From priming tasks and target tasks to language focus and grammar

This is the third in a series of four articles which will explore how to integrate a task-based approach into a typical textbook to maximise learning opportunities for your learners and to save teacher preparation time.

From priming tasks and target tasks to language focus and grammar - methodology article - guest writers


In this article, I will show how we can

  • increase learners' exposure to natural English through teacher talk and teacher-led tasks
  • exploit text-book material to help structure a task sequence
  • incorporate priming tasks at the Pre-task stage
  • manage a task-planning-report cycle with a language focus in the Planning stage
  • do form-focused study after the task cycle

In my first and second articles I suggested that you look through your textbook units to identify tasks or activities that can be made into tasks; these tasks will give learners opportunities to use English for themselves. We also saw how you could build up a set of tasks based around one theme. One task might become the ‘target' task, or main task; others might be used at a Pre-task/Priming stage, to activate vocabulary in preparation for the main task.

Learning from exposure
In addition to using English themselves, learners need lots of exposure to English being used (i.e. listening to and reading a good range of text types, both spontaneous and planned language). Tasks based on listening and reading texts provide really useful input (see Dave Willis's articles in last month's Teaching English). Listening is especially vital for beginners who need lots of input before they are expected to speak.

So look through the next unit you will teach in your textbook to see what kinds of exposure to English it provides. Is there a good balance of:

  • Listening tasks with transcripts of recordings? (The transcripts can be used for form-focused study after the task).
  • Reading texts that form the basis for a task? (E.g. match texts to pictures).
  • Opportunities for topic-based teacher talk? (E.g. about your own experience of the topic).

Teacher talk and teacher-led tasks on text-book topics
Learners love hearing about their teacher's personal experiences and opinions and this kind of teacher talk forms valuable spontaneous input that learners will acquire from naturally. Teacher talk in English is possible at all levels, even with beginners, very simply, with gestures and drawings to help them understand. You can also set yourself memory challenge tasks that stem from information you gain from learners. So plan ahead - find topics or themes that you can talk about in the next unit you plan to teach. This topic-based teacher talk is very useful in the Pre-task phase, when priming learners on the theme of the lesson. Here are two examples:

  • On the theme of ‘Where I live/lived' you could start the lesson by describing the rooms in your own or your parents' house or flat, and saying which you like/d the best and why.
  • On the theme of ‘Talking about the past' - you could start by trying to guess what individual people in your class did last week-end, and then trying to remember who did what: "Carlos, did you play football last Sunday? No? Did you play football on Saturday? Yes - OK, so Carlos played football on Saturday. Now, Maria did you go shopping last weekend? Yes ?And what did you buy? Some shoes. Nice! OK so Maria went shopping and bought some shoes and Carlos played football." and so on.

This last example combines a guessing game with a memory challenge. By the time you have remembered one or two things for 15 or 20 learners, they will have had lots of exposure to past tense forms and questions, and they will have been listening carefully to see how well you can remember, and maybe even helping you. So this easily fulfils the main criteria for a task - it is both engaging and meaning focused, without putting pressure on the learners to produce any new forms.

You can also talk about things you bring into the classroom, e.g. fruit, vegetables, clothes, photos of different holidays you've had. Bring them hidden inside a bag or packet, take them out one by one and talk about each item (pre-task priming). Put them all in a place where everyone can see them. Then you can follow on with some teacher-led tasks, for example:

  • ‘Listen and identify' puzzles: You describe one item without pointing to or looking at it or giving too many clues. Learners listen and try to match your description to the correct object - they put their hands up when they think they know which item it is.
  • Classifying fruit according to colour, popularity, country/continent of origin, size and/or cost. You can do two or three of these classifying tasks with your whole class, talking a lot and letting your class point and say whatever words they can to add to the categories and complete the task as a class.
  • ‘Correct the teacher' games. Say things about the items that are either true or false. For example: "These are lovely orange grapes." The class might reply "No! - Not orange! Green." Learners can later produce their own sentences for correction.
  • A simple memory challenge task: Cover up the items so learners cannot see them. Ask learners in turn to name one thing, then you pick it up, show the class, talk a bit more about it and put back in the bag. Finally, once everything is back in the bag, a more formal memory challenge task with learners in twos or threes. Write or draw from memory a list of the things, e.g. a green apple from Chile, an orange from Spain...or of the photos of holidays, e.g. skiing in Andorra. Give a time limit, after which learners take turns to tell the class about one or two things they remembered.

So here we have a number of teacher-led tasks that could lead up to a final memory challenge listing task that learners can do together. This final task would count as the target task, with learners listening to each other in the final ‘report back' stage (this provides more useful exposure - they can learn a lot from each other, too) and you can expand on their contributions, rephrasing where appropriate.

Use the book but change the order
So let us look at how we can adapt a text book unit to build up a task sequence which gives rich exposure to language in use and opportunities for learners to use English for themselves.

