Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Wrapping My Mind around Communicative Tasks, Part 1

The following post is part of a series.

I do not know what your Thursday afternoon routine is during the school year from 3:00-4:00 EST, but for me, that hour is devoted to listening to the live, online, call-in radio show Tea With BVP, which is dedicated to a discussion of second language acquisition. On most days, I will leave work by 3:00, but on Thursdays, I will stay an extra hour so that I can listen to the show uninterrupted. The funny thing is that Rachel Ash, one of my Latin colleagues at my school, also listens to the show after school in her classroom, which is right next door to mine (and we never listen to it together)! One time, I called in to answer the Diva Challenge Question, and I am sure that Rachel was quite shocked to hear me on the show, considering I was in the adjacent classroom! Miriam Patrick (another one of my Latin colleagues at my school) and Meredith White (a CI Spanish teacher in my district) also listen to Tea With BVP. There are so many world language teachers throughout the country who listen to the show - there is something very communal and bonding about listening to a live, online show together. It is so much fun when listening to the show to hear someone call in and to say, "Hey, I know that person!"  As I am now on summer break, I am binge-listening all of the past episodes. 

One of my takeaways from listening to Tea With BVP surrounds communicative tasks, a topic which Bill Van Patten has addressed on numerous occasions. In a nutshell, BVP states that if we want our students to communicate in our language classrooms, there needs to be a meaningful purpose for it, i.e. students need to have a true reason for communication. So many times teachers rely on oral exercises or textbook dialogues as examples of communication, but these actually do not have any true purpose nor is anything really being accomplished. While teachers may view the exercises as necessary language practice, students can quickly see through these activities, view that there is no real purpose behind them, and rather see them as empty, meaningless activities - in many ways, is it necessary for students to practice with a partner? Could they not just instead read the questions on their own and write down their answers? When communication is being utilized for the completion of a task, then that communication has a purpose, i.e., the language becomes secondary to the task itself. This still means that LOTS and LOTS of input are needed in order to get students to this point; input is still the name of the game! In addition, not all tasks focus on output, as there are both INPUT-BASED and OUTPUT-BASED tasks. 

I am currently reading Tasks and Communicating in Language Classrooms by James F. Lee (the book which Bill Van Pattern talks about much on his show) and Making Communicative Language Teaching Happen by James F. Lee and Bill Van Pattern, and both books are really blowing my mind with how we should be presenting and using language in the classroom. An important component is distinguishing between exercises, activities, and tasks:
  • Exercises – focused practice or something that gets learners to manipulate vocabulary and grammar in a controlled way. Examples are fill in the blank, translations, transformation drills, repeating after teacher, read-alouds, and multiple choice. These are non-communicative in nature.
  • Activities – events that get learners involved in the expression and interpretation of meaning. Examples are circling and "ask and answer" partner activities. These are partially communicative, as while communication is occurring, the focus tends to be on vocabulary, form and comprehension, and nothing is done with the information afterwards for a greater purpose.
  • Taskslike activities in that they get learners involved in the expression and interpretation of meaning but they have the added focus of purpose unrelated to language learning or practice. We learn something about ourselves and the world in which we live and use the language to achieve that purpose. The added component is now application of learned information. These are fully communicative.
Here is an example of the differences between these types:

Topic - Asking others their names, stating one's name, introducing someone
  • Exercises - teacher says target language phrases aloud and students repeat the phrase aloud, students read target language sentences aloud. 
  • Activities - teacher tells TPRS story with circling, students read TPRS-based story involving phrases, teacher asks students' their names, students in partners ask each other their names, teachers project pictures of celebrities and ask students what their names are in the target language.
  • Tasks: In the target language, introduce to the teacher three students in the class whom you do not know. This will require students asking each other "what is your name?," responding "my name is _________", and telling the teacher "his/her name is __________" based on prior input-based scaffolding. This is a task, because in the partner activity where students exchanged information about their names, there was no larger purpose for that information; the information ended there. Here in the task, the information gathered is gathered and applied for a bigger purpose: in order to introduce the student to the teacher. 
Let me say that there is NOTHING wrong with exercises and activities. Tasks should serve as the end goal, but input-based, meaning-centered, properly-scaffolded exercises and activities will get students to that point. So many times, we world language teachers only operate in an exercise/activity-based curriculum, but our goals should actually focus on level-appropriate interpretation and expression of meaning of language as a means for the overflow of input.  

For those interested, Rachel Ash and Miriam Patrick have created their own podcast series discussing Tasks and Communication in the Language Classroom

So the big question for me: how does this apply (if at all) to a Latin classroom? To be addressed in my next post...


