Give task, let students speak
As part of my teaching duty I observe more than thirty student-teachers during their practicum classes every year; and I provide feedback to the student-teachers in order to help make their teaching more effective. I have found most student-teachers have good classroom delivery with strong content knowledge. For example, I have observed many of the student-teachers introduce William Wordsworth’s poem “My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold…” They provide good biographic details about Wordsworth. They explain his writing style and the topic by giving reference to his past work. However, I have rarely found these student-teachers involving their students in group or pair discussions, or asking questions in order to encourage their students to think critically about the poem.
I have also observed secondary and higher secondary classes where the teacher spends the entire lesson (45 minutes) explaining the rules of where prepositions ‘in’ ‘on’ and ‘at’ are used. Students in these classrooms listen to lectures by the teacher. The students appear to lack enthusiasm due to the confusing examples and rules of the grammar. When asked, the teachers commenting on their own class say that they feel more comfortable when students remain quiet and simply listen to them rather than when the learners interact with each other.
Do students learn English if they remain silent? Do they develop their critical thinking skills if teachers spoon-feed them without engaging them in classroom discussion and allowing for interaction? Does language teaching mean more teacher-talk and less student-talk? How can we as teachers engage the learners in classroom interaction while teaching English? These are the major issues I will discuss in this article. I argue that by giving a ‘task’, not lecture, we can promote student participation in the classroom, which ultimately enhances their critical thinking skills.
Task: what is it?
A ‘task’ is an activity which promotes interaction among students by focusing on the meaning or message of language (Willis, 1996; Ellis, 2003). A task can be, for example, filling-in an application form, composing an e-mail message, drawing a street map according to instructions, or showing the differences between two pictures. In order to accomplish the task, students have to communicate sufficiently with their classmates in the classroom. While communicating in a group or in pairs students focus on the negotiation of meaning, i.e. they use different strategies such as comprehension checks, clarification requests and confirmation checks (Ellis, 2003). For example, instead of giving a long lecture about a poem, a teacher can ask students to read the poem aloud in groups, write their own interpretations and let the students present in the classroom. In this process the students work together, which provides opportunities for them to interact with each other by focussing on ‘meaning’. In general, a task should have a purpose and involve a variety of thinking processes, a context in which the task takes place, and a product or result of thinking and doing the task.
Form or meaning?
A form is a grammatical structure which allows students to construct correct sentences. Students construct a sentence with past simple tense using the past form of verbs, for example. In this sense, even sentences like John killed a stone, Anita kissed a stone seem grammatically correct since they “fit” the structure of the past simple tense. However, the sentences are not understandable in a real-life situation. This indicates that teaching students English only to use the correct form makes no sense when they have to engage in real-life communication. Considering the teaching of grammar equivalent to the teaching of the English language in our context (still the dominating belief) has, I think, diminished students’ potential to use English in real-life situations. If we are focusing only on grammar we are making students just followers of rules, making them passive and not helping them generate ideas.
Against this backdrop, giving a task not only engages students in interaction in the classroom, but also bridges the gap between a real-life context and the classroom situation (Nunan, 2004). We can ask students to interact in pairs in order to find out about a frightening moment they have experienced, to draw a picture to illustrate that moment and then show the picture to other students in the classroom. By doing so, the students not only use English to explain and learn about the details of what, when, where and how the event occurred, but also explore and use language appropriate for real communication.
A task is not only useful for student interaction, but for teaching grammatical items as well. Teachers can provide different types of tasks in order to make the teaching of grammar effective and interactive. Research studies, and my experience as well, suggest most children do not enjoy learning grammar in the classroom. Students seem to feel grammar classes are dry and monotonous. Many teachers simply explain the grammar rules rather than involve the students in any form of real interaction. By doing so, we are making the learning of grammar more difficult for students. Moreover, we are making them passive learners.
We can design different tasks to make grammar teaching/learning a more positive experience. For example, we can give a story completion task in which students work together in a group to explore a story by asking each other questions. By doing this students learn how to use wh-questions (e.g. Where does the boy/girl come from?), do/auxiliary questions (e.g. Do they eat meat? Are they laughing?) along with many more structures. In the same way, instead of describing a picture teachers can ask students to show the differences between two similar pictures in order to teach the students how to form wh-questions, negatives, yes/no questions and so on.
