Have you been listening to Tea with BVP? You need to. It is hosted by the self-proclaimed “diva of second language acquisition” Dr. Bill Van Patten and co-hosted by Dr. Angelika Kraemer and Dr. Walter Hopkins, of my alma mater, Michigan State University. What I really like about this show is that it is fun, funny, I learn new things, and I feel challenged by it. Today, the topic was “The nature of tasks.” Bill really spends a LOT of time talking about being communicative and having a purpose for the things we communicate about. These ideas are really challenging my thinking right now. I am not sure I buy in completely, but I am for sure thinking about this a lot lately.
I recently had a chance to go to MSU’s campus and observe Bill teaching his Spanish 342 class. Some things I observed:
- He taught almost 100% in Spanish.
- He did clarify what some words meant by saying them in English. I would say he did this 4-5 times during the 80 minute class.
- He engaged with the students A LOT. He joked with them, asked them questions, and exchanged information. They seemed to understand for the most part and seemed to really enjoy the interaction.
- He had students engage with / process the same information in multiple ways. Reading followed by conversation, or viewing a film clip followed by reading.
At one point he showed the students a slide with a little overview of the formation of the present perfect. I thought A-HA! I caught him teaching explicit grammar! But no, not at all. It was just a quick little overview and then he had the students do a mixer activity in which they had to seek people who could sign their name as having done certain things. Examples of the things people HAVE done (they were in Spanish for the students):
- Have you offended someone?
- Have you broken a rule?
- Have you broken someone’s heart?
After the students found other students who had done the various things, Bill had them return to their seats and he then began a discussion with them. It was VERY much like what TPRS practitioners would call PQA (personalized questions and answers).
The way I saw it, the activity was helpful because it got the students moving a little and it generated some new and novel things to want to communicate about. BUT the real GOLD in this task was not the task itself. It was the information it generated which then allowed the instructor to weave the whole experience together in a lovely web of compelling comprehensible input.
I got to thinking about TASKS again as I listened to the Tea with BVP podcast. I believe that comprehensible input is where language acquisition happens. I am 100% on board with that idea. I think that the amount of CI available in these types of communicative tasks is negligible at best, and therefore are not a driving force in language acquisition. However, we can exploit these types of tasks and create fodder for more CI. The fact that the students get to mill around for a couple of minutes and feel like something is being accomplished provides a little brain break for them. These types of tasks (at the novice level especially) serve the same purpose in my view as authentic resources. They are not inherently promoting language acquisition (except in perhaps negligible amounts), but they provide new material to be discussed and give a sense of purpose to the lesson.
One of my favorite communicative activities is the 4 corners activity (or in some cases you may need more than 4 locations!).
Grab a marker and write on some paper. Write something like agree/disagree (in the TL) or like, like a lot, dislike, hate. Tape them up. Talk to the students. Have them go to the poster that best matches their feeling, belief or opinion. Then TALK with the students about the results of the survey. It is fun, it is interesting, it is kinesthetic, and it is FODDER for your CI agenda!
If you don’t feel like writing on paper with a marker, I have some cute posters I made for sale on Teachers Pay Teachers. Either way will yield the same result!