Category Archives: Teaching Methodology and Research

Foreign Language Exercises and Tasks; Task-Based Activities

There are many different types of activities that we create for our foreign language students.  In the communicative language classroom there are two broad categories of activities: exercises and tasks.

Foreign Language Exercises and Tasks, Task-Bsed Activities (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

What is a task?

  • A task requires the use of the target language in order to complete a task. The goal is the completion of the task, though the expectation is that the target language is being used to complete it.

What is an exercise?

  • Bill Van Patten describes “exercises” as activities that focus on language mechanics and often use language out of context.
  • “Tasks,” in contrast, are activities that have a product, goal, objective or outcome that require using the target language to achieve it, but are not focused on mechanics.

With tasks the goal is independent of language. Research overwhelmingly shows that language used in context is most beneficial to language acquisition. Tasks are an effective way of providing communicative activities to students.

Foreign Language Exercises and Tasks, Task-Bsed Activities (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

Is the activity an exercise or a task?

Consider these aspects of activities when determining if it is an exercise or a task:

The Activity is an exercise if it…

  • focuses only correct examples of language.
  • uses language out of context.
  • focuses on producing small amounts of language.
  • doesn’t focus on meaningful communication.
  • dictates language structures and vocabulary.

The Activity is a task if it…

  • focuses on achieving communication.
  • focuses on meaningful use of language.
  • employs communication strategies.
  • does not use predictable language.
  • links language use to context.
  • does not dictate language structures.

Foreign Language Exercises and Tasks, Task-Bsed Activities (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com 

How do I design task?

  1. Choose a theme and a goal. Keep in mind particular vocabulary themes or language structures that you would like students to use and craft the activity accordingly.
  2. Explain the task and desired outcome.
  3. Pairs/groups engage in task. Teacher engages as necessary to keep task on track.
  4. Pairs/groups share out their goals with other groups or as a whole class.
  5. Teacher provides an individual extension activity.

Foreign Language Exercises and Tasks, Task-Bsed Activities (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

Take a look at this SlideShare that explains the difference between exercises, activities and tasks.

Also have a look at this post with lots of task-based activities for the French and Spanish classroom.

Design Communicative Activities in the Foreign Language Classroom

There are six ACTFL Core Practices that serve as guide for teachers as they teach toward increased foreign language proficiency in their classrooms. Once of the key core practices is designing communicative activities for students.

Design Communicative Activities in the Foreign Language Classroom (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

Design Communicative Activities in the Foreign Language Classroom (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

The wave of communicative language teaching began several years back when the language teaching community (linguists, teachers and students alike) took a hard look at the “best” practices of language teachers and came to the conclusion that these practices were not leading students toward being able to use the target language.  Much of the language teaching that was happening several decades back was focused on what students knew about the target language (i.e. verb conjugations, adjective forms, pronoun placement) and not what they were able to accomplish or do with the language that they were learning.  When it became clear that students were not able to communicate effectively using the target language it was clear that we needed to modify how we teach languages.  This was the birth of the concept of communicative language teaching.  Essentially it is an attempt to guide students toward an increased ability to communicate.

What is a Communicative Activity?

There are three concepts of communicative language teaching that set it apart form more traditional approaches:

  1. The focus is on communicating and doing something with the language as opposed to practicing isolated language features out of context.
  2. It is student-centered as opposed to teacher-centered.  Students create with language rather than having the language explained to them.
  3. The approach is focused on understanding the message being conveyed by students despite inaccuracy in language form as opposed to being focused on correct usage of language structures and only secondarily tending to the message.

Design Communicative Activities in the Foreign Language Classroom (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

Tips for Designing Communicative Activities

Her are a few tips and ideas to keep in mind as we design communicative activities.  Remember, communicative language teaching, or teaching that will guide students toward confidently communicating in the target language, is focused on the message, not practicing language structures out of context.

