A few years ago I attended a really interesting talk by Jane Willis at an IATEFL conference somewhere. The talk was about using task based learning in challenging circumstances, and there was a point when one of the teachers in the audience was telling everyone about her particular challenge of trying to get learners to use English (rather than mother tongue) to do group work tasks in the large classes of low level learners that she taught. I can really sympathise with this problem; teacher monitoring is so important in my opinion, in order to provide learners with they support they need in order to engage effectively with tasks, but in a large class it’s impossible to be able to get round to everyone so it’s almost inevitable that some groups will drift off task, or revert to L1. Jane offered many solutions to this issue. The one that really stuck out for me was her suggestion that in such cases in might be better to give priority to the task feedback stage of the cycle. If learners know that weight is going to be given to the point where they feed back to the rest of the class about what they have been discussing they are likely to make sure they are ready for this by preparing well during the group work stage.
As a teacher, it’s natural for me to incorporate lots of groupwork, so one of the things that I find rather frustrating about working through video conferencing tools is that monitoring of group work by me is impossible. So I also have to emphasise the task feedback stage, even when I’m working with smaller groups. However, I’m actually starting to feel that there may be some benefits to spending more time on task feedback than on the task itself. For a start the learner or learners at the front have lots of opportunities for what they are saying to be scaffolded by the teacher and, because the rest of the class are listening carefully (perhaps more so because the learners face is also projected onto the big screen) they may also be learning from this interaction, even though they are not directly involved in it. I also wonder whether by insisting on English only in group stages we may actually be limiting learning rather than promoting it. Surely something useful is happening if learners are thinking things in L1 and then working out how to say these things in English in preparation for the task feedback stage which follows.
So here’s a practical example of this with a girls group in Nablus, Palestine. The basic procedure of the lesson is as follows :-
- I show the class two pictures of the same Palestinian dishes -one made by a teacher in Gaza, Wesam and the other made be me. I elicit one or two examples of differences between the two pictures.
- The students work in small groups. Their task is to discuss all the differences they can find between the two pictures.
- The class is split into two larger groups. One learner from each group comes up to the front. They take it in turns to talk about differences. They can ask their groups to help them but I only accept answers from the two girls at the front. The team that keeps going for the longest by mentioning new differences is the winner.
So what do you think? Where is the learning happening? Is it happening in the stage when learners talk to each other in groups, or is it happening during the task feedback stage? Or perhaps it’s happening at both stages, or perhaps it’s happening in neither?!