total number of words they know. Students with limited vocabulary are usually at higher risk of facing low achievement in school. For numerous educators, the ultimate goal of the English vocabulary teaching method is to help students learn the meaning of various words, so they can communicate effectively and write in English with confidence and creativity (Baumann, Kame’enui & Ash, 2003).  

Regarding English language education in Viet Nam, vocabulary learning is still considered as boring in countless English institutions as they have to memorize unfamiliar words and spelling (Nguyen & Khuat, 2003) and are typically asked to complete lots of exercises. Learners find it hard to engage in such rote learning of vocabulary activities.  However, various changes have emerged in  the  methods of teaching a second language over the past few years due to the growth of digital era. These changes happened to create fun and engaging learning environment to EFL learners (Ibharim et al., 2015). In line with the aim to amplify students ‘vocabulary usage in real contexts of communication efficiently, this current research is utterly significant to English vocabulary teaching because without sufficient lexical knowledge, students are unable to understand others, to express their own ideas straightforwardly and to adapt to the growing pace of technology or meet the demand of competitive labor market. It definitely leads to the barrier of successful language communication and career ladder.

At Van Lang university, it is said that a number of students do not participate actively in the vocabulary practice lessons. Recently, numerous English teachers have promoted digital games in learning and teaching process in an attempt to engage their students. Hence, this research was carried out to find out the impacts of digital games on vocabulary learning of Intermediate level students at Van Lang University for non-English majors and to respond to the research questions:

  1. Does using digital games have any significant effect on Intermediate EFL learners’ vocabulary achievement?
  2. What are the students’ attitudes towards using digital games in teaching vocabulary?
  3. What are the students’ difficulties and their suggestions to improve digital games using in teaching vocabulary

2. Literature Review

2.1. Theoretical frameworks towards digital games

Cognitive constructivism is a learning theory that game-based learning could be compatible (Orr & McGuinness, 2014). This learning theory builds on the theories of Piaget and Bruner, hence; an important consideration in a digital game-based classroom would be that game selection needs to fit the age and appropriate level of intellectual development of students (St-Pierre, 2011). Cognitivists consider learning not to be simply stimulation and reinforcement, but to involve thinking (Moore & Fitz 1993). In the cognitive paradigm, the mind is essentially a ‘black box’ that should be opened and understood. The learner is viewed as an information processor (Learning Theories Knowledge-base 2008). The learner is viewed as an information constructor: individuals actively construct or create their own subjective representations of objective reality (Bednar et al. 1995). New information is linked to prior knowledge; thus, mental representations are subjective (Resnick 1987; Brown et al. 1989).

With regards to the ‘game play’ aspect, cognitivism also emphasizes the context- dependent nature of knowledge where learning is promoted through scaffolding for completing tasks. In addition, player or learner control is an essential component of all games, players could play the game at their own pace or based on their mood. From the perspective of ‘playing games’, constructivism sees learning as a social process and is not limited to individuals. Like sim School (Zibit & Gibson 2005), a player enters the simulated classroom with a limited understanding of teaching practice; through the repeated cycles of decision-making, experimentation and reconstruction, players build expertise by developing new strategies and thinking like a teacher. It is a learning process that takes place through interactions with different types of students.

2.2 Digital games in English vocabulary learning and teaching

Digital game-based learning has shifted focus from learning with lectures and written tasks to learning with games and it has become an indispensable part of modern education.  Several new strategies have been proposed through digital games (Ibharim et al., 2015) which allow learners to be actively involved in classroom activities.

As for learners, Yip and Kwan (2006) claimed that online games are an effective vocabulary learning tool to both learners and teachers. It is an educational aid in comparison with traditional lessons. It helps increase student’s interests and ensure learning efficiency. Subsequent to learning and rehearsing new vocabulary through games, learners have the chance to utilize language in a non- stressful manner (Uberman, 1998). They enhance learners’ communicative abilities as well as have an opportunity to utilize the target language (Sorayaie- Azar, 2012).

As for teachers, digital gaming technology provides the option to measure students’ progress over extended periods of time due to the prolonged interaction and play with games. Therefore, digital games-based learning has been used to increase student retention, build teamwork skills, and communication (Bodnar, Anastasio, Enszer, & Burkey, 2016). Zeiger, (2017) stated that online games often provide unique examples and contexts in which students can practice their skills. Hence, online games make it easier for teachers to differentiate their instruction to cater to students’ needs. In addition to catering to different learning styles, online games often adapt to individual learners. Also, teachers can use games to help students keep their skills sharp during the school year or provide a more focused review at the beginning or end of the school year or before an important test. At the end of the day, the biggest benefit of digital games is that they are entertaining.

