Making time for tasks and still covering the syllabus

This is the last 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.

Making time for tasks and still covering the syllabus - methodology article - guest writers


The wish of language teachers everywhere is to promote genuine learning - the ability to use the language and to interact with a reasonable degree of fluency. However, despite all teachers' efforts, learners often leave school ‘knowing' a lot of grammar and vocabulary but unable to speak with confidence. They can make up sentences, (given time), read quite well and even pass exams but cannot cope with situations which demand spontaneous spoken interaction. And this situation is what task-based approaches to language teaching attempt to remedy.

  • Genuine learning means using the language
  • What textbook activities are best for homework?
  • What aspects of the task cycle can be done at home?
  • Conclusion

Genuine learning means using the language
Tasks and task-based sequences give learners opportunities to interact in English and to experience language in use. Hearing teachers speaking English is vital, (see my article From priming tasks and target tasks to language focus and grammar for more about this, and for ideas for teacher-led tasks), and teacher talk is very much part of the task cycle. But equally important is for learners to use English for themselves as much as possible, to activate the vocabulary and grammar they have previously covered. In most countries, spoken interaction can only be practised in the classroom, so how do we make time for this and convince learners that it is an appropriate use of class time?

Explain to learners why you need to make time for tasks in class. Most learners will agree they would like to speak English with some fluency. Doing grammar exercises does not generally help people learn to speak. Very few learners have opportunities to speak English outside the classroom. So somehow you need to make time for speaking activities in class, and also time to focus on features of spontaneous interaction.

One way of making time for tasks is to select textbook activities that are suitable for homework. So the next question is: which textbook activities could your students do outside class - in their own time - at home or possibly while travelling? Which activities might in fact be ‘best' done out of class where individual learners can work at their own pace? Here are some suggestions.

What text-book activities are best for homework?

Rather than reading a complete text in class, introduce it in class and do a prediction task (without giving away any answers) to give them a reason for reading it later. Then set the main reading text for homework, with another task to do. Comprehension questions can be done at home too, or learners can invent their own questions to contribute to a team quiz for the next lesson. For a language focus, learners can underline words, phrases or expressions they found useful or liked, to share with the class next lesson, and note down questions they have or parts they didn't understand. The big advantage is that each learner can read at their own speed, and take time to reflect on the language features in the text. And, in addition to stimulating autonomous learning, it saves a lot of class time.

Sometimes it is possible for learners to listen to their class materials in a library or self-access centre. If learners have their own means of listening they can do this on journeys or at home, and replay the recording as many times as they need. As with reading, do a short priming stage in class beforehand and set a listening task to do at home so that learners feel motivated to listen and have a goal to fulfil.

As a subsequent language focus activity, students can:
write down any phrases they need help with, look them up in a dictionary

  • prepare to explain two or three new items to the class next lesson
  • listen and repeat and/or transcribe short sections they like
  • practise pronunciation and intonation by reading the transcript out loud, and pausing the recording
  • study the transcripts of the recording (these are usually in the back of the text-book) and take note of features of spoken interaction.

Learning and revising vocabulary
This is best done in learners' own time - as learners have different ways of memorising words. Equip them with ways of classifying and recording new words, e.g. mind maps or pictures so they can choose what works best for them. Each student can then devise three or four quiz questions or gap-fill sentences to test the class on new vocabulary next lesson.

Grammar practice exercises
These are also better done at home - when each learner can do them at his/her own pace. Set these at the end of a task cycle so learners will have met some of the new forms in context already. Go over them quickly next class, or let them ‘mark' each others' exercises and ask if in doubt.

Students can:

  • prepare first drafts of written work at home using a dictionary and then benefit from specific teacher advice or group ‘editing' in the next lesson.
  • write up final versions at home after a planning session in class, and then display them in the next lesson for others to read.

Evaluation and review
End of unit evaluations and language reviews are perfect for doing at home when there are fewer distractions. It gives learners a chance to go back over the unit and reflect on what they have learnt and identify things they still need to ask about.

TIP: Always set up the homework in class beforehand and give them a purpose or goal to attain, and make it clear exactly how you will use their homework or check their work at the start of the next lesson.

What aspects of the task cycle can be done at home?

Task preparation
Learners can prepare vocabulary for a new topic at home using a dictionary, and research a topic using web-sites or asking other people and prepare to report back in English.

Sometimes you can give them the task instructions the day before the task so they can plan what to say and how to say it. Then in class you can go straight into the task. They can do the priming at home.

Task Report
After doing the task and planning a report in class, learners can write or practise a full version at home. This can be displayed in class, or they can be asked to reduce it to very short notes and give their report orally with the help of the notes.

Form Focus
Sometimes this can be done at home (see suggestions above) and taken up in class the following lesson. The advantage is that each learner will have had a chance to assimilate the new language at their own speed and later in class can ask about things they really need to know.
In addition to text-book exercises there are other ways of achieving a focus on form and helping learners expand their vocabulary - by going back to past reading or listening texts and asking learners to collect different kinds of language features. These are often called consciousness-raising activities. In the following lesson, learners contribute the examples they have found, discuss how they could classify them and put them up on the board. For example, depending on the text or transcript, learners could be asked to list or underline:

  • words and phrases related to the topic e.g. if a text is about a boat on a rough sea - find all the phrases denoting movement
  • phrases of location; time phrases or vague language
  • phrases referring to the future e.g. We can leave as soon as I have finished this letter
  • verbs ending in -ing or -ed
  • phrases with a particular preposition e.g. on or at or in
  • words or phrases that are typical of spoken interaction e.g. Well,... So what we did was...
  • new words, phrases or expressions they like or think might be useful or in spoken interaction, circle all the verb phrases following the word I

Try some of these and see what you find out about language! Encourage your learners to become 'language investigators'.

In this article I have outlined some ways of making more time in class for spoken interaction by suggesting activities from the book and tasks that can be done outside class. I have tried to show that a task-based approach (with a focus on form) can be adapted to fit alongside almost any text-book, and that the syllabus can still be covered, only in a rather different way.
The advantages are several:
Your students will end up not just knowing English, but also using it,

  • They will be able to speak and interact with more confidence,
  • They will have become more autonomous learners,
  • They will be far better equipped to go on learning English in the world outside the classroom.

The chances are, too, that both you and your learners will enjoy your lessons more because everyone is more active and involved. Lessons will be more interesting and varied - learners nearly always have interesting things to say, once they have the confidence to say them.

Further reading:
Doing Task-based Teaching Dave and Jane Willis (2007 OUP) Chapter 10 pages 212 - 216 for more ideas for making time for tasks and pages 228 - 229 for tips from practising teachers on implementing task-based teaching.

There are more examples of ways to achieve a focus on form in reading texts in Dave Willis's articles on this site (May 2008).

See also Consciousness-raising activities originally published in Challenge and Change in Language Teaching (Dave and Jane Willis eds. 1996, Macmillan). This article outlines techniques for encouraging learners to look at and analyse language for themselves. It also gives hints on how best to exploit texts for language study. To download this for free, go to our web-site and scroll down to the end.

Written by Jane Willis, Consultant, Writer, UK

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