Promising New Research From Japan Backs Immersive VR English Language Teaching

We know how important evidence-based practice is in the world of education. Research on learning in the ESL classroom has informed us every step of the way when designing and developing Immerse. Ultimately, this knowledge helps us equip our partners to deliver delightful and effective learning experiences.

That’s why we’re excited to share some interesting findings from a study by Professor Yukie Saito of Chuo University, Japan. The emphasis of the study was on understanding the impact of VR immersion for language learning on students' affective filter. Part of the study, however, provided some interesting results that highlight the potential of immersive VR learning to improve language proficiency.

Curious, but not enough time to read everything? Then walk away with this:

VR instruction appears to have improved students’ speaking proficiency (as measured by TOEIC) by an average of 7%, after just 200 minutes of instruction.

Let’s dive in.

What did the study involve?

Professor Saito is an adviser at Immerse. Between November and December 2020, she undertook a study at Chuo University with a group of pre-intermediate English learners. She wanted to explore the impact of VR learning on student anxiety in comparison to more traditional teaching methods of teaching English as a foreign language. She also wanted to explore the potential and the challenges of using virtual reality.

Watch Professor Saito's full presentation on YouTube.

Students attended Immerse VR classes with qualified English teachers over a five-week period. During the study, students received between 120-200 minutes of English language learning in VR.

Before the VR lessons, the students took the TOEIC speaking test to establish a benchmark for their speaking proficiency. They also answered a questionnaire about how comfortable and confident they were when speaking English.

On top of this, Professor Saito asked the students to keep a journal where they could note down their impressions of each lesson. After the course, they took the TOEIC speaking test again, and completed the questionnaire for a second time.

Two interesting results

The results were surprising, even for our team. Professor Saito's research surfaced two key findings:

  1. It has a truly beneficial effect on students’ confidence. In the study, after just a few short VR lessons, students stated they felt less anxious about speaking a second language in front of their classmates.
  2. VR learning may dramatically improve students’ language level in a relatively short time.
“Because of the virtual world it is easier to immerse yourself in a created situation. That helps us speak more confidently.”

When Professor Saito compared the before-and-after results of the survey, she saw that the students’ anxiety about speaking a foreign language was significantly lower after their VR learning experience. The course was relatively short; between four or five 40 minute ESL classes, but it was enough to boost their confidence.

This result was further supported by the positive comments that students had written in their journals about their experiences of the VR lessons:

“Because of the virtual world,” one student wrote, “it is easier to immerse yourself in a created situation. That helps us speak more confidently.”

Another student also found that VR learning helped them feel less inhibited in the classroom: “I could speak more easily because each member’s face is an avatar.”

A measurable improvement in speaking skills

The boost in student confidence was really exciting to see. But we were even more impressed by the surprising and significant improvements many students made in their speaking abilities.

  • The average TOEIC score of participating students increased by 9 points from 117.5 to 126.25 - a 7% improvement in proficiency.
  • Four students TOEIC score advanced 20 points.
  • One student’s score increased from 150 to 160, with a final TOEIC score of 7.

That kind of improvement with only one English class a week, for a little over a month, is noteworthy - and provides an exciting hypothesis for further study.  

What other research says about VR learning

That VR learning produced such encouraging results isn’t entirely unprecedented. Previous evidence-based research (Scrivner et al, 2019) has shown that immersive technologies such as VR are “an ideal instrument for language instruction”.

Better academic performance

Supporting this, other research has uncovered that VR-Based English teaching also has an impact on independent learning at high levels:

It “had positive effects on the students' academic achievement... students' cognitive skills improved especially at high levels. In the virtual reality environment, students were responsible for their own English learning." (Acar, 2020)

Independent learning

One of the students in Professor Saito’s study really noticed the change in their level of engagement when using VR: “Until now, it was passive learning using textbooks in the classroom. But I thought that VR lessons are active learning that allows you to take action on your own.”

Acar’s 2020 study on the impact of VR learning in the ESL classroom supports this, finding that “immersive VR outperforms all other classical materials, especially textbooks, by providing students with sensory information in three dimensions.”

Improved retention and engagement

Memory retention and student engagement are two of the most important elements when it comes to language acquisition. And VR has shown “an impact on long-term memory retention” (Scrivener et al, 2019). Arguably, the Immerse VR learning environment is so effective because it places students in a fully-immersive, interactive and appropriate context. This equally engages learners visually, auditorily and physically - aiding both understanding and retention:

“Immersive VR allows a direct feeling of objects and events that are physically out of our reach, supporting training in a safe environment avoiding potential real dangers, and increases the learner' involvement and motivation.” (Freina & OTT, 2015)

Some of the students’ journals in Saito’s study supported this: “I think that English conversation lessons using VR would allow students to learn English effectively using sight and hearing,” one student wrote. “In fact, I can accurately recall every lesson with visuals.”

Furthermore, according to the above research by Scrivner et al, “by shifting from a passive to an active participant in virtual scenes, the learner is compelled to explore language environments.”

Bridging the gap between the teacher, the learner and the learning context

We are living in an age of online education and Zoom fatigue. So it’s more important than ever that teachers have access to resources which prove so engaging and motivating for students.

A lot of students aren’t able to be present in a physical classroom. But even when they are in the same room, a virtual reality classroom can bridge that gap between teacher, student and the learning context. Most importantly, it can bring language activities to life and create deeply enjoyable, efficacious learning experiences for students.

“Every lesson was impressive,” said one of Professor Saito’s students. “I could enjoy speaking English.” Another student was even more to the point. “I had fun as if I was a kid again.”

Learn more

Having fun in the classroom, while boosting student confidence and improving language skills? It sounds like a winning combination to us! If you’d like to learn more about how VR learning works, download our guide for teachers here and watch this student testimonial video.