In many cases this will mean changing the order of the unit sections and doing the grammar sections later, after you have done a set of tasks on the topic. It is really important to let learners do the tasks, expressing their meanings as best they can with the language they have already acquired, even if they make mistakes. Then, after the task sequence, to use the Grammar sections to focus on form and help them build on what they know. If they do the grammar first, they will be worrying about using the new forms and getting them right, rather than focusing on what they want to mean. This will have a negative effect on their confidence. It takes time to absorb grammar - it is rarely learnt quickly enough for them to put to immediate use in spontaneous interactive talk.

Pre-task/Priming phase
The aim of this stage is to prepare learners for doing the main target task. For this they will need vocabulary to express the meanings they may wish to express when doing the target task. Any of the suggestions above for teacher-led tasks could be used at this stage.

Most textbook units start with some vocabulary building activities to introduce the words and phrases that are useful for the new theme or topic. These can often be made into mini-tasks that are more engaging than just ‘listen and repeat'. If there are pictures, use them for ‘Correct the teacher' / True or False games (teacher-led or with learners in pairs or groups) or memory challenge tasks.

For example:

  • With your partner, look at the picture of the house for one minute and try to remember the names of the furniture in each room. Close your books. You now have two minutes to draw / write a list of things in each room. How many things have you got in each room? Now say / read your list to another pair and see who got the most... Finally ask your teacher if she/he can remember what furniture is where.

Task Cycle: Task - planning - report
In many of the tasks illustrated in my second article, the final instructions were "Now tell another pair your story / what you have done / Tell the class who you chose and say your reasons". This is what is often called the Report stage. At this stage, because they are ‘going public' and talking to a wider audience, learners naturally want to use their best language - they will feel the need to plan well, use the right words, speak as fluently as they can and avoid mistakes. But most learners will need help to prepare for this.

If you incorporate a Planning stage between the task and the report back stage, learners will have a chance to focus on the language they want to use and improve it. They can check out words in a dictionary, and ask you to help them say what they want to mean. They can even rehearse their report in pairs. So you as teacher will be acting as language advisor, and learners will each be working at their own level, building on, improving and extending the language they already have. Thus we achieve a learner-centred focus on language in the context of the task.

During the final Report phase, there is a simultaneous focus on fluency and accuracy, and the Planning stage helps them to prepare for this.

Focus on Form: At the end of the task cycle
Now is the time to turn to the grammar sections in your textbook. Learners will now have experienced quite a lot of this language in use, and the grammar exercises can often be done quickly as consolidation exercises. To save time, start each exercise off in class and let them finish them at home working at their own pace. Some books have grammar reference and/or review pages - use these as a basis for a grammar quiz prepared by learners at home.

Throughout this article, I have tried to show how, in a task based approach, the focus is on learners learning language (through using and experiencing it themselves), rather than teachers teaching language. The most common questions that teachers ask at this point are:
How can I make time in class to do tasks and still cover my textbook?
Are there other ways of focusing on form?

These I will address in my next article: How to include tasks and cover the textbook syllabus.

Further Reading
There is more on language use in the task cycle in Richard Frost's article ‘A Task-based approach'.

For more on ‘Focus on form at the end of the task cycle' see Doing Task-based Teaching Dave Willis and Jane Willis (OUP) Chapter 2 pages 25-30.

For more on language focus and form focus see Doing Task-based Teaching Dave Willis and Jane Willis (OUP) Chapter 6 pages 113-133.

Written by Jane Willis, Consultant, Writer, UK

Next articleMaking time for tasks and still covering the syllabus



Submitted by Sara I. Lopez on Tue, 01/30/2024 - 13:18

I do appreciate the suggestion that we may change the order of activities in the textbook to create a different sequence, and thus comply with the priming and task stages, without moving away from the material proposed by the book itself.

Submitted by YiPhyo on Thu, 01/25/2024 - 15:41

I'm really appreciate this kind of informations how to teach grammar to learners effectively.
Your explanations about this information are really helpful for me. I've learned many interesting ways of teaching grammar effectively.
Thanks in advance!

Submitted by minhhao7986hn on Thu, 01/18/2024 - 03:37

It's great to know this kind of techniques in teaching grammar for kids.

Submitted by hall_houston on Wed, 10/22/2008 - 07:34

First of all, I just want to say that I have really enjoyed reading the articles by you and Dave Willis on task based teaching. I'm in the process of reading Doing Task Based Teaching as well. I'm getting a lot of useful ideas on how I can develop tasks in my courses.

I have a situation I hope you can address. I'm teaching a course officially called "Grammar and Writing" at a university in Asia. I'm a new teacher at this university, and the book for this course was chosen by other teachers. Basically, the book seems to be written in task based teaching hell! Every chapter focuses on a different part of grammar (prepositions, adjectives, verb tenses, etc.) without relating it to a topic. Almost all the exercises are a list of decontextualized sentences where students must fill in the blanks. There are no exercises where students personalize the grammar or do anything remotely resembling a task. There are a few short texts here and there, and some pictures that accompany exercises, but mostly it's just  fill in the blanks.

 Do you have any suggestions for using this type of textbook? Is there a task based way to teach a grammar course?

 Thanks in advance!


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