Task Design for TEFL

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One area that often gets left out of planning is task design. With everything else that we need to focus on when we plan, designing a task is almost an afterthought. Often we look for any activity or game that’s loosely related to the lesson aim, and go with that.

Creating effective tasks is essential so students can learn and practice the target language.

As psychologist Dan Willingham says in his book, ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’, “Memory is the residue of thought”. Tasks should encourage the students to think about, and use, the target language..

Here are five principles that you can follow when designing a task for your lessons:

1. Your Tasks Should Support Your Aims

Check - what will your task encourage students to think about? What language will it likely get them to produce?

  • If it’s too flashy, it might be so engaging that it distracts them and changes the subject.

  • If it’s too boring, it won’t engage at all and they’ll talk among themselves

  • Do the topic and context match the task?

  • Are the students likely to produce the target language?

This is a quick, but necessary step.

2. Your Tasks Need a Gap

Students need to have a good reasons to communicate. Sure, they’ll talk if you tell them to (“discuss the topic with your partner!”) but it won’t be as engaging as it could be,

In his book ‘Second Language Pedagogy’, Prabhu describes three types of gaps - information, reasoning and opinion.

Information gaps are where students have different information and have to exchange that information.

In reasoning gaps students have to figure out how to get from where they are, to where the task says they should be. An example would be planning a night out with restrictions on budget, timing, and other variables.

Opinion gaps are where students need to agree or disagree with others, and give reasons why. For example, a debate on a society - the classic, ‘should there be a death penalty?’ question.

Any of these three gaps will provide a reason for students to communicate other than ‘the teacher told me to speak, so I guess I’ll have to’.

3. Your Tasks Should Build Confidence and Encourage Creativity

While it might sound impossible to do both of these things, it’s not. It’s about using interaction patterns to their fullest advantage. I’ve written about that here, so click through and have a read.

4. Your Tasks Should Try to Exploit Your Materials

Students have to understand the lesson, your instructions, and that’s before even trying to do the task.

So instead of then giving them new materials, could you re-use ones that you’ve already used in the lesson?

I’ve written about that here, so click through and have a read.

5. You Should ‘Mentally Rehearse’ Your Tasks

This sounds taxing, but it’s actually quite quick, and is a real help when anticipating problems.

Simply close your eyes and imagine the class that you’re going to teach. Imagine all the personalities that make up the class. Now run through the task. Imagine:

  • Introducing the task

  • Giving instructions

  • How the students will react

  • What language they’ll produce

So there you have it. A few principles to guide you in designing your tasks.

How do you design tasks? Leave your comments and tips in below!

Books Mentioned

Why Don’t Students Like School?

Daniel Willingham

“Easy-to-apply, scientifically-based approaches for engaging students in the classroom. Cognitive scientist Dan Willingham focuses his acclaimed research on the biological and cognitive basis of learning.

His book will help teachers improve their practice by explaining how they and their students think and learn.

Second Language Pedagogy

N.S. Prabhu

“The basic assumption of this book is that language form is best learnt when students are concentrating on meaning rather than form. The study is based on research carried out during a five-year classroom experiment.”