Task feedback

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 :-

  1. 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.
  2. The students work in small groups. Their task is to discuss all the differences they can find between the two pictures.
  3.  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?!


10 thoughts on “Task feedback

  1. I used this same material with a very large group (87 students!) in Gaza last week. As a follow up, I showed them the following sentences, one by one, on a powerpoint slide. Everyone had to stand up if they thought the sentence applied to Wesam’s food and sit down if applied to mine.

    There are some olives on the plate.
    The plate was made in Hebron.
    There are chopped radishes in the salad.
    There’s no bread in the salad.
    There’s some yoghurt included.
    The mujadara is shaped like a mountain.
    The onions are light brown.
    There are no pickles on the plate.
    There’s watercress in the salad.

    It was a bit chaotic (and next time I think I’d just get them to raise their left or right hand) but I think it was a good way of incorporating a little bit of reading into the cycle.


  2. Sounds great and learning seems to happening throughout. How about varying the feedback procedure? As they take it in turns to give group feedback, they also take it in turns to come to the front within their groups to present their feedback – e.g they give themselves a number depending how many there are in a group before feedback starts and then one by one come to the front – rather than only accepting feedback from the same two at the front all the time. It might be chaotic the first time but maybe they would adapt and then they would all have the opportunity to give feedback.


    1. Thanks very much for your comment Fiona. That’s a great suggestion for working in both online and face to face settings. One of the things that’s nice about it is that everyone is challenged to listen to the differences mentioned by the other students to avoid repetition. It might be a very long class if all 87 students are going to come up to the front though 🙂


  3. This task – comparing Wesam’s food and your food, Nick, – is a good topic and makes a great task. It is very specific so the goal is very clear to learners, who can then engage with the task easily. And of course, they may well be motivated to find out if a ‘foreigner’ can cook their dish as well as they do! How did it work out Nick – did they like your dish as much as Wesam’s?
    So at what stage in this lesson are they learning most effectively? Nick asks: ‘Is it happening in the stage when learners talk to each other in groups, or is it happening during the task feedback stage?
    I think there is a middle stage missing here – the PLANNING stage. I am sure learners do plan (with teacher’s help) before they come up to the front to give feedback – but maybe if Planning as a stage was made more explicit it might offer a more structured ‘learning’ slot. Let me expand:
    During the initial TASK stage, they are striving to find the differences and then recall English words and phrases to express them. This practises recall strategies and real-time, exploratory talk – in the privacy of pairs or small groups – so not threatening or ‘risky’, and it is good communication practice, even if only half of it is in English.
    So – once most pairs have found most of the differences (i.e. stop the Task before it gets boring for the ones who have finished first) – you can officially announce a PLANNING stage: ‘Right, now, before you coming to the front to feed back / report your task results – the differences you have found – I’m going to give you 5 minutes to prepare – think how you can express yourselves really well in your best English. Ask your teacher to help with words or phrases you are not sure of, or how to pronounce them. Decide on which person in your pair/group will be the spokesperson this time. Then I will choose 2 (or 3 or 4) pairs/groups to report back, so their spokesperson will come to the front’ . This way, all pairs work hard together to improve their language in case they are chosen to feed back to the class in front of the web cam. They can ask the teacher to correct their drafts, and rehearse what to say. This is just one way you can structure a PLANNING > FEEDBACK process and obviously you can adapt it to suit your class, but making PLANNING into an explicit separate stage when learners know they can take time to improve their language and ask Qs may well generate more learning…

    The theory behind this explicit PLANNING stage is that when learners are faced with the prospect of a public FEEDBACK / REPORT stage in front of the web-cam, they are naturally aware that they need to speak their best English and perform well. They will want to shine and avoid making mistakes. So they will be pushed to extend their English – lots of thinking and learning time (referring back to your blog post on student thinking time.)

    The REPORT / FEEDBACK stage is very public, and therefore more risky and nerve-wracking for the spokesperson, but given that the group has helped them to prepare, they should feel a little more confident. And gain in confidence as a result. It is unlikely they will take on board any language correction at this point – as they will be concerned with their performance, but teacher and class feed-back on content will be appreciated, especially if positive! And language feedback can be done later, anonymously, with everyone sitting down – with as much emphasis on the good phrases and expressions learners have used as on corrections. Success breeds success and confidence will follow, and this raises general motivation.

