Having had the privilege of observing many primary and secondary English language teachers, I often find myself writing developmental comments on setting up tasks and activities:
- In the setting up stage, I recommend you let your students know the boundaries – especially when giving out such fun stuff (scissors, paper, sticks, etc.) Try to see this stage as part of behavioural management too.
- Don’t forget that children need a clear reason and purpose to do something in class. Time needs to be taken 1) to set up the context/task and 2) to enthuse and engage them in the context/task.
- You said to the students that they were going to an island and were on a boat, but what kind of island? And what for? Was it for a holiday? Was it to survive on a desert island? Was it that they were moving from one place to another for some reason?
- You needed to spend some time setting this up for them – fewer words, more enthusiasm, and insist on quiet. It’s worth planning for setting up as a stage in your plan.
- An excellent task can’t stand alone without the kids knowing exactly what to do.
It is from writing these, and many more comments on setting up, that I realised not only the importance, but the intricacies of this skill and stage for both learners and teachers in the classroom. I have categorised this teaching technique into six sub-sets and have offered suggestions on how best to manage them.
By planning how you will introduce the materials to the learners (needed to carry out a task) will help to engage them and can even be part of the activity itself. Try to use the classroom and the children’s sense of fun and play. Place envelopes with words/instructions/text under their desk, on the walls, or outside the classroom to find. You can even make this part of a problem-solving exercise to engage and challenge the students by allowing them to guess where it is by giving clues; It’s not to the left, or the right. It’s not on the top or on the bottom, it’s…where?
Supporting verbal instructions
It is understandable, and very often the case, that busy/experienced teachers do not plan how they will give instructions for a particular task. This results in relying on verbal instructions more often than not. However, language learners, and I think especially children, need extra support because sometimes it’s not only about knowing what to do, but how to do it. Try to demonstrate as much as you can and model tasks for them. Make sure you model the exact task which they can copy rather than a random on-the-spot example which doesn’t quite match (we’ve all done it!), or have an example already completed by you. Use gestures and point to visuals or reference points on the board so that students can visually follow your instructions, and pause at the right times so that the children can ‘digest’ what’s been said. Another good idea is to write the task on the board with what the children will achieve, e.g. We’re going to make a superhero so we can tell each other what they can do. This not only helps setting up and the children understanding what to do, but can also be used as a reference after the task – Did we do this?
Be enthused and excited yourself about the task or activity ahead so that the students in turn become motivated to do it. Set up taking your time and engage the students in this stage. This could simply be a quick prediction before they read or listen, or allowing them to speculate on the characters in a story before you read, or even asking open-ended (not yes/no) questions to let them give you ideas. Try to value everything you ask the students to do because, after all, it has a reason/purpose/aim for being in your lesson in the first place, so value this reason for learning by setting it up with enthusiasm.
I have observed many classes with wonderful materials and resources to engage young learners such as coloured paper, pens, pencils, furry things, sticky things, scissors, glue, and sticky tape. Obviously, these items are very exciting for children and can sometimes take centre-stage rather than the task itself. And who can help just playing with these colourful and interactive items even when the teacher doesn’t want us to? This is one example of a scenario when communicating your boundaries is needed in the setting up stage. Make sure you tell the students what they should and shouldn’t do as they carry out the task. You can even ask them questions e.g. Do you think it’s ok to hold the scissors like this? Why? After five minutes, what do we do? Will this be successful if you only work on your own? Then how do you need to work? You can even communicate the consequences (or better still elicit from them) if they do not carry out the task with the rules set. Perhaps you could even get the children to give you the boundaries (especially when using scissors, glue, paint, etc.).
The task and the aim
In teacher training courses, typically the criteria for setting up is that it needs to be clear so that students know what to do. However I find myself also commenting on setting up the task itself so that it manages to meet and achieve the planned aim. An example being a teacher setting up a role-play with different roles for each student so they practise some functional language and fluency, but the language is in their hands/books or on the board so they just read rather than speak. Another example being a teacher carrying out a charming silent dictation (when a teacher acts a short story) with the aim of the students using the ‘act’ to write the story, but the teacher neglecting to tell the students that this is what they had to do after they watched – actually set the task. Every task or activity has a reason, an aim, and so make sure the setting up of your task matches the actual task you have planned.
From reading the above, it is reasonable to conclude that setting up task and activities takes time. It is, in fact, a stage in itself and can be exploited as a stage for learning as well. By setting up with engagement/motivation, boundaries, using models, examples and questioning, it is inevitably going to take time in your lesson, and so allow and plan for this so that the students have their time to learn by doing the task.
As teachers we want children to be engaged and excited to do an activity, we want them to behave so they learn by doing it, and we also want them to feel comfortable and confident knowing what they have to do and how to do it. It is, therefore, vital that we value the setting up of this activity by considering and planning this stage.