Ingredients for Successful Communicative Tasks

by Steven Tait, M.Ed. TESOL

Most of us recognize that communicative activities are great opportunities for learning. But what goes in to making a communicative activity a success? The truth is, the success of communicative pair and group work activities is almost always determined by the work the teacher does before the students begin the activity itself. This includes both what is done by the teacher before the class starts and what is done in class to set up the task.

Before looking at the role of the teacher, it might be worth clarifying what is meant by "communicative activities". These are fluency-based activities. While such activities may involve students practicing a particular grammatical form, they are likely to do more than this. The key element is that the activity is based around a realistic situation. This could be anything from an encounter in a department store, to a group of friends discussing holiday plans. Within this kind of context, the students should be required to negotiate for meaning. This is likely to require multiple turn taking.

Before Class

It is often helpful for teachers to ask themselves a few questions when preparing for communicative activities:

What can I do to set the scene/create a context?
Try to picture a realistic situation where the language forms you have been teaching might be used. Try to imagine both the location of the conversation and the relationship between those involved.

What is the purpose of the task?
Within the context that you have thought of, try to imagine why the participants would be talking. What would their objectives be? How do you think they would respond to each other? For example, if the task involves giving advice to a sick friend, perhaps he or she has already considered some of the friend's suggestions.

How can I generate interest in the activity?
There is no doubt that activities go better when students are interested in them. Depending on the activity, there are various ways you can generate student interest. Providing personal examples may be helpful. Modelling the activity in an enthusiastic way may help. Having students reflect on similar experiences they are familiar with may also work.

Will the students require preparation time?
Most research these days suggests that students perform better if they have been given preparation time. This is pretty logical when you think about it. Without preparation time, students are required to do two things at once: use their English language resources effectively and be creative. Preparation time can often take care of some of the pressure that comes with having to be creative while using the language spontaneously.

What type of groupings will be appropriate?
Would the activity work best with students in pairs or groups? Should they be seated or standing? Should they be facing each other or not?

What type of exchanges should the students be expected to produce?
This may well be the most crucial element of the planning process. Perhaps the best way to gain a sense of the language the students will need to produce in order to complete the activity is to write out a sample dialogue. Communicative activities often throw up language needs for which the class work has not prepared the students. Writing out a sample dialogue can often highlight these needs. It can also enable the teacher to get a sense of potential demands/pitfalls in the activity. This kind of planning allows the teacher to identify potentially useful conversational gambits, and to consider what is needed to ensure a reasonably natural flow to the conversation.

In Class

Once the teacher enters the classroom, the process of preparing the students for the activity begins. Following are a few stages that teachers (and students) might find helpful.

  • Set the scene and generate interest: For example, this might be the time to introduce a personal anecdote related to the communicative activity. It is also important to make sure students know where they will be talking, who they will be talking to, and why they will be talking.
  • Model preparatory task: If the teacher has decided to allow planning time, it might be worth demonstrating how this time is to be used. For example, the teacher might begin creating a list of suggestions for a sick friend.
  • Student preparation time: The students write while the teacher monitors.
  • Modelling: T-S, S-T, S-S. This is perhaps THE most crucial element for successful communicative activities. It can be used:
    - To show target language in action and elicit relevant language.
    - To clarify/illustrate the requirements or the objective of the task.
    - To add useful/necessary conversational gambits.
    - To highlight the type of conversational framework needed.
    - To identify potential problem areas.
    - To gauge the students' readiness to begin the activity.
    - To build student confidence.
  • Pair work: Monitor, interrupting only if students really get stuck. Monitor in order to:
    a) aid the flow of conversation when necessary,
    b) identify any common errors or areas of breakdown,
    c) offer encouragement, and
    d) recognise when best to change the pairings.
  • Deal with problems: While you do not want to interrupt students in the middle of a conversation, error correction can still be done effectively. Write typical problems that you have heard on the board. After conversations have been completed, draw attention to these problems. Encourage the students to offer suggestions for solving the problems.
  • Pair work: New pairings. By repeating the activity with a new partner, students can attempt to incorporate the corrections and suggestions made during the previous stage.
  • Conclusion: Have students report on their findings. They can either report to a new student or to the teacher. This final stage tends to bring a sense of closure to the activity.

Communicative Activities: Some Useful Ingredients

Every communicative activity is different. It will not always be necessary (or appropriate or practical) to use all of these "ingredients". Finally, it is also worth remembering that the way a lesson actually unfolds will always be influenced by the students themselves. It pays to be alert and flexible.

  • Identify a "realistic" communicative context or situation.
  • Identify a clear objective or purpose.
  • Ensure there is an "information gap" or "opinion gap".
  • Generate student interest.
  • Allow student preparation time if necessary.
  • Be aware of the likely conversational framework or format.
  • Be aware of any useful/relevant conversational gambits.
  • Model, model, model.
  • Determine appropriate student groupings.
  • Monitor.
  • Involve students in the self-correction of errors.
  • Provide a sense of conclusion.

TEFL.net ESL Reviews & Articles© Steven Tait 2001
Steven Tait is Evening Manager as well as Head of Testing at the AUA Language Center in Bangkok, Thailand. With over ten years' EFL teaching experience, he plays an active role in in-house teacher training activities and regularly presents at TESOL conferences. Steve has recently completed his M.Ed. in TESOL from the University of Wollongong, Australia.