    Phew! I meant to write a short paragraph but this has grown! Anyway I hope it is clear…
    My greetings to your learners in Palestine and elsewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks very much for your comment Jane. I think every group I have worked with has understandably liked the look of Wesam’s food more than mine but they’ve all been very polite about saying that mine also looked delicious!
    I hadn’t actually thought of incorporating a specific stage where students are explicitly asked to plan their language for the task feedback stage. Maybe I need to go back and read your books again 🙂 As you say, students maybe do this anyway when they know they are going to have to perform in front of others (and it’s great that here they have another teacher on the ground with them who can help them with this), but it makes sense that we are really explicit about this by building in an extra stage.
    Another thing I liked about the way these girls worked when doing the feedback stage (although you can’t really see much of it in the excerpt here) is that when the two girls at the front ran out of ideas, they went back to their group to ask for support. This is another feature of teaching online that seems to work quite well. I suppose that it would be unnatural to do this in face to face contexts because I would be able to hear what they were saying to each other in this support stage.


  5. Many thanks Mr Nick…
    Many thanks Jane Willis…
    Really, I am so lucky to have such a fantastic chance that enables me and many other English language teachers around the world to get benefit . Your ideas are so creative. For the first time in my work as an English teacher to Arab learners, I feel more confident, more enthusiastic and more creative person. Thank to Nick Bilbrough , Paul and many other people who are giving me and my students motivation and confidence. The first time, when my students had a chance to communicate with Mr Nick and Mr Paul through the internet, it was a really unforgettable session. They were so pleased and excited.
    At last, teachers who teach English as a foreign language, I think it will be a great chance for you as well as your students to have such wonderful online lessons.


    1. Thanks very much for your comment Eman. We shouldn’t underestimate your role as the teacher on the ground in this process too. You have a really nice way with the girls, giving them lots of support when they need it and encouraging them to work things out on their own too when they are able to. Working in this way is very much a team effort in my opinion – one teacher working remotely and another in the room with them.


  6. Obliging students to perform publicly is a great way to ensure they work on producing the best results possible. Lower level students may need to use L1 to achieve this when preparing but personally, I don’t feel this is necessarily detrimental to learning (though I always feel multi-lingual classes that are forced to use L2 are usually in an advantaged context). The planning stage must suely help Ss learning-wise as there will be peer input into the group that is mutually beneficial. The production phase (in front of the camera) offers all the authenticity in communication that learners need to self-correct, correct each other, etc. which research has shown is highly useful for developing one’s interlanguage.

    I can’t recall without referring to notes if it was Jane Willis’s strategy on TBL to introduce new language into the planning stage. Typically, in TBL, there is a pre-task stage, where students just “have a go” and do the best they can and then there is the task stage, where the teacher feeds back from observing the pre-task and adds new relevant language to plan the main task, as you know.

    I can see, Nick, that the a pre-task stage with such a large group might not be practical especially if you can’t observe but, isn’t there a way to inject new lexis into the task stage planning part? Perhaps a handout with true of false sentences, for example, (similar to your follow-up sheet with the big group) and maybe accompanied by an mp3 recording of those sentences (can you do that?). Again, it depends on the learner level; too much new lexis with lower levels causes problems at the production stage with poor pronunciation or they just don’t understand it or can’t use it properly.

    I’m not sure of the complete dynamic of your Palestine classes, Nick, and what you are able to do. But I always felt about TBL (and still feel – I have some large adult groups again now and use variations of TBL) that getting learners to build on existing lexis is always difficult and encouragement to prepare some new lexis for the production/task phase might be beneficial to learner language development.

    Congratulations, Nick, on the vast undertaking you’ve dedicated yourself to with these Palestine classes and the obvious enthusiasm and optimism you have instilled in the learners.


    1. Thanks very much for your comment Mike. I think the area that you open up is one of our central dilemmas as teachers, isn’t it. If we just let learners get on with it as far as tasks are concerned, how do we ensure that there is the necessary push in order for learning to happen, and that they aren’t just doing what they can already do? On the hand if we push too much language onto them, their production becomes unnatural and forced and we lose the element of genuine communication. Hence the need for very clear stages in TBL as you suggest. There’s one advantage that comes out of the team teaching approach that we use here and which a teacher working on her own can’t do – learners can consult the teacher on the ground about language (Eman in this case) before interacting with me at the feedback stage. I see this happening all the time in the online sessions that we do and in my opinion it’s a great way of combining push with communication.


      1. Hi, Nick. Yes. I wasn’t sure of the extent of the interaction with the teacher “on the ground” as you say. In that case, it’s quite a luxury, in theory. You have a play producer (the teacher), a director (you) and almost authentic audience (you – the other side of the screen – and the other learners). I’ve always thought, though, that TBL as an approach (with lower level groups especially) requires learner production too early on, meaning that inputting of new lexis is often unsatisfactory and learners will often even ignore it during the production stage. On the other hand, TBL is a great method for working with large classes and the necessary group work which those classes require to work well.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s