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.
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?
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?
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?
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?
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
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.
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
- Student preparation time: The students write while the
- 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.
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
- 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,
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
- Identify a "realistic" communicative context or
- 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
- Be aware of any useful/relevant conversational gambits.
- Model, model, model.
- Determine appropriate student groupings.
- Involve students in the self-correction of errors.
- Provide a sense of conclusion.
© Steven Tait 2001
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.