Creating Engaging Tasks: Suggestions from Experience and Research
Updated: Jul 21, 2022
By Dr. Linh Phung
Dr. Linh Phung directs an English language program at a university in the U.S. She is also the director of Eduling International Academy, which offers online English instruction and services for learners from any location different countries. Eduling recently released an app called Eduling Speak to connect learners to talk in pairs during communicative tasks and games.
As teachers, you must have heard of Task-based Language Teaching (TBLT), but what is a task? How do we create tasks? How do we make them more engaging to our learners?
Ellis (2013) presents the following examples and argues that the first one is not really a task, but the second one is.
In the first activity, learners only need to go through the list one by one and use provided vocabulary items and structures to complete it. There is no real reason to communicate and listen to one another. By making some small changes, the second activity can be considered a “task” because it meets the four criteria that Ellis (2009) outlines. These include:
1. The primary focus is on meaning (instead of practicing form)
2. There's a communicative gap (information gap, inference gap, or opinion gap). This creates a reason for learners to communicate.
3. Participants use their own resources (the linguistic and non-linguistic resources that they have)
4. There's a communicative outcome (learners accomplish something together, such as a list with tick marks)
In the classroom, tasks are more likely to provide students with opportunities for more authentic communication than drilling exercises that are so common in textbooks (although drilling may still have some place in the classroom).
There are many ways of categorize tasks, one of which is according to discourse genres: description, instruction, narration, and opinion tasks.
As an example, in a recent lesson in my online class at Eduling International Academy, I went over the 12 animals in the Vietnamese Zodiac with the students. Then the students chose an animal to describe to their partner, who had to guess what it was. This was a task that pushed the speaker to use their own resources to describe their chosen animal and gave the listener a reason to listen and make a guess. I was delighted to hear the students come up with creative ways of describing their animal (see the picture) and produce more language than when they were asked to answer the teacher’s questions.
You have a swimming pool of water, a 3 gallon bucket, and a 5 gallon bucket. You have nothing else to measure with (the buckets have no measuring lines on them for smaller amounts) and you have no idea how much water is in the pool. Your task is to get 4 gallons of water in the 5 gallon bucket.
I’ve asked students to solve a mathematical problem like this and then explain the steps to other students to follow. They were always proud to come up with their own solution and explain it to other students.
When I taught in China as a visiting professor, I asked the students to complete this task in pairs. They generated some good stories based on the picture frames. I then asked them to draw their own picture frames, give them to another student, and tell the partner their own story. The partner had to order the pictures as they listened to the story. That was when the interaction among students got much more fun, interesting, and loud because of the many interesting pictures and stories that the students shared.
Opinion tasks are common in our classroom, where students need to share their opinions on certain topics. To create more structure to these tasks, you may also ask students to decide on what items to keep and what items to throw away if they are stranded on a boat or agree on what activities to propose to the school. There’s a clear outcome when there’s a need for students to come to a consensus.
Creating engaging tasks
To experiment with the idea of giving learners choice, in our recent research projects (Phung, 2017; Phung, Nakamura, and Reinders, forthcoming), I and my colleagues allowed the learners to come up with their own ideas to bring to the discussion in the task with less constrained choice instead of giving them predetermined items to choose from. We found that learners demonstrated a higher level of engagement (as measured through various linguistic indicators and self-report data) in a task with less constrained choice than a task where choice was constrained with predetermined options. Based on these research findings, we encourage teachers to think about ways to, among other things,
- allow learners to think about and communicate their own ideas
- create a genuine need to communicate
- use topics that are familiar and personally relevant to the learners
Teachers may also think about the balance between choice and structure in creating tasks to promote better engagement in task performances.
For those of you interested in our recent research, here's a short summary published by the Applied Linguistics Forum from TESOL International: http://newsmanager.commpartners.com/tesolalis/issues/2019-03-04/3.html. Full reports are forthcoming.