Task-based grammar teaching
Lindsay Clandfield provides tips and ideas for task-based grammar teaching.
One approach to teaching language that has attracted a lot of attention over the past twenty-five years is a task based approach to learning and teaching. In task-based approaches, the focus of classroom activities is on the task, and ultimately on meaning (for more on Task Based Teaching and Learning, see the Methodology section). In Jane Willis’ flexible model for task-based learning, learners begin by carrying out a communicative task, without specific focus on form. After they have done the task, they report and discuss how they accomplished this, perhaps listening to a fluent speaker doing the same task. Only at the end is there a specific focus on features of language form.
The advantage of the task-based approach, according to its advocates, is that during the task the learners are allowed to use whatever language they want, freeing them to focus entirely on the meaning of their message. This makes it closer to a real-life communicative situation.
One danger of task-based approaches is that focus on meaning could come at the expense of focus on form. Learners become quite fluent, but their utterances are not often accurate. In addition, they develop strategies to complete the tasks quite quickly, cutting corners in their language use and form.
Nevertheless, the task-based model is an attractive and liberating one, especially if you and your learners have been accustomed to a Presentation – Practice – Production model. The attached lesson plan follows Jane Willis’ flexible task-based learning framework* to teach the grammar point used to.
Students discuss how they were different 10 years ago.
- For this class you need a photograph of yourself when you were 10 years younger (or thereabouts). This works best if you look considerably different in the photo than you do now.
- You also need to prepare a short text about how your life was different then to what it is now. In this text include at least two examples of things you used to do and two examples of things you didn’t use to do. You can either record this text onto a cassette to play for the students, or practise reading it out loud until you are able to “speak” it comfortably in front of the class.
- Prepare a written version of this text that you can distribute to the class.
Aim: To prepare students for the task, to engage their attention.
Tell the students that you are going to show them a photo of you from 10 years ago. Ask them what they think will be different, but don’t correct them at this stage (i.e. respond to the meaning of what they say, not the form). Allow time for three or four suggestions. Then take out the photo of yourself and walk around the class, showing it to the students. Ask them what was different about you then. Put the picture up on the board and ask “What else was different about my life, do you think?” Allow more comments and suggestions from the class, but don’t tell them if they are right or wrong in their guesses. Explain that they will find this out later.
Aim: For students to discuss how their life was different ten years ago.
Ask students to work in groups of three. Tell them to talk about their life ten years ago. Put the following questions on the board:
- What did you look like?
- What was different about your life?
- Did you have different likes and dislikes? Different hobbies?
- Are you very different now?
Explain that the questions are to help them start talking. Give them a time limit of three to five minutes to discuss this. Circulate and listen to the students doing the task, but do not correct any language at this moment.
Aim: For students to prepare an oral report of their task.
Stop the task. Tell the students that they must work together to prepare a summary of their discussion to report to the whole class. They must write notes for this summary and be prepared to report this orally to the rest of the class. Set a time limit of five minutes for them to do this.
Aim: For students to present their reports and find out who was most different ten years ago.
When the students are ready, ask a spokesperson from each group to report the group’s summary. Tell the class that they must listen to each group’s report and decide at the end of all the reports which students have changed the most in the past ten years.After all the reports, ask students who they think has changed the most. You could ask the students who have changed the most to bring in a photo of themselves at that time.
Aim: For students to hear a fluent English speaker doing the same task.
Draw the student’s attention back to the photo of you on the board and explain that you are going to ask them to listen to you doing the same task that they did.Read or play the recording that you made. Ask the students some quick comprehension questions about what they heard (e.g. What did I say about my hair? What did I say about my job?) If the students find it difficult to understand, repeat the text again.
Aim: To raise students’ awareness about the target language.
Choose two or three sentences from your text which include the grammar “used to” and write them on the board. For example:
a) I used to go to heavy metal concerts.
b) I used to have long black hair.
c) I used to wear tight leather trousers.
d) I didn’t use to do my homework.
Check that students understand the meaning of the sentences. This is best done by concept check questions. For example a) above, the concept check questions would be:
- Did I go to heavy metal concerts in the past? (Yes)
- Was it a regular occurrence? (Yes)
- Do I go to heavy metal concerts now? (No).
Explain the rules of form for used to:
- used to + infinitiveand
- didn’t use to + infinitive
At this point you could distribute the script of your story and ask students to find other examples of how you used used to. Point out that in English we use used to to talk about states and habits that continued for a period of time in the past.
Aim: To give the students some restricted written practice in the target language.
If you feel that your class needs some restricted practice in the grammar, ask them to write down three things that they used to do and three things that they didn’t use to do when they were children. Circulate and monitor. Ask students to check their sentences with each other and elicit some examples to put on the board.
Aim: To give the students a chance to repeat (and hopefully improve) the task.
Ask students to work with a partner that they haven’t worked with yet during this class. Tell them to repeat the same task as they did at the beginning of the class, but that they should try to include the target structure used to into their speaking.
Once students have practised together, ask a couple to report back to the class what they talked about with their partner. Use this time to focus on accuracy, i.e. correct what they say if they make mistakes using the target language.