2.3. Previous studies

Digital game-based learning approach has greatly influenced the field of language education, especially from 2006 onwards (Reinders, 2012). As digital games indicate a promising approach in terms of embodying language learning in situated meaning, language educators are increasingly using digital games to facilitate language learning. Researchers have also shown that using digital games for language learning has many potentials.

Letchumanan et al. (2015) have investigated the effects of different computer-based game techniques with paper- based games towards the achievement of English vocabulary. The results of the study showed significant improvement in both methods of game. Nonetheless, students who were given digital game treatment achieved higher mean score. Therefore, their study proves that digital games are more likely to influence students' vocabulary compared to paper-based games. Another study from Yip and Kwan (2006) reported that students who used digital games are more likely to succeed in learning new vocabulary compared to students who learn the same set of words through conventional approaches.

Riahipour and Saba (2012) conducted the paper that represented a few examples from the literature concerned with the use of vocabulary games in learning the target words. Both authors mentioned that traditional activities such as memorization of long vocabulary lists, derivations, repetition of words, translation, fill-in-the-blank exercises are boring for students.

Similarly, Efendi, 2013 conducted a study on the use of games to improve vocabulary mastery. The aim of his research was to improve vocabulary mastery of the seventh-grade students. His research was a kind of classroom action research (CAR) in which the researcher acts as the teacher who leads teaching activity. In order to collect data, he used observation checklist, field note and a test. The participants of his study were 29 students of seventh grade students. His study consists of four major steps: planning, implementing, observing, and reflecting. The findings of the study showed that the use of online games can improve students’ vocabulary mastery achievement.

3. Research Methodology

3.1. Research design

The study employed mixed methods by gathering student’s scores via pre-test and post-test and a collection of data through a questionnaire with Likert scale items and open-ended questions. The compiled data then were analyzed with the support of the SPSS tool to run Independent samples t-test, Paired samples t-test, Mean and Standard deviation.

3.2. Research setting

The research was conducted in Van Lang University (VLU), which was a private University in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The number of students is 17,000 including around full-time 7000 students every intake.

According to the English training program of Van Lang University, there are four English courses namely English 1, English 2, English 3 and English 4 which are equivalent to A1 (b), A2 (a), A2 (b) and B1. In general, after the students finish these four semesters of English, as a regulation of the university exit standards, the students are required to achieve B1 level in accordance with the Common European Framework for Reference (CEFR).

3.3. Participants

Participants in this study were from two classes, namely K24-CS3-A20 and K24-CS3-A19. These two classes were chosen as experimental group (EG) and control group (CG) respectively from the researcher’s classes as those who are in “A” classes were at the same level according to their latest achievement test. There were 42 students each group. However, the participants were finalized as 32 students in the CG and 34 students in EG due to their full participation in the pre-test and post-test. The students were about 20 years old and were studying General English at intermediate level in the second semester of their second year at Van Lang University.

3.4. Research instruments

To collect necessary data in this study, two instruments including pre-post tests and questionnaire were employed. Participants in EG and CG were given a pre-test to ensure homogeneity before the treatment, and a post-test to measure the effects of treatment. The questionnaire was administered to the EG at the end of the course to investigate the students’ learning attitudes towards the using of gamification in vocabulary lessons.

The pretest was extracted from Vocabulary Size Test (Nation & Belgar, 2007). According to Nguyen & Nation (2011), vocabulary size tests are especially useful for experimental research. The Pretest consists of 70 items from 140 of the full test since Nation (2010) revealed that 70 items would serve the same reliability to measure the test takers’ level. The posttest was the other half of Vocabulary Size Test, which means that it consists of 70 items.

Along with the pretest and post-test, the study also employed a questionnaire to (see Appendix B), which consists of 9 Likert Scale items ranging from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (5) and open-ended questions written in both English and Vietnamese to avoid misunderstanding.

3.5. Research Procedure

The research was conducted in 12 weeks beginning from 18 February to 16 May, 2020 with 6 Units. It is notable that there is a 3-hour class meeting each week. According to the syllabus, each unit lasted 2 weeks.