Many teachers believe learning the English language means only to listen, speak, read and write in English. However, such a concept may not necessarily promote the thinking skills of the students. In order to develop the students’ communicative ability, we ask students to listen to and read an English text and then ask questions just to check whether the students understood the text. Teachers provide students with a particular exponent and ask them to use it in a piece of conversation following a model. Such a teaching method may not encourage students to be independent learners and thinkers.
Many teachers evaluate students’ performance on the basis of whether the students provide “the right answer”. Those who provide the right answer are supposed to be better than those who do not. But we never analyse why students do not understand and/or why they are not motivated to read and listen to a text. Teachers rarely ask students why they answered as they did.
Many teachers do not encourage their students to interact with the text and their friends in the classroom. Instead of involving the students in doing tasks that encourage them to analyse, discuss, debate, question and synthesize the ideas given in the text into students’ own socio-cultural contexts, teachers try to influence the students with their own interpretations. Instead of trying to influence the students with the teacher’s interpretation, we can encourage students to develop their own interpretation. For example, if a text is about Women in America, we can ask students to read the text and discuss a comparison with the position of women in Nepal. We can ask the students to discuss how the beliefs and attitudes towards women in America and Nepal are different. This can be done in the pairs or small groups. Topics including education, the economy and politics are some of the issues students can be encouraged to discuss, again in pairs or small groups. Such tasks not only promote collaborative learning skills (Golub, 1988) but also involve the students in the critical thinking process and promote independent learning.
However, there are some crucial points to be considered in designing a task. The foremost point is the language level of the students. For beginners, we can give simple tasks such as describing pictures, following instructions, grouping objects, and gap filling. In such tasks we encourage students to generate a variety of ideas rather than say this is right and that is wrong. While asking questions (e.g. why do you think so?), students need to be able to express their own ideas in a comfortable environment, one that encourages the students to express their ideas in English. However, some students may not be able to express their ideas fluently. In that context, teachers should help by facilitating the expression process as opposed to overtly correcting the students. If we encourage students to ask questions and express agreement and/or disagreement with the ideas given in the text and that of the teacher, the students can develop skills to be independent learners.
Designing a ‘Task’
Most task-based lessons involve three logical stages: pre-task, during task and post-task (Willis, 1996). In the pre-task stage, teachers and students plan a task collaboratively, and become familiar with what they are going to do. This is the stage groups are formed and teachers give instruction to the students. Moreover, teachers can provide models in order to familiarise students with the types of activities they are doing to accomplish the task, and decide whether the purpose of the task is to teach form (grammar) or content.
In the second stage students are involved in doing the task. There are different options for performing the task depending on the need of the students and the complexity of the task. Usually young children need close guidance and input from the teacher, whereas older students can work more independently. In this stage, teachers can provide necessary information in order to make their task more outcome-oriented. In the same way, teachers can limit the time of the task completion so that the students can focus on the specific activities. During the whole process, working in a group, students consolidate different ideas to complete the task.
In the post-task stage, students are provided a chance to repeat the performance of the task in groups or individually, reflect on how the task was accomplished and raise awareness on the grammatical form. The students look back and analyse how the task was performed, who played what roles and what problems occurred during the task.
By engaging in tasks, students can develop three important skills: cooperation, communication and critical thinking. The studies have also shown that a task can integrate four language skills and engages learners in ‘cognitive processes’ (e.g. selecting, classifying, and reasoning) in order to achieve a fixed ‘outcome’. However, the designing of a task requires rigorous planning on the part of the teacher in order to ensure that the task focuses on meaning (not on form), has a fixed outcome and reflects authentic use of language (real-life language).
A task should also be appropriate for the socio-cultural context, learning practices and expectations of teaching/learning English in Nepal. We as teachers have to design the tasks which utilize local contexts and students are familiar with, so that the students can negotiate with classmates in learning English actively. Thus instead of planning what we are going to say about a particular text or an activity, we need to plan what activities or tasks (related to the lesson) can be conducted in the classroom.
Acknowledgements to Gretchen Coppedge and Laxman Gnawali for comment on the first draft)
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