Using tasks in a Communicative Language Teaching classroom
In a continuation from her last post, Chia explores how CLT and the use of tasks can increase interaction in the classroom and considers an evaluation criteria for choosing tasks.
In my previous blogpost, I looked at the importance of interaction in language learning and how the process of negotiating meaning is key to our students not just in terms of fluency practice but also in developing their communication strategies and communicative competence so that they can hold their own in an English conversation outside the classroom. It is after all useless if students ‘know’ the grammar and lexis of a language but are unable to use them.
So how can we as teachers create an environment in the classroom where students get maximum opportunities for interaction and where communicative competence is getting developed?
Following Chomsky’s suggestion that linguistic competence and performance are in fact two separate constructs and Hymes’s (1966) introduction to the concept of communicative competence, the Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) approach grew increasingly popular in language classrooms. With a shift in focus from memorizing vocabulary and drilling grammatical structures to encouraging interaction, the features of CLT enabled students to work on their communicative abilities by active use of the target language.
Features of CLT
- An increased focus on speaking and listening (compared to the age of grammar translation and written grammar drills);
- Increased pairwork and/or groupwork means that more students can be practicing their speaking at the same time (as opposed to the teacher addressing the whole class and only one student being able to speak at any one time);
- A conscious reduction of teacher talking time, leading to more time for students to talk;
- A focus on meaning before form;
- Presenting language in context – Using a situation or a scenario, new language becomes more memorable than if presented randomly;
- A chance for learners to personalize their interactions, therefore making the language more relevant to themselves;
- Creating a need to communicate: people communicate because there is an information gap, i.e. there is something I want to say that the other person does know; there is something the other person knows that I would like to find out about;
- Communication as a two-way process: through the responses and feedback we get from our conversation partner, we realize what is understood and what isn’t and we learn to adjust accordingly to ensure our message gets through.
Despite the focus on communicative abilities and getting students interacting, many teachers and course materials supposedly using the CLT approach still find it difficult to get away from a form-focused methodology. There is still a residual belief that language is ultimately the sum of its parts, and that if our students master the individual parts, they’d be able to effectively and fluently take part in an interaction. Many course books and course syllabi still follow a grammar syllabus, with the communicative tasks wrapped around the practice of a certain form or set of lexis.
So in an attempt to ensure a focus is on meaning, along comes Task-Based Learning, with added emphasis on the task that students are given, rather than the language needed to accomplish it. Unlike grammar gap-fills and vocabulary matching exercises, these tasks in question have a non-linguistic outcome and sometimes require the students to draw on their real world knowledge to complete. Tasks could range from sharing opinions about popular television programmes or engaging in a debate about gender equality to fact-finding missions about another culture to making a short film or designing a class newsletter.
For Rod Ellis (2003), the task has four main characteristics:
- A task involves a primary focus on (pragmatic) meaning.
- A task has some kind of ‘gap’ (see above).
- The participants choose the linguistic resources needed to complete the task.
- A task has a clearly defined, non-linguistic outcome.
A few years later, Willis and Willis (2007:12-14) offer the following criteria in the form of the following questions:
- Will the activity engage learners' interest?
- Is there a primary focus on meaning?
- Is there a goal or an outcome?
- Is success judged in terms of outcome?
- Is completion a priority?
- Does the activity relate to real world activities?'
The more confidently you can answer yes to each of the above questions, the more task-like the activity.
On a basic level, these criteria persuade teachers to see tasks as the primary focus of a lesson and not simply a final by-product of a Present-Practice-Produce grammar lesson, with the task being the ‘Produce’ stage of the lesson that often ends without any feedback given as the teacher has run out of time.
However, not all tasks produce the same quality of interactions and not all interactions are necessarily relevant to the students’ needs or wants. One must pause when encountered with a task requiring students to evaluate 16th century artwork when neither their work nor interests would ever take them in that direction. When choosing or creating a task for our lessons, perhaps we need to consider the following:
- What will my students be needing English for? Will the task be relevant to their needs? There can also be great value getting to do tasks that are not directly relevant but are interesting and can generate lots of interaction e.g. variations of the famous ‘You will be living on a desert island for the next year. Which ten items would you bring?’. However, using tasks that are observably relevant to the learner can bring about greater levels of satisfaction.
- Is the task motivating? Will it engage students in interaction or will it elicit a groan?
- Will it generate discussion? Or is it a task where everyone would work on their own in silence?
- What type of discourse does the task lend itself to? Is it a roleplay that will generate a lot of typical language used at a restaurant? Is it a debate that will see lots of opinion-stating, agreeing and disagreeing? Is it a collaborative task where students have to negotiate their roles and/or instruct each other to do certain things? And more importantly, will practice of such a discourse be of use to the students?
- Are instructions clear? Will students know how to do the task? Will they know how much depth they have to get into? Is there a model to guide students?
- Will students have the language to do the task? If not, what language might you have to pre-teach? Can you limit pre-teaching to five language item? It is essential that the focus of the lesson does not become the pre-teaching in the pre-task stage. Also remember that low-level English students can have high-level opinions and thoughts too. Tasks don’t have to be uninteresting just because they are aimed at a lower level.
- Will students have enough time to do the task in class? Do they need to continue working on the task outside of class?
- Will the outcome have real life consequences? Will they get a reply from a real-life company/person? Will their friends/parents/colleagues be able to see the result of their work (e.g. a video uploaded on to Youtube)? Might their letter get published in a local newspaper? Might you be able to circulate their survey on social media for members of the general public to fill in?
When you have decided on your task, consider the stages of the lesson that needs to wrap around the task: e.g. how you would lead in to it, whether or not to pre-teach and how much to pre-teach, and how you would give feedback (language feedback and task feedback).
And hopefully, it’ll be a task that your students can truly sink their teeth into and enjoy working on so much that they might even forget that they are speaking English.
As Benjamin Franklin very wisely once said,
“Tell me and I forget,
Teach me and I may remember,
Involve me and I learn.”
Dave and Jane Willis (2007) Doing Task-based Teaching, OUP.
Ellis, Rod (2003). Task-based Language Learning and Teaching. Oxford, New York: Oxford Applied Linguistics.
Hymes, Dell (1966). "Two types of linguistic relativity". In Bright, W. Sociolinguistics. The Hague: Mouton. pp. 114–158.
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