Many of us find ourselves lamenting lost opportunities from our high school years. Most notably is the opportunity to learn another language. The ability to speak French or Spanish or Japanese is romantic, it makes things easier when we travel and it helps us in business. The reality is, learning a language is difficult, and most of us give up in our formative years for this very reason. We don’t really need it, so it’s not worth the hassle.
However, for many children growing up in countries where English is not the first language, learning English isn’t simply a hobby or an extra curricula activity, it’s a matter of survival. For children in Dubai for example, if you cannot write in English correctly, it will have a huge impact on your grades and restrict entry into further education, thus preventing you from gaining tertiary qualifications.
Dr. Kristian Kirkwood, Founder of Spelloo and one of SPARK Deakin’s 2017 startups, is an expert in second language acquisition. Kristian has spent decades teaching in schools and universities, and has conducted extensive research into Arabic learners. His startup Spelloo is a digital spelling game for non-English speakers which aims to both increase a student’s spelling and their vocabulary. It has also been shortlisted shortlisted for an award in the UK with the British Council, one of ESL’s biggest players.
We had a chat with Kristian about Spelloo, learning patterns, gamification and how the SPARK Deakin’s program has helped his vision.
What makes Spelloo different from other spelling games?
Our first question was probably the most frequently asked question Kristian’s heard: “what makes Spelloo different from the multitude of other spelling games floating out in the cyber abyss? What makes it different from those approved for use in classrooms?”.
Kristian explained that many spelling games and programs have a “one size fits all” approach, which denies the student opportunities to develop skills according to their specific needs. He likened it to going to a doctor when you have a heart condition, as opposed to going to a cardiologist. With his research into Arabic language patterns, Kristian has incorporated his findings into a customised learning experience for Arabic-speaking school students.
But why only Arabic?
Is has been established in academic literature that Arabic learners of English have the most difficulties with spelling. This is largely due to the first language interference. Arabic is a phonetic language, so words are spelt as they are pronounced, unlike English. By focusing on the Arabic market, where Kristian’s expertise lies, he will be able to build case studies and ensure that his expansion into other language territories, particularly those that use different language patterns, may be smoother.
From a business perspective, Kristian said it was important for him to “nail his niche”. In order to sell the game to schools, a school must feel it has been tailored to them and their students’ needs.
Does digital gamification actually work?
Kristian quoted a six-week study which showed that students were significantly more focused during revision sessions when using digital games compared to traditional methods. He said that on average, students performed 12% better when using digital games. Judging by this statistic, digital gamification is the way to go.
How will you test it?
Kristian told us he wanted to “hit the ground running” and get into Dubai and Saudi Arabia, with some trials in Arabic-specific schools in Melbourne and Sydney beforehand. As the game involves classroom-wide participation, it is important all students are at the same level. This can be difficult to find in Australia, hence the focus on international markets.
What problems have arisen so far?
For those interested in starting their own business, and for those who are already knee deep, it’s interesting to hear about the problems that other startups are facing. This makes the journey seem less alone and it also teaches us about the ways we can tackle the same problems if they arise in our context.
Kristian said that his primary problems were solved by websites like Freelancer. Through Freelancer he was able to source skilled illustrators and web designers. He says that “it’s difficult sometimes to find someone reliable who can produce work in the way that you envisage it, but once you find someone it makes the process much smoother”.
And what about Deakin’s SPARK program?
As one of the chosen recipients of $10, 000, we wanted to know what Kristian and Spelloo have gained from the SPARK Deakin program thus far.
“It’s given me validation in what I’ve been doing – I hadn’t told many people, I wanted to wait before it became successful before I told anyone” he says. “The prize was validation that my idea had merit. I started to think ‘Hey, I might be onto something here!’”
He also gained a really great mentor through the program who he admitted he was initially “wary about” due to being from the same industry, but turned out to be incredibly helpful, generous with their time and full of knowledge.
“It has accelerated my whole program and what I plan to do… and it has helped with goals and milestones”.
Spelloo’s next steps?
Spelloo’s website will be judged on January 10 by the British Council for the award he has been shortlisted for and Kristian says it “would give Spelloo immense credibility”.
Kristian is also in the process of updating Spelloo’s graphics and contacting Islamic schools in Melbourne so that Spelloo’s trials can get underway.
Unfortunately, we can’t link you to any of Spelloo’s social pages or website just yet (they’re being built as we type!), but we will be sure to let you know on our Facebook.
If you’re a Deakin student, alumni or staff member and are interested in SPARK Deakin’s Accelerator Program, click here! Successful applicants will receive a $10,000 grant, access to mentors, comprehensive workshops, legal advice and more. Keep an eye on the important dates and pop them in your diaries when they’re live!