  • Active background knowledge  (pre-speaking activities) on the topic of the activity and/or choose a topic with which students are familiar.  When the focus is on communicating and building confidence we want students to be comfortable with the topic.  If they have the language proficiency, but lack content knowledge they will not communicate as much as they would if they were more familiar with the topic.
  • Use open-ended prompts and questions when designing an activity or task.  Prompts that are more finite will not allow for opportunities to engage with the topic and negotiate meaning.
  • Design prompts that require that pairs or groups of students must rely on and listen to each other.  If the prompt requires sharing an opinion, but not finding a commonality or difference with their speaking partner the task is more presentational in nature.
  • Create questions and prompts that require pairs and groups to collaborate and use the language to arrive at a product, not necessarily something physical that they will produce, but more finding a collaborative solution.
  • Be sure that the tasks students complete are at their proficiency level.  Know what their level is and the text type (lists, chunked phrases, discrete sentences, connected sentences, paragraph).  Design a task that will require creating with language using these text types.  A prompt for intermediate low students that requires speaking in connected sentences will lead to a communication breakdown because the text type for their proficiency level is single, discrete sentences.

Design Communicative Activities in the Foreign Language Classroom (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

Is the Activity Communicative?

Of the three modes of communication (interpersonal, interpretive, presentational) communicative language teaching lends itself best to interpersonal communication.  This mode is about active, real-time exchange of ideas and messages in a two-way (rather than one-way) exchange.  Often when teachers create activities that appear interpersonal they are actually more presentational.  Here are some questions to keep in mind to make sure that the activity that you are designing is actually interpersonal:

  • Is the activity student-centered, rather than teacher-centered?
  • Is the language spontaneous and unrehearsed, rather than prepared and practiced in advance?
  • Is the focus on conveying and understanding the message, rather than on correct language forms?
  • Is the communication a two-way exchange, rather than one-way, requiring response, reaction and spontaneous follow-up?
  • Do students have opportunities to negotiate meaning if they don’t fully understand, rather than understanding all vocabulary and language structures?
  • Do students have communication strategies that they can employ (language ladders, functional chunks, circumlocution)?

Design Communicative Activities in the Foreign Language Classroom (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

Examples of Communicative Activities

Here are few examples of activity structures that, regardless of proficiency level or content, take into account the concepts of communicative language teaching outlined above:

  1. OWL (Organic World Language) Conversation Circle
  2. Info-Gap Activities
  3. Jigsaw Activities
  4. Picture Prompts
  5. Task-Based Activities

I created a PDF with one-page description of communicative activities along with a lesson template and an example lesson.  Download it HERE.

Foreign Language Lesson Planning with Backwards Design

One of the ACTFL Core Practices is to teach with the Backwards Design Model. Backward Design is a teaching method that involves designing educational curriculum by setting goals before choosing instructional methods and forms of assessment.  This teaching model lends itself very well to proficiency-based language teaching as it requires the teacher to focus on what students will ultimately be able to do with the language, rather than simply knowing about the language.

Foreign Language Teaching with Backwards Design (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

Traditional language teaching as focused on learning and producing language structures and vocabulary through practice-type activities.  When it comes time to assessment (or testing) it has typically been a matter of verifying what students can tell the teacher about the language, such as  vocabulary lists or verb forms, rather than demonstrating what he or she is able to do with the language.

Backwards design planning and execution happens in three phases or stages.

1. Identify Desired Results

Consider these questions when identifying these goals and desired results for a foreign language unit or lesson.

  • What will students do with the language?
  • Does this goal only focus on what the students know about the language?
  • What is the current proficiency level of the students? (novice mid, intermediate low, etc.)
  • What is the text type that students can produce? (lists, chunked phrases, discrete sentences, connected sentences, etc.)
  • Is this goal specific?
  • Can I create 2-3 can do statements to focus on this goal?

2. Determine Acceptable Evidence

Consider these questions when determining acceptable of language learning and progressing in proficiency.

  • Are there opportunities to demonstrate proficiency in the three communication modes? (interpretative, presentational, interpersonal)
  • Are the prompts at the appropriate proficiency level?  (novice mid, intermediate low, etc.)
  • Do the prompts focus on the text type of students at this proficiency level? (lists, chunked phrases, discrete sentences, connected sentences, etc.)
  • Is there opportunity for student choice?
  • Do the assessments provide insight in to students’ ability to perform the can do statements articulated in the goals and desired outcomes?
  • Are there opportunities for spontaneous language production?

