Activities, materials, group dynamics. The steps of the lesson.
In our previous chapter we explored the main tenets of English as a transversal content, and, as such, the degree of relevance of FL materials, texts, task types, topics and the like. In this chapter we’ll be looking at some of those aspects in detail.
A task is composed of verbal input –as is the case with an oral or written text– or non verbal input, –for example a picture sequence– or a combination of both –for instance an encyclopaedia– or an activity, which sets what the learners will do with respect to the input provided.
This requires a new look at the roles of teacher and learner. The teacher will be a researcher, planner, consultant, referee, participant, inspirer, editor… Can you think of any other roles? How does the learner role change in this light?
Tasks can be classified into three types, basically: first-, second- and third-generation tasks.
In this type of task the basic goal is the development of communicative skills in a certain area of the foreign language being learnt. Possible examples are ‘role-play’ and ‘simulation’. Some authors make a distinction between these two types of activities. Whereas in a role-play there’s the construction of a fictional character, simulations place the learner in a possible situation relevant to their age and interests.
For example, if you ask your learners to close their eyes and imagine they’re supermen flying over Amazonia, there’s clear indication that this is a role-play. Why? Because it is highly improbable that they will be flying over the world. Let alone Amazonia.
The choice of geographical area, and the role –however fictional it might be– may enable the chance to explore many aspects, ranging from the factual point of view –the geography of Amazonia, its climate, its fauna and flora, the peoples living in the area– to the mythical: the peoples’ origins, legends and myths, intertwined with factual aspects of those very people.
In this type of task learners are supposed to solve a communicative problem of some sort, because there’s some communicative gap that has to be bridged either by resorting to thematic content, communicative content, knowledge of the world or recent facts, which learners might have to do research into.
For example, learners have a bus timetable and route map. They must go from their city/town/village to another place. They must choose the best route according to ticket price, journey duration, distance, etc. This is the problem to solve.
These activities have the aim of getting learners to practise a specified communicative function and/or group of structures/lexis required for the expression of the communicative function/s identified to the purpose.
These tasks aim at developing procedures related to communication and linguistic handling and retrieval, but also cognitive strategies that have to do with the handling and organisation of information. Learners are expected to collect information, analyse it, decide on the most adequate procedure, select the most relevant data, organise the information obtained, and then analyse the procedures and results.
Language is the vehicle to do authentic communicative work. This implies using a variety of structures, vocabulary and speech acts or communicative functions. The external structure imposed by the task requires constant processing of input and output, reading information, producing reports in English, among other products.
An example: suppose you set a task in which your local area is seen through the eyes of a foreigner,tourists, mainly. Learners have to decide:
Learners hand in a report in the format decided upon.
This type of task shares features with second generation tasks in that key objectives include conceptual and procedural contents, but go further in the incorporation of attitudinal contents as well. This implies the development of aspects of learner personality through educational goals.
Suppose you set the following task: "Designing an alternative world" How would you go about it?
Have a brainstorming session, one in which all learners give their opinions on the topic, that is, what aspects they like about their local environment and what other aspects they’d like to change. These might include changes in the geography of the place, nature, animal life, society, family, leisure time activities, and maybe others learners might suggest.
Write them down on the blackboard. If you can, do so by means of a mind map.
Learners get together in terms of common interests. Each group singles out the type of information and the language required to pursue the task. Learners are encouraged to go to the (school) library to find out about the topics they need to do research into. They then discuss aspects of this "alternative reality" which is their target topic. They inform the rest. Some of the possible strategies to be employed might include games, recordings, stories, legends and the like. Finally, learners have a presentation of their findings and evaluate the activity.
Third generation tasks have a high degree of authenticity, language integration, and contents which involve all aspects of learner personality, previous experience and knowledge of the world. This includes artistic, musical, literary interests, hobbies and worries.
Within this framework, learners and teacher don’t belong to two different "counters" –that is that the teacher provides information and the learners receive it passively. They make up two composite entities working together, planning, taking decisions, carrying out the task and sharing the feeling of achievement.
And this brings us to a topic anticipated in this same chapter: the question of group dynamics. As humans we are sociable people. We need to be together. And talk to each other and do things together. Learning is one more human sociable task. Let’s promote it.
Many tasks can be better done in groups. And learners can learn from other learners. This is peer teaching. So there is interaction, and learning. At least for the sociable ones.
As we’ve seen, the act of sharing information in the classroom and helping others to understand creates a feeling of success and reduces inhibition. So group work is a good thing. How can we organise groups?
Your learners might never work in groups. It may be that all they do is raise their hands and answer questions asked by the teacher. Is this the case?
They may think that working in groups is a good occasion for disorganisation. So you must explain. Have a conversation with them before you start the first activity in groups. Ask them if they’ve ever worked in groups, and how they have felt. Try to focus on how cooperative they are to each other.
Don’t always group learners in the same way. Of course we know how disrupting it is to get learners to move and change places. In general, at school learners think they "own" a desk. But you can encourage them to go and talk to someone they never talk to, to share with a learner of the opposite sex, with learners whose names start with the same letter, and we’re sure you’ll think of more creative ways. Try to surprise them with your grouping instructions. But please avoid the ‘good and weak’ learner grouping.
Also, change the number of learners per group. That’s another variable that will allow you to produce other things than rabbits from your magician’s hat.
Always on the move. Surprise them! or the magic will be gone!
Estaire, S. & J. Zanón, Planning Classwork: A task-based approach, London,Heinemann, 1994.
Willis, Jane, A Theoretical Framework for Task-Based Learning, London, Longman, 1996.