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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.
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.
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.
How do I design task?
- 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.
- Explain the task and desired outcome.
- Pairs/groups engage in task. Teacher engages as necessary to keep task on track.
- Pairs/groups share out their goals with other groups or as a whole class.
- Teacher provides an individual extension activity.
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.
There are six ACTFL Core Practices that serve as guide for teachers as they teach toward increased foreign language proficiency in their classrooms. One of the key core practices is designing communicative activities for students.
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:
- The focus is on communicating and doing something with the language as opposed to practicing isolated language features out of context.
- It is student-centered as opposed to teacher-centered. Students create with language rather than having the language explained to them.
- 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.
Tips for Designing Communicative Activities
Here 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.
- Activate 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.
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)?
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:
- OWL (Organic World Language) Conversation Circle
- Info-Gap Activities
- Jigsaw Activities
- Picture Prompts
- 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.
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.
Traditional language teaching has often 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?
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.
Much 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).
As students grow in proficiency beyond the novice level, where they are parroting language structures and chunks, they aspire to create with language and speak and write on their own. As teachers we need to provide opportunities for students to create with language. This can be an intimidating prospect for the novice high/intermediate low language learner. It is best, in my experience, to scaffold this language creation in a way that makes students feel confident that they are creating messages on their own, but at the same time not feeling too overwhelmed by the process.
To assist students in this process of moving toward creating their own sentences that move beyond memorized chunks of language I made these tactile sentence writing activities. They are set up to provide some scaffolding in terms of the types of sentences that writers create, while also ultimately leaving the content of the sentence up to the student.
There are two versions of these writing activities. The first version looks like this:
This is how it works. A pencil, a paperclip and a copy of the worksheet are needed to complete this activity. Students place the point of their pencil and a paperclip in the middle of each hexagon. They spin the paperclip by flicking it with a finger. Students write complete, detailed sentences based on the three responses to the spins. Each verb is followed by a question word. Students write an answer to the question word in their sentence.
The second version looks like this:
One die or three dice and a copy of the worksheet are needed to complete this activity. Students roll the die three times or roll three dice once. Students write complete, detailed sentences based on the three responses to the rolls. Each verb is followed by a question word. Students write an answer to the question word in their sentence.
You can download over 20 versions of these writing activities for French and Spanish by clicking on the links below: