This week we have something rather special – a guest post from Jane Willis. Jane has been a supporter of the Hands Up Project for a long time and is on the advisory panel – offering us support in bringing task based learning into the work that we do. Over to you Jane….
I have really enjoyed watching the Story Alive Project, both the clips of learners’ performances of the stories and the videos of teachers demonstrating activities you can do to prepare for story-telling. The enthusiasm of the learners shines through! I’ve also enjoyed reading the blogs and comments on using PP P for teaching grammar.
In this blog post, I am going to make a distinction between form-focused and meaning-focused activities, introduce the concept of Task-based Learning and ask you some questions.
In a PPP lesson, Presentation and Practice of a grammatical structure are form-focused activities; yes, the meaning can be made clear, but the main focus is on saying and writing the new forms correctly. When, in the Production stage, learners use the new structures to make their own personal sentences, these may be true, but the focus is still primarily on the form. Learners can often do this quite well in controlled conditions while thinking about the new structure they have just been taught. And this is useful practice, but here is my first question: is this type of Production free enough to help learners communicate in everyday situations where they want to use English to express their own meanings? To talk or chat to people who don’t speak their language?
When using language in real-life, we do not just speak in sentences containing similar grammar structures. In fact we don’t need to speak in sentences, we speak in meaning units. Every day communication is meaning-focused, we use whatever words and phrases best express our meanings – our focus is on getting someone else to understand what we mean. The phrase ‘D’you know what I mean?’ is one of the commonest phrases in spoken English!
My second question for you is – how much time does the average learner get in each lesson for individual meaning-focused language use? to speak freely in class, (not just to practise one structure), to interact with each other in English, maybe with the teacher, or in pairs? to put to use whatever language they can remember in order to find out things about each other, to play a guessing game ? To ask questions as well as answer, to compare what they did or are planning to do at the week-end, to tell stories about their own lives? Can you work it out? How many minutes in a week? A term?
Nick suggested re-ordering a PPP lesson on future plans . He started with the 3rd P, Production, but using truly meaning-focused interactions . Stage 1 was the teaching telling the class about their plans for next Friday (meaning focussed – learners always like hearing about the teacher’s own lives and will be trying to understand), stage 2 was learners telling each other their plans (meaning-focused), followed by stage 3 – teacher chatting about the learners’ plans using natural conversational language containing a variety of language patterns . So Nick’s stages 1-3 are all meaning- focused and these will help the learners get used to taking part in normal English interactions. The learners may well express their meanings just using words and phrases they know, and inevitably will be making mistakes, but if their meaning is clear, they have succeeded in communicating in English and should be praised! In Nick’s lesson, later stages 4-7 PRESENTATION and PRACTICE are more closely form-focussed, but the input is all taken from the learner’s earlier contributions with an added memory challenge to make it fun, and to make the learners really listen to the meanings of the corrected sentences. (And note here, that if learners are not sure of their plans, they might need to express uncertainty, using words like might or perhaps….)
Nick’s lesson is similar to Task-based learning, (TBL) which leads from focus on MEANING to a focus on language itself and specific FORMs. A task is a goal-oriented activity – the goal gives learners a reason to communicate and find out things, in order to solve a problem, to find things in common or to hold a survey. If they can achieve the goal, they have been successful in their communication (even if their English is not perfect!)
Nick’s lesson could easily be turned into a Task-based lesson by setting an explicit goal, e.g. asking learners to find out what are the three most common plans in their class, or asking learners to decide on which person in their group is going to have the most interesting Friday? The laziest Friday? The most unusual Friday? The busiest Friday? etc.
- Pre-task: Teacher tells the class they are going to talk about their plans for next Friday.She explains the goal, g. to compare plans and hold a survey to find the most popular plans. She then tells the class about her plans, asking them to listen to see if they might be planning the same things (i.e. she sets a goal for listening).
2. Task cycle
2.1 Task: learners (in pairs or groups ) tell each other their plans
2.2 Planning: One person in each group takes notes and the group prepares to report their findings to the class. The teacher goes round to hear what each group has found out and to help them rehearse and plan what to say. This is a chance to give ‘feed-back at the point of need’ as learners will want to use their best English if they are talking to the whole class.
2.3 Report: The class listens to their findings – to see how many people are planning the same things, i.e. to complete the survey, and then discuss who is having the busiest/laziest/ most interesting/boring etc day..
3 Form Focus – as in stages 4-7 in Nick’s lesson.
So stages 1 and 2 are primarily meaning focused. And when learners are focusing on form at stage 3, it is in the familiar context of their own meaning-full contributions, a motivating force.
Follow-up task: each group could write up their version of a report of the class survey, and groups can read each others’ and compare reports, spotting the differences.
Here are two other ideas for simple tasks which you could try out. The teacher in the video demonstrates a range of story-telling activities that are task-like in that they are meaning-focused. One has the goal of getting learners to listen to guess which animal she is describing – a teacher-led task. This is a task learners could do themselves in pairs – for example:
1 Write a riddle: choose an animal. Do not give its name. Write 4 things about it. See if your teacher can guess which animal it is. E.g It is quite small. It can run fast. It has a small white tail. It eats grass and green things. Extra clue: It has long ears.
2 Write a True / False quiz (5 items) about a place or a recent event (or a picture or a story) the class knows about. Write some true statements and some false ones. Give your quiz to another group / the whole class. Can they pick the False ones?
Free, meaning-focused activities will allow learners to ‘liberate’ and consolidate the language you have already taught them and to use other words and phrases they have acquired naturally from you speaking English to them in class. And you will be able see how much they CAN do with their English. Yes – they will make mistakes, but if they manage to make themselves understood – that is success! So stand back sometimes, and let them talk freely – the more they talk the more they will learn and the more confident they will get.
Research into 2nd language acquisition tells us that meaning-focussed interaction, both listening to others and speaking, is essential for effective language learning, and even more essential if our learners want to communicate with other speakers of English. In many countries in the world, learners leave school after 5 years of English lessons knowing a lot of words and grammar but unable to interact in English or hold a conversation. Don’t let the same happen in Palestine!
I’m looking forward to hearing your views and your answers.
A short article on PPP and task-based learning can be found at http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/a-task-based-approach
More TBL lesson plans on my web-site at www.willis-elt.co.uk