For language teachers, a primary goal is to give students the tools and motivation to interact with others in the target language outside of class. In my high school Spanish classroom, I have found that structuring my classes around meaningful and authentic tasks promotes target-language interaction and inspires motivation to acquire the target language.
I define a communicative task as an activity that encourages students to collaboratively use the target language to reach a goal, using communication strategies that may be required in real-life language use.
For example, introducing yourself to three classmates is a communicative task. Conversely, completing a fill-in-the-blank grammar worksheet is not, because such an activity does not require real-world language communication; personally, I’ve never been approached by someone on the street asking me to complete a sentence with the correct verb conjugation of “to be.”
Additionally, the communicative tasks are meant to be completed collaboratively in the target language. This promotes students’ self-awareness of breakdowns in communication as well as how to clarify themselves when their classmates struggle to understand.
When planning a task-based lesson, I begin by asking the question, “What is a possible real-world scenario related to my unit theme?” Once I have settled on a few different scenarios, I choose one and think about what the end product of the task will look like. Are students creating a promotional poster? Designing an itinerary? “Hiring” an employee? This end product serves as the goal that students collaboratively work toward by using a real-world communicative function.
In planning a lesson in my high school Spanish 2 classroom, we began with our unit theme, titled “My activities.” As a Spanish 2 team, we decided that outside of the classroom, students might need to talk about different extracurricular activities. Then, we designed the end product that pushed students to practice real-world communication by creating a promotional poster in Spanish for a club at our school.
Once we decided on the end product, we created the guidelines for the task and defined what the student will be doing at each stage of the task. At this stage, it’s important to consider how students will collaborate and which modes of communication they will use. In our case, students first worked in pairs to brainstorm a list of extracurriculars at our school before choosing one and working individually on their posters.
The Pre-Task Cycle
Once we selected our end product and defined the task stages, we had to consider what background knowledge, vocabulary, and/or examples of the end product students will need in order to complete the task. The pre-task activity might look like a short text exercise with some helpful vocabulary, provocative questions that pique student interest, examples of the completed version of the task, or relevant cultural information.
With our lesson, students began by describing their own clubs. By making the lesson personal for them, we hoped that students would be invested in sharing their ideas. Then, we showed some authentic (i.e., non-pedagogical) examples of club posters from target language communities and talked through the elements of the promotional poster in order to give students an example of the completed task and clarify some vocabulary.
The Reflection Cycle
Students should have the chance to share their end product with a wider group to promote collaboration skills and practice negotiating meaning. This reflection cycle is most effective when it’s scaffolded based on students’ language proficiency. To facilitate group sharing, each student should know their role in the conversation and how to start. This might look like saying that the person who has the shortest hair shares first, and the other people in the group should capture the speaker’s response in a graphic organizer.
Students should have a reason to listen to each other to encourage active listening and mimic real-world communication. In our lesson, we told students that they were sharing their product in order to decide which club they would be most likely to join. Students stood in two lines facing each other to share their posters and took notes as their partners shared. After a few rounds, students used their notes to decide which club they wanted to join and why.
All of these steps can be completed in the target language—with the appropriate scaffolding. At the novice level, students can be given sentence starters and concrete options for how to talk to and respond to peers.
For example, I told my novice speakers explicitly how they could present their club posters. They could highlight the time the club meets, one activity you do in the club, and why someone might want to join. How exactly they expressed these ideas was up to them, but by highlighting options they could reasonably complete with the language they knew, students were less likely to speak English.
Task-based teaching is such a powerful approach because it immediately answers the question about why language is important.
As students go through the task cycle, they are using the language in ways that they might outside of the classroom. A carefully crafted task-based lesson can result in students feeling empowered by the fact that they were able to reach a goal in the target language. This feeling of empowerment translates to increased motivation to continue learning the target language, which in turn results in a new generation of language speakers who are ready to use their language beyond the classroom.