3. Plan the Learning Experience and Instruction

Consider these questions when planning instruction to move students toward the desired outcome of the unit or lesson.

  • What are the vocabulary themes necessary to reach the goals and desired outcomes?
  • What are the language structures necessary to reach the goals and desired outcomes?
  • What activities will provide opportunities to meet the goals and desired outcomes using the three communication modes? (interpretative, presentational, interpersonal)
  • What tasks will provide students with opportunities to use the language to accomplish a goal that is independent of practicing the language structures and thematic vocabulary?

Foreign Language Teaching with Backwards Design (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com Foreign Language Teaching with Backwards Design (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

The PACE Model: Teach Foreign Language Grammar Inductively as a Concept

The PACE MODEL is a very effective way to use one of the ACTFL Core Practices, which is to teach grammar as a concept and to use the structures in context.  Essentially this means that students should focus on the forms of the grammar structure after they focus on the meaning.  The PACE Model (Donato and Adair-Hauck, 1992) encourages the language learner to reflect on the use of target language forms.  The teacher and learners collaborate and co-construct a grammar explanation after focusing on the meaning in context.  The PACE model provides a concrete way for teaching grammar as a concept.

Teach Foreign Language Grammar Inductively as Concept: The PACE Model (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.comMuch like  authentic language  learning that happens outside of the classroom, this approach stresses that learning happens between people through social interaction (reminiscent of Vygotsky).  The PACE model requires the learner to be an active participant in the language learning process.

The PACE model is a “four-step” process that includes elements that encourage student comprehension and participation. The four stages are:

1. PRESENTATION :
The teacher foreshadows the grammar structure with an appropriate text, with emphasis on meaning. Typically, the teacher recycles the storyline through pictures, TPR activities, etc., to increase comprehension and student
participation.  The focus is not on the grammar structure at this point, but it is used by the teacher and in the text.

2. ATTENTION :
The teacher now has students focus on the language form or structure through the use of images, powerpoint slides or highlighting a particular linguistic form.

3. CO-CONSTRUCTION :
After the teacher has focused student attention on a particular target-language form, together they co-construct the grammatical explanation. The teacher provides scaffolding and assists the learners with questions that encourage them to reflect, predict and form generalizations regarding the consistencies of the language.  Students construct their own grammar rules, guided by the teacher who will make sure that they end up with an appropriate explanation.

4. EXTENSION :
The learners use the grammatical structures to complete a task relating to the
theme of the lesson, which helps the language remain communicative while also highlighting a particular structure.

Reference: Donato, R. & B. Adair-Hauk. “A Whole Language Approach to Focus on Form.” Paper presented at the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages. San Antonio,Texas (1992).

ACTFL Core Practices

Do you ever find yourself in a conversation where you tell someone that you are a foreign language teacher and the response is something like this, “I had 4 years of Spanish in high school, but I can’t speak a word now.”  Clearly this traditional methodology has not been very effective.  What can we do about this to make sure that 20 years from now our students are not saying the same thing?

ACTFL provides us with Core Practices that guide teachers toward teaching language proficiency rather than simply teaching about the target language.  It comes down to providing students with opportunities to do something with the language and not just demonstrate what they know about the language. Take a look at the 6 ACTFL Core Practices below.

ACTFL Core Practices (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com     ACTFL Core Practices (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com ACTFL Core Practices (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com ACTFL Core Practices (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com ACTFL Core Practices (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com ACTFL Core Practices (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com ACTFL Core Practices (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

Move Student Speaking and Writing from Novice to Intermediate

At the novice level, students are speaking and writing with single words and lists initially, then move on to chunked phrases.  Here are some examples:

Novice Low/Mid:

  • green
  • apple, banana, orange
  • Josué
  • soccer, football
  • movies, restaurant

Novice High:

  • My favorite color is green
  • I like apples, bananas and oranges
  • My name is Josué
  • I play soccer and football
  • On the weekend I like to go to the movies and to a restaurant

Move Student Speaking and Writing from Novice to Intermediate (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.comAs students move up to the intermediate proficiency level they begin to create discrete sentences on their own that move beyond chunked phrases.  This tends to be the most challenging for students as they begin to create with language and are not relying on memorized phrases to chunk together.  Rather than changing the detail after a memorized phrase such as “my favorite ______ is _______” and “I like __________” they are moving on to changing subjects, using various propositions and varying their verb forms and tenses.  Teachers can help scaffold this process for students by assisting them in creating sentences.  Students are often challenged by how to add details to a sentence to make it their own, particularly when writing.

