Designing Communication Tasks

So you want to design a classroom task that really shows you the language that your learners have acquired and can use spontaneously for meaningful, unrehearsed communication? A leading researcher on second language acquisition, Larry Selinker, reminds us, “... performance of drills in a second language classroom is, by definition, not meaningful performance...” (1972, p. 209). How can we design activities and tasks that invite learners to use their second language in meaningful, unrehearsed communication?

Here are some guidelines, originally given by Gillian Brown and George Yule (1983), on how to construct a communication task that will require learners to attempt meaningful performance in their second language:

  1. Give the speaker some pre-selected information to convey.
  2. Provide a listener who needs that information in order to complete a task.
  3. Make sure in a one-way speaking task that both speaker and listener know that the speaker has information the listener needs, or in the case of a two-way "jigsaw" task, each speaker has information the other needs, but does not have.

You should also always try the prompts and task instructions out on one or two native speakers of the language to make sure that they elicit the kind of discourse you want (Tarone & Yule, 1989). You need to follow these guidelines if you want your task to involve a spontaneous, unrehearsed exchange of information.

Here are some additional suggestions provided by Gwen Barnes-Karol and Maggie Broner (2010) on how to use visual prompts to facilitate cultural comparisons and critical thinking:

  1. Use copyright-free photographs and images of authentic cultural scenes or practices.
  2. Use different but related images that can facilitate comparison, contrast and hypothesis-testing.
  3. Provide images that both support and contradict cultural stereotypes, to provide a context for expression of critical thinking skills.

The most important thing to understand about the tasks we used to get our learners to communicate for the videos on this site is this:  NONE OF THE LEARNERS KNEW IN ADVANCE WHAT THEY WOULD BE ASKED TO DO.  In other words, the learner language you will see on ALL the videos on this site is UNREHEARSED and SPONTANEOUS.  The learners had not practiced or learned key vocabulary before they walked into the video studio; they were attempting spontaneous meaningful communication in their second language. Of course this means that sometimes, the learners did not know the "right" vocabulary words they needed. What you will see is that this did not stop them from communicating. In the activities on this site, we will find out how they did this, without ever using their native language, English. 

View the visual prompts and task instructions we used to elicit spontaneous samples of learner language for the videos on this site.


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