  1. So, can I give you a couple of examples and see what you think?

    1. I bring in something students might want--sometimes it's candy, but lately it's just been something from my classroom stash of toys (especially the plastic bananas!). I pull it out and wait for everyone's reaction ("Oooh!" or just big eyes), then I say: "Ecce, ________! Quis vult _______? (picking someone) Tu vis ________, Aemilia?" Usually students are at a loss for volo, so they often just repeat back to me "Tu vis..." and I say "Ita! Ego volo! Gratias tibi!" and put whatever it is in my own pocket. Of course, everyone is then trying to figure out what it is that can get them the desired thing, and eventually we can get around to everyone being able to say "volo". So, is this an actual communicative task, since the form is needed into order to accomplish the task of expressing their desire and thus receiving it?
    2. We play the game "corripe": two or more people hold out one of the same item (each has an apple, or a lion, or whatever). Another person is "it," and has to grab the item I call out. So, I say "Aemilia, corripe malum..." and then stop.
    While everyone stands around, since there isn't enough info, I then say "Oh, quod malum?" Everyone nods eagerly. "Corripe malum quod habet..." and then say the name. The person named can only bring up their other hand to cover it (they can't snatch it away), while the person I gave the order to tries to grab the thing. Sometime I vary the verb and put the name first ("Corripe malum quod Victoria...iactat!"), or use the plural, just to keep everyone on their toes. Is this a communicative task, where again the form is introduced to meet an actual communicative need: knowing which object to grab so one can win!

    The point is to try to connect a new structure with its communicative purpose, rather than an abstract label. Then, if we do talk about the interrogative or relative pronoun, I don't call it that, but ask students to tell me what that word does. "Look, our story says 'Marcus habet avem quae...' What does quae do?" and the answer is "tells us more information about the avis!"

    I think this is real communicative activity, but is it too artificial?

    Thanks for your time!

    1. Thanks for the comment. Ni fallor, the examples which you have given to me are not communicative tasks for a number of reasons. Example #1 is more of an exercise since it focuses on form - its purpose is to get students to use the proper form of the verb to get what they want. What new information (other than grammar) is being communicated, exchanged and then applied to a new task/purpose? Example #2 is an input-based activity (not a task), because students are listening to commands and then demonstrating comprehension by completing the action, although they have to wait for the important piece of information to complete the action.

      Here is an example of a communicative task. Let's say that you have taught students animal vocabulary through input-based exercises and activities as part of reading Brando Brown Canem Vult. The task would be to partner students with a pre-made survey which has questions like "Habesne canem?" "Habesne felem?" Habesne serpentem?" Pairs ask each other the questions and tally their "yes" responses. Each are receiving comprehensible input: the asker is reading the statement, and the askee is hearing the questions. Following this, each group reports their "yes" responses Latine, and the teacher tallies the score. Then the class finds out the averages: how many have dogs, how many have cats, how many have fish, etc. Then in Latin, the teacher compares the data with national data about pets: what percent of the national population have dogs, have cats, have fish, etc. Does the class percentages reflect the national average? So the information which students received from each other about pets was for a bigger purpose or task.

      I hope this makes sense to you. It took me awhile to wrap (and am still wrapping) my mind around communicative tasks.

  2. I see. Does this breakdown work?
    -the communicative *purpose* is, e.g. "the student can express what he or she wants"
    -a communicative *exercise* focuses on relating a specific structure to the communicative purpose (my "volo" example)
    -a communicative *activity* practices understanding and/or use of a structure in a variety of limited, classroom-like contexts (e.g., we do a guessing game, where one student has their eyes closed while the others do something, then has to guess who did what. When we're deciding who is going to do what, I'll ask "Quis vult pingere?" and circle using the different persons of the verb. One would also ask stories here, or even use Brando Brown, etc.)
    -a communicative *task* elicits genuinely new information, though effective use of one or more structures, in an open-ended context (e.g., a student survey about what professions they want be in, where they want to live, where they want to travel to, what topics they want to read about in Latin class, etc., then tally the responses and go from there as in the animal example)

    This essentially creates a unit, doesn't it? But unit plans seem almost verboten in some regions of the CI landscape...

    Iterum, mille gratias. I appreciate the dialogue!

  3. I like the inclusion of TPRS activities in your breakdown.
    I've been listening to Tea With BVP (just got caught up) and recently the question burning in my mind has been "are Tasks and TPRS mutually exclusive? can one use both, and if so, how?"
    You post seems to show that they can be used together, but I'm still having a little trouble seeing how, exactly, they fit.
    Would you order a set of Tasks that correlate to chapters in a novella, then teach the novella chapters with TPRS - like, have a story-ask, some pre-teach vocab activities before reading - maybe throw in some communicative activities like what Joshua mentioned, then culminate in a task, maybe over a few weeks?
    Perhaps you would call each build-up to a task a "unit," for purposes of administrative hoops (at least in my situation), using the tasks as "formative assessments" to get "data"?
    then the Novella would span multiple units, and the addition of the tasks and communicative activities would take some of the pressure of the novella. I learned from this past year that I need more than just a novella for each week, it gets tiresome (not unlike you experience, I think).
    What do you think? This isn't rightly a question, I know. I'm just trying to figure it all out in my head!