Before the treatment, the two groups were selected from the researchers’ A classes. A classes were at the same level according to the achievement test. Before the experiment, the participants were given the pre-test which lasted 60 minutes. To ensure the homogeneity before the treatment, class K24-CS3-A20 and class K24-CS3-A19 were selected in according to alpha statistics at 0.85. The first class was assigned as the Control Group (CG) and the latter was chosen as the Experimental Group (EG). Both the two groups studied online via MS Teams due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In the next 12 weeks, the CG group experienced doing the practice tests in the word file. Whereas, the EG reinforced the vocabulary with digitals games including Quizizz, Kahoot. The games featured mainly multiple-choice tasks.

At the end of the experiment, the post-test was administered to the two groups. The questionnaire was carried out EG. Students were informed that their participation was voluntary and totally unrelated to their grades. The survey was anonymous without the participants’ names.

4. Results and discussion

Vocabulary status of the two groups before the treatment

Table 1. Independent sample t-test of pre-vocabulary test

Group Statistics


As shown in Table 1, the mean score gained by the EG group is slightly higher than the CG (5,26 vs 4,88). However, looking at the statistics number p (sig 2-tailed = ,343>5%), it revealed that there is no significantly statistical difference between the scores gained by the two groups in the vocabulary test before the treatment. This indicates that the students’ vocabulary status before the treatment is equal, in other words, it certifies the null hypothesis. Therefore, the research is entitled to be carried out.

Research Question 1: Does using digital games have any significant effect on Intermediate EFL learners’ vocabulary achievement?

To respond to research question 1, independent sample t-test was run to compare the scores gained by the two groups in the post-test after the treatment.

Table 2: Independent sample t-test of post-vocabulary test

Group Statistics

independent_sample_t-test_of_post-vocabulary_test Source: Authors’ caculation.

As can be seen from Table 2, on average, the EG outperformed the CG (Mean score of 14,1290 vs 12,6250 respectively). Also, the statistics number p (sig 2-tailed) < 5% (0,001) confirmed that the students in the EG gained higher achievement in their vocabulary knowledge statistically. The finding is in line with previous studies (Letchumanan et al., 2015; Yip & Kwan, 2006; Riahipour and Saba, 2012; Efendi, 2013), in which digital games have a significant impact on learners’ vocabulary in terms of achievement.

Research Question 2:  What are the students’ attitudes towards using digital games in teaching vocabulary?

Table 3. Students’ responses to the Likert Scale items in the Questionnaire

Descriptive Statistics


Source: Authors’ caculation.

In general, as can be seen from the above table, the mean scores of all the items are higher than 4. This indicates that the students showed their positive attitudes towards digital games. Moreover, almost all of the values are less than one standard deviation, which means that they are very close to the means. In particular, the students perceived that using digital games helped increase their vocabulary learning outcome. The games also enabled them to remember and use the vocabulary better. Furthermore, they revealed that learning vocabulary by digital games was more fun and less stressful than using traditional handouts. It is noticeable that they suggested digital games should be utilized in every class meeting.

Research Question 3: What are the students’ difficulties and their suggestions to improve digital games using in teaching vocabulary

According to the responses from the students, the most prevalent difficulties that you had involved Internet disconnection (9/30 students) as shown in the following extract:

Sometimes when I was playing the game, I dropped out due to Internet connection”

“Because of the Internet connection, I couldn’t join the game timely. So, I missed some of the questions

Another problem they had is the time limit on each question. Some of the students (3/30) reported that they couldn’t figure out the answers in the allocated time limit. Last but not least, three out of the students revealed that they found Kahoot inconvenient to use since it needed two devices to play the games.

Regarding the suggestions to improve the implementation of digital games, it is remarkable that some of the students (4/30) suggested that more types of games besides Quizizz and Kahoot be employed in teaching vocabulary. Another surprising response is that Quizizz was more convenient to use than Kahoot.

5. Conclusion

The study investigated the positive effects of digital games on non-English majored students at Van Lang university. Results indicated a significant change in vocabulary knowledge over time. With no doubt, using digital games to test student’s vocabulary knowledge was more fun and less stressful than using handouts, helped students remember vocabulary better, increased vocabulary learning outcome. Most of students come to agreement that they participated more actively in class activities when studying with digital games. The English tests in the digital games help the learners build confidence and overcome stress during the lessons. Over two-third of students suggested that digital games should be employed in every class meeting. More importantly, from the test results, experimental group demonstrated significantly higher score through post- test. Therefore, digital gamed based vocabulary learning is indispensable in teaching and learning process of this technological era. However, this present research also had some limitations as it was conducted on a small-scale context at the authors’ classrooms. It is highly recommended that there should be further research with random sampling in the faculty of foreign languages and other institutions to obtain more representative data to assess the effectiveness digital game-based vocabulary learning employed in teaching other language skills.



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