I have found that using question words with students is a simple and effective way to have students add details to their sentences that move from memorized, chunked phrases to discrete sentences that are created by the student.  The more they do this the more they will grow in confidence and begin to do it on their own when writing.

A simple reminder of question words as students  write about a topic will guide them toward writing discrete sentences that they create on their own and and will move solidly on to the intermediate low proficiency level. For example, if a student writes ” I like to swim.” suggest a few question words to help make the sentence a bit longer and more detailed.  With whom?  When?  Where?

This will move the sentence from “I like to swim” to “I like to swim with my friend Julie on Saturday at the community pool.”  The more students get accustomed to adding details this way the more they will do it on their own when speaking and writing.

Here are a few posts I’ve written that have some suggestions and resources for guiding students through this process of moving their speaking and writing from novice to intermediate.  Click on the images to see the posts.

Spanish & French Verb Tense and Sentence Writing Powerpoint Activities

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Students rise in proficiency, but what about language accuracy?

It’s the question on everyone’s mind.  What is the role of accuracy in foreign language as students grow in proficiency?  Do we tend to accuracy?  Do we just focus on proficiency and assume that the language will become more accurate with time and practice?

Students are rising in proficiency, but what about language accuracy? (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

The ACTFL performance descriptors are an effective tool to determine precisely what students can do at each proficiency level (and sub level).  The descriptors go on to state what the language output of students looks like at each level.  Take a look:

Students are rising in proficiency, but what about language accuracy? (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

While these are very useful, we are often met with the issue of inaccuracy in language.  To be clear, proficiency is about communicating a message and is not so focused on polished and accurate language forms.  Essentially the language structures need to be accurate enough for the message to be understood.  It is generally understood in second language acquisition research that continued exposure (input) to language structures in context will lead to internalization and acquisition of the native-like language structures.

The issue here is that it is often challenging to focus specifically on a particular language element or structure when providing students with contextualized input.  Is there are a way to provide this focused input to students?  Is there a way for students to be actively engaged in the content, which will peak their interest?

I have been faced with this challenge of students moving up to the intermediate proficiency level and speaking and writing in complete, discrete sentences, but the verb forms are often not correct.  Students communicate their message, but I want to provide contextualized input of a particular structure so that students  move toward more accurate language as well.  I’m assuming you have been here?

In an effort to make input compelling and interesting to students I try to have them create the content as much as possible.  The more they choose the topic the more they will be interested and will pay attention to the themes and language structure being highlighted. Combining student-generated content and a focus on a particular language structure I developed these activities.

Students are rising in proficiency, but what about language accuracy? (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com Students are rising in proficiency, but what about language accuracy? (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

Students begin by  writing the correct form of the verb when given the subject and the infinitive.  To reiterate  the correct form students them locate the subject, infinitive and verb form in the grid.  It works like a word search.  Until this point, it’s a very mechanical exercise that is devoid of context.  So, the next step is to write a sentence with each subject and verb form.  This is where the student-generated content comes in.  Some students choose to write personal sentences, other prefer to write about topics that interest them and some prefer to be humorous.  Regardless of the sentences, in the end the correct verb forms in a contextualized sentence provide very focused input for students.

I have seen a marked increase in accurate verb forms when students use this type of writing activity.  The word-search element provides an interesting way to focus on the correct verb form and the sentences that are student-generated highlight correct usage in context. You can take a it a step further and use the student sentences to create a task such as collating sentences into different categories and graphing results.  The important thing to keep in mind is that all the while students are seeing and using the sentences that contain the accurate verb forms in context.  Increased exposure to these language forms is what is needed to move toward acquisition.

If you would like to help your students  polish their language structures, take a look at these activities.  There are many topics in both French and Spanish.  Click on the links below to access these resources and watch the accuracy of your students’ language rise with their proficiency.

